Jeff Daniels on His Outlaw Turn in Netflix's Feminist Western 'Godless'

The actor grew a beard, learned how to ride a horse "well" and still ended up in the ER on the second-to-last day of filming while adding a criminal to his roster of TV and film characters.
Ursula Coyote/Netflix
Jeff Daniels in 'Godless'

When Jeff Daniels imagines all of the characters he has ever played standing together in one room, he knows that notorious criminal Frank Griffin, his role in Netflix's Western Godless, will stand apart from the others.

"At the end of my life when I’m looking back, and you want to invite everybody you’ve ever played to a party and you want to see who talks to who, you want to see Harry Dunne standing there with Frank Griffin when Will McAvoy comes up," Daniels tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Those conversations, I’d love to hear."

Although it's hard to imagine what the Dumb and Dumber character could possibly contribute to a conversation with Frank, who hails from a lawless time, and McAvoy of HBO's Newsroom, that is exactly Daniels' point: "You want them all to be different."

Godless, which launches Wednesday on Netflix, is a seven-part miniseries that is being hailed as a feminist Western. Set in the 1880s, the limited series — executive produced by Steven Soderbergh and created, written and directed by Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Get Shorty) — follows a betrayed Frank (Daniels) and his gang of outlaws as a search for his missing protege Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) leads him to an isolated mining town that is governed by women after an accident killed most of the men. When word spreads that Griffin is headed their way, the women of the New Mexico town, including widows Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery) and Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever), band together to defend themselves against the murderous gang. The supporting cast also includes Scott McNairy, Kim Coates and Daniels’ Newsroom co-star Sam Waterston.

Set against the backdrop of a gritty Western frontier, Godless is a story about revenge, redemption and perseverance — and Daniels says it's one that is very relevant to today. 

When making your TV return, what attracted you to Godless and to doing a Netflix limited series?

Coming off Newsroom, I really fell in love with the feeling that we were shooting, like in Newsroom’s case, a nine-hour movie. A beginning, a middle and an end. Acting, you get to do more: more colors, more details. That’s how you approach it when you have a story that unfolds over one season or over 10 episodes. Looming Tower [Daniels' next role on Hulu] is like that and so is Godless. Scott Frank had written a two-hour Western years ago when I did a movie with him called The Lookout and I love that writer-director thing. When you can get that going in one person, there’s a singular voice and that’s attractive to me. Scott was such a good writer on The Lookout and here comes this two-hour thing that he couldn’t get made as a two-hour screenplay. Netflix said, “We’ll do it if you extend it to seven hours in a limited series.” And suddenly, you get to shoot the novel. So when he came to me, it was working with Scott Frank again — which is a yes — and then it was similar to Newsroom in that we were spread over seven episodes with a beginning a middle and an end. Then the third thing was that I didn’t know how to do it. Scott said, “Let’s figure this out, because I think he’s more of a cerebral bad guy, let’s just really get into his mental dysfunction.” We figured it out together and at this point in the career, that’s what keeps me interested: a challenge and the idea that you might fail. It keeps me in the business, to be honest.

Can you compare Frank to any other character you have ever played?

No, and that was the other attraction. That I hadn’t done anything like this. To go from McAvoy on Newsroom, as far as the public’s awareness, to this is the kind of leap that I’ve done throughout my career. From Dumb and Dumber to Gettysburg. Mix it up. I just love the idea of creating as wide of a range as possible. Frank Griffin in Godless was certainly in that mix of characters.

These next two roles that brought you back to TV — Frank in Godless and John O'Neil in Hulu's Looming Tower adaptation (launching in February) — are two serious roles back-to-back. Did you overlap and when it comes to Frank, how do you view him? Is he more than just a criminal?

We shot Godless a year ago. They were shooting from June and July on; I came on in September and shot through December. Then Looming Tower started shooting in May. The only thing I can relate to with Frank is that I have three kids so there is a father-son parenting thing that you can fall into. You learn how to do that and that becomes part of your DNA, but that’s the only connection. He’s so in need of therapy and they didn’t have therapy in the 1880s, there just turned out to be people like Frank. He was stolen as a child. He watched his family get massacred, was stolen, fathered and raised by this guy named Isaac Hayden and there’s the whole history. He kind of lays that out, but he is completely screwed up. What was enjoyable about it was trying to follow his thinking because he was all over the place. You can’t do research and say, “Oh well he’s bipolar so now he will do this and that.” You didn’t know that. He’s just quoting a Bible verse one second and putting a bullet in the guy’s head the next second, shaking his head and taking the money, and then quoting God. But that was his normal. And that’s the fun of it, when you play someone that crazy and dysfunctional, you make it his normal. Then everything else reacts around that and that’s how we chose to do it. That, and grow a beard.

How long did it take you to grow that beard?

I started it in June and showed up on the set in September. I didn’t cut a hair. It was great for the character. Scott had suggested maybe a quarter inch of stubble, showing me a picture of Henry Fonda from some Western. I started that and then just let it go, because you can always cut it. I showed up and he said, “Yes, let’s work with that.” There’s gray, there’s black, there’s brown. There are all kind of colors in it. You can’t fake that kind of beard, so it became part of what the whole thing was.

How else did you prepare for the role and the show, did you do a deep dive into the Western genre?

No. You certainly remember seeing Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. But, I didn’t research. Frank doesn’t know he’s in a Western, so I just tried to figure out what Frank was thinking and when he was thinking it, and not even the why he was thinking it sometimes. It’s all just actor babble, but as simple as you can make it is what I do. Let the story and what happens take you there. But I did have to learn how to ride a horse well, which is different than the standard. You can’t show up on a show like Godless otherwise. You read the scripts and it says I’m going to be galloping across a prairie leading 50 people and I’m at the point of the V, shooting. You can’t show up two days before and say, “Hey, show me how to do that!” The wranglers will tell you that if there are 30 horses across and you’re galloping across the prairie, they think they’re in the Kentucky Derby and all want to finish first. So as the wrangler says, “Get ready, he’ll be energized.” If you haven’t had experience — and some of the actors out here in Los Angeles have been riding all of their lives — but the rest of us have to get pretty damn comfortable before we even show up on the set.

How long did it take you before you felt like you were riding for real?

You get used to it. You get confident. But even the wranglers, who have been riding for decades, will tell you that there is always a sense that anything could happen at any time — and it did. Many of us got thrown off. Good riders got thrown off. I was off the horse three times, the last time I bailed because the horse spun around and we were in New Mexico and I thought he was going to ride all the way to Colorado, he had that kind of feel. I was bareback on him so I just jumped off the horse and landed on the ground and broke my wrist. It was the second to last day of shooting and I’m in the ER overnight, on morphine at 5 a.m. because I’m bleeding internally around the wrist. It was like someone stuck a knife in it. We had one more day of shooting and I don’t have to ride anymore but I had a two-page scene. The crew is ready and moved out, and then I go ahead and break my wrist. So, I did it. I would leave the trailer dragging my arm and limping, because I thought I tore a ligament in my knee as well, and it was like Lazarus rising from the dead by the time I came out of the trailer to hit the mark. (Laughs.) But we did it! After that, I went home to Michigan and put on a cast for three weeks.

How is Frank’s relationship with the women and how do you think this story, in a very different time and a very different place, speaks to what’s happening today?

It speaks directly to it. The strength of women. Here’s this town where all the men are gone, died in a mine or left, and it’s run by women, inhabited by women and defended by women. That’s a pretty strong metaphor for what’s going on. It’s unfortunate, horrible circumstances but this is a moment happening right now, this is an opportunity. Don’t take your foot off the gas. But Frank, he could care less. A dead body is a dead body. He’s focused, as the story goes, on finding his son Roy and that’s all he cares about.

In terms of the violence and the physical demands of the role, what was most challenging?

Those who ride horses for three straight months will learn, like I did, that it’s all core. If you’re on that horse for eight hours a day, off and on and mostly on, you are moving them around, galloping, now take five. It’s a workout. I was blown away by the stunts on this. And it’s full of them. That’s one of the things that was great about reading Scott’s script: where we ride those horses. Through the Rio Grande River, across prairies and also into hotel lobbies and up the stairs onto the second floor. I’m reading this going, “How the hell are they going to do that?” Then you’re there on the day and you watch it happen and they do it. One of the guys in the gang, named Joe from Toronto, is in my boat because we had just learned how to ride well enough to qualify to do the gallops and not bring the doubles in. Joe said they were going to let him ride up the stairs, and it was this kind of, “Go. Joe, go!” He did it great. He came back to trailer land and I said, “Well?” He said, “I did it.” It was like actors high-fiving because neither one of us died. (Laughs.)

Since this is a limited series, was the ability to put Frank to bed attractive to you, or do you want more Godless?

That’s how I always looked at it. I never thought there were seasons beyond it. They could if they wanted, but I have a feeling I won’t be there. (Laughs.) I looked at it like a six-hour movie and then done, like every other project. On this one I don’t even think beyond, it was a one-and-done.

Godless is now streaming on Netflix.