American Rust Brings Added Mystery to Crave

A small town murder mystery is the focus of a new serial starring Jeff Daniels

A small town murder mystery is the focus of a new serial starring Jeff Daniels

To portray the lead in the TV adaptation of Philipp Meyer’s acclaimed novel American Rust, Michigan-raised Jeff Daniels did not have to go far outside his comfort zone. “I grew up working class. I worked at my dad’s lumber company. I drove a truck during the summers, and I knew these guys. I am one of these guys,” he says. “I know how this [world] isolates you. We know there’s another world out there, but this is the only one we live in and care about.”

In the nine-episode series, Daniels portrays small town police chief Del Harris, whose moral code is put to the test when, in investigating the murder of a former police officer, the son of the woman he loves is implicated. While the murder may drive the plot forward, the series, much like the novel, explores the Rust Belt and rural America, the decline of the middle class and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs. “I knew Del enough to dive into him, and then embrace the things that I did not have in common with him and make those part of the performance,” says Daniels.

The appeal of the show for the two-time Emmy winner was the nuanced portrayal of characters full of contradictions, offering a departure from moral compasses James Comey and Atticus Finch, whom he recently portrayed in The Comey Rule and To Kill a Mockingbird. “[All] three of them believe in the rule of law, believe in right and wrong, and telling the truth. But that’s where Del kind of veers off. He fudges that,” says Daniels. “What we’re going for in this is real people, their good and their bad, their strong and their weak. Del tries his best, which is a lot of what this show is: good people having to make bad choices to survive.”

Written by Dan Futterman, who also penned Daniels’ 9/11 miniseries The Looming Tower, the narrative explores how Harris’s past led him to this sleepy Pennsylvania town. “Del had a lot of things in his life that drove him to try to seek refuge in a place like Buell,” says Futterman. “He had been in the Army. He had been in Pittsburgh P.D., and there were some things that happened that were haunting him. The notion of becoming a chief of police in a small town seemed perhaps idyllic. Little did he know the people that he was going
to encounter.”

Most prominent among them is Grace Poe, played by The Affair‘s Maura Tierney, a seamstress and the mother of 20-something Billy (Alex Neustaedter), who winds up a murder suspect. “She has an enormous pull on him,” says Futterman. “And she’s in the centre of a triangle. There are three men that are pulling her in various directions and it’s not just the lovers in her life. Billy may be the most powerful pull on her.”

Tierney’s character also struggles with the decisions she made that have brought her to this place in life. “She picked the wrong guy,” reflects Tierney. “They had a baby, and being a dad is not what he excels at. Now it’s 23 years later, and that’s a bad choice she made that she’s dealing with.” Her attraction to Del is undeniable, but perhaps not entirely without ulterior motive. “Grace does have strong feelings for Del and is desirous to be with this kind of man, but ‘this kind of man’ also happens to be able to save her kid,” says Tierney. “I think she’s not even quite sure exactly what her motivations are.”

As someone who spent the ’90s and early aughts making feature films, Daniels embraces the move to television, where he has been challenged to delve deeper into characters without all the prep time. “You maybe have to do it more quickly but we’ve developed an acting style on American Rust that embraces that, versus is frightened of it,” he says. “What we did was take the mirror down. A lot of actors are acting in front of a mirror. It’s ‘me, me, me, me.’ But half the performance is in the other actor. Stuff happens because you can’t plan what Maura Tierney is going to do. You’ve just got to react to it and let that feed you. Then the next thing you know, they say ‘Cut’ and you don’t remember what you did, because you were in it. I love it. I absolutely love it.”

Although there is not a real-life person to emulate this time around, and even the city of Buell is fictional, the pressure of nailing this character feels the same for Daniels as it does with someone like FBI director Comey. “You treat it like Del Harris is going to sit down and see it, and he’s going to call you and he’s going to want to go to lunch,” says Daniels. “And you hope it’s a good lunch.” 

American Rust airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Crave1