The Fogged Clarity Interview
Acclaimed actor and musician Jeff Daniels talks about his upcoming work, his love for the theatre, and his latest album, Keep it Right Here.
TRANSCRIPTION BY KIRSTEN CLODFELTER
Ben Evans: I’m Ben Evans, and you’re listening to Fogged Clarity. This evening, I’m speaking with actor and musician Jeff Daniels. Mr. Daniels is perhaps best known for his work in films like Terms of Endearment, Dumb and Dumber, Gods and Generals, and The Squid and the Whale; however, he’s also the founder and the Executive Director of the Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea, Michigan, and an acclaimed touring songwriter. As a musician, he’s recorded five albums, the most recent of which, Keep It Right Here, was released late last year. Jeff, thanks for joining me.
Jeff Daniels: Sure.
BE: Well, now that you’ve had your foot in both worlds for awhile, how have you found acting and making music to differ as expressive outlets?
JD: Well, in my case, the biggest difference is that I write everything. It’s a one-man show—there’s no band; it’s just me and a guitar. So, it’s a bit like a one-man show with no band. I’m the director, I’m the editor, I’m the writer, I’m the studio, I’m the marketing—everything. I don’t mind that. I don’t mind that creative control over what I do. As an actor, you’re always at the service of somebody else’s vision. In a play, it’s more of the director’s vision, and he or she’s got their hands on you all the way up to opening night, and if it’s a film, there are even more people. The Director, as you’re shooting it, you give him five different takes on how to do a certain thing—five variations on it—and then they take that away, and then a year later you go to the premiere and you find out what they did with what you gave them. You kind of do it and give it to them and watch them walk away with it. So, I like the creative control of the music. I like not being told what to write or what to do. The older you get, and the more you’re in this business, the more you kind of feel like, “Why don’t we just do it my way.” Those are the biggest differences. The similarity is that it’s creative. It’s all part of that big creative process that starts with a blank page or an actor sitting there going, “How am I going to pull this character off?” Or a songwriter with, “Should I start in the key of G or A?” Or, “What’s this song going to be about?” It’s the journey of creating something that ends up being finished.
BE: You make mention of it in your song, “If William Shatner Can, I Can Too.” Do you feel as if you’re afforded more leeway as a musician because of your big-screen fame?
JD: When I wrote that, that was nine or ten years ago. That was just me getting ahead of the critics, or even those that were going, “Okay, another actor sings. Great. Terrific. Very exciting.” It was me acknowledging the big elephant in the room, which is that I’m known for something else, and you’re paying money to see me not do that. So, it was me sort of going, “Look, I know. I got it, but I’ve been doing this a long time, but if you bear with me, after fifteen minutes you won’t think you wasted your money.” I know there are people, if I go into a market or a city for the first time, there are people that are there that just want to see the famous person, or the guy from Dumb and Dumber or whatever movie they liked. And that’s fine, it gets them in the door, but then it’s my job to give them something different.
BE: How difficult is it to present yourself—you as the person—and erase all of those preconceptions people have of you, when you take the stage as a musician?
JD: You know, it’s really strange now with the Internet, with everyone having an unsolicited, anonymous opinion. I don’t spend a lot of time reading comments—first of all, I don’t Google myself; my wife does that far too much—but everybody’s got an opinion, and everybody’s got things to say about you, so the perception of who I am is so screwed up, it’s not even like it’s controlled. It depends on what blog you read or what website you read, I guess. Hopefully it’s more positive than negative, but as the guy that is the subject of that sometimes, you just throw up your hand and go, “Fuck it.” There’s nothing I can do about it. So you just walk out there and go, “Guess what, you don’t know me. You may think you do, but you don’t.” And I’ve said this before, if you wanted to get to know me, you should probably read all of my plays and listen to all of my songs. There’s more information in those than on any blog or website or interview I might have done.
BE: I’d imagine that having put yourself out there as much as you have that a resentment or a resignation creeps in.
JD: The resignation creeps in. I’m not even a guy that they take shots at—I’m not a tabloid guy. Nobody has to sign their name. They can say whatever they want and they can have a username. It’s great fun unless you’re famous.
BE: Yeah, I heard a great comedic rant on that just today, actually.
JD: Louis Black, I hope.
BE: No, no, if you haven’t heard Bill Burr, he’s been on Fogged Clarity before.
JD: I’ll look him up.
BE: He’s hilarious. You’ve been a great advocate for the arts in Michigan over the years, and a lot of Great Lakes imagery finds it way into your songs. Can you talk about how your affection for the state developed?
JD: Initially, in some of the earlier CDs I was writing about home and liking it here. I also didn’t think the CDs would sell beyond Southeastern Michigan or the state of Michigan, so I wrote about Michigan. Since I’ve done a little bit of that, I’ve kind of gotten away from that a little bit in some of the later stuff, though it still pops up. But, you know, it’s home. Especially now that economically we’re in such trouble, and we still are, and in a way we became the laughing stock, and we were certainly viewed with great pity from around the country as we went belly up. As one of the people who’s still here, I wrote stuff about wanting to still be here. This is home. This is who we are, this is what we are, and many people had to leave because they foreclosed and they had to leave, and other people just left, but for those of us who stayed, in a song like “The Michigan in Me,” it speaks to those of us who stayed.
BE: How’d you hook up with the two other musicians featured on this record, Brad Phillips and Dominic John Davis?
JD: I have great respect for a lot of the musicians who, for as long as I’ve been an actor, they’ve been chasing the whole music thing. This state is full of really great musicians, some of course have broken out, the obvious ones [are from] way back when Seger did, but Kid Rock and Eminem and Jack White and others, I suppose, but [Brad and Dominic] they’re artists. I’ve been playing around Michigan a lot, I play all over the country, but I’ve dropped into Michigan a lot, and there’s Brad Phillips at Blissfest. It’s this kind of Woodstock up near Petoskey every July, and they had me play one year, and Steppin’ In It—which is a band I’d heard and then used on a couple of songs on some CDs—they’re just great musicians. I get better playing with them; I learn from them. So, Dom was the bass player for them, and then Brad Phillips is a mandolin fiddle player who was in a band called Millish, and he kind of sat in with me at Blissfest when I played my set. Then in front of two thousand people we went out and did “The Big Bay Shuffle” and “The Ballad of the Buckless Yooper,” and you know, those guys, you just tell them the key of G and then you look at them and they do the break. It’s just fun to watch them. You know, they say it’s called playing music—it’s playing. They really made music fun. So, I took Brad on a two week tour; I was out from August until January, or December into January, and for two weeks of it in August I went down to Nashville and assorted other cities on the way down there, and I took Brad with me. That’s up on the website. There’s a five-part documentary—a forty-five-minute documentary that we broke up on the official Jeff Daniels channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/OfficialJeffDaniels) up on Youtube, and it’s me and Brad and my son Ben in this RV gigging our way down to Nashville. I enjoyed playing with him, and we came back from that tour and just went into the recording studio and put down the seven or so songs that we had done while we still had them. Then we added Dom, and then I added three more, and then I said, “We might have something that’s pretty good.” We released it in December up on the website, and we’re pretty happy with it.
BE: Are you guys getting together and playing still?
JD: We did. I do ten shows at the Purple Rose every Christmas week and New Year’s week, and I did that again this December, and I brought Brad and Dom in for all those shows. So, basically I did a solo set and then I had them come out and we played the CD. It was fun.
BE: Between the Purple Rose Theatre that you founded and are Executive Director of, and your music, are you placing your sole focus between those two things right now? Are you leaving the acting behind for awhile, or what’s the story?
JD: I love the music. I enjoy the music. The music I do, whether I’m gigging or whether I’m recording, I do that year round. And I can take that with me when I go do an acting job. The acting jobs—you don’t control that. You’re not in charge of that. The phone rings and then someone wants you. They want me this spring. So, “Oh, good. Okay.” I did a play called God of Carnage on Broadway for about a year.
BE: Yeah, you were nominated for a Tony [Award] for it.
JD: Yeah. They’re getting the original cast together. Jim Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden and Hope Davis and myself, and we’re going to do it out in L.A. in April and May.
JD: So, the music stops, except that I’ll take the guitar with me and write during the day, and you know, it’s with me all the time anyway. Then I’ll be done with that in June. There’s some things that are happening in the television world: I’m in development with Showtime on a series, and there are a couple other things that might happen when I hang up the phone. So, it’s a roller coaster of a life, I’ll tell you.
BE: I feel as if this is rather indulgent on my part, but you were phenomenal in The Squid and the Whale, I thought.
JD: Good script.
BE: I felt like I got punched in the gut when I walked out of that, and I know you did Howl with James Franco. Are there any other opportunities arising in the independent film world?
JD: The independent film world: I did a movie with a kid named Aaron Paul off of Mad Men. They shot it in Detroit, and they called up and wanted me to shoot a week on it, and so I said, “Great.” It was fun to shoot in Detroit and shoot with a Michigan crew and kind of see how much people appreciated jobs here in the industry. We’ll see what Governor Snyder and company decide about that. I think they’re going to re-title it, so I don’t know what it will be, but Aaron Paul is the star of it. Then I just finished a part on a movie called Looper with Joe Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, written and directed by a guy named Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed Brick, which he did with Joe Gordon-Levitt. Joe and I did a movie together called The Lookout.
BE: Yeah, The Lookout was excellent. I really liked that film.
JD: Yeah, it’s a really good script. It’s about time travel, so all those guys who are in to time travel are probably going to love it. It’s a very smart script, and Rian’s a really good director.
BE: You were Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s blind roommate in The Lookout, and you were excellent.
JD: Yeah, I went to the Michigan—I believe it’s called the Commission for the Blind or something—down in Kalamazoo I believe, and they were very, very helpful. I did some research down there for that movie.
BE: Are you as good a cook in real life as you are in the movie?
JD: No, no. I’ll eat anything put in front of me, but it’s got to be put in front of me.
BE: Well, as somebody who’s dedicated as much of your life to the stage as both an actor and a playwright—I think you’ve written eleven, now?
JD: I’m up to fifteen.
JD: I’m up to number fifteen. I just turned in number fifteen.
BE: Forgive me. What’s your take on the state and direction of contemporary American theater?
JD: Well, it’s always dying. Theater’s always dying. Whether Broadway or regional or wherever, it’s always dying. It’s an antiquated art form; it’s been around for hundreds of years, but it keeps surviving somehow. There’s something about a live theater performance, when it’s done right and done well, that damn near beats everything. That’s the fun of music too—is when that’s done well. It’s that, “It’s happening right in front of us, just for us,” thing, which is different than a movie or TV. I think the American theater can be exciting. I think a lot of it is boring and overly serious and important. It’s kind of like [the idea that] asparagus is good for you—eat it, and sometimes we don’t want too. Sometimes we have to find ways to get people who care less about theater in the door. So how do you do that? At the Purple Rose, we’ve used comedy to do that, and humor, and we get them in for a great night out for this comedy or whatever that’s got more too it, but still, they’re there to have a great time on a Saturday night. Then maybe they’ll come back and see that thing that isn’t as funny, that’s going to rock their world, where it’s written and blows them away. You’ve got to build an audience, and I think sometimes the American theater is a little too self-important.
BE: Yeah, perhaps much like symphony or poetry. You know, you need to have a Baroque, Brandenburg Concerto night where everyone can recognize the music. I really like the asparagus analogy; but I wonder if there’s a point as an artist where you wish it were easier to communicate with an audience and present them poignant, serious material without having to filter it through this comedic screen.
JD: Well, I think you can. I think you’ve just got to look at your audience. Marsha Norman’s a great playwright, and she said, “If you just write for yourself, you’re going to play to an audience of one.”
JD: So, look at who’s sitting in the seats. That’s what I try to do, and I tell the playwrights at the Purple Rose to do it. Write about them. Write your take on what they’re going through, what they’re familiar with. We don’t care about you. I really don’t. What I care about is you writing about those people sitting in those seats, so that when they leave this thing that they just saw—they’re changed. They’re different because of your point of view, because of what you wrote. That interests me. I think that’s the connection that I got taught in New York when I went there. They said, “If there’s no connection between the play and the audience, you have nothing.” That connection has to start at 8:00 and then when the curtain comes down, that’s when you release them. There’s an art to that, and I think when theater’s do that, instead of just at times being very self-indulgent, and back to the asparagus thing, [acting like] “What we’re doing is very important; you should enjoy this,” even me, I’m sitting in the audience going, “It ain’t affecting me. You didn’t pull me in. You didn’t do it.” There’s an art to that. It’s really hard to learn, but once you figure it out… That’s the similarity with music. When you write a song like “Grandfather’s Hat” or “The Michigan In Me,” in my case, it’s not for me. It’s for that woman out there who’s wearing her mother’s ring or her aunt’s necklace, or that guy that’s staying in Michigan despite the fact that he lost a job because his family is here, and he doesn’t know why he’s staying. It’s for them. I think that’s what good plays do.
BE: Do you have some songs that are just for you, just for Jeff Daniels, or have some plays…?
JD: Yeah, and they’ll never see the light of day. It goes into the notebook and into the archives. Do a demo recording so the kids will have it when I’m dead, but otherwise no.
BE: You made the film Escanaba in Da Moonlight. I remember watching that at Christmas with my family. Was that ever an experience you had as a young woodsman, a young hunter?
JD: No, it really wasn’t. My wife’s family hunts, and I have friends who hunt. It’s their religion. She has family in the Upper Peninsula, and we wrote the play back in ’95 for the theater. Dumb and Dumber had just been out, and we knew twelve-year-old boys would think Dumb and Dumber was funny, but we weren’t prepared for seven to seventy—that demographic. So, I said, “How do I get that crowd into my theater without writing Dumb and Dumber or something? What do I do?” What is the onus of five guys at a deer camp? There we go. Put a little flatulence in, drop a love story next to it, beer, and then it kind of made sense. It became this huge, huge Rocky Horror Picture Show of a play for us.
BE: Isn’t there a part where you go on a hallucinogenic trip?
JD: Yeah. A yooper’s version of a hallucinogenic trip.
BE: What do you prefer, if you had your druthers, would you do a role like you did in Gods and Generals or The Squid and the Whale, a more serious role, or something like you played in Dumb and Dumber?
JD: All of the above. I love the variety; I love mixing it up. I guess what I really like is working with people who are really good who have been doing it a long time, or who are legitimate and on their way up. Rian Johnson and Joe Gordon-Levitt were the reasons I took the movie last week.
BE: And Eisenberg, who you worked with in The Squid and the Whale.
JD: Jesse, yeah. Jesse’s going to the party next week. I just like working with really good people. After fifty movies or so, that means I’ll be challenged. That the script is good, that I don’t quite know how to do it, so I’ll have to focus. I’m just not one of these guys that comes in and [says], “Could you just do what you did for that other movie, can you do it for us?” You know, where you play to an image. That bores me. That’s what I look for—people that I’ve either worked for and loved it, or respect, and suddenly they want me to do such and such. Then I get excited again.
BE: Great. Well hey, Jeff, thanks for taking the time. I really appreciate it, and best of luck.
JD: Thanks Ben.
BE: Take care.
JD: Take care.