Jeff Daniels is one busy actor these days, playing incommunicative fathers, in this week’s family drama Because of Winn-Dixie and the recent Sundance hit, The Squid and the Whale. Though he has never achieved the high profile or widespread acclaim of a Robert De Niro, Jeff Daniels ranks as one of Hollywood’s most versatile leading men and over his career he has played everything from villains and cads to heroes and romantic leads to tragic figures and lovably goofy idiots, in movies of almost every genre. Daniels has also worked extensively on television and stage, where he first distinguished himself by winning an Obie for a production of Johnny Got His Gun.
Daniels made his screen debut playing PC O’Donnell in Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1981). His breakthrough came when he was cast as Debra Winger’s inconstant husband in Terms of Endearment (1983). Daniels has subsequently averaged one or two major feature films per year with notable performances, including: his memorable dual portrayal of a gallant movie hero/self-absorbed star who steps out of celluloid to steal the heart of lonely housewife Mia Farrow in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo (1984); his turn as a man terrified of spiders who finds himself surrounded by them in the horror-comedy Arachnophobia; and his role as Union officer Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, who led his troops into doom in Gettysburg (1993). In 1994, Daniels took a radical turn away from drama to star as one of the world’s stupidest men opposite comic sensation Jim Carrey in the Farrelly brothers’ hyperactive Dumb and Dumber. This lowest-common-denominator comedy proved one of the year’s surprise hits and brought Daniels to a new level of recognition and popularity.Since then, Daniels has alternated more frequently between drama and comedy. His television credits include a moving portrayal of a troubled Vietnam vet in a Redwood Curtain. Daniels still maintains his connection to the stage and manages his own theatrical company, which keeps the actor busy and focused, through his labour of love, the Purple Rose Theatre. Though he continued to appear in such films as Fly Away Home (1996) and Pleasantville (1998), Daniels made his feature directorial debut with the celluloid translation of his successful stage comedy Escanaba in da Moonlight (2000). A modest regional success, Daniels would subsequently appear in such wide releases as Blood Work and The Hours (both 2002) before returning to the director’s chair for the vacuum-salesman /comedy Super Sucker (also 2002). Later reprising his role as Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain from Gettysburg, Daniels once again went back in time for the Civial War /drama Gods and Generals (2002). Daniels also stars in Imaginary Heroes, opening this week. In this exclusive interview, Daniels talked to Garth Franklin .
Question: Talk about your Sundance experience.
Daniels: I was barely there, you know, and it wasn’t about being seen, you know.
Question: No, no, no, no.
Daniels: Didn’t do a very good job. I didn’t go to Snoop Dog’s thing, you know, I didn’t do what I was supposed to do. I kind of swagged and then left.
Question: Swagged and then left?
Question: My God. Us poor hardworking journalists don’t get any of that.
Daniels: I know, and trail with me a little bit and you know I’ll throw you some boots. It’s just obscene. We don’t understand it either trust me.
Question: What do you get?
Daniels: Was I in the room where I went through when I got – were you in that room.
Question: No, no.
Daniels: You get
Question: I know other journalists do play that game, I just don’t have time.
Daniels: Well, it’s. you get all kinds of stuff. You get Frye boots – would you like some Frye boots?
Question: I want to get the Motorola, the Motorola.
Daniels: The Motorola? The razor phone. You get the razor phone. I know my oldest boy had always wanted a razor phone, and now here is a razor phone which is like this thin and whatever, and Converse sneakers and Lee jeans and North Face and Fred Siegel stuff, and all of the face cream you could ever want, and like I’m into face cream, and this wonderful little thing – this, I got a purple Rosita cup, so I got this little purple, some however much money. We figure we came home with 10-grand worth of stuff. But, you realize that they aren’t paying you – not that we would call me up and go ‘we want you to be the spokesperson for such-and-such a product’, but they all take a picture of you wearing their thing or holding up the Frye boots or whatever, which I’m happy to do, I mean I’ve been doing this a long time and, um, we live in the Midwest, we aren’t used to this, so Kathleen and I were like thanking them. We like sent them thank-you notes and all this stuff.
Question: .a wedding gift.
Daniels: Well, we don’t know. But then there are other actors who are coming in acting like they are entitled, you know; and not very many. You know, everybody’s really good about it, but you know it is a way for them to promote their products on people that, you know, might see the boots I’m wearing and go ‘Oh, I want, you know, like Jeff Daniels’, and you know they sell boots that way. So, but the second place we went I understood it so I stopped feeling guilty about it. But this is isn’t something, again we live in the Midwest, we aren’t doing this ever other weekend.
Question: No, no, of course not.
Daniels: So we kind of enjoyed it, and it was second Christmas for us. We got home – we literally went from Fred Siegel and all of that is to Wal-Mart on the way to the airport because we had to get three huge suitcases to transport all of this crap. We got home and the kids were, ‘Oh, my God, oh, my God.’ They waited up, and out it went on the table and, you know. I was trying on stuff that – you know, Kathleen is going like ‘try the blue one with the fur collar’ – what? – ‘the blue coat with the fur collar’. I’m going, I’m not even going to wear that – it’s not for you, it’s not for you. You know, I give my middle son – he gets this wonderful blue coat with a fur collar, and you are trying it out for him. You know, the whole family scored.
Question: At least you were there with a movie you could be proud of.
Daniels: Well. there’s that too, and that’s the same thing with the junket, you know. I mean, if you have to junket something that you don’t believe in or that you’re not passionate about.
Question: You’ve done that before, right.
Daniels: On occasion, and once you do that then you find reasons not to be available, but for the most part I’ve always come out for stuff that was either good for me or I actually thought was good and had accomplished what it set out to do. Sundance is the same thing. Five-thousand movies they look at – they pick 150, ten of which get bid on and get sold.
Question: Now, have you heard.
Daniels: We were one of the ten.
Question: Well, who bought it?
Daniels: I don’t know who bought it. But I keep being told that it is any minute now and it is just a matter of the final little parts of the deal. But, I’ve been told August release.
Question: Are you kind of surprised at this sort of sudden through-line of your films where you play a father who can’t communicate with his children and that whole theme of communication which runs through this trio of movies – it began with Imaginary Heroes and continues to a much more sophisticated degree I think in The Squid and the Whale, and then to a lesser degree but still there in Win-Dixie.
Daniels: I think it has to do a little bit with. I will always go back to, I got out of the gate with Terms of Endearment, and I played a flawed character, deeply flawed character, and that’s not real popular as an actor to do. You keep hearing about actors going, we need to find a speech where he’s likeable – we need to make him more sympathetic – and that’s something that you learn at star school, you know. I’ve always kind of not been too worried about that. I mean, where I’ve done those movies where I’m the protagonist and all of that, still I think later on in the career am happy to be supporting, and sometimes those supporting characters are in this case the dysfunctional father, or the father with issues, and fine. I think it is a little bit coincidental. I wouldn’t say that there is, um, some concerted effort to find those roles. I think because maybe because I get on that list of guys who might be good for this is because of that flawed character thing that has kind of been throughout the career, and certainly started me out. I think I have always had that attached to me.
Question: And you can tap into those characters with a great deal of ease because of your own fatherhood?
Daniels: I think you are always learning as a parent, as a father, how to father, how to parent/how not to. You know, you make – you do it right, you do it wrong every day. You try to do it right every day. And then you get a guy who you are going to play and inhabit who does it wrong, and so I think having the experience of having worked so hard to do it right more often than not in my own life, I think I draw on that. And sometimes it’s like, well I certainly wouldn’t have done that but this guy did, so you – in a way it’s easier to go that wrong direction.
Question: I think this performance in Squid and the Whale is probably one of the most extraordinary performances I have ever seen you give on film.
Daniels: Well, thanks.
Question: And, it seems to me that you have the great fortune of having a script that is just magnificent.
Daniels: Yes. Noah Baumbach can write, flat out write; and. man, it’s a tough business and you are only as good as the parts they let you play, and there are a lot of really good actors out there who don’t get good parts, and this is a good part; and however it came to me, it came to me, and if you can score with it and bring it to life like Noah and I were able to do I will get more of them, you know.
Question: Out of all of those disconnected fathers, do you think this was the one that was the furthest from you?
Daniels: Yea, because there is an ego here that.
Question: He is full of ego, isn’t he?
Daniels: Full of ego. There is an obliviousness to what this guy is. I mean in a way he doesn’t – there are moments when he cracks. There are moments when Bernard, you kind of think maybe for a second he is going to see how inept he is, what damage he’s done, and then he doesn’t. He’s just truly oblivious; and you know, I met Noah’s father, and it is based on his father, and he is a novelist and his idea of what his career is isn’t necessarily what his career is outside of his own mind. The eccentricities of the little flares of ego that come out – it was a fascinating character study, and you could see it in Noah’s reaction to him. Noah was just maddening sometimes – but there is an obliviousness to how he is perceived and how he comes off, and he is not hurtful, you know, at least the real guy in what I had to do with him, but he at the end of. you know, I mean he doesn’t change. Protagonists inherently change – but this guy does not change, and I think that is part of the frustrating charm of him. I mean, as he is laying on that gurney at the end, you know, he is doing this thing about some, you know, movie, French film, and ‘you calling me a bitch’ [??]. ‘no, no, no, that thing, you remember that thing’ – he’s having his death scene, you know, sort of, because ‘I’m gonna be okay, but I’m going to have my death scene. Isn’t it great that I get to have my death scene’. And Laura has got to sit there and go, ‘just get him in the ambulance’, you know.
Question: I mean, a studio film would never have been able to do that, would they. I mean, if it had been a mainstream film they would have had to have made him slightly more of a growth thing.
Daniels: The moment where he is in the house and he’s looking up, ‘yea, she kept some of your books’ and you’re looking up – ‘Dad, just a minute.’ That’s just a crack, that’s just a little bit of a moment, but it’s a crack. You know, that there’s still a love there, there’s still whatever – and in a mainstream movie would have probably had a speech. We would have probably had a speech but no doesn’t come off it and sometimes people aren’t very pretty.
Question: Now Winn-Dixie is a fairly conventional family film with degrees of unconventionally strung within it, were you reluctant to do a mainstream film were you happy to get the opportunity to do something that is at least a little bit different to norm?
Daniels: Um, I wanted to work, I wanted to work on something good but also wanted to work…
Question: And get paid for it, or not?
Daniels: Well, or not. Sometimes the money is differed and it is a different deal now you know, there are who guys who make 25 million a movie and then there is the rest of us. There is really no middle class anymore with the salary structure. I was very happy to do that movie with promise you might get paid later and I am hoping that is the case, still you always want to do something even when you have to work I’ve got to keep working, you know it is my job, my livelihood you want it to be good and this came along and a family film can have a negative connotation to an actor who wants to be a serious actor and this and that but I have done a few of them and they are of great value to a lot of people. So Wayne Wang I had never worked with Wayne, I really liked the part and I thought it attacked, it was a complex role in the middle of a family film, I really liked that about it and I loved the fact that the story already worked based on the success of the book and I went after it. I flew out to L.A with my own money and met with Wayne and said I want to do this I can really nail this and thankfully he said yes and then as we went here comes Eva Mary Saint here comes Cicely, here comes Dave Matthews and suddenly it went beyond this little family film to this could be a bigger release for Fox. Then we shot it, which became Wayne Wang’s vision, which I loved and now we’ve got something that looks pretty good. It has turned out great, it has turned out great for me but I really liked the role and I mean you now as an actor whose not offered every script that is being made you find a good role you grab it or you fight for it.
Question: Was there a point where you could have been that person that is offered more scripts?
Daniels: Oh yeah.
Question: Cause Dumb and Dumber was huge success, there was that part of your career…
Daniels: But before that you know…
Question: You know Purple Rose.
Daniels: Yeah, right around Purple Rose and Something Wild, though Something Wild was not a success but still I was in a position probably to be one of the next big things. But I didn’t want that and whether I was scared of that or… I wanted to be married, I wanted to raise my kids in the Midwest, I didn’t want to be on my third marriage at the age of 50, I didn’t want to live in L.A. There were a lot of things I didn’t want to do that didn’t go with being the next big thing. So I did a couple of independent films because I grew up off Broadway those kind of off beat stories Checking Out was a movie I loved making, Grand Tour, Disaster In Time these are movies that did nothing I mean 6 people saw them but I loved making them. That ‘Next Big Thing’ went away and now I am living in the Midwest and I remember doing Arachnophobia going I want to be in a movie that people actually see and I started doing some more commercial work which paid for the house the kids college, which help fund that theatre starting out and I kind of use the career to do the things in my life which I really wanted to do I became a hired gun.
Question: Which you are still doing?
Daniels: Which I am still doing, and happy to do, happy to do it – it is how I make my living; and occasionally, you know, whether it is a Winn-Dixie or Squid and the Whale comes along and critics or the industry gets excited about me terrific, great, you know.
Question: Now, I take it the music is not going to take over your acting career, I mean.
Daniels: No, but it’s there and I enjoy it a lot. I enjoy it a lot; but no, as long as the – if the acting career were over, yea, I’d be out there even on the coffee house circuit or the club circuit doing that thing. The CD, what it is, the intent behind it – I’m not trying to be the Bacon Brothers or Robert Downey, Jr., I’m really not. I mean, I would have been doing this a hell of a lot earlier than now. I got to raise half-a-million a year for my theatre company, and we have rolled me out on that stage every Christmas/New Year’s weeks – this is the fourth year we’ve done it, and it sells out. We do 8-10 shows, we did 10 shows this year, 170 seats, and we sell out in a week.
Question: The Company doesn’t get public funding at all I take it.
Daniels: No. We don’t get state.
Question: There’s no state arts funding in Michigan, or it doesn’t exist in this country.
Daniels: Well there is but we don’t go for it.
Question: Because in Australia it’s very popular and every state has funding.
Daniels: Yea, in Europe the arts are much better supported. We are – the state of Michigan has state funding but we never took it, and we always raised it privately or with events, or in this case the CD. I mean we – I do the 10 shows at my theatre company where I walk out and entertain them for an hour-and-a-half or two hours and we raise 90 grand in those ten shows, and I’m free and there it is and we make budget. The CD will bring in thousands of dollars – we are just starting to roll this thing out, and that’s found money for us. And it’s not me trying to be Bob Dylan, it’s – you’ll hear. We just did the ten shows. There is a lot of new material there. We have enough for another CD. So, I don’t give a damn if I ever end up on television with a guitar, but if my theatre company ends up making half-a-million dollars on this CD, mission accomplished.
Question: And you’re doing a play next.
Daniels: I wrote a play.
Question: Right, which is not going to come out for another year, right. You’re not performing that for another year.
Daniels: There is a play called Gastardis that is going to a year from now that I wrote. There is a play that we just put up at the Purple Rose that I have been writing off and on for five years. It just opened last week.
Question: This is the one we talked about in Toronto actually.
Daniels: Yea, yea. Norma and Wanda – that’s a big hit, a big comedy, big hit. Very happy with that.
Question: Any other films coming out? Are you about to do the Truman Capote thing are you?
Daniels: Coming out, no. I mean Squid will come out in August that really hasn’t come out yet. The Truman Capote film we are going to shoot, and the phones – because of Squid and the Whale at Sundance – the phone is ringing again.