“I was always writing songs,” Jeff Daniels said when he called a couple of weeks ago, “godawful bad songs. I kept them in a notebook.”
Daniels is a movie star. Roles in films like Terms of Endearment, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Dumb and Dumber, 101 Dalmatians, Pleasantville, Good Night and Good Luck and The Squid and the Whale have made him a popular screen presence while revealing his wide range as an actor. But he had telephoned me riding on a tour bus traveling from his hometown of Chelsea, Michigan, to a gig in Norman, Oklahoma, to talk about music and an upcoming concert this Friday night at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts.
“I moved to New York in 1976,” he replied when asked how long he’d been playing. “I was twenty one years old. I bought a guitar and took it with me and said I’m gonna learn how to play. The guitar really was just the friend thing in the corner. Also, it became a diary.”
As his acting career took off, he continued to hone his chops while filling his notebook with original songs. But he rarely played them for others. Then seven years ago he was persuaded to perform a few at a fundraiser to benefit the Purple Rose Theatre Company, a repertory company he had started in Chelsea in 1991.
“The guitar was a place that I could go write,” he explained. “There was never any pressure to be any good. It was something I was really interested in and I just kept doing. So there was this notebook of songs from over the last thirty years. It was only when the Purple Rose needed to raise some money—as we always do—seven years ago during Christmas week and New Year’s week, when we were dark between shows. I just said there are people around the area who are looking for something to do; what can we do that’s cheap?
“And they said, ‘We saw you play in a bar once when [playwright] Lanford [Wilson] made you get up and do it. Why don’t we push you out on stage with a guitar and you play some of your songs?’
“I said, ‘but they’re bad!’ And they said, ‘It doesn’t matter. We’re just selling tickets and raising money!’
“I worked really hard just to be presentable. The second year it got better; the third year I kind of understood what I was doing. That’s the year we recorded most of the first CD. That third year there was an agent who saw me and said, ‘You could do this if you wanted to. You could take it beyond Michigan.’ And I’m stunned that the songs travel. I really enjoy doing it. Creatively it’s the purest thing I do because there’s no editor, there’s no studio, there’s no director. It’s just you.”
And he’s very good. Though he kicked off that first CD with a song called “If William Shatner Can, I Can Too” that gently jokes actors’ attempts at music making, Daniels is a fine blues-inflected finger-picking guitarist whose original songs run the gamut from humorous to poignant. His recordings more than hold their own, and his years as an actor have made him an entertaining live performer.
“I know how to hold an audience for an evening,” he acknowledged. “The set builds and there’s a lot of comedy in it. I try to make ‘em laugh harder than they have in a long time, and that sets up the more serious stuff—you can slide those in and they have even more of an impact. That’s the playwright helping the songwriter. The playwright knows how to soften an audience up and then really land with that [serious] song. It’s been fascinating for me to work the show into something that I can take anywhere.”
Though he’s a bona fide movie star, Jeff Daniels comes across as a genuinely nice guy. He’s married to his high school sweetheart and lives in the small town where his father and brother run a lumber company.
“It’s always been home,” he said of Chelsea, a town of about 5,000 that’s located fifteen miles west of Ann Arbor. “I was in New York when the movies started to happen in the early ‘80s. After ten years in New York we had a two-year old boy, and Kathleen and I knew we were going to have more kids. We didn’t want to go to L. A. We did not know how to raise kids out there. So we thought, ‘why don’t we just go back home to Michigan where both our extended families are. We know how to raise kids there; we were both raised there. I’ll be an actor who flies out of Michigan.’ And thankfully it’s worked.”
It’s worked very well. He has had a remarkable run in film and television:
“I still pinch myself at the people that I have worked with. To go from Meryl Streep to Jim Carrey to Robin Williams to Woody Allen—I just shake my head.”
I wondered if he could pick his favorite role thus far.
“No,” he said after giving it some thought. “But I can select pieces of them. The Little Round Top sequence of Gettysburg will always mean a lot to me and to most everyone who’s seen it. The Purple Rose of Cairo was a huge movie for me, the way I got it and the fact that it was two leading roles in a Woody Allen movie. And halfway through that movie, Woody Allen told me I was good. For a young actor, from that moment on I thought I could make a living in this business: if it’s good enough for Woody, it’s good enough for everybody.
“Doing RV with RobinWilliams—it was like a three-month HBO concert, it was just endless. I spent three months cracking up. Even Dumb and Dumber—to be in the comedy workshop with Jim Carrey, to watch how precise he is, to watch how much time he puts into the scene. He really works stuff out so he can then go off and ad lib.
“The Squid and the Whale, for anyone to even see this movie is what we were wondering at the end of it. It had no distribution, Laura [Linney] and I made about twenty bucks each doing it; we just kinda crossed our fingers and hoped. And it blew up on us in a great way.”
Friday, Feb. 1 – 8:00 pm
Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts
copyright © 2008 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.