Jeff Daniels On 'The Martian' And Space Travel

The actor on why he's happy to keep his feet on the ground in new movie 'The Martian'

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It wouldn’t be blockbuster season without a gripping-if-slightly-silly space movie, and filling the slot this year is sci-fi veteran Ridley Scott’s The Martian.

In it, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) travels to Mars with a crew made up of some of Hollywood’s hottest young things (House of Cards’ Kate Mara, Interstellar’s Jessica Chastain), gets himself stranded, and is forced to survive using limited supplies and his own ingenuity. “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this,” as Watney somewhat cringingly puts it.

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Meanwhile, Jeff Daniels plays Teddy Sanders, the man trying to orchestrate the rescue mission back on little old Earth. We caught up with The Newsroom star about blockbusters, space travel and why he’s happy here on terra firma.

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So tell us about Teddy.
He’s the bureaucrat at Nasa weighing up the risks of the mission, who decides it’s better to lose one life than several. He says the things no one else wants to.

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What makes The Martian different to other space action movies?
Well, it makes heroes out of people who know maths! It’s a bit like Apollo 13, when they’re trying to get [Tom] Hanks back safely by improvising maths and science on the fly. Same deal here. It’s pretty exciting stuff.

Did you read the Andy Weir novel the movie is based on?
Was that a requirement of this interview? Give me 20 minutes, I’ll speed-read it… No, I’ve never really taken to sci-fi. I just got the job then went straight to Budapest and relied on Ridley Scott, who is a good guy to rely on.

It’s a movie partly set on Mars, but Teddy stays put. Did you ever wish you were up in the spaceship?
No way! Look at what they had to wear every day, those space suits. I have no idea how they did the weightlessness thing, but it can’t be good. It’s either gonna be harnesses, or you’re up in a plane spinning around at 40,000ft… I was very happy to be on the ground in Houston wearing a suit.

Do you think it’s important we keep exploring space?
It’s nice to know what’s out there, but it isn’t necessarily going to make my Friday any better, you know? I’d rather see the bits of Earth I haven’t been to yet – Scotland, say – than do flybys of Jupiter or whatever. Though if I did go, I’d leave my cell phone at home and just take my guitar. That’d be good.

Making blockbusters or doing TV shows like The Newsroom: which is better?
TV is where the writing is, and with good writing comes better roles. On The Newsroom they kept telling us: “Go further! Go further!” Studio movies get noted to death by a junior executive saying, “Pull it back, that won’t sell, forget that, cut that!” That said, there is something about walking onto a huge set like The Martian, seeing all the extras, what the designers have created, huge monitors piled 50ft high… there’s a thrill. And all I have to do is say the lines. At least, I think that’s all I have to do. I just love the space between “action” and “cut”. That’s what’s so exciting, even after all these years.

The Martian is out on 2 October