Jeff Daniels likes to have it any way he can get it. That is, when it comes to show business.
The busy Daniels is comfortable no matter what the situation. He’s a regular in high-profile “A” films like Speed or the recent State of Play, and a fixture on the indie scene with his fine recent work in The Lookout and The Squid and the Whale.
He’s been a standout on the stage, on Broadway with his Tony-nominated acclaimed role opposite James Gandolfini in God of Carnage, and in his own Purple Rose Theater Company at his home base of Chelsea, Michigan, which has been going for 18 years.
Then there’s directing (two indie films so far, Escanaba in Da Moonlight and Super Sucker) and his career as a singer-songwriter-guitarist, with three blues/folk CDs out there.
Jeff Daniels is busy. So it’s no surprise that he appears a little weary, too, when sitting down to talk about his lead role in the independent dramedy The Answer Man on an early spring day in Philadelphia.
It’s a Monday-the only day off the actor has off all week, because of his God of Carnage schedule-and he and Kathy, his high school sweetheart and wife of 30 years, have driven down to Philadelphia from New York City to talk about The Answer Man.
Figures, too, that the couple decided to drive from the Big Apple to Philly (where he will be picking up an Artistic Achievement Award from the Philadelphia Cinefest), as opposed to take the high-speed Amtrak train or a limo. It’s just a salt-of-the-earth thing you do, something that seems to fit Jeff’s no-bullshit persona.
After all, this is a guy who decided early on that he was going to stay in Michigan-Michigan, of all places!– with his wife, two sons and daughter, and damn the career if the Hollywood bigwigs don’t like it.
The 53-year-old Athens, Georgia native says his decision was based on one thing.
“For better or worse, it all comes down to control,” Daniels says, while stretching out in a downtown Philly hotel suite. “Early on, I discovered that I was in a business that discards people, I didn’t want to be discarded until I was ready. I wanted to be the one who walked away. I wanted to do that in my seventies. So, I sat down with myself and tried to figure out how I could possibly do that.”
Daniels, who dropped out of Central Michigan University to pursue the acting bug, says his first major break, replacing Michael Keaton as the male lead in The Purple Rose of Cairo, could have spun his career in a whole other direction because of the attention he received.
“I got out of the gate real fast with Purple Rose,” he explains. “In a lot of ways, I just wanted to be like Jimmy Stewart, Alan Arkin or Jack Lemmon who lasted decades. I looked at those guys and how they did it. They mixed it up. They mixed up the characters, mixed up the genres, comedy and drama.
“That’s where I wanted to be, but that’s not A-list-that’s not where I want to be. So I’m going to move to Michigan. (His agent said) ‘You can’t move to Michigan. (I said) ‘I know, but I’m going to.’ The phone kept ringing. Then I think I made some very smart decisions.”
Daniels co-starred as Jim Carrey‘s idiotic buddy in the road farce Dumb and Dumber in 1994. The movie became a sleeper sensation and opened the doors wider to Daniels’ diversity.
“I can now do comedy and nobody knows it,” recalls Daniels. “I had agents tell me, ‘You’re going to get killed, you’re going to get killed.’ It bought me ten years.”
The Dumb and Dumber success got Daniels cast in such studio films as 101 Dalmatians and Pleasantville. And he believes the bigger budgeted efforts afforded him the opportunity to do indie fare like The Squid and the Whale and The Answer Man.
In The Answer Man, Daniels plays Arlen Faber, the neurotic author of Me and God, a spiritual self-help best seller that has left the Philly-based writer famous and financially well-off but socially incompetent and closed off to the rest of the world. Enter a local bookseller (Lou Taylor Pucci) with drinking and family problems and a pretty single mother chiropractor (Lauren Graham), with whom the reclusive author gets involved. Also in the cast are Olivia Thirlby (Juno) as the chiropractor’s assistant and Kat Dennings (Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist) as a bookstore clerk.
Daniels, who is also currently on-screen as John Krasinski‘s self-absorbed father in Sam Mendes‘ Away We Go, was attracted to the film because of the writing. “It was smart,” he relates. “As I read it, I didn’t know where it was going. Sometimes with a formula script, you can get ahead of it. I didn’t know how to do it, how to play it.
“I just didn’t know how to pull it off. Sometimes you read something and you know how to play it. That means you’re going to be bored by week two. After so many movies, you like to be confused going in-it makes me work harder.”
John Hindman, a former standup comic who used his experience as a comedian to work his way into making films, makes his feature writing and directing debut with The Answer Man.
“I wrote it with someone like Jeff in mind,” confesses the L.A.-based, San Francisco-raised Hindman. “I didn’t cast it while writing it. It was based on different people in my family.”
The film offers finely tuned chemistry between the cast members, which Hindman says was achieved different ways with the different actors. “Lauren Graham and I live in L.A.,” says Hindman, a big fan of Tootsie and the complex comedies of James L. Brooks. “So we got together (to talk about the movie), while Jeff and I talked over the phone. We spoke together for a couple of days, read it through and went out to dinner.”
Adds Daniels: “We hung out a lot, Lauren is very funny. Once everyone realizes nobody’s an a-hole, the chemistry becomes easier. Chemistry is about actors listening to one another, then bouncing ideas off each other.”
One of the actor’s most acclaimed recent roles was as the scholarly, egocentric writer-professor father Bernard Berkman in Noah Baumbach‘s autobiographical The Squid and the Whale. “I didn’t ad lib, but it was based on Noah’s own father,” states Daniels, who was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for his tour de force performance. “So I met with his father (Jonathan Baumbach) and pulled some things from that. I pulled his use of words, and his pride in his novels, most of which were…uh…self-published-Oh, and the kind of obliviousness to where he fit in. Having written plays, I knew the writer’s mind, and the isolation of that, and the all-consuming thing of that.”
Daniels took a unique approach to find the pulse of the character. “I went from never being nominated for an Oscar, because Bernard feels very underappreciated,” admits Daniels. “It’s there, it hasn’t happened. I just poured gasoline on it and then went in to shoot it. I got real angry for six weeks and just used it.”
Despite the Academy overlooking Daniels for much admired roles in such films as Terms of Endearment, Something Wild, The Hours, and Good Night and Good Luck, Daniels remains much in demand for both studio and indie projects. In fact, he has another film ready to open (Paper Man) and one in the can (Howl, about beat poet Allen Ginsburg).
So why did Daniels return to the stage for a grueling but successful six-month run in God of Carnage, a black comedy by Yazmina Riza (Art) with a four-person cast that includes Gandolfini, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden as parents whose feuding gets uglier and uglier as the play progresses?
“Two years ago, I went back to do Blackbird,” Daniels says of a controversial off-Broadway play about an improper relationship between an older man and underage girl. “I had to see if I can still do it. You get to a point where you’re not being used. You’re on a movie and you do two or three scenes. And you go, ‘That’s nice.’
“You do The Answer Man or The Squid and the Whale and that’s different. But I was getting bored (with bigger films). And not everyone can do Blackbird or God of Carnage.”
Daniels, whose other live work includes productions for New York’s legendary Circle Rep, and parts in Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July and Redwood Curtain, says live performing still holds a certain excitement for him.
“When Broadway goes well, there’s nothing like it,” Daniels enthuses, momentarily overcoming his apparent weariness. “It’s like you’re in a Springsteen concert, it’s such a rush. It’s just great!”
So, with all of these credits under his belt, one wonders what other challenges await Daniels. Is there anything he wants to do that he hasn’t tried yet?
“Nothing in particular,” says Daniels matter-of-factly.
And what accomplishment is Jeff Daniels most proud of?
“I’m proudest that I was able to do it in a way I could control as much as anyone can control things in this business,” says Daniels. “I feel like I have the ability to say ‘no.'”