Jeff Daniels on What Drew Him to the Small-Town Murder of ‘American Rust’

American Rust Jeff Daniels
Fall Preview
Dennis Mong/SHOWTIME

Murders and small towns make for riveting television (see: Mare of Easttown, Broadchurch), and American Rust, based on the Philipp Meyer novel, is a worthy addition to this very specific genre.

Set in fictional Buell, Pennsylvania, the nine-episode drama centers on conflicted chief of police Del Harris (Jeff Daniels), who considers crossing morality lines after the son of the woman he loves, Grace Poe (Maura Tierney, The Affair), is linked to a homicide. “What attracted me to [the show] was people hanging onto their dignity in the face of having to do things they normally wouldn’t do,” Daniels explains.

The two-time Emmy winner (for Godless and The Newsroom) tells us more about this corner of the country.

American Rust Jeff Daniels

(Credit: Dennis Mong/SHOWTIME)

We meet Del measuring and crushing up pills. What does this tell us about him right off the bat?

Jeff Daniels: There’s an authenticity we’re reaching for. Del’s got the “VA cocktail,” having come back from Iraq with PTSD. He’s trying to wean himself off [the pills].

How would you describe Del and Grace’s relationship?

They’ve been off and on, and Del has always been No. 3 after Virgil [the husband she’s now separated from, played by Mark Pellegrino] and Billy [their adult son, played by Alex Neustaedter]. The series starts with Del doing whatever it takes to win her.

American Rust Jeff Daniels

(Credit: Matthias Clamer/SHOWTIME)

What did shooting in and around Pittsburgh add?

It’s as much a character in the series as I am. The rivers, the hollers [small valleys], the cemeteries that are on the side of a steep hill — it’s all a part of it.

What does the title American Rust mean to you?

There’s something to being stagnant, forgotten, and abandoned. When you do that to a piece of equipment, it rusts, and then we don’t need it anymore.

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The series was abruptly canceled after seven seasons after the finale aired.

You grew up in Chelsea, Michigan. You must know these small towns intimately.

Yes, had the acting thing not worked out, I would have been working at my father’s lumber company in a small town. My whole world would have been that town. What the series is trying to do is say these are good people who are staring at the bottom and have to make bad choices to survive.

American Rust, Series Premiere, Sunday, September 12, 10/9c, Showtime

This is an excerpt from TV Guide Magazine’s 2021 Fall Preview issue. For more inside scoop on the new fall TV season, pick up the issue, on newsstands Thursday, August 26.