Jeff Daniels on What Drives 'A Man in Full'

jeff daniels a man in full netflix
Jeff Daniels on 'A Man in Full'Mark Hill/Netflix

It’s been more than 25 years since Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, which tells a series of stories about the powerful and powerless in Atlanta, Ga., was published, but in that time the story hasn’t lost any of its potency. That’s thanks, of course, to Wolfe’s singular style but also his choice of subjects: a selection of Atlanta's most and least privileged residents, whose lives are brought into contrast by the city’s unrest, and whose stories overlap to remind us that the two groups are never quite as far apart as we might imagine.

The best example of this could be Charlie Croker, a filthy rich real-estate mogul who’s close to losing it all but won’t go down without a fight. He’s played on the new Netflix adaption of Full by Jeff Daniels, who brings the character all the bravado and cunning you’d expect but doesn’t ever let him veer into caricature. In fact, with the small-screen Full updated to the modern day, Croker is a reminder that the perils of hubris have made for compelling stories as long as we've been telling them.

a man in full netflix
Jeff Daniels and Sarah Jones in A Man in Full, streaming now on Netflix. Mark Hill/Netflix

Here, Daniels talks to T&C about the series and why playing a bad guy is always a little bit more fun.

Were you a fan of A Man in Full the book before the series came along?

No, but I knew that David E. Kelley and Regina King were involved—and it was a Tom Wolfe book and Thomas Schlamme, who’s a great director, was on board, too—and when you start out with great people around you, your chances of success go up. I read the script and thought, OK, I don't know how to do this, so let's say yes. That’s what I do now; if I think I might be able to do it but don't know how yet, I'll say yes. That way, I know I'll be challenged and interested versus repeating something I've already done. Then I read the book, all 700 pages, and it's Tom Wolfe, so there’s the detail that he has and the way he writes with wit and the humor, so I knew this was going to be exciting to try to pull off. Charlie Croker was larger than life. This was not Gary Cooper steering off into the sunset, we were coming in big. That's what I told Regina, I said, “I'm coming in big,” and she was very happy about that. She never told me to turn it down, and it worked out well.

This is the rare book that’s long enough to fuel a series. What did you take away from reading it about the character and how you wanted to play him?

Wolfe based Charlie Croker on two or three guys in Atlanta in the 1990s. Tom, I've come to learn, would just hang out with people and just go to dinners and be taking notes in his head, notes that would end up in books about the way people behaved. He mixes these worlds up and then has them come together at the end, so they intersect, and that was our starting point. David did some different things with it and updated it for the present day, and I think the ending is a little different than the book, but that's David E. Kelley and he makes it work.

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Jeff Daniels and William Jackson Harper in A Man in Full, the new series based on Tom Wolfe’s bestselling novel. Mark Hill/Netflix

The series does update the story, but the human behavior Wolfe was really interested in is timeless. These aren’t issues from another era.

In Charlie's case, he’s one person who has far too much money, whether he got it rightfully or lied to the bank. That kind of behavior has been around forever, and Wolfe just shined a spotlight on it. Greed, corruption, and grift are part of human nature, and they’re timeless problems.

They’re not the most attractive qualities in real life but must make someone fun to portray. What was your favorite part about playing Charlie?

Oh, it's an absolute ball. Whether you’re playing a villain or an anti-hero, you’re always looking for the things that make him a human being. With Charlie, you get to blow everything up; you’re pouring gasoline on all these needs, wants, and emotions, and just lighting them on fire. The trick is that, especially when they're larger than life, you still must be believable. You can't be doing a cartoon or a caricature, winking at the camera. Charlie is a human being and this is how he is. He doesn't know he's funny, he doesn't know he's being obnoxious or belligerent. He doesn’t know it and he doesn't care. Actors get to do all those things that you wouldn’t dare do in civilized society, we’re given permission to act out, and that’s a lot of fun. You get to walk through a room and leave a trail of destruction behind you, which is not something I do every day.

There was just a Tom Wolfe documentary released, there’s a bar in New York City that’s Wolfe-themed. What makes him someone who we’re all still thinking about?

He had a singular voice. When you're reading a novel that Tom Wolfe wrote, you knew it because that is what a Tom Wolfe novel sounds like. It may be a great Tom Wolf novel, or it may not live up to some of the great ones, but that writing style, that voice, they stand out. In show business you often try to do something that’s like something else that worked well—let’s replicate that! And writers like Wolfe don’t think like that, they wait for the next great idea that has legs and brings that voice out. Hopefully that’s something we’re able to carry into the show.

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