Jeff Daniels continues his career as one of Hollywood’s most respected actors, playing an unsympathetic, cynical father and recent ex-husband to Laura Linney in the already acclaimed Squid and the Whale. In this exclusive interview, Daniels talked to Garth Franklin.
Question: Clearly it was very easy for you to say yes to The Squid and the Whale,. How easy was it for you to tap into a character that can be so unsympathetic?
Daniels: Easy to say yes to. Hard to get a handle on it. I’m so thankful that Noah Baumbach who scheduled some rehearsals prior to shooting. Aside from working with the boys and work with Laura a little bit it, was a chance for me to sit down with Noah and really kind of pick his brain as to how to go about playing this guy because you’re right, off the page he comes off as unsympathetic but you can’t play that and that’s the trap, so you have to play the good things about him, or his intentions that lead him to do these things that are pompous etc and unsympathetic.
I got the chance to meet Jonathon Baumbach, Noah’s father. Some of the movie’s based on his childhood, some isn’t. but Jonathon was very helpful, just to absorb him and once I was able to kind of tap in, I had to personalise a couple of things and kind of connect with Jonathon and hopefully let that lead to Bernard and it did. Two things, one was the fact that Jonathon is a writer and I know writers and I’ve written plays myself so I understand a writers mind. When you’re writing and you really are up against finishing a draft or you’re got a deadline, you’re so self absorbed in what you’re writing that nothing else can you know, cut through that, people, family what ever. And for that takes it to an extreme: he not only is what he’s writing but it’s himself so everything becomes Bernard, which is an extension of the writer’s mind, so I was able to tap into that.
The other thing was that I have worked with a lot of friends, people who have won awards and have made twenty million a movie and I haven’t, and I’m okay with that. I moved to the mid-west knowing that that would be some of the repercussions of that one move would be that I’d lose some money and some opportunities and okay, but there is an underappreciated factor with me that is there, but with Bernard it’s really there and I kind of took that in my own life and kind of poured gasoline on it and lit the flame and then I, that sort of really had Bernard. And then some of the mannerisms of Jonathon kind of worked, teamed after that but those are the two things: the writers mind and the underappreciated factor.
Question: Even though you have kind of moved out of the industry I guess, you have taken on these kinds of really interesting smaller characters that have, seem to me, have a lot more to them then you would have found if you stayed here and gone the big Hollywood route. So in some ways do you find it’s been a double edged sword, or a double blessing or part curse to you or…
Daniels: Moving to the Midwest?
Question: Yes, but has it kind of given you the opportunity to come back and work on things that you want to do?
Daniels: Yeah and it’s been great for the family but you’re right it’s allowed me to keep a distance and in a way kind of, I wouldn’t say, but it’s sort of like it was in the seventies with the Redfords, the Hoffmans and the De Niros who you didn’t really know a lot about these guys, and I think that’s some what true of me versus some other people in the business where you’re reading about them all the time, even when they’re not shooting or not promoting something. You know with me it’s kind of, I get a comment, and you go there he is again, who is this guy, well he doesn’t in Hollywood, and I’m okay with that.
Question: You played a number of father’s lately. Why do you think it is that casting people see you in such paternal, in such a paternal way?
Daniels: I don’t know I mean a part of it’s what they do know about me and it’s that there is a family and three kids. Family is important and all that maybe that’s it, some of it’s the age. You go from playing the son to the father. You begin to grow into the role, it might be some of that you know. I mean it’s also you know, maybe what I did in Fly Away Home made it easy to cast me in Winn-Dixie. Well he’s done that before and he did it well, let’s have him do it for us.
Question: Are you now looking, are you trying to find things that are very different to those guys? Is it easy to find the good roles?
Daniels: I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but I am trying to find things that are hard to do, difficult to do. The Squid and the Whale was certainly something where I could have failed miserably. I just didn’t know how I was going to do it, when I went after it and that was kind of a challenge and it keeps you, it keeps you interested, it keeps you going to work. As an actor it keeps you interested in acting, when, you know, at my age you are doing something that you’ve never done before. It’s a great job, you know it’s a great part of this job in that there is nothing mundane about it. There can be, if you want to play the same character over and over and over; great, but I don’t and Squid and the Whale was a great, because you feel like your twenty years old again, you know being challenged by some great role.
Question: Tell me about this increasing obsession you have with ice hockey.. Where did that all spring from?
Daniels: The interest came while I was in college in the seventies and I really kind of enjoyed Detroit Redwings. I really hadn’t followed hockey, it certainly was not on television very much in the seventies except for Hockey Night in Canada which was, you know I always found myself kind of watching it, not religiously. You know I love the maple leaves on the Canadians, they’re running around on a sheet of ice chasing a puck, what are the rules, and they hate each other, wow, that’s fascinating and then when my boys got to be about eight and five they both kind of said we want to play hockey that looks like fun. We live on a lake so I made a little rink on winter and they kind of got out there with their skates and boy lets put them in some organised hockey and see if they, and they took to it and they were in it for, the oldest was in it for, I don’t know, ten/twelve years, off to college now. The other son is a senior in high school and he’s one of the captains of the hockey team. In a way it became this kind of wonderful way to connect with your kids, as any Canadian father knows. I keep telling people it’s not about the game, it’s not about the goal, it’s not about the trophy at the end of the tournament, it’s about the ride there and the ride back.
Question: So how do you feel about the whole politicisation of sports and the strikes that occur, it seems to detract from those aspects of sport that have made then, have made sport such an American, part of the American way of life?
Daniels: Well professional sports are business and I don’t know enough about the position of both sides and what money was truly being lost and what money wasn’t and whether the, the salary cap was good or bad, I don’t know enough about it. I do know that hockey is a business and businesses have to run in a way that allows them to go year to year to year. Apparently this what was had to be done and I’m just glad it’s back. I don’t go to hockey games to watch the business side of it.
Question: So what else is going on with you professionally now? Are you working at the moment?
Daniels: Not at the moment, we’re happily promoting The Squid and the Whale, I’d say that it’s the easy thing to work um so, I’m happy to do that. I, this summer I shot a movie with Robin Williams called RV, and Barry Sonnenfeld directed it.
Question: So it’s a comedy I take it?
Daniels: Oh, yeah it’s a big fat comedy. Robin and his family take a recreation vehicle trip and everything that can go wrong goes wrong.
Question: How much fun was it for you to show that side of you?
Daniels: It’s a comedy so it’s great. My god today we get to go to work and be funny or do things that are funny and when you’re working with Robin Williams it’s such a pleasure. The guy is just; there is only one of him. And I was fascinated, and it was fascinating to watch his mind work. Not only on camera but off camera particularly to watch him kind of take something and turn it into five minutes. It was fascinating.
Question: Were you able to keep a straight face during shooting?
Daniels: Yeah we had some difficulty. Cheryl Hines is in the film as Robin’s wife and Kristin Chenoweth plays my wife and the four of us, yeah there were some scenes where, it just, you know we couldn’t hang on. It was just, whatever, I can’t remember specifics but it was just so funny that and we, Kristin and I play these people that Robin and Cheryl meet at an RV park. And we live in our RV, and we home school our three kids, and we just drive around the country from RV park to RV park. We’re from Texas and we’re way too friendly, and we had a scene where we had to have them over for dinner and Robin and Cheryl can’t wait to get away from us and as they’re leaving we hear a song on the radio and go “oh my god it’s our tune, go on kids, get off and get done” and they come and bring a guitar out and a banjo and a harmonica and we played this insipid song that has you know, countless verses and Robin and Cheryl have to stand there and listen to and we’ve got little dance moves and Kristin’s doing this whole thing with a tambourine on her tits and the whole thing… And to look at Cheryl, Cheryl could barely keep a straight face. We had a great time.
Question: So after you’ve finished promoting this movie, are you going back home and taking a break? What’s going on with your theatre?
Daniels: The theatre’s doing very well I’ve written a play and we’re going to rehearsal in December with it, you know there are some things, because of Squid and the Whale and the phenomenal reaction we got to it there are some things in the works, that’s all my agents are telling me but that’s fine. I’ve been with these guys for twenty five years that’s all I need to know; we’re working on some things, okay. When they say that it means there’s some good things coming.”