Jeff Daniels began performing, somewhat reluctantly, as a sophomore in high school in the ’70s and has not stopped since. Over the past five decades, he’s appeared in fifty-seven films, fourteen television series, seven Broadway productions, and numerous off-Broadway shows. His prolific creative output extends beyond acting too: he’s written over a dozen plays and hundreds of songs; directed and produced; and toured the country as a singer-songwriter. And he has done all this from an unlikely location. Except for a few years in New York City immediately after he dropped out of Central Michigan University, Daniels has always lived in the same small town where he grew up: Chelsea, Michigan.
Daniels’s father was at various times the mayor of Chelsea and its school board president. He was also the second-generation owner of a local lumberyard, which is now co-owned by Jeff’s brother. Daniels was often cast in on-screen roles that were wholesome or a little naive, reflecting his small-town background: in 1998’s Pleasantville, as a 1950s soda fountain operator; in 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, as a wide-eyed film star within a film who leaps off the screen and into Mia Farrow’s real life; in 1986’s Something Wild, as an unwitting accomplice to Melanie Griffith’s illicit adventures. Of that Midwestern-ness, Daniels says that at first it was “either something to overcome or something to defend. And then it was something to be and not apologize for. So I didn’t change who I was, whatever that looked like to casting directors. I’m also not pretty. Handsome. I wasn’t that, and I knew I wasn’t that.”
He took a wild left turn into mainstream comedy as Jim Carrey’s sidekick in 1994’s Dumb and Dumber, which ultimately cultivated what Daniels calls a “creative fearlessness.” It’s hard to find a genre in which Daniels has not dabbled, whether as leading man or in a supporting role. He’s in romantic comedies and gritty, hard-bitten contemporary streaming series. He’s in an outer space movie, an apocalypse movie, a western, several based-on-a-true-story dramas. Daniels has played George Washington, FBI agent John O’Neill, and Apple executive John Sculley. At least four times he’s appeared on-screen as a troubled novelist or frustrated writer. He brings a gravitas to many of his roles, as he did with his Tony-nominated year-plus run on Broadway as Atticus Finch. But he’s never stopped being funny, and even tender, especially in indie films like The Squid and the Whale and Away We Go. And, largely to keep himself from being bored, he’s never stopped trying new things. This fall he’ll appear in season two of American Rust, a new adaptation of A Man in Full, as well as in an Audible Original podcast, Alive and Well Enough.
In 1991, when Daniels returned to Chelsea from New York, he founded the nonprofit Purple Rose Theatre Company, which produces world-class original and classic plays with Actors’ Equity Association casts. Daniels is the artistic director. The day he and I met in Chelsea, he planned to go into the theater after we spoke. “The theater coming back from the pandemic was hard. We had to win ’em back,” he told me. Last fall, they had a hit play—that he wrote—about pickle-ball. I asked him why he thought a comedy about pickleball was such a success. “Well, the pulse of the culture is: Make me laugh! That’s what we heard in the fall of 2022, coming out of COVID: I need to laugh. Just make me laugh about something. Anything.”
I live a few towns over from Chelsea, and he and I had met before. For this conversation—which took place before the SAG-AFTRA strike began—Daniels invited me to a big barn that he and his sons had converted into a recording studio. It’s used for his sons’ musical endeavors, and also for Daniels’s singer-songwriter work, audiobook recordings, and quick audio fixes that used to require him to fly to New York just to repair a line or two of dialogue. It’s also, apparently, a site for golf practice. A huge black net and a set of clubs occupy one wall of the live room. The entire building is worn-in and mellow in the right ways, with several shapeless couches, a snack-stocked kitchen, and a cozy upstairs writing room filled with CDs, books, framed concert posters, and at least fifty guitars installed on a rack, retail-showcase-style. We talked in the writing room, which was quiet except for the birds trilling in a tree outside.
I. “Moving for us is creating”
THE BELIEVER: I was going to ask about your guitar—singular—but you have a collection.
JEFF DANIELS: It’s more of an accumulation than a collection. There are about twelve Martin guitars, and there’s one from 1924, one from 1937. I got a whole list of them, and the serial numbers and the whole deal. I don’t go to guitar stores anymore, just because I don’t need all that. But they’re like pieces of art. Most of them appreciate in value if you take care of them. I got the guitar that I had in The Newsroom. And American Rust, the show set around Pittsburgh.
BLVR: What does having a guitar in your hands do for you that acting doesn’t?
JD: You know, I was talking to Jim Carrey. We were on one of the promotional tours for Dumb and Dumber To, and we were flying back, and I just said, “I don’t know. I think I’m done. I just don’t—I don’t know.” He goes, “You? No, you can’t quit.” He said, “We’re like sharks. We have to keep moving, and moving for us is creating. We’re wired that way.” And it’s annoying because it doesn’t ever turn off. But when you’re an actor and you’re sitting there waiting for the phone to ring, that’s what drives you nuts. You rely on other people to decide that you’re good enough to work. And that’s why the writing thing started to happen. And the music was always something I just wanted—to learn how to play acoustic guitar. I’d started out in high school musicals, right? So I really liked Arlo Guthrie and Steve Goodman and James Taylor and John Prine in the ’70s. People like Utah Phillips. Songwriting on the guitar was something I could always do to keep creatively sane. Especially early in New York, I’m sitting in one room on Twenty-Third and Seventh for two years. And I’m twenty-one. Don’t know anybody. I have Circle Rep [the Circle Repertory Company, where Daniels began as an apprentice in 1976], but I just… You’re a babe in the woods. And that guitar was my best friend.
BLVR: Waiting like that is demoralizing.
JD: I waited and waited. And so you just call your agent. You call on a Tuesday, “Hey, just, you know, checking in, checking in.” [Laughs] “Just letting you know that I’m here, you know. Anything… anything going on? Commercials, TV, anything? Any plays? No? Nothing?” And then your agent says, “Nope. Have a good weekend.”
BLVR: On a Tuesday?
JD: A Tuesday. So the guitar became a place to write. A thing that just kept me sane. And then around 2000, the acting career started to slow down, as they tend to do. When you get older, suddenly it’s “Get me a younger Jeff Daniels.” The opportunities dry up. The money gets lower. It just feels like it’s over. And so what are you gonna do now? You’re in your early fifties. Yeah, you had a great little run with Dumb and Dumber and Gettysburg. But that’s not gonna happen anymore. So I just picked up the guitar.
I looked back into the songs I’d been working on for thirty years, and I pulled out ones that could work if I were to walk onto a stage in front of two hundred people at the Ark [in Ann Arbor, Michigan] or somewhere on the folk circuit. I could be happy doing that. So I did. I’ve played for the last twenty-five years—over five hundred gigs. Even if it was fifty people—I just thought the money would be less; we’d have to get rid of some things and change the way we live—I could be creatively happy doing that.
BLVR: Engaging your mind.
JD: And then I got The Newsroom. And now suddenly you’re back in business.
BLVR: Very few actors get to do that, once they feel they’re done.
JD: Well, it’s not that you’re done. It’s that they just don’t want you anymore. Or want you in the same way. They’re done with you. That’s what the guitar did and the writing does—I’m the only one who decides when I’m done on those two things.
II. That Everyday Look
BLVR: I have done my YouTube homework [laughs] on some of your early commercials that you did in the late ’70s. First of all, you took a completely shameless approach to taking jobs for any kind of embarrassing product. There’s the deodorant, there’s Tater Tots.
JD: Tater Tots. Oh god.
BLVR: You play a college student with diarrhea in a Pepto Bismol one. And you’re amazing. You exude joy in this commercial. And you exude a little bit of your Midwestern-
ness, whether you wanted to or not, but it’s beautiful. How did you feel? Did you feel the joy that you were exuding or were you feeling, like, Thank god I got a job?
JD: [Laughs] I’d had a lot of acting classes by that point, and learned how to inhabit characters. You learn how to think like that character. Yeah, in that commercial we were five hundred college kids who had diarrhea. And I’m there telling my parents on parents’ weekend about how some of us took Pepto Bismol—and, boy, did it work! And then the father mutters, “He passes one test in college, and it was a diarrhea test.” That was a funny commercial.
BLVR: You just delivered that verbatim.
JD: I can almost remember the actor. He was a New York actor. I don’t remember his name. Grumpy old guy with a Hawaiian shirt and a camera on a strap in front of him. Probably did the scene sixty times. You know, with commercials, they overshoot the shit out of them.
BLVR: You felt good doing those commercials?
JD: Well, yes. I did an off-Broadway play as soon as I got to New York in 1976, and it got panned by the critics. I didn’t know what I was doing. I completely froze up. But an agent came down to see the guy who played my father, a guy named Jack Gwillim, a sixty-five-year-old English actor who was great in the play. I was his son who was feckless. So Jack’s agent came down, a guy named Milton Goldman at ICM, and he asked, “Who’s the kid?” So now I’m going to see an agent. And Milton couldn’t have been nicer, but one of the things he said was “We’re gonna send you down to the commercial department, see if you can make us some money. You got a look—that Midwestern look, that everyday look, not the movie star look.” And, you know, bang. I started getting commercials.
BLVR: Dandruff shampoo. Tater Tots.
JD: All of which meant I didn’t have to wait tables. I didn’t have to drive a cab in ’70s New York.
BLVR: Did you ever drive a cab?
JD: No, because I was doing commercials. You go on twenty auditions to get one. Make that forty. That’s how you make rent. They pay you every time it’s on, in thirteen-week cycles. Ten grand for a national commercial over three months was a lot of money in New York in the ’70s.
III. The Man With One Arm
BLVR: Some writers, as their careers go on, feel like their minds are being sharpened. But actors use their bodies, and the body deteriorates with age. I watched the first episode of Godless this week, and I saw you riding a horse with one hand behind your back, at whatever age you were when that show came out. I couldn’t do that, at any age. How do you ride a horse with one arm? And how do you use your body better and better as your career goes on?
JD: I think about guys like Jack Lemmon and [Robert] De Niro, who didn’t get the plastic surgery, who said, This is how old I am now. This is what I look like. And you play those roles. You don’t try to play ten years or fifteen years younger. First of all, we all already know how old you are. We can just google you.
BLVR: It’s on the internet.
JD: You’re not fooling anybody. I understand wanting to look good and not wanting to deteriorate. But, you know, Jimmy Stewart was Jimmy Stewart older. Laurence Olivier was older. This is what I look like. And so you play roles of that age. The great thing is that you are now an encyclopedia of acting—not only in front of the camera, but on set. You know how to pace yourself, how to stay ready on one and two. And an [Aaron] Sorkin speech doesn’t take you ten takes to figure out what you’re doing. If you play your age, that’s the best you’ll ever be. You know so much—far more than you did thirty years ago, when you were in such and such a movie. That was just instinct. That was just talent.
BLVR: How do you prepare for a role now?
JD: We were doing The Newsroom, the second season, and Jane Fonda emailed me. She was gonna play my boss, Leona Lansing. She said, “Tell me what to do. I hear it’s Don’t change a word, and it’s so fast.” I mean, she was going, “Help me out here. How do I do this?” I said, “At six in the morning, when you get there, you have to know it and know what you’re gonna do with it on take one.”
BLVR: You’re not turning to anybody else in those situations.
JD: Execute what was intended when they wrote it. You have to prepare. You have to memorize it and memorize it and memorize it and rep it and rep it like an athlete on a football field. In training camp, they’re throwing the same screen pass every single day. The guitar players are doing the same riff. They practice over and over and over. So now you’re not even thinking about that big Northwestern [University] speech that you gave [in The Newsroom]. You know, it’s two pages long, full of numbers and switches, and you can roll it while you’re washing dishes. You can roll it while you’re going to Whole Foods. The words roll one after another after another. Then you gotta be able to pick up the pace in The Newsroom’s case, so you’re able to roll it at Sorkin’s pace.
Now when they say, “Action,” it happens for the first time. And now you’re using the other actor, which is where half your performance is. And we’re not taught that. What we’re taught is: I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille. Me, me, me, me, me, me, me.
BLVR: You’re putting so much trust in another person.
JD: It’s true, unless you’re doing a monologue. There’s someone else in the scene. And there’s conflict because it’s drama. Drama is conflict. Every scene has to have that. You’re going back and forth. And it’s tennis, verbal tennis. How does she say that? The way she said it, do I lean in to hear it or react? [Winces] Use what she’s given you to hit it back.
IV. Where Is Funny?
JD: You have to know where funny is.
BLVR: How did you learn that?
JD: I found it going onstage in a high school musical. The sixth-grade music teacher ended up being the high school choir director—it’s a very small town. She would later pluck guys out of the chorus: “You, I need you in South Pacific.” But in sixth grade, she said, “We’re not gonna do any music today. Let’s just do skits. I’ve made up some things you can act out.” And it was improv. A couple kids did stuff. And then: “Jeff, OK, you’re a politician who’s giving a speech and your pants are falling down.” So I went up and said whatever a sixth grader says about today’s issues, thank you very much. I’m winging it on what a mayor would do, and then I started with a little tug at the belt and then just grabbing one side and continuing to talk, and then grabbing with both hands [grabs his pants, makes various horrified facial expressions]. And by the end of it, my pants looked like they weighed two hundred pounds. And I was trying to hold them up while still talking about how the community needs a road. [Laughs]
I didn’t rehearse it. She went to my parents and she said, “Keep an eye on this one.” Then later, in high school, I’m walking by after a bad basketball practice and she was waiting for me. She was doing auditions for South Pacific and she needed guys for the sailors. “Jeff!” Oh god, I thought. [Laughs] “Come here. I want you to audition for this.” You couldn’t say no to her. I got up there and they started doing “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame.” All I had to do was dance, you know? So I got up and just started doing this [rises and does a poker-faced knees-up jig around his writing room]. And I knew it looked stupid. I was a sophomore. But I never broke. Straight face. I only had two lines in the thing. Radio operator, Bob McCaffrey, two lines in South Pacific. But I did that dance. Seven hundred people from town are cracking up. You just—you know where funny is.
Not everybody knows. Well, my dad knew. My dad could tell a story. And everyone laughed. I remember being on the stairs and my parents had bridge club. Suddenly he’s stopping bridge club. He’s telling about a thing that happened at the lumber company, and it’s a ten-minute story. And all twelve people are laughing at my dad. They’re with him and he’s standing up in the middle of the room, killing. I remember just being on the stairs watching that.
V. Super Sucker
BLVR: On the subject of comedy, Super Sucker is one of the great funny movies of our time, and one of the great feminist movies.
JD: God, I wish I’d sat down and said, I’m gonna write a feminist film. But it is!
BLVR: It came out twenty years ago. Is there a Hollywood studio that would’ve done it—then or now—with that premise?
JD: Working with Jim Carrey on Dumb and Dumber taught me how to be fearless—I’ve been creatively fearless ever since then.
Christopher Guest, the great independent comedic filmmaker with his troupe of hysterical people in movie after movie—I wanted that. I thought I could take a shot at that. And the first, most obvious one out of the plays I’d written was Escanaba in da Moonlight, which is about five guys in a deer camp. So we raised enough money to do that. And then, you know, nobody bought it. And we four-walled it [self-funded and distributed it]. And it played, well, where people hunt, in the Midwest and stuff. But we never made any money on it.
But I wanted to take one more shot at it. So I needed to write a funny Midwestern something. And then I came across the vacuum cleaner salesmen. The oddball people that are making a go of it in the small towns of America and will do pretty much anything. I just thought it was funny or certainly could be ripe for the kinds of interactions that lead to a story. I used a lot of the same people that we used in Escanaba, and we shot it in Jackson [Michigan]. The idea was that we were in a vacuum-cleaner-salesman war. Me and a guy on the other side of town, played by Harve Presnell. We were in a duel, and whoever sold the most vacuum cleaners in a month would still be in business. The other guy would be fired. Something like that. Simple.
My character, who was losing, came up with this thing called the Homemaker’s Little Helper. It’s a vacuum cleaner that becomes, you know, a sexual device to be used… when you’re alone. [Laughs] And so that’s what he sells.
I remember the night in Jackson when we were gonna shoot this big scene, with all the women who used Homemaker’s Little Helper. I was gonna stand on top of a van and basically parody the speech that Mel Gibson gave in Braveheart, while holding up the Homemaker’s Little Helper. [Holds imaginary vacuum wand] This is freedom! Word had gotten out about what the movie was about, and it wasn’t well received in all parts of Jackson.
BLVR: But you needed extras.
JD: So we put the word out.
BLVR: How are you explaining this to the extras? Is it a little bit of a surprise?
JD: Yeah. We didn’t really tell them what we were doing. We said, “It’s just a great vacuum cleaner, and you think it’s the best vacuum cleaner you’ve ever had in your lives.” [Laughs] But by that point, by the time we shot that scene, everybody had kind of figured it out. Back then, radio would help you: Hey, volunteers! Want to go on a big scene with Jeff Daniels running down Michigan Avenue? Come on out tonight at seven o’clock, you know. Bring your mops and we’ll give you a sign. Homemakers and housewives. Hope you can be there. We were hoping for two hundred people.
BLVR: How many came?
JD: Five thousand. [Laughs] Five thousand women.
BLVR: In Jackson?
JD: In Jackson. Five thousand women came out, and we ran down that street with Homemaker’s Little Helpers. Yeah. It’s a feminist film.
BLVR: I thought a spider had been named after you. I looked it up. It’s not a spider. [Consults notes] It’s a tarantula-killing parasitic worm.
JD: Yes. [Smiles]
BLVR: Did you have a hand in requesting that designation?
JD: They had some national conference around arachnids. People who love spiders have some national organization. And they decided to honor me by naming a new something they’d found that needed a name. And for those folks, you know, Arachnophobia is their Citizen Kane. So they thought, Who could we possibly name this spider—or this whatever-it-was—after? They said, “We’ll get Jeff.” My agent called and said, “You’re not gonna believe this one.” [Laughs] I was all for it.
BLVR: I think it’s much funnier, and more of an honor, because this was thirty-some years after the film.
JD: Well, again, it is their Citizen Kane. Yeah.
VII. “The writing has to be so good”
BLVR: You have a wild range. When I look at the roles you’ve played, they go from the head of NASA to the outlaw in a Western, the news anchor, the romantic lead. And the films and shows are really of different genres. You’re in a Martian movie.
JD: The Martian. I was the only guy in the movie going, Hey, first of all, you know, you could die. All right. I’m just saying, I know all seven of you want to get onboard and go to Mars. But I’m just, I’m gonna be the guy that says, “You’re probably not coming back.” And then at the same time, we all read the script. [Laughs] I know you’re gonna go get him. And the reason you’re gonna get him is because he is Matt Damon. We’re not gonna go to Mars and find out he’s dead.
BLVR: We are in a Matt Damon movie…
JD: Right. He’s coming back somehow.
BLVR: Do you ever think twice about a role that’s offered up? Maybe because something’s not to your taste? I’m sure you say no to plenty of things all the time, but looking at the million roles you’ve done, I can’t tell what your taste actually is. What do you like?
JD: Oh my god. That’s great.
BLVR: Do they know what to send you?
JD: I think it has to be good writing. The writing has to be so good. Because if it isn’t, I’ll get bored and I won’t be challenged and I’ll want off it. I know I will end up being that guy—where it isn’t worth it to me anymore. I think with something like The Newsroom, you also are riding a wave where you scored in a way they hadn’t thought you could. And now you’re getting better roles—I mean, Good enough for Aaron Sorkin. Maybe you get Scott Frank. Danny Futterman and Adam Rapp doing The Looming Tower off Lawrence Wright’s book.
BLVR: You just move with it.
JD: I think it’s chasing good writing, because that is what has kept me interested as the streamers started happening. There’s twenty of them now. Twenty-five of them. And they all need writers. The streaming companies are where the writers went when Hollywood started doing the tentpole movies. Those are all great—the action movies, Marvel movies—and that’s what Hollywood now is, basically. I started doing a lot of independent movies that nobody saw, but I really liked the scripts. And I was doing some off-Broadway stuff. More quirky, a little more
So that has been a focus, and has driven a lot of the decisions. A Man in Full [forthcoming on Netflix], the Tom Wolfe book. David E. Kelly is the writer on it. That’s it. They want me? Let’s do a Zoom meeting. Let’s do it. And Regina King was directing. She won an Oscar. I mean, surrounding yourself with that caliber of people, even if you’ve never worked with them before, is important. They see something in you that they think you can blow up and become Charlie Croker [the main character in A Man in Full]? A lot of that has to do with making the choice to do a Dumb and Dumber and going way out there with Jim Carrey. So you create this wide kind of range. You’ve made it possible for people to go, “Let’s try him. I think he might be able to do this.” That’s exciting. That was kind of my little plan.