On stage and screen, actor Jeff Daniels can do it all.
He’s always been a bit of an Everyman type who can shift effortlessly between comedy and drama, driving a film with an honest performance or melding into strong ensemble cast with ease.
And he’s led a charmed career, scoring early with Hollywood blockbuster “Terms of Endearment” and later, the “Dumb and Dumber” series, while doing brilliant turns in more artistic fare such as “Squid and the Whale” and Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” Even when the inevitable duds do arrive, he soon comes through with a project that reminds the public of his talent. Most recently that was his portrayal of Will McAvoy, a smart and cynical nightly news anchor on the HBO series, “The Newsroom” – for which he won a best actor Emmy.
From the beginning, Daniels wanted something to fall back on – which usually wound up being his acoustic guitar. Since about 2002, he has been pursuing a second career as a bluesy folk musician, touring small venues around the country in between making films. Singing and playing his take on Delta country blues, influenced by songwriting masters such as John Prine and Utah Phillips, Daniels is one of the few Hollywood crossover artists who doesn’t embarrass himself or coast on ego. His most recent album, “Days Like These,” received solid reviews as have recent concerts backed by his son, Ben Daniels and his band – tightly paced shows that feature the elder Daniels turning on the charm with his storytelling and passion for American roots music.
Speaking from home in Michigan, Daniels is down-to-earth and friendly, the rare movie star who makes you like him more after a half hour of conversation. When his dog barked in the background, he casually blurted out “Attack. Attack." On this short band tour, before he gears up to shoot “Allegiant: Part One” -- the next in the “Divergent” film franchise -- he’ll be performing an hour-long set at Pocahontas State Park on Saturday, May 16, as part of the Carbon Leaf Ragtime Carnival then headlining in Charlottesville at the Southern on May 17.
Style Weekly: Are you writing any new music with your son?
Jeff Daniels: Nah, we’re not writing anything, but we’re playing together. I had a bunch of songs that needed a band, and being middle-aged I could’ve hired a Viagra band, you know the guys you see on the commercial, but I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve got a band right here.’ So we rehearsed before an August tour in the Midwest and it went great. The shows on the East Coast also stood up so we immediately booked another one. We just enjoy the hell out of it. For a father and son to share the stage, for me, it’s a dream come true.
I saw a recent study that said most Americans stop listening to new music by age 33. Does your son keep you up on stuff?
[Laughs] Well I don’t disagree with that regarding anything, that’s why you see so many sequels. He came to me when he was 19 and said he wanted to do this, I told him ‘Write your own stuff. Go study Dylan, do the work.’ He’s kind of a poet with a guitar. I told him to find his own voice, sing to the people, to your friends, and do that for 10 years and maybe you’ll have a shot. Don’t do covers – or maybe the occasional one, great, but if you want to be a cover band you can go to the local bar and stay there.
In the theater, I started out in New York and that’s all we did were new plays, that was the norm. So I fell I love with playwriting and playwrights, and the writing process in general back in the ‘70s and turned to songwriting as a place where I could creatively control it. And I just stayed at it. [He also founded the notable Purple Rose Theatre Company in his home state of Michigan in 1991].
I think we [the band] have an advantage because when we walk out on stage, we don’t have any greatest hits. We’re not doing “Fire and Rain” or whatever; you gotta listen because you don’t know most of these. It’s new music but we make you listen.
I think on first listen, my favorite track was a slower one, “Holy Motel” – and normally I don’t like strings on country folk stuff, but here it seems to work.
Oh well, thank you. Brad Phillips produced that. Before Ben’s band, I’d go out with him and we played all over. He produced that and put strings on it. I was shooting “Dumb and Dumber Too,” and he called me and said, “I’m gonna chuck the strings.” I said wait, let me hear it. Then I told him, you know, don’t change a note.
Listening to some of these working class blues songs, I wondered if you had ever wished that you spent more of your childhood in Athens, Georgia, so you could’ve added a natural Southern accent to your repertoire?
Yeah, well, I tend to go there. I was thinking about that the other day: I grew up and my dad owned a lumber company, and I worked there. So you’re around hardworking regular people who have to earn every dime. And I never lost that sensibility of what they would want to hear, what they would relate to; and of course, treating them with respect. I sometimes fall into their voice, or what I think is their voice, but it’s more of a subconscious thing I guess.
Do you remember the moment when you decided to take music seriously?
Yes, well, Jim Fleming this agent told me I could go out. Which doesn’t mean I was any good. When I heard that, I went right back to woodshedding the guitar in 2002. I needed to get better. It’s kind of the way I approach acting. You go into “Newsroom” thinking I need to come out a better actor than I went in – you approach every project like that, every song, every day like that. How can I get better technically speaking, mechanics, muscle memory. You need to do that if you’re going to go out in front of paying people and pull this off ... so I got to sit with Steven Grossman a couple times, Keb Mo is a friend, they both were encouraging, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt. When you do that, then you come out of it and survive it, you go, 'maybe I can do this.’
I remember Lyle and John were doing a two-man acoustic show in Ann Arbor; I had met Lyle on the Carson show way back in 85. And I caught up with him at sound check, and he goes, ‘Did you bring your guitar?” I said, ‘of course, I’m not stupid.’ Then during the encore he brought me out and said we’re going to do “My Baby Don’t Tolerate,” a blues in G, you and Hiatt are going to trade blues licks.’ I thought, ‘Oh Jesus, God.’
So I went out onstage and we went back and forth like a tennis match. I did okay and then Hiatt does this thing that just dumped on me. So I went to G sharp, we ended the song, and I got out. I said, ‘I quit, white flag, etc.’ But they couldn’t have been nicer and it couldn’t have been a better lesson. Here’s the ball with five seconds to go, hit the shot.
You know with those guys, you’re there as a student with great respect. Then you steal everything they’re doing. Become the thief that you really are. Actors steal too. I’ve told college kids to go see actors they love and steal those moves and lock ‘em up.
What has learning to be onstage without playing a character, out there exposed, taught you about yourself?
What it brings back for me, personally, is when I started in high school musicals, college and summer musicals, before I went to New York. I knew what to do on a stage in front of 600 people, standing room only, in whatever role they cast me in. It was comfortable, I knew how to manipulate them and play with them, the pauses. I just instinctively knew that stuff. That’s just something you’re born with, the timing.
My dad was a great storyteller, and then I spent my life as an actor with playwrights and movies, and all we’re doing is telling stories -- once upon a time stuff. So I said if I were going to do this with a guitar, what can I do that takes advantage of all this stuff and makes me different, or certainly different from the other actor-singer-songwriters? And I know he’s going through a real rough time of his own making, but Bill Cosby was somebody who I got all his albums when I was growing up; his ability to sit in a chair and hold an audience with stories, Fat Albert, you name it. I had every word memorized to “To Russell, My Brother Whom I Slept With” . I remember boring friends of mine in junior high school, I would do the 15-minute version of one of his cuts and they would just stare at me, glassy eyed.
So I could always do that, but now its how do I talk to an audience, how do I include them? Their expectations are sort of based on what they’ve heard about Hollywood, here comes ego, here comes arrogance, here comes now-I want-you-to-take me-seriously-as-a-rock-star. None of that happens. It’s more entertaining them, anything I can do to make them have a good time, then drop in a song that moves them. Then if there’s musicianship, I’ve done it. It’s a show, and I try to make sure I fulfill that.
Has songwriting offered its own surprises and discoveries?
Yeah, the big umbrella is writing is just writing, whether I’m writing a play, or in a movie serving the story. But songwriting can capture a moment, the whole song can be about one moment. A song like “How About We Take Our Pants Off And Relax?” it’s funny, but it’s just something a guy says to a girl on a bad blind date [He heard the phrase from actor Ryan Reynolds after nearly bumping into him on a film set]. So you spin around that. Sometimes I write a story song, and I like to write songs that resolve. But that was an interesting discovery for me.
You have one new bluegrass song, “Now You Know You Can Do It” that was sparked by the now famous “Newsroom” scene (“America is not the greatest country in the world”) in the first episode.
Yeah, the speech to Northwestern kids in episode one. It was just a big damn day on set. We didn’t have a series yet, we didn’t even have a Will McAvoy yet. We hoped we did, but today we were going to find out. HBO was there. Aaron [Sorkin] and everybody. I had worked real hard on it with the script supervisor, we were rewriting it quite a bit. I had to relearn it and relearn it. She was instrumental in making sure I could get it up to speed. So on day one, take one, I nailed it. And everyone, you could just sort of feel the relief with the producers. Then the script supervisor walked up and said, “Now you know you can do it,” and walked away. Sometimes you have to walk off the cliff and flap your arms -- that’s really what that song is about.
Would’ve been interesting to see how Sorkin would’ve worked in the whole Brian Williams mess.
Yeah, he’s not happy, nor I think should any of us be, with the lynch-mob mentality that you find on the Internet. Not to say Brian didn’t make mistakes. But don’t say anything wrong, don’t do anything wrong, because you could be over in 24 hours. And Aaron writes about it in season three: “I’m sick of citizen journalists, citizen detectives.” There were some horrible, horrible things that happened around the Boston marathon that he wrote about, that were true, people misidentifying supposed suspects and then those people’s lives were changed forever. It’s a responsibility that journalists know, that I think we don’t have anymore, and that real journalists are fighting to hang onto. What happened? Let me go to Twitter, well that doesn’t mean its true. We kind of dropped [fictional network] ACN and Will McAvoy into the middle of all news organizations: and they’re all fighting that battle to be right versus being first. When you’re first but you’re wrong, often the retraction is either ignored or buried.
I know you wrote the song “Dirty Harry Blues” after filming “Blood Work” with Clint Eastwood. But I think my favorite character of yours is Bernard from “Squid and the Whale.” That was such a pitch-perfect evocation of a cranky, self-involved English professor living off his past success. Has that role had an afterlife or inspired anything?
[Laughs] No, nothing musically. But it did reinforce what every actor knows: If you’ve got great writing, you’re more than halfway there. “Newsroom” was the same way. You get on top of it, all the drudgery of memorization and establishing character, all that, you have to get so on top of it that he just lives and breathes. A lot of hard work goes into the mechanics of getting the words into your head, so it’s a part of you. Once you can get on top of it, then you can dance on the script. But if you don’t have a script – or you have a movie written by eight writers and junior executives at the studio – then, I don’t know, it’s like eating bland food.
Well you’ve got the new “Allegiant” films, a Steve Jobs film, and a Ridley Scott movie (“The Martian”) coming up with Matt Damon – do the big tent pole films offer you more flexibility for your music?
Yeah. Post-“Newsroom” I enjoy working on movies where they’ve got plenty of money to shoot them. They’ve got a built-in audience. I’ve done decades of indies, where now I’ve got to not only make the movies, I’ve got to go out and sell ‘em. “Squid and the Whale” for example, I talked to everyone above a high school paper. But post “Newsroom” I came out with the ability to do a very smart character in Will McAvoy, and that’s usually who your villains are. You know, they’re the smartest guys in the universe until the hero outsmarts them. So I like my chances to play some pretty good villains in the next ten years.
And yeah, the franchises, like “Allegiant: 1” and “2,” allow me to better set my schedule and more time to book music. I hate canceling dates. I love getting out on the road and playing these intimate smaller venues.
I've heard that aging male actors maybe have it easier than women in Hollywood, but which art form do you see yourself doing longer?
Well, I never had any faith [about the acting career]. Completely fatalistic about it. That’s why I moved to Michigan in 1986 after five movies. I never thought the career would last. “Dumb and Dumber” bought me 10 years. And “Newsroom” just doesn’t happen to guys my age. I had kept playing and writing music through the '70s, '80s, and '90s, fully expecting to be a musician in the vein of Arlo [Guthrie], Utah Philips, and Steve Goodman. I would be more than happy saying I had a good run as an actor, and now creatively I’m still going to be vibrant and alive with a guitar in my hand, playing clubs. I was fully prepared to do that and still am.
But eventually I’ll be over and when I’m over, I’ll be home.
Jeff Daniels and the Ben Daniels band perform at 4:15 p.m. on Saturday, May 16, at the main stage of Carbon Leaf’s Ragtime Carnival and Campout at Pocahontas State Park. Ben Daniels Band also performs on 7:30 p.m. on Friday, May 15, at the event, on the acoustic stage. Tickets available through www.pocohontaslive.com.