Jeff Daniels the actor makes way for Jeff Daniels the musician

Serious and seriouser

Nov 22, 2017 at 1:00 am
Jeff Daniels.
Jeff Daniels. Courtesy photo

From a contentious novelist-turned-regretful family man, to an insufferable ever-placating news anchor, to a lovingly dim-witted dog groomer, Jeff Daniels the actor is a man of many roles. But it is perhaps that of the singer-songwriter, arts advocate, husband, and father residing in Chelsea, Mich. that requires the most agility. The truth is, it's not easy being Jeff Daniels.

When you talk to Daniels, now 62 years old, most topics circle back to the importance of failure and duality. He refers often to the work ethic of the Midwest as the backbone of his success. Rarely does the Emmy Award winner crack a joke (or laugh at yours). Instead, he navigates the conversation with a piercing austerity that is more lecture than it is banter. For anyone who grew up with the slapstick buffoonery of Daniels' mid-'90s notoriety, his somber tone serves as a reminder of just how unfunny 2017 is.

"I will not be one of those actors that repeats what he did in five movies just to make money. If all I'm going to do is repeat, say, the father in The Squid and the Whale for the next 10 years, I'm out. I'm done." Daniels says. "Clint Eastwood said, 'If you can do Dumb and Dumber, you can do an independent drama called 2 Days in the Valley. You can do Blood Work.' I mean, I heard it, right out of his mouth," he says. "And it worked, and it kept me in the business while Kathleen and I raised our kids in Michigan."

After nearly 40 years of hustling his brand both onscreen and onstage, only now does Daniels feel that he is a commodity — though he is seemingly reticent to speak of himself in such terms. He is quick to credit Aaron Sorkin's 2012 short-lived HBO television drama The Newsroom for his long-awaited freedom to be selective. In fact, Daniels' suave portrayal of moderate Republican news anchor Will McAvoy earned him an Emmy award.

The Newsroom, however, was not built to last. Both Daniels and Sorkin were aware of the political drama's unstable future early on, as the show's formula was almost entirely reliant on relevancy.

"Once Aaron made a decision to relate it to real events, just a timeline of writing the script, shooting it, post-production, and then air is a minimum six months. So there's no way that, say, [with] this Texas shooting we could go into production tomorrow," Daniels explains. "We were always going to be behind."

Especially these days. "There are three things that happen every day now," Daniels says. "I think it's the same thing, the problem that Veep is up against and also House of Cards. Well, one of the problems. We just couldn't keep up. We're not a documentary. Because Aaron's such a good writer, he tends to tap a vein in people, and everyone forgets sometimes that it's fictional. I think he warned people."

During a panel discussion at 2014's Tribeca Film Festival, Sorkin did more than warn. He may have predicted the future. Sorkin addressed the Tribeca audience and apologized for The Newsroom's relationship with reality. "I think that there's been a terrible misunderstanding," he confessed to the audience. "I set the show in the recent past because I didn't want to make up fake news. It was going to be weird if the world that these people were living in did not in any way resemble the world that you were living in." In that way, Sorkin may have coined the term "fake news" long before President Donald Trump entered it into the common parlance.

"There's a line, and some of you [the media] are crossing it. Then, the election happened, and that line went away," Daniels says. "Next thing you know, Trump's president, and the media can't figure out why that happened. Speculation is news now."

During the same week in 2014, Daniels' carefully planned quest for versatility materialized as The Newsroom launched its third and final season and Daniels reprised his role as Harry Dunne for the big screen in the Farrelly Brothers' sequel to Dumb and Dumber.

"If you're able to do comedy, you should. It's a smaller target to hit if you're going to retain believability," Daniels explains. "That's what I tried to do with Harry Dunne. The guy had an IQ of eight. Whatever that means to anybody, but it meant something to me."

The quirky gross-out comedy sequel raked in nearly $170 million worldwide, but Daniels set his sights on something a bit more serious: no-man's land.

"In 40 years, I haven't done anything like this kind of character," Daniels says of Frank Griffin, the merciless outlaw in Godless. Created by Scott Frank (Logan, Minority Report) and Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's Eleven, Traffic) the seven-episode Netflix original series, which airs Nov. 22, explores the Wild West through a feminist lens. Set in La Belle, New Mexico, a town operated by an all-women population encounters turbulence when menace Griffin gallops into town.

"You know, bad guys never think they're bad. This guy may know that he's not always right, but he does what he feels he has to do. Whatever strengths a character has, you look for the weaknesses, and you try to flesh them out so that it's not just a one-note hero or a one-note bad guy," Daniels says.

Far from a one-note man himself, it's no surprise that Daniels has another gift stashed away in his artillery of creative outlets. In fact, he can play more than a few notes and can carry a tune, too. Though he says it was never his intention to take his skills from the back porch to the stage or recording studio, Daniels the musician wrestles with a completely unique narrative: his.

"One of the first [songs] I wrote was, 'If William Shatner Can, I Can Too,'" Daniels says. "It comes down to risking failure. Music is something I can do without waiting for someone in New York or L.A. to decide they want me to be an actor again. You don't get everything you want, you know? Hanks gets it or Brad Pitt or Chris Cooper."

Daniels, who founded the Purple Rose Theatre Company in his hometown of Chelsea in 1991, had only ever used music as a tool to become a better writer. Surrounded by playwrights as he scoured New York for acting opportunities, the guitar was only ever meant to keep him sane. It wasn't until the Purple Rose Theatre needed to raise money in 2001 that they accidentally discovered Daniels' musical secret.

"They figured, 'Put the celebrity in a chair with his guitar, open his little diary of songs, and sing something,'" Daniels jokes. "'We'll be able to raise money. Doesn't have to be any good. They just want to see you.'"

Fast forward to now. The Purple Rose Theatre Company is thriving and Daniels has a whole new life, with its own soundtrack. With more than six records, Daniels says performing live has become second-nature. "I've seen the world while standing still," he croons on "Holy Hotel" from 2014's Days Like These. Though he leans heavily on his folksy storytelling sensibilities and the melancholic use of his acoustic guitar, he keeps audiences on their toes, throwing in blues-infused electric riffs and guttural vocals alongside intimate musings.

"I saw Springsteen on Broadway a few weeks ago, and I was fascinated by the reveal. He let you in," Daniels recalls. "I think it's a bit interesting, this tour. With music, they will listen if you set it up right. You don't always have to entertain them, which is what, for a lot of years, I feel like I've been obligated to do."

Jeff Daniels is not an easy read. Humble and stringent. Focused yet playful. Cunning yet seemingly completely unaware of his own status. An embodiment of Midwestern straightforwardness, nobody could accuse Daniels of pulling Hollywood bullshit. And even if he did, who could blame him? After all, he's paid his dues.

"This show's going to travel and we're refining the hell out of it," he says. "I think I've found what I want to do."

Jeff Daniels performs on Saturday, Nov. 25 at the Michigan Theater; 603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8397;; Doors at 8 p.m.; Tickets start at $35.