The former president of Pepsi-Cola and the CEO of Apple from 1983 to 1993, John Sculley was perhaps the most prominent person to stand behind Steve Jobs during the computer pioneer’s rise in the ’80s and ’90s. As played by Jeff Daniels—opposite Michael Fassbender in director Danny Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin‘s new biographical film Steve Jobs (based on Walter Isaacson’s biography of the same name)—Sculley was filled with pride, turmoil, and heartache in his relationship with his protege. We recently caught up with Daniels—no stranger to Sorkin’s work, having starred in HBO’s The Newsroom for three TV seasons—and the acclaimed actor shared his thoughts on one of the movie’s most complex roles.
Nerdist: Much less is known by the general public about John Sculley than Steve Jobs. Was that more liberating for you as actor?
Jeff Daniels: The script was real solid. That’s what Aaron does so well. One of the reasons the movie works so well is every supporting character has this beginning, middle, and end. That isn’t always the case. And Sculley’s [role] is Shakespearean. He starts out so strong with Steve, and yet he knows Steve is the front man. So there were times when I thought, “Alright, be invisible. Be invisible. Be in the shadows.” He’s the father figure who’s steering this brilliant visionary. It’s all going very well. He cares about the guy, they trust each other, respect each other. Then Sculley makes a business decision that he felt he had to make at the time. And Steve never forgave him for it. I met Sculley, and he was very nice and extremely informative; and you could see that there was still some pain there. That there was a regret, that they had not reconciled. That really fed into what I was doing. You got to see, “Oh, there’s a lingering regret over the way that went down, and there’s nothing Sculley can do right now.” That’s a tragic fall.
N: Given Jobs background, do you think Sculley was the closest thing he had to a father?
JD: That’s a real complicated relationships, Steve with fathers—plural. Sculley was a part of that, in Walter [Isaacson]’s book, but especially in Aaron’s screenplay, finding out just that whole father history Steve has. Because it seems to be important, the adoption, rejected versus selected. What is that about? Because there’s something behind that, and he can’t pin him down. Then we find out, later in the film, exactly what that relationship with his father was. It’s nothing you can see coming. Certainly Sculley didn’t see it coming. It’s just strange. Then you look back, I’m sure John does, at the way Steve turned on Sculley, and you kind of understand where that anger might have come from.
N: The film’s production is somewhat unique in that it each of its three acts was shot as a separate movie.
JD: Yeah. We read everything before we started, particularly for Michael’s benefit because he had to carry the load. We shot in order: first act, second act, third act. Beginning, middle, and end. Then after each section we would shut down for a week and come back to rehearse the next act. That also gave Michael time to get memorized and get up to speed. Because otherwise it was just a massive undertaking. So it helped in a lot of ways. But then by the time you got to shooting a scene you felt like you’d already done it before. Which is the whole trick to making it more natural and relaxed.
N: As someone who’s had a great deal of experience with Aaron’s Sorkin’s scripts and dialogue, did you serve as almost a father figure yourself in terms of being able to provide guidance to the cast about how to approach this script?
JD: No, certainly these are highly accomplished actors who have had lots of lines in other things. Michael I know has done some Shakespeare. Possibly I was just merely there as evidence that, “you can and will survive this. [Laughs.] I came through three seasons of Newsroom and all of those pages and pages of dialogue, and I’m still standing. I’m here. So you will be too!” That was pretty much it.
N: There’s a strong lived-in feel to both your performance and Michael’s.
JD: Michael is a great guy and a great personality and a joy to be around. We would just hang out a little bit between takes and shots. That’s all you need. Like Sculley and Jobs, they really liked each other. It’s easy to like Michael. So you just pour some gas on that and light it and there you are — you’ve got your first scene. Even the scene in the middle where we’re really going at each other was a dance. We’d get out of a take and he’d go, “Yeah, I was a little early on that.” I said, “Yeah, and I was late. I’ll make sure I come in earlier.” “Got it.” Then we’d go back to beating the hell out of each other. But it’s working together on this one thing to make it as good as we can. He’s a pro, and it’s fun to work with pros.
N: Sculley’s career isn’t as glamorized as Jobs. Yet in that career he experienced bigger changes than those witnessed by Jobs and Wozniak. He stood at the nexus of past and future. I would think it took a tremendous amount of will and vision to be able to put his trust in the future as represented by Jobs.
JD: Yeah, he also knows a genius when he sees one. I think that’s what attracted him. Aside from the, “So do you want to change the world?” remark that Steve said to him. He really thought that whatever Steve had in his head, whatever his next idea was, and the one after that, it was going to be an enjoyable exercise to him to handle the corporate side of that. “I’m gonna help you be wildly successful doing those things that you haven’t even thought of yet.” That’s what I think really attracted Sculley. It was that way for a good number of years. Until it wasn’t. Then when it wasn’t it got bad and it stayed bad, and then it got worse.
N: In prepping for the film, what were some of the things you learned about Sculley that we might not see on screen but still informed your performance? Was he a very pragmatic businessman, or was he more complicated than that emotionally?
JD: He wasn’t the cliche corporate guy. This wasn’t just another start-up company that you’d start up and then get running and then leave to go off and do another one. This was something that he was connected to. He really believed that Steve was gonna change the world, and he wanted to be a part of that. Whether that’s ego I don’t know. But he’s really good at what he does, Sculley. You don’t get to where he got at Pepsi, without being really good at what you do. Which is running corporations. There’s an art to that, believe it or not. He was great at it, and he was gonna do that for Steve, and he did that for Steve. But he’s also the guy who had to tell Steve no. Then Steve won’t listen and he has to get the board behind him so that they can basically keep the company solvent. That was the end—it had to do with killing the Mac. Which at the time was not what the Mac became, by any means. It was this grand experiment. It was too expensive and didn’t do anything. “We can either stay with the Apple II and keep the company solvent or we can throw everything into the Mac and risk complete bankruptcy.” The business decision was stay with the Apple II, and that changed their relationship forever.
N: One can see in your performance how these different factors are affecting the guy and how he’s wrestling with then internally despite knowing the best course of action for the company. He has to sweat some major decisions.
JD: Yeah, and these guys are not supposed to care about what they sell. It’s just another product. They implement their corporate strategy and they sell X and then they move on to the next company and they sell Y. It doesn’t matter what they’re selling. And it mattered to Sculley. It mattered what he was doing with Jobs. It wasn’t just another product. This was changing the world, and that was very attractive to Sculley. I think Sculley would have been there for years and years and years. He cared. Sculley cared, and these guys aren’t supposed to get emotionally attached to what they’re selling. But he did. He got emotionally attached, not only to that, but to Steve and to Steve’s genius. If the product is what Steve thinks of next, that’s a pretty glamorous product for a corporate guy to wrap their arms around and try to shepherd towards success. That’s pretty exciting stuff to a guy like Sculley.
Steve is one of those guys that changed the world, like Edison or Alexander Graham Bell. There are a dozen of them. Jobs is one of them. Then he was this fascinating, complex giant of a figure.
N: What’s next for you?
JD: I’m going on tour my son’s band, the Ben Daniels Band. That’s what I’m doing in November. I’m gonna tour the Southwest, West Coast, and Northwest. I’m looking forward to that, beyond the parental highlight, jumping on the road and playing music. Then I’m pretty sure I’m busy with another acting job after the first of the year.
Photo credits: Universal