Jeff Daniels discusses The Looming Tower, his new drama based on Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-winning exposé of the same name that traces the rising threat of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, and takes a controversial look at how rivalry between the CIA and FBI may have inadvertently set the stage for the tragedy of 9/11 and resulting war in Iraq.
The series is exclusive in the UK on Amazon’s Prime Video service.
Who are you playing in The Looming Tower and what is his story?
John O’Neill was the Head of Counter Terrorism in New York, and I think most people in the world, but certainly in America, had never heard of him. I had never read Larry Wright’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Looming Tower, so I was also unaware.
But it’s a great story – people think they know 9/11, but they don’t, and this is what went on behind the scenes. John O’Neill was a guy who could smell bin Laden and Al-Qaeda before anyone else could.
He was determined to get the CIA and Richard Clarke and the White House to pay attention to this guy that no one thought was a threat. He was hell bent on that, and he was right, but the way he went about trying to get them to go along with him didn’t work. He was a bull in a china shop.
He didn’t have a political bone in his body and he would go down to Washington DC and get into these meetings where bureaucrats would talk and he would just clear the desk and turn the table over and say, “We need to go get bin Laden.” And they basically got tired of him.
He was right, what he was saying was right, but how he went about it got him into trouble and was part of the reason why we didn’t – America didn’t – take it seriously enough.
What sort of man was John O’Neill?
He was brilliant. His partners, whom I met extensively said he had a wife and at least two girlfriends, at least. But his true love was the FBI. And he was passionate about it, he would go to the wire for the men and women in the field, that’s what his partners said: you knew he had your back.
He was tough to get along with, he was moody, he was insecure, there was a huge ego there, but he had your back when it came down to Washington and all that stuff and getting you what you needed.
And he was right. It was just that the way he went about it was the only way he knew and it just didn’t work.
So he’s no saint…
No. It’s a good storytelling point – just because he has this messy background it doesn’t mean we believe him less. But you can sympathise, I think, or at least understand the position of the CIA, the patience of Richard Clarke dealing with John and his mood swings and his passion.
And he’s a mess, so you’ve got to factor all that in, and then as an audience decide whether you still believe him or not. Of course we know the Titanic hits the iceberg. We know. But it helps develop why people resisted him.
Given that we know the outcome of the story – 9/11 happened – what keeps The Looming Tower interesting dramatically?
Because then we didn’t know. We didn’t know how close we were to maybe stopping it from happening. That we were that close to maybe preventing it from happening at all… that might pull you in.
How did you come to be cast?
They sent it to me like three months before it started. I look for things that I haven’t done before, where I might fail. I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I just don’t wanna be the actor who becomes a brand: I want the range.
This O’Neill was something I hadn’t done before, didn’t know how to do, would have to figure out how to do, which, after 40 years will keep me interested.
Once you’d said yes what were your next steps?
You commit without knowing how to do it, and then you go to work. You prep, you learn, you sit with the FBI partners, you sit with Ali Soufan, you read Larry’s book, other episodes start coming in and you go to school. You go to grad school on John O’Neill, that’s what you do, and that’s the challenge of it.
Elmore Leonard, writer, used to say I’ll outline it, sort of, and then I love the discovery of finding out as I’m writing an early draft, what happens: I don’t want to know what happens when I’m on page one. That’s what I try and do with a character.
Did you speak to John O’Neill’s wife, or any of his partners?
I didn’t go to the family. I didn’t want to impose: actor walks in, sits in your living room and asks you tough questions? No. That was my choice, I thought I had enough from Ali Soufan and his partners.
And also too, a wife, at least two girlfriends… which ones do you talk to? Do you talk to all of them? A lot of them probably don’t wanna talk to you, I don’t know. And you’re gonna find out that it was a mess – well, I already know that.
By its nature FBI and CIA procedure and history can be hard to uncover – it’s secret. How do you find out what was actually going on back then?
A lot of the FBI procedures were already researched and we had people there that could make sure that from the directing and the writing and the performance aspect we were doing what would basically be done in an FBI way.
But the partners, the research, they had no problem talking about John. I mean no one named names and they’re very closed off when it comes to who did what to whom, and where, they won’t tell you that.
But they will give you all kinds of information about his personality, his strengths, his weaknesses, loves, hates, all that stuff you need to get as fully developed a character as you can before day one.
Did you get a sense of those people feeling angry about what happened, not only to him personally, but just in general?
Yes. Angry, shaking their heads. The FBI side’s pretty strong about it. I didn’t talk to anybody on the CIA side, or even the White House, or Richard Clarke: that’s not my jurisdiction. But they look at it as a tragedy, not only personally with the loss of John, but also as Richard Clarke said, “Your government failed you” and the FBI nods their head, yes it did.
Was there anything, just in your research, about the way the FBI or the CIA operated, that you were surprised by?
Eight. They had eight Arabic speakers in the whole bureau.
Which tells you something about how seriously they took the Islamic terrorism threat.
You read Larry’s book and he goes all the way back, I think to like 1952, where what ended up being Islamic terrorism, started.
But it really wasn’t until Al-Qaeda did what they did, that people woke-up.
Even the bombings oif the Embassy and USS Cole in the lead up were just, “Yeah, put it on the list of all the other people that hate us.”
John O’Neill was going, “No, this one is different.”
Some people will think they have seen 9/11 stories on screen before. What’s new here?
You don’t know the story. And by the way, it actually happened: it’s based on real events, real people. So, you think you know, but you don’t. I thought I knew. Didn’t.