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Jeff Daniels grounded by harsh reality check with 'The Martian'

Actor's character tasked with tough decisions as head of NASA

Jeff Daniels in "The Martian."
Jeff Daniels in "The Martian." (20th Century Fox)

By Tim Lammers, DirectConversations.com

Given his diverse resume over the past 35 years in the film and TV business, it shouldn't come as a big surprise that within the past couple of years, acclaimed actor Jeff Daniels has swung so widely across the character spectrum. After all, how many actors can you see taking on a screwball comedy like "Dumb and Dumber To," the TV drama "The Newsroom" and new sci-fi action adventure "The Martian" in one-fell swoop?

"It's by choice. If you live in the Midwest with the business taking place on the coasts, you better come up with something that is going to make your career last," Daniels said in a recent phone conversation from Toronto. "I've always been interested in characters and character acting, and certainly that's the way I was brought up in the New York theater. You're never told, 'You know what you did in the last play? Do it again for us' -- but that's what they say in Hollywood, where it's about branding and image-building. You can get around that if you go there being able to go from a 'Dumb and Dumber' to a 'Newsroom' to a 'Martian' if you're up to the challenge. I know I'm up to the challenge of making each one believable. I want you believe that I can be the director or NASA in 'The Martian,' but also have an IQ of 8 as Harry Dunne."

"The Martian" stars Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, who is presumed dead on Mars following an intense storm that hits Watney and his fellow crew members on the Red Planet. Defying the odds, Watney not only survives the storm, but is able to sustain himself and eventually communicate to NASA that he is alive.

But with the lack of time and resources to get to send a mission to save him, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Daniels) is faced with the cutthroat decision of risking the lives of Watney's crew to reverse course and save their fellow astronaut, or possibly leave the astronaut alone to die, 140 million miles away from home.

Opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, "The Martian" also stars Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie as Watney's fellow crew members; and Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristin Wiig, Donald Glover and MacKenzie Davis among those back on Earth, agonizing over the astronaut's fate.

"The Martian" marks the first time Daniels has worked with legendary director Ridley Scott, who, of course has directed such classic sci-fi films as "Alien" and "Blade Runner." The interesting thing about this Scott film, however, is that the monster or enemy doesn't come in a physical shape, but rather an unrelenting force called "time," and time is running out quickly for both Watney and the people trying to save him.

"The movie does a great job of making everything accessible to its audience, and that lack of time is a great example of that -- time and the ticking clock, and we can all relate to that," Daniels said. "It's a universal theme, and when that clock does stop, Mark Watney faces a cold, brutal death in space. That's a feeling that's in the room of every scene in this movie. You can also hear that ticking clock in every scene."

The interesting thing is, if viewers watching "The Martian" want a villain, they can at least try arguing that Daniels' character is one because he's tasked with a decision that could seal Watney's fate. One thing viewers can't forget, Daniels explained, is that his character is more of a realist, and the last thing he wants is to have one astronaut die on his watch, let alone five more trying to rescue him.

"Certainly someone has to make that call, and as Chiwetel's character's says, 'We don't have to decide that, Sanders does,'" Daniels said. "So he has to decide, 'Do you let one die, or risk killing six -- and by the way the risk of those six succeeding is 1 percent. It's maddening, but I don't think it's the first time in government or military endeavors where one has to decide whether they have to cut their losses or not. It's a tough call.

"You get to see a lot of people make tough calls in this movie, but as Jessica's character says, 'Work through the problem.' I think that's another reason the movie is so accessible to people," Daniels said. "They will be asking themselves, 'What would I do if I had to decide what Sanders had to decide?' 'What would you do if you were Watney?' That really pulls us in."

Tim Lammers is a nationally syndicated movie reporter and author of "Direct Conversations: The Animated Films of Tim Burton" (Foreword by Tim Burton)."