For an actor who describes himself as “under the A list,” Jeff Daniels has been this summer’s hot ticket actor.
The veteran of some 50 films, Daniels is currently starrings in four new movies, including Sam Mendes’ highly acclaimed Away We Go and the indie charmer entitled The Answer Man currently playing in theaters, plus Paper Man now wowing the festival circuit, and the much anticipated Alan Ginsburg drama, Howl, in the works.
Not only that, Daniels was nominated for a Tony for his work in God of Carnage, the most acclaimed hit play on Broadway this year.
LANGFIELD: You’re career longevity is very well-established, but what’s the secret to this sudden rush of super success?
DANIELS: I think it’s because I’ve really held out for good writing. Writing is a craft that’s been around with us since the Greeks. It’s not going to go away. For me, I don’t have a lot of patience so I need to dig in to something — a script — that really interests me. Otherwise I get bored. And, if I get bored, so, I assume, will other people.
You know, this is qute a confusing time to be an actor. The summer’s special effects movies are all directed towards kids. And, with all the success of TV reality shows, it’s much cheaper for producers to go with that kind of project than to put out a decent movie. What it really comes down to is a question of distribution — and how to get the movies people want to see to the people who want to see them.
We older people — audiences — aren’t afraid to try new things. I mean, who wants to go to a theater and watch commercials for half an hour? There are alternatives. I’ve actually got Benjamin Button on my I Phone and I’m going to watch it on my I Phone. I’m fine with that.
Technology is a very important part of life for everyone. Has it impacted your life as an artist? For instance, you’re performing on a stage eight times a week in front of a house packed with people who may have forgotten to turn off their cell phones.
DANIELS: Yeah and texting is the new cocaine. It doesn’t really bother me so much. But one night while I was on stage, I did hear the William Tell Overture go off three times in the audience.
And you don’t want to be the guy who forgot to turn off your phone, with everybody giving you dirty looks. Look, I’m good friends with Patti Lupone, who was recently caught on cell phone video raging at a disruptive audience member. She’d just had it. It’s tough. But now, with everyone having a camera in a pocket, it’s easy to get taped and you don’t want to be on You Tube, losing it.
You’ve always been very careful about your public persona.
DANIELS: After Dumb and Dumber, it got bigger. You’re aware that people are looking at you. I mean people recognize me from Terms of Endearment or Squid and the Whale, but with Dumb and Dumber, you knew you went through a door that was shut behind you. Things would never be the same.
That sounds pretty ominous.
DANIELS: Yeah, well that’s when I picked up and moved back to my hometown in Michigan.
You’ve recently worked with some very “hot” upcoming actors like James Franco, Ryan Reynolds and Jon Hamm. Do they ever ask about how you maintain a normal life?
DANIELS: No, not really. I just kind of do what I do and I guess they can see that. I’m not part of the scene. I’m not in the gossip columns, I don’t party or that kind of thing. I worked with an actress a little while back who said to me “You just don’t care.” And I said, “I care. I just don’t care about the same things you do.”
That sounds like it was a fun conversation.
DANIELS: Not really. She and I did not have good chemistry.
Look, you want to get along with the people you work with. But more than that, I want to be respected. I mean all actors want to walk into a room with other actors and have those people think they’re good. That’s a great pay off.
Do you have that special rapport with the actors who share the stage with you in God of Carnage? Like James Gandolfini. How is it to work with him?
DANIELS: We are really good friends. The four of us — Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, Jim Gandolfini and me — we are a team. We look out for each other. But it was really Jim who got the show to go. He was the star who made it happen. And he has used this opportunity. He really wanted to leave Tony Soprano and the whole phenomenon of The Sopranos behind. It was a real burden for him. Look, he had a reputation and some of it was deserved. Bad behavior and things like that. But you can’t get away with not showing up or being late when you’re doing eight shows a week. He has worked really hard. He still works really hard. He is so generous and he cares. We just talked about how, you know, we’re older and eight shows a week is tough and Jim insisted we not phone it in. He has really turned his life around and he is just a joy.
Is it really true that after your Oscar campaign for The Squid and the Whale failed, you decided you’d never try to win an Academy Award nomination again?
DANIELS: Yep. I love my work but, man, that was brutal. Do you know what it’s like? Months, like five months traveling around, going to festivals and screenings and going out to LA to do all the talk shows. And then you HAVE to get the Golden Globe. You get the Globe and ok, they’ll put another bunch of money into the campaign to get you to the Oscars. But, no Globe, forget it. I was sitting at the table that night and Joaquin Phoenix won and that’s ok but everybody just kind of turned away. And I was thinking is there anything else I can do to help this film?
But it was great, too. I was exhausted. We all were. We’d see each other on the circuit and compare notes. Are you going here? Are you going there? But I met some great people and there’s no question The Squid and the Whale awards success — although there was no Oscar — bought me another ten years in this business.
Well. you’ve always got your music, too….
DANIELS: Yeah, I just started doing that in public really. I’ve been writing and performing privately for like 30 years. I actually only took it out to the public to support my Purple Rose of Cairo Theater Company in Michigan. We had a dark house during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays and I knew a lot of people were around and we needed to raise some money.
But it’s amazing about the music. I really do it because it’s terrifying. You’re out there naked. It’s all just you and yours. There’s no hiding. Now, of course, I’ve come up with a persona, a version of me who gets up there and performs. I’ve learned to craft a show. And that helps. But I think the music is the purest thing I do. It’s so creative and such a push for me. I told you. I don’t like to get bored.
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