Jeff Daniels is one of the most respected character actors working in Hollywood today.
With a huge list of credits over the last thirty years, he has worked with some of films most respected directors including; Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Mike Nichols and James L. Brooks.
To mainstream audiences he is probably best known for his roles in films such as Dumb and Dumber, 101 Dalmations and Speed, however Daniels has delivered outstanding performances in recent films The Squid and the Whale and George Clooney‘s Oscar-winning Good Night, and Good Luck.
Few may also know that Daniels is a outstanding Singer-Songwriter, director and founder of a theatre company. Niall Browne interviews him to discuss his life, career and what inspires him.
You seem to be a hugely creative man, as you act, sing, write and direct. Why are you so productive?
It all seems to come from the same creative well, if you will. It expresses itself in different ways. Maybe acting was never going to be enough. I think my interest in things other than acting started with writing. I loved to watch how the writers & directors (James L. Brooks, Woody Allen, Lanford Wilson) worked their scripts as if they were searching for something they wouldn’t find until they stumbled upon it. I was always much more fascinated with all of that than directing, say. That spurred the song writing which turned into playwriting and screenwriting and now, back to songwriter.
Few people know of your music career, how would you describe your sound?
I’m still trying to settle on a sound.
I feel that you sound like Hank Williams crossed with Michael Nesmith. You have an anecdotal aspect to your music that is quite humorous. Who are your musical influences?
Lyle Lovett. John Prine. Christine Lavin. Keb Mo. Kelly Joe Phelps. Utah Phillips.
A lot of actors when they turn to singing seem to take it very serious, and vice versa. They often try and look at it as a separate career and not make reference to their day job. You however seem to embrace it, with songs like “If William Shatner Can, I can too” and “The Dirty Harry Blues”. Is there a specific reason for that?
It’s the elephant in the room. Besides, that’s a portion of what people want to hear about. What’s it really like, etc. Once you give them some of that, you’ve earned the opportunity to show them what else you can do.
Which came first, acting or music?
It was High school musical, so both.
What inspires you to write, either in script form or as a song?
It can be anything. Something someone says, something that you read about, see happen, wish were different, a phrase, a rhyme or even a simple mood.
You’ve had such a varied career and one that isn’t motivated by box office or wanting a huge salary, how do you choose acting projects?
When they aren’t choosing me, nowadays I lean towards the writing. Am I surprised by the story, is it unpredictable, did I get ahead of it, and yes, who’s directing and who else is acting in it.
Which do you prefer big budget films or those shot on a more modest budget?
I’ve enjoyed doing both. Big budget films tend to have better catering. Smaller films tend to have better scripts.
You have also chosen films in almost every genre, what films do you like watching?
I don’t watch many movies. Those I do are usually cast with friends of mine or people with whom I’ve worked. I’ll watch those, especially, if the actor is stretching.
There’s quite a difference when acting on stage and acting on films. Most actors prefer the stage because the performance is “in the moment”. Is it difficult when you move from theatre to film as they require a different endurance?
Stage is like running a marathon. Film is a series of short sprints. You’re doing the same thing only the pacing is different.
Filmmaking is a collaborative process, are there any projects have been disappointed you when they have moved from script to screen? What do you think the reasons for this might have been?
Someone once said, “A good movie is one that falls through the cracks.” Or one that survives many people getting their hands on it. As an actor, you say Yes to a script and then cross your fingers.
You’ve worked with some of the best directors in recent years, from James L. Brooks and Mike Nichols to Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood. You must feel very privileged to work with these cinematic greats?
It’s a great party in which to be invited.
Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood are famously known for their no frills directing approach, as an actor what do you look for in a good director?
Whatever you want me to do, say it in five words or less.
Your theatre company- Purple Rose Theatre Company is named after your Woody Allen Film, what was the reason for this?
Woody’s film, THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO was a turning point in my career. It wasn’t until that film that I realized that I could quite possibly make a living in this business.
How do feel when a film doesn’t find its audience?
You can only do your job. I do my best and then hope the Marketing Department does theirs.
You’ve directed two films, what the hardest aspect about stepping behind the camera?
It’s the relentless demand on your creativity. There’s no break. Unfortunately, when you finish shooting, you suddenly realize you have months and months of Post Production ahead of you.
Do you have any intentions of doing it again?
Not right now.
You’ve been married for, in Hollywood standards is an eternity and you live in Michigan, have you ever been tempted by the movie star lifestyle?
I never thought of it as being better. I just wanted to be an actor. That’s it. Not a star. I think it was Gene Hackman who said, “I went to Acting School, not Star School.” There’s a lot of truth to that.
Do you feel that due to your distance from Hollywood that maybe you’ve been overlooked for some parts because of your refusal to play the Hollywood game?
Sure, but that was the trade-off to living and raising my family in a place I understood.
This interview first appeared on Contact Music in 2007.