Jeff Daniels and Maura Tierney talk about their new show American Rust, a social drama set in the Rust Belt
Ahead of the premiere of American Rust, the lead actors of the show, Jeff Daniels and Maura Tierney, talk about the relevance of the story today and their experience working with each other.
The great American dream is an ideal that not just Americans but people around the world long for. However, the new show, American Rust, an adaptation of the novel of the same name, paints a different picture of the country — one that is removed from the glamour and comfort of big cities. The characters in this series are constantly working to create a better life for themselves in a town that was once a thriving industrial hub.
The man who is bringing this show to the OTT space is an artiste who has always offered something insightful and deep to ponder over with his performances. Jeff Daniels, the actor who is known for movies such as Dumb and Dumber, Good Night and Good Luck and Looper, and more recently the HBO political drama series, The Newsroom (for which he won a Primetime Emmy Award), plays the lead role in American Rust. Jeff was so taken with the book that it stayed with him for long and finally Showtime decided to produce it. Jeff ’s last outing was the 2020 Showtime mini-series, The Comey Rule, which is also based on a book — namely A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by former FBI director James Comey.
Starring opposite Jeff in American Rust is actress Maura Tierney who has been part of films such as Primal Fear, Liar Liar, Insomnia and The Report. She’s also done a number of television series, and is remembered for her roles as Lisa Miller on the sitcom NewsRadio and Helen Solloway in the mystery drama The Affair for which she won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress. With American Rust, the actors tell the story of the country’s Rust Belt and the people living in these areas. The story follows cop Del Harris (Jeff) who is in love with Grace Poe (Maura), and his commitment to help save Grace’s son, Billy Poe (Alex Neustaedter), a talented football coach, who is a suspect in a murder case. On a Zoom interview, the actors tell us more. Excerpts:
What were your thoughts when you read the book?
Jeff Daniels: I found the book with Paul Martino who is my agent at Showtime now and is one of the executive producers on the show, at a 2009 reading in Downtown Manhattan. It was Philipp Meyer’s debut novel and he was reading passages from the book at a bookstore, and we kind of bird-dogged the book. I wasn’t in a position to get anything made until after Newsroom and other shows, and then when my agent was asking me, ‘What do you want to do? Is there something you want to do?’ I told him there’s this book. I showed it to Dan Futterman (creator and showrunner of American Rust) who I had worked with in The Looming Tower, and asked him, ‘Do you see something in this?’ He said, ‘I do, I really do!’ So I had my writer and off we went. Then Dan met with Showtime, and they said they wanted to do this, next thing we knew was that we were setting up for the shoot, when the pandemic hit and we were sitting for a year. But then, they got to finish the season. It was essential to have all nine episodes before we started shooting. That was so much better for the actors. The pandemic gave the writers time to really work on the script, the story structure and the outline, not only for this season but also for a future season, if there’s going to be one. We used the time to hit it hard in a great way!
The narrative looks at characters who are trying to move to bigger cities and are attempting to break free from their situations, but are stuck. Do you feel your character Del Harris is also stranded in Pennsylvania where the story is set?
Jeff: Some of them are stuck, some are left behind and some don’t want to leave. Some came there to escape from their situations, like Del Harris, who has come to this place where nobody will come. He has done everything he could do, he has got some regrets and he has some issues back in Pittsburgh where he comes from. He moves around to escape and he finds this woman Grace Poe and he falls for her. Many of the other characters are trying to get out but they can’t. So yeah, all of us are stuck.
Maura Tierney: I also think when you are living so close to the edge, one mistake can make you get super stuck. Like with the character of Billy who plays my son... he is a bright kid and a talented athlete who gets into a bar fight and that’s it! When you are this close to the edge, you can’t make one mistake where the whole thing can fall apart. So I think some of them are stuck in that respect too.
The show explores the subject of the flailing American economy with a focus on the declining middle class society. What were your thoughts on this aspect of the story?
Jeff: I think it’s (the situation) all over the country. I grew up in Detroit. While some car companies are still there, most of them have shifted to Mexico or China. The steel mills did the same thing in Pittsburgh. When one big business picks up and leaves, there’s a rust that happens when things get left behind — it’s not only about the buildings but also the people. People still exist, they are still there and they have families, they have dreams and they are aware of things that will never happen. They are still good people and they are still trying to find a way to get up, to live a better life, anywhere else other than where they are.
Jeff, after all these years of being part of some unforgettable movies and television series, what is it that you look for in a role?
I don’t want to repeat myself. I am not somebody who brands himself like Clark Gable, Jim Stewart, Garry Cooper or Tom Cruise. Careers have been made on such star performances. But I have always been attracted to character work by others who change themselves and play different personalities. This is what I am looking for — ‘complicated, challenging, easy-toscrew-up, risk failure’ kind of roles. At this point that’s what keeps me interested. To repeat myself and do something that I have done five times, I couldn’t do it. One of the great things about platforms like Hulu, Netflix, HBO, Showtime and Amazon is that the writers all went there. The writers run that stuff and you get to shoot a nine-hour movie like in the case of American Rust — with a beginning, middle and end. As an actor, you get to do more stuff and I like that a lot. As long as this keeps happening, I will keep acting.
Was your role on The Comey Rule a tricky one, considering you were playing James Comey who is quite well known?
Comey was tricky because we know him, we see him. We turn on our computer and there he is on YouTube, he is still around so you are competing with that. I wondered if I wanted to do an external impression of Comey and have everyone go ‘Oh my god, it was like seeing Jim Comey,’ or if I wanted to do what Michael Fassbender did in Steve Jobs. But I decided I will wear the glasses (like Comey) but won’t do an impression because I want to show you what he was feeling and what he was thinking. So there are two ways to go about portraying someone we all know really well. That was the real challenge. So, yes, that was complicated.
What was it like working with Jeff?
Jeff was always late, late, late (laughs)! Jeff is delightful because he is smart, funny and fun to hang out with in-between takes and sometimes we spent more time between shots than acting. But when he is acting, I felt so lucky because Jeff does so much work before he shows up (on sets) in the best kind of way. He is just ready and I can trust him, and I am always excited to see what he is going to do and also I feel I can rely on him. If I had issues with my character or the writing, I could discuss it with Jeff. He is excellent at what he does and he helps me dissect certain things because of the way his mind works and approaches the character. And Jeff is never late!
What about you, how was it to work with Maura?
I am rarely late... Maura is willing to jump off a cliff (for her work) and not everybody is like her. In television, you get one or two takes and you really need to make them count because we don’t have time to do 10 takes. You risk failure when you have to trust only two takes. Trust is a great word and we hope to do this more than one season.
The narrative also explores the challenges that come with a complicated love story between your characters...
Maura:My character has a son, and Del is kind of the love of her life. It is sort of unhealthy and she is trying to balance everything between her son and this man. She has a hard time prioritising. Del is a police officer, so that complicates it further. Jeff: This is not one of those love stories where the lovers meet in a meadow with flowers, where there’s sunshine and a bird flies along. These people have complications and a history with each other and they are trying one more time. It’s complicated like many other relationships all over the world.
Premieres on September 12, on Voot Select