Jeff Daniels: Still in Buisness
Jeff Daniels has been in lots of Hollywood movies, but he’s never “gone Hollywood.” For most of his career, Daniels has lived in Michigan where he owns and operates a non-profit theater where he produces his own plays. Despite the distance, Daniels has enjoyed a long career as a movie actor. In this profile from the December 2002 issue of Movieline magazine, Daniels talks about how he has managed to stay in the business so long.
Everyone in America has seen Jeff Daniels, 47, in at least one movie, whether it was Terms of Endearment, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Heartburn, Arachnophobia, Gettysburg, The Butcher’s Wife, Dumb & Dumber, Fly Away Home or Blood Work. But very few have seen him on the stage, a place he thrives. He loves the theater so much, in fact, that in 1989 he built one–the Purple Rose Theater–in his hometown of Chelsea, Michigan, so that he’d have a platform on which to debut the plays he’s written. So far he has produced eight. But his passion for smaller venues hasn’t prevented him from working on the big screen. He’ll appear in the Nicole Kidman/Julianne Moore/Meryl Streep ensemble The Hours as well as the Gettysburg prequel Gods and Generals.
LAWRENCE GROBEL: Why do you live in Michigan? What’s wrong with L.A. or New York?
JEFF DANIELS: I was in New York for about 10 years. The longest I was in L.A. was three months to do a play. I didn’t like it. L.A. was hell on earth, soulless and shallow.
Q: You’ve said you weren’t capable of doing the schmooze thing in L.A.
A: I can’t do it. A publicist asked me to take some actress to someone else’s premiere. I said, “No, I’m married.” I’d get frustrated because there was always talk of doing something and nothing ever happened. There were things I wanted to do in Michigan, including having complete, 100% control of a theater and having kids grow up somewhere not in the Industry.
Q: In addition to making The Hours and Gods and Generals, you’ve also filmed I Witness with James Spader. He’s a good actor who hasn’t hit it big.
A: I told him we’re both members of the 25-year club, which means we’ve both been in the business for over 25 years. That’s a huge victory, and there aren’t many people in that club. He’s very selective. I encouraged him to sell out.
Q: You haven’t sold out.
A: I’ve taken the money a few times because I have things I want to do and they help pay for them. I told Lee Grant, who directed me in a TV movie,“I have to be an artist.” She said, “Do one for you, one for them.” I asked, “Who’s them?” And she said, “The mortgage, the family.” I’m not in a position where money is no problem.
Q: Has working in Hollywood made you feel insecure?
A: I never used to think my career would last. I had no faith in it. Ever since high school I thought I’d fail and have to go back to my father’s lumber company.
Q: Have you ever wanted to quit the business?
A: There was a time when I told my agent, “I’m tired of this, I’m tired of it all.” I said I was going to retire and he said, “No you’re not.”
Q: What did you do?
A: I started eating. I just porked up. But then offers came in, so I dropped 40 pounds.
Q: You’ve worked twice with Meryl Streep, in Heartburn and now in The Hours. Is she the best?
A: I liken working with Meryl to a tennis match, where the ball hit back to you has spin on it or comes back at varying speeds. Man, does she keep you honest. She will not let you lie. If Meryl sees you doing something that wasn’t honest, there’s a little flicker that will happen where she’s going, “Stop that,” and she keeps the scene going.
Q: How many actors have you met offscreen who don’t give the larger-than-life appearance that they do on-screen?
A: Clint Eastwood. He’s so low-key, laconic, regular, nonthreatening in person, but when they say “Rolling,” you can see his back arch up and the chin drop and he turns his head and it’s there.
Q: Did you write a song about costarring with him in Blood Work?
A: It’s called “The Dirty Harry Blues,” which is about what it’s like getting shot by Clint Eastwood.
Q: What is it like being shot by Clint Eastwood?
A: It’s an out-of-body experience because you can’t get past that the 9mm handgun that is three feet away from your chest is being held by Dirty Harry.
Q: As a fellow director, did you try to pick Eastwood’s brain about making films?
A: I’ve done some indies and I’ve found that distribution is a bitch, so I talked to him about it. He told me the battles he had with Play Misty for Me: “Hang on to the rights. If you can four-wall it and keep more money, do it. Don’t give away your movie.”
Q: Have you ever worked with anyone else like him?
A: Clint reminded me of when I did Terms of Endearment and was in awe of Jack Nicholson. We shot for a couple of weeks, and then Jack came in. Being a young actor, I thought, “Jack’s got all the answers,” but he didn’t. He was making choices, guessing. Clint’s the same way.
Q: How would you describe your appeal?
A: I’m of the Dick Van Dyke/Jack Lemmon school. I’m not a George Clooney–put him in a close-up and my God, we all fall in love.
Q: Do you put a lot of your own money into your theater?
Q: Is it a tax write-off?
A: It’s a not-for-profit theater company, meaning whoever gives a donation gets a 50% tax break. I’m definitely the leading donor.
Q: What kind of yearly budget are you working with?
A: Last year’s budget was $1.6 million. We have a lot of people wearing several hats. The marketing guy is also the box office guy, the managing director and head of publicity.
Q: Which actor has inspired you?
A: Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon.
Q: What’s the best compliment you’ve received from an actor?
A: Michael J. Fox and I were nominated for Golden Globes–Purple Rose for me and Back to the Future for him–and he said to me, “I’m the star, but you’re the actor.” That meant a lot. I’ve never gotten awards, and I’ve never been to the Oscars, but I get people like Clint calling. I get to go to dinner with Meryl Streep. That goes a long way. The big one was Dustin Hoffman. I was home in Michigan when I got a phone call from him. He said, “I just saw 101 Dalmatians with my kids. In it, you and Joely Richardson meet, fall in love, get engaged and get married in seven minutes of screen time. I just thought that was amazing. I’ve also seen Dumb & Dumber and you were so great–I know how difficult that was.” And I’m going, “I thought Midnight Cowboy was amazing and Little Big Man was great.” It was a good talk.
Q: How fun was it to play dumb opposite Jim Carrey?
A: Dumb & Dumber was a great example of buying another 10 years at a time when I thought I was spiraling down.
Q: Did Jim Carrey inspire you, or did you help bring the ridiculous out of him?
A: We worked well together. The producers wanted a comedian, but Jim wanted an actor.
Q: Are you basically shy or private?
A: I prefer to be left alone.
Q: This is Movieline‘s Luxury Issue; how do you define luxury?
A: The ability to say no.
Q: What’s the most extravagant thing you have ever bought?
A: A bus. It’s a low-end diesel Gulf Stream. We take it everywhere, baseball tournaments, hockey tournaments. I drove it myself from Michigan to Maryland to the set of Gods and Generals.
Q: What car do you drive?
A: A Jeep ’91 Wrangler. I love Jeeps.
Q: If you could have an hour to spend an unlimited amount of money, where would you go?
A: The Gibson guitar company in Montana. I would buy countless guitars.