Jeff Daniels

On singing like Shatner, The Squid And The Whale, and why he still lives in the Midwest

Michigan native Jeff Daniels’ powerful performance as a pretentious intellectual luxuriating in bitterness and unearned superiority in 2005’s The Squid And The Whale felt revelatory. This was, in part, because it deviated so wildly from the clean-cut, wholesome, all-American image Daniels cultivated in films like The Purple Rose of Cairo, Something Wild, Speed, Pleasantville, and Dumb & Dumber. The role felt like a comeback, or at least the beginning of a new phase in Daniels’ career; but the actor never stopped appearing in challenging, worthwhile projects, both onscreen and onstage, where he was recently nominated for a Tony for his turn in God Of Carnage. 

Daniels’ aw-shucks Midwestern persona also informs the stripped-down, folksy albums he’s been releasing throughout the decade as a way of raising money for his homegrown Michigan venture, The Purple Rose Theatre Company. On albums like Live and Unplugged To Benefit The Purple Rose Theatre, Daniels pokes lighthearted fun at fellow actor-musicians in songs like “If William Shatner Can, I Can Too,” and affably embodies the role of laid-back storyteller/wandering troubadour. Daniels has also written and directed a pair of independent films, Super Suckers and the regional hit Escanaba In Da Moonlight, in addition to writing and directing plays for The Purple Rose. The A.V Club recently spoke with Daniels, who is playing Evanston SPACE Sept. 14 as part of a Midwest tour to raise money for The Purple Rose, and who can soon be seen in the partially animated docudrama Howl. He discussed not wanting to go the Billy Bob Thornton route with his music, playing a character based on Noah Baumbach’s father in The Squid And The Whale, and why he sure as shit isn’t the next Cary Grant. 

The A.V. Club: From the articles that I’ve read, it seems like you were reluctant to release your music, either on a CD or perform it live. 

Jeff Daniels: Well, the music industry is littered with actors who belatedly came to singing. From records made by Terry Bradshaw of the Pittsburgh Steelers, I think Burt Reynolds made one, and of course William Shatner pioneered it and blazed the trail. If you’re at all serious about it, you’ve got to go against the whole, “We’re not going to let you do two things successfully in this country, only one, maybe.” You’re kind of going in with two strikes on you already. That was part of the reluctance. The other part was that it was for the back porch; it was just something I did for me, to keep me sane, especially when I wasn’t working and in between phone calls and all that. To actually have to go out and perform it and subject myself to “Why are you doing this?” stuff was part of the reluctance as well. But I’d played for 30 years; I’d worked hard at it. I’d written, and then I was starting to write for the set. And once I was able to do it and raise money for my theater company—which is what got me in front of people in the first place—and then being told, “You could take this around the country if you wanted,” and then doing it and enjoying it, and seeing that the songs traveled, and this whole other one-man-show happened, I realized that oh, this is fun, I do enjoy this. That kind of happened in the last five or six years.

AVC: You said that you wanted to be taken seriously as a musician, but at the same time your songs are funny and rooted in your experiences as an actor. Were you ever determined to draw a line between the acting and the musicianship?

JD: I think initially I was thinking that they’re two different things, and then I realized that they aren’t. It’s a role you play. You walk out and you’re entertaining people for 90 or 100 minutes. It’s my version of what I would want someone with just a guitar to be able to do for me for 100 minutes. Certainly the guy who’s been on a Broadway stage is out there with me; the guy who’s written plays, which I’ve done, is helping write the songs; the director, I’ve directed a few times, is helping build the set. All the hats that I’ve worn over the years converge into pulling this show off. The musicianship, that’s not an issue anymore because I’ve worked so hard at it and I’ve had a lot of really great players to play with, some of which I’ve studied with. I’ve taken lessons with Keb’ Mo’ and Stefan Grossman in particular, and really worked hard to improve. When you’re out there without a band, you’ve got to be able to get around on it. You can’t just nod and let the lead guy go off and do his solo, and then you come back to playing three chords. Especially doing it acoustic, you’ve got to be able to play it. I worked hard on that, so I don’t worry about it anymore. I actually plant a couple of songs early on because there are always a couple guitar players out there who are waiting for the train wreck. So I go, “Here’s this” [Makes guitar noodling sound], and they go, “Oh, okay.”

AVC: Did you always write songs with a more comic bent?

JD: That’s just always been something that I’ve been able to do. I think you can either do it or you can’t. Certainly you guys at The Onion know that there are some people that just aren’t fucking funny. To be able to be one of those guys that know how to tap that vein without too much difficulty, I think, is an asset. And regardless of the fact that in this country, certainly in the arts, we treat comedy as a second-class citizen, I’ve never thought of it that way. I’ve always thought it to be important. The last time I looked, the Greeks were holding up two masks. I’ve always thought of it not only as having equal value, but as the craft of it, being funny. One too many words in a sentence blows the joke, and whether it’s a song or it’s an article in The Onion, there’s an art to making it sharp and precise. I’ve always, knowing I’m able to do that, worked hard at learning the mechanics of how to do that. 

AVC: It also seems that by being self-deprecating, as you are in your music—

JD: Part of that too just is a disclaimer ... certainly a lot of that was, starting out, the route I took. I just had to deal with this big, 800-pound gorilla in the room, which was, “You’re known for something else, what are you doing with a guitar?” That was in the first five minutes of the show, so I had to deal with that. Part of that was by singing songs—“Well, if William Shatner can, I can too”—or the self-deprecation. Just go, “Look, everybody relax. I’m gonna have fun; you have fun too.” Since then, it’s less of an issue. 

AVC: It’s certainly the opposite approach of Billy Bob Thorton. 

JD: Well I didn’t see the success in that, whether it was Billy Bob or whomever. I just felt it was best to lead with a sense of humor about it, and then maybe they’ll come along with you. I just didn’t know any other way to do it. 

AVC: Do you feel like because you’ve been so successful as an actor you have to prove yourself as a musician in a way that you wouldn’t have to otherwise?

JD: I suppose so, but the expectations are very low. When I walk out with a guitar, and you bought tickets to see one of the guys from Dumb & Dumber, I know that’s going to last about eight minutes. Then you’ll have seen me, and then it’s over, and they’ll go, “Oh Jesus, what the hell did we spend our money for?”  It’s okay now; I don’t really worry about it because, in a way, people who haven’t heard the music at all are expecting the worst: another actor/singer/songwriter, just what the world needs. But I think I’m able to defeat that pretty quickly and, next thing you know, it’s a show and it’s worth what they spent on it. 

AVC: You can only go so far on the audience’s goodwill. 

JD: Well yeah, but then you’ve got to be able to deliver. And, having played publicly for about 10 years now, I tell you something: What the actor brings to this is someone who knows how to engage the audience, knows how to perform, and knows how to structure a show, whether it’s a play or a 90-minute set. I’ve learned a lot outside of music that informs how to do it, so it’s not just navel-gazing songwriting. There’s a show. You’re sitting in the living room with me, and I’m gonna make you laugh harder than you have in a long time. Utah Phillips, he’s since passed away, but he was a great one-man-show-with-a-guitar-type guy, and he came out and would do a song. I should look it up, it’s something about the railroad. And his opening song lasted 20 minutes because he kept stopping it and talking and doing this stuff. And you’re going, “That’s just great.” I talked to his agent, Jim Fleming, afterwards—we have the same agent—and I said, “That whole thing, man he just winged it.” And he said, “No, no, no. Every word is written, every word is chosen. He just made it look spontaneous.” That’s what actors do. We make it look like it’s happening for the first time. The show, over the 10 years, while there are many parts that I do wing and I move the setlist around depending on the crowd, someone thought about it. All the acting and the writing, it all enters in to walking in and sitting down with a guitar. 

AVC: What do you get from music that you don’t get from acting, and vice-versa? 

JD: It’s all the blame and all the glory, meaning that because I have no band, creatively it’s just me. I don’t have to worry about a studio or the other actors. It’s just me. I don’t have to tell anybody what I’m doing; there’s no director with notes from the last show or whatever. You’re all on your own, and so I like that; I like the freedom. If you do a movie, you shoot it, and then a year later you see what they did with it. 

AVC: On your other CD, you speak of being star-struck and being rendered speechless when meeting George Harrison. You’ve worked with a lot of legendary people. Have you ever felt that way about anybody else you’ve collaborated with? 

JD: Yeah, I’ve worked with Meryl Streep a couple of times. Bring everything you’ve ever learned to work with you because, when you’re working with Meryl, you’re gonna need it that day. Because she’s that good. But I’ve been around a long time now so, as far as the acting end, they’re all kind of like peers now. Even the De Niros and the Meryls, while they’re immensely successful, when you’ve been around 30 years, it gets to be a small community, and you all know each other and each other’s work. That’s okay; it’s really not that intimidating. I went to Crossroads [Guitar Festival] in Chicago recently, and was backstage for three days and got to meet Clapton. That was pretty good; that one mattered. 

AVC: In Purple Rose Of Cairo, you replaced Michael Keaton. How did that come about? Had you auditioned for it, or did you just get that call? 

JD: I think they made a mutual decision, Michael and Woody [Allen] mutually. What I was told is that it’s just not working, so Woody recast it. He screen-tested about three or four of us on a Wednesday and made his decision on Thursday. And it was me, and we were shooting on Monday. 

AVC: Is it stressful coming into a situation that’s already—

JD: Well certainly then, with Woody, because it’s such a coup for an actor to score a Woody Allen movie, and then you get the script and discover that you’ve got two leading roles in a Woody Allen movie. You’re almost better off not having a lot of time to think about it. All you’ve got is a weekend to learn the lines for Monday and Tuesday’s work, and just go to work. It helped that I was just thrown into it. You pinch yourself: You’re on a set and there’s Mia Farrow, and there’s Woody Allen off-camera saying, “Action.” It’s pretty good. 

AVC: You have to go on instinct. You don’t really have time to be nervous.

JD: Well it’s also another one of those, “Please God let me remember everything I’ve ever learned” moments. I just hope I’m prepared to do whatever he’s going to need me to do. If it’s sports, they give you the ball at the end of the game and you have got to hit the shot. At this level, when you walk onto the set of a Woody Allen movie, you have got to hit the shot. 

AVC: You mentioned directing before, writing and directing both for the stage and also for film. How did that change the way you saw or approached filmmaking? 

JD: Well, you understand that part of the process that doesn’t involve you as an actor. When you’re the actor in a movie, all you’re concerned about is executing your role and making sure that you give the director some options. Then you wrap the shoot and you walk away thinking the movie’s done. And it is, for you. But if you’re directing it, you’re only a third of the way through. That’s what I learned on the two indies I shot. You’re editing for months, putting the music on it, doing the sound, doing this. It’s another six months on this thing, and actors don’t know that. As a writer, having written a movie, you then shoot it and that’s just another draft of it. You may add some things and try some things, and then you go to the editing room and that’s the final draft. You literally rewrite. You may not make major changes in the story, but you’re certainly focusing scenes in the way that a writer would. I think that, as an actor, I never truly understood that until I was in the editing room making those kinds of decisions. It made me come out of it realizing that, really, my job as an actor on a film is to just throw as many options against the lens as a director might need. Nobody really knows until you get into editing where it’s gonna go, whether you do the speech quickly or slowly, whether you should look away or not away. Any actor that says, “I know how the character would do this, and this is the way to do it,” has spent one too many years at star school. You just don’t know. Having written and been in an editing room, you want options. “Man, I wish I had one where he put a little bit more energy into that speech, or had taken a little bit more time with it. Oh look, take four, I do have it.” It’s also called covering your ass as an actor. 

AVC: Your first film as a writer-director was Escanaba In Da Moonlight, which began as a play. What made you think of it in cinematic terms? 

JD: Well, I wanted to do an indie, and that was my most successful play. And I think that, even if it didn’t get distribution nationally, we would be able to distribute it regionally, which is what happened. It was my most successful play, why didn’t I just turn it into a screenplay? And I was able to. 

AVC: The film is rooted in the culture and the language of the Upper Peninsula. Did you worry that it would limit your appeal? 

JD: I don’t care. You could say that of every Irish movie, or every London movie, or every movie that was set in the Tennessee hills. I didn’t care about that. I think the bigger problem, and it’s part of the problem that indies had even more 10 years ago, is distribution. You’ve got distributors going, “Man, if only you’d have had Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey do cameos in it, then we could market it.”

AVC: So what motivated you to go back to Michigan?

JD: I understood it. We wanted to raise our family; the kids were young at the time. They’re now in their 20s, and we wanted to raise them in a place we understood. [My wife] Kathleen and I are both from Michigan, so that’s why we came back home. 

AVC: From a business standpoint, what are the advantages and the disadvantages? 

JD: Well, you’re not able to drive 15 minutes to a meeting on the 20th Century lot in L.A. You’re kind of away; you’re distant. That didn’t really matter; we moved back here in ’86, at a time when the movies were happening, and more often than not directors came to Michigan. There were times when I had to go out to L.A. and stay a little while and do some meetings, but pretty much it didn’t really matter. It was just at the start of the, “You can live anywhere” phase. And now you truly can. 

AVC: In The Squid And The Whale your character was at least partially based on Noah Baumbach’s father, who was on the set occasionally. How did that affect your performance?

JD: Well, I think it was based on some things in Noah’s life; I wouldn’t say from my end that it was a direct lift or imitation. I kind of combined a little bit of that family history with just the writer that I am, the writer that I’ve known. That solitary existence and, if you lack success, that kind of self-critical acclaim that you have to generate for yourself in order to keep working on the next book. It made sense to me, it really made sense. That artist who was under-appreciated, I got that, I understood that. It was a little bit like taking all of that and just pouring gas on the flame and lighting it. 

AVC: Sort of magnifying?

JD: Well I think, again, one of the things that we found in rehearsal was that I had met his father, and I was trying to do a little bit of an impression of that, but it was wrong because it wasn’t really his father. It was, yes, based on him but I said, “You know what, no. I’ve got to tap into me.” So I did. I tapped into a guy who's not been nominated for an Oscar and occasionally finds myself the under-appreciated actor, so I took those two things and got bitter about it. That fed Bernard. That’s what acting is sometimes: using parts of yourself and just lighting it and stepping in front of the camera. 

AVC: Is that something that would matter for you, being nominated for an Academy Award? 

JD: I’ll rent a limo, I’ll get a tux; I won’t turn it down, absolutely not. It’s certainly the kind of thing where it’s better to get nominated than not. 

AVC: The Golden Globes are not—

JD: It’s nice to get a Golden Globe nomination; I won’t badmouth that. But to get an Oscar nomination? Absolutely. It’s like getting nominated for a Tony for God Of Carnage. Forever and ever, I’m a Tony-nominated actor. That’s just a label that the industry puts on you and it’s great, it means a lot. So yeah, absolutely. But, in regard to Squid And The Whale, you’re looking for things that you can blow up and use as fuel. You’ve got to tap in to stuff, at times, that’s there and may not be big deal, but for the point and time when you’re shooting that character, it’s a big damn deal. You blow it up so that you can get where you need to go. It’s called using yourself. 

AVC: How did The Squid And The Whale change your career? Do you think that people saw you differently? 

JD: I think once you’ve done Dumb & Dumber, they decide that’s what you are. It’s that whole thing I was saying about comedy being a second-class citizen. Once you’ve done that, but yet you’ve done other things, Hollywood tends to forget that. So there was an effort made to try and show the range from Dumb & Dumber, to a Gettysburg, to a Pleasantville. But then Squid came along, which was about as far away from Dumb & Dumber as you can get. So in a way that was the end of that, “Oh, he did Dumb & Dumber that’s all; he’s not really serious. Oh, here’s Squid And The Whale. Wait a minute, time out, maybe not.” Suddenly I had range.

AVC: In the 1980s you were on the cover of GQ with the headline, “ Is Jeff Daniels The Next Cary Grant?” 

JD: I don’t write the headlines. You guys do. 

AVC: How did it make you feel? 

JD: I didn’t buy it for a second. 

AVC: Do you think it created, in people’s minds, these impossible expectations?

JD: It’s a magazine cover. That’s all it is. I don’t tell you about impossible expectations; again that’s you guys. I don’t give a shit about that. 

AVC: Do you have plans to write and direct films again? Is that something you’d like to return to?

JD: Not films. We’re looking at some television stuff that might actually pan out that would be a great opportunity. I think it’s interesting when the business changes. I think a lot of the writing has gone to cable—a lot of the writers, and the writing, and the risk-taking. What were once really great indie films 10 years ago, those writers are now able to do that thing and—key—get distribution and get it to people on cable, on those 300 channels or whatever we’ve got now. In a way, I don’t know if it is yet, but that golden era of television in the ’50s where you had Paddy Chayefsky and all these guys writing for Playhouse 90 and all of that, we may be seeing a resurgence of all of that. Amidst all the reality shows and the American Idols, there’s a lot of really great writing going on in cable, and even in network. That interests me. That’ll keep me on that side of the business if I can participate in that. We’ll see. 

AVC: It seems that television is getting much more writer-friendly and becoming a more writer-centric medium at this point. 

JD: I’d say very much so, yeah. 

AVC: It also seems like television, paradoxically, has never been better and never been worse. 

JD: Yeah, true. 

AVC: The great stuff is unbelievably great, your Mad Mens and your Wires and stuff like that, and the bad stuff is so

JD: I think with cable too, you don’t have to play to 15 million people to be called a hit. You can play to a million people. You’re given the freedom to play to that specific audience, as long as it’s making money and the subscriptions are there and it’s supported. It reminds me of when you’re in a sold-out show Off-Broadway: You’re only playing to a 150 people, but you’re sold out. Where on Broadway, if you’re playing to 150 people, you’re closing in two weeks. 

AVC:  It seems like, with films, the more money that you spend on a film, the fewer chances you can take. 

JD: Yeah, and it’s also like we don’t know what to do with movies. Not all, there are a lot of good movies out there, and they’re character-driven and they’re trying, but video games are not helping. You see a lot of these movies that are really just 90-minute video games. The effects are incredible. I get it: There’s an art to that, terrific. I’m not interested in it, but there’s an art to that I suppose. 

AVC: It seems like the sudden domination of 3D is also putting the emphasis more on spectacle. 

JD: I think what’s interesting too, and this is good and this is bad, but the days of going to the movie theater and seeing larger-than-life characters on a 30-by-60 screen, that’s changed because of the home entertainment systems we have now. HD channels, and big-screen TVs, and good sound coming out of the TV, instead of the just the Zenith in the corner. The day is gonna come—it’s here now, they just don’t know how to spread to money out—where the movie opens on Friday and you’ve just got to download it on your TV or computer for $9.99. It’s there, the technology is there. They could do it now, and I think that’s obviously where we’re headed. I don’t think that’s all bad; you have the comfort of your own home instead of sitting through a half-hour of commercials. I don’t know; I just think it won’t be long before we’re getting movies right to our doorsteps. 

AVC: Technology never stops advancing. The antithesis of that is live theatre, which obviously you’re very involved with on a number of different levels. Could you talk about what led you to found The Purple Rose Theatre? 

JD: When we moved back in ’86 to raise the kids, after about three years, creatively I was going to sleep and I missed the New York theater scene. I missed the creativity that happens on a good movie set. And I was sitting in Michigan and kind of felt stagnant. So I bought a building, thinking that I could create a professional theater company that did new plays, because that’s how I was brought up at Circle Repertory Company in New York City Off Broadway. So I did it. It helped me; creatively, I was awakened and turned myself into a playwright and really enjoyed it, and also created a creative home for people who are pros ... and maybe didn’t get the breaks I did, but were still good. It also provided a place for that 21-year-old kid, who I used to be, who didn’t have this place, who didn’t have really good actors who were able to teach me what I needed to know before I went to New York. I just got in the car and went to New York at 21. So now that kid, he or she, now has a place where really good people can make him or her better. It’s a big fat giveback, and it’s also helped the community. Rocco Landesman, the head of the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts], came out last March. He was doing a nationwide tour of arts organizations, and he just looked at our theater and this town, the way we bring 40,000 people a year into this two-stoplight town. There are restaurants and art galleries, and bookshops, and western cowboy boot stores, and on and on and on, that are thriving because of the 40,000 that are walking around with wallets and purses before they go see a show. So he said, “This is a model for what the arts can do economically and culturally for a community.” He had me go to Washington and testify before Congress on behalf of the NEA in April. It was a great honor. In a way the theater has done a lot for me, but it has probably done a lot more for the community and for the people that are inside it.