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An Interview With Jeff Daniels

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Over the past thirty years, actor Jeff Daniels has established a reputation for versatility on the big screen -- he has played everything from a burnt-out author (The Squid and the Whale), to a Civil War colonel (Gettysburg, Gods and Generals), to a derelict pet groomer (Dumb and Dumber) -- however, most don't know just how far Daniels' creative ambition extends.

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In 1991, Daniels founded the Purple Rose in Chelsea, MI ― a thriving nonprofit theatre company that was recently lauded by the N.E.A. for creating sustainable economic growth through the arts. Daniels still functions as the executive director of the theatre, and, as a playwright, has authored more than 10 original stage productions for the venue.

In addition to acting and writing, the last 10 years have seen Daniels place an increased focus on his music. An avid guitarist since he was young, Daniels has toured the country on-and-off as a songwriter for the past several years. Last December marked the release of his fifth album, Keep it Right Here.

I spoke with Jeff last week.

Ben Evans: Now that you've had your foot in both worlds for a while, how have you found acting and making music to differ as expressive outlets?

Jeff Daniels: Well, in my case, the biggest difference is that I write everything. It's a one-man show -- there's no band; it's just me and a guitar. So, it's a bit like a one-man show with no band. I'm the director, I'm the editor, I'm the writer, I'm the studio, I'm the marketing -- everything. I don't mind that. I don't mind that creative control over what I do. As an actor, you're always at the service of somebody else's vision. In a play, it's more of the director's vision, and he or she's got their hands on you all the way up to opening night, and if it's a film, there are even more people. The director, as you're shooting it, you give him five different takes on how to do a certain thing -- five variations on it -- and then they take that away, and then a year later you go to the premiere and you find out what they did with what you gave them. You kind of do it and give it to them and watch them walk away with it. So, I like the creative control of the music. I like not being told what to write or what to do. The older you get, and the more you're in this business, the more you kind of feel like, "Why don't we just do it my way." Those are the biggest differences. The similarity is that it's creative. It's all part of that big creative process that starts with a blank page or an actor sitting there going, "How am I going to pull this character off?" Or a songwriter with, "Should I start in the key of G or A?" Or, "What's this song going to be about?" It's the journey of creating something that ends up being finished.

BE: You make some mention of it in your song, "If William Shatner Can, I Can Too," but do you feel as if you're afforded more leeway as a musician because of your big-screen fame?

JD: When I wrote that, that was nine or ten years ago. That was just me getting ahead of the critics, or even those that were going, "Okay, another actor sings. Great. Terrific. Very exciting." It was me acknowledging the big elephant in the room, which is that I'm known for something else, and you're paying money to see me not do that. So, it was me sort of going, "Look, I know. I got it, but I've been doing this a long time, but if you bear with me, after fifteen minutes you won't think you wasted your money." I know there are people, if I go into a market or a city for the first time, there are people that are there that just want to see the famous person, or the guy from Dumb and Dumberor whatever movie they liked. And that's fine, it gets them in the door, but then it's my job to give them something different.

BE: How difficult is it to present yourself -- you as the person -- and erase the preconceptions people have of you when you take the stage as a musician?

JD: You know, it's really strange now with the Internet, with everyone having an unsolicited, anonymous opinion. I don't spend a lot of time reading comments -- first of all, I don't Google myself; my wife does that far too much -- but everybody's got an opinion, and everybody's got things to say about you, so the perception of who I am is so screwed up, it's not even like it's controlled. It depends on what blog you read or what website you read, I guess. Hopefully it's more positive than negative, but as the guy that is the subject of that sometimes, you just throw up your hands and go, "Fuck it." There's nothing I can do about it. So you just walk out there and go, "Guess what, you don't know me. You may think you do, but you don't." And I've said this before: if you wanted to get to know me, you should probably read all of my plays and listen to all of my songs. There's more information in those than on any blog or website or interview I might have done.

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BE: I'd imagine that having put yourself out there as much as you have that a resentment or a resignation creeps in.

JD: The resignation creeps in. I'm not even a guy that they take shots at -- I'm not a tabloid guy... nobody has to sign their name. They can say whatever they want and they can have a username. It's great fun unless you're famous.

BE: Between the Purple Rose Theatre that you founded and are executive director of, and your music, are you placing your focus between those two things right now? Are you leaving the acting behind for a while?

JD: I love the music. I enjoy the music. The music I do, whether I'm gigging or whether I'm recording, I do that year round. And I can take that with me when I go do an acting job. The acting jobs -- you don't control that. You're not in charge of that. The phone rings and then someone wants you. They want me this spring. So, "Oh, good. Okay." I did a play called God of Carnage on Broadway for about a year.

BE: Yeah, you were nominated for a Tony [Award] for it.

JD: Yeah. They're getting the original cast together. Jim Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden and Hope Davis and myself, and we're going to do it out in L.A. in April and May.

So, the music stops, except that I'll take the guitar with me and write during the day, and you know, it's with me all the time anyway. Then I'll be done with that in June. There's some things that are happening in the television world: I'm in development with Showtime on a series, and there are a couple other things that might happen when I hang up the phone. So, it's a rollercoaster of a life, I'll tell you.

BE: I feel as if this is rather indulgent on my part, but you were phenomenal in The Squid and the Whale.

JD: Good script.

BE: I felt like I got punched in the gut when I walked out of that, and I know you did Howl with James Franco. Are there any other opportunities arising in the independent film world?

JD: The independent film world: I did a movie with a kid named Aaron Paul off of Breaking Bad. They shot it in Detroit, and they called up and wanted me to shoot a week on it, and so I said, "Great." It was fun to shoot in Detroit and shoot with a Michigan crew and kind of see how much people appreciated jobs here in the industry. We'll see what Governor Snyder and company decide about that. I think they're going to re-title it, so I don't know what it will be, but Aaron Paul is the star of it. Then I just finished a part on a movie called Looper with Joe Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, written and directed by a guy named Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed Brick, which he did with Joe Gordon-Levitt. Joe and I did a movie together called The Lookout.

BE: What do you prefer, if you had your druthers, would you do a role like you did in Gods and Generals or The Squid and the Whale, a more serious role, or something like you played in Dumb and Dumber?

JD: All of the above. I love the variety; I love mixing it up. I guess what I really like is working with people who are really good who have been doing it a long time, or who are legitimate and on their way up. Rian Johnson and Joe Gordon-Levitt were the reasons I took the movie last week.

BE: And Eisenberg, who you worked with in The Squid and the Whale.

JD: Jesse, yeah. Jesse's going to the party next week. I just like working with really good people. After fifty movies or so, that means I'll be challenged. That the script is good, that I don't quite know how to do it, so I'll have to focus. I'm just not one of these guys that comes in and [says], "Could you just do what you did for that other movie, can you do it for us?" You know, where you play to an image. That bores me. That's what I look for -- people that I've either worked for and loved it or respect and suddenly they want me to do such and such. Then I get excited again.


Photo by John Sobczak
*An audio recording of the full Jeff Daniels' interview can be heard on Fogged Clarity here.
**This interview was transcribed by author Kirsten Clodfelter.