Jeff Daniels: Working In And Around The System


Jeff Daniels: Thespian, teacher, guitar player. And slayer of large spiders run amok
in the heartland.

While I know Jeff Daniels best from such movies as Something Wild and Arachnophobia, the veteran actor has amassed an impressive body of theater and film work throughout his 30-year career. The man has also given back to his chosen craft by founding the Purple Rose Theatre in his hometown of Chelsea, Michigan, and it has become a haven for budding young actors in the Midwest who don’t necessarily want to go to New York or Los Angeles right away to learn about performing. Ultimately he has created a successful career for himself and done many projects on his own terms.

Daniels just finished up a run on Broadway in the acclaimed drama God Of Carnage (with James Gandolfini, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden), for which was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play. During that engagement I spoke with him for a cover story in Stage Directions magazine. There was some extra material that didn’t make the feature, so I have included it here.

Jeff Daniels on taking his craft seriously and not being a Hollywood stereotype:

My Stage Directions cover story on Jeff Daniels.

My Stage Directions cover story on Jeff Daniels.

As you get older, and you have a family and have two of three kids who are still in college, how do you deal with the stress year in and year out about where the money’s coming from? Is that a constant worry, or at this point do you have a system for dealing with all of this and a good rhythm to your career?
Worry is a good word. I wouldn’t say that I’m a neurotic when it comes to where’s my next job. I’m not that cliché, but I do have to make a certain amount of money every year and try to do it with as much artistic integrity as possible. [chuckles] But at the end of the day it’s family first, and it’s an obligation I take very seriously. If that means the career suffers a little bit because I’m doing something that maybe others who are more important wouldn’t, so be it. But I can look my kids in the eye and not say, “Come on and follow me and my artistic integrity to the poorhouse.” There’s a responsibility to making sure that they’re okay, and leading as artistic a life as possible. I do the best I can in a business that really doesn’t care.

You’re also not a cliché of the business. You haven’t been married multiple times and are not getting into the headlines for getting into trouble. You seem stable and grounded.
Producers tend to like that, yeah. They tend to like to hire that person, I’ve found.

I remember when Colin Farrell was getting into trouble regularly and generating headlines. That might’ve done wonders for his bad boy reputation, but I’m not sure it necessarily helped his films at the box office.
I’ve always looked at the kind of behavior as short-term. It may make you a lot of money now, but eventually… I’ve been on enough movie sets to know that we need it done now. You need to be brilliant right now, and everybody is looking at their watch because this is the only day that they have this location. I like being a hired gun that can come in and nail it, and the producers say, “You just saved us half a day.” “Yeah, I know.”

Daniels in "God of Carnage". (Photo credit: Joan Marcus.)

Daniels in "God of Carnage". (Photo credit: Joan Marcus.)

Do you thrive well under pressure?

Do you enjoy being tossed into the storm?
I do, yeah. I know I’m there to do a job, I know I’m part of a whole. If I’m starring in a movie, I lead the way. I’m prepared and professional. At the end of the day that’s how everybody really wants to work. I just don’t have a lot of patience for things that waste my time or waste the crew’s time. Let’s get to work and then let’s go home. Maybe it’s a little sterile, but I’ve learned that. Woody was like that, Clint’s like that, Meryl’s like that. There’s just no bullshit. Only professionals need apply. I’ve always respected how they taught me, and I expect that of other people. And when they do it, we’re in great shape.

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