“It’s brutal, this business, so you never think you’re gonna last,” says Jeff Daniels, the veteran actor of stage and screen, as we sit down at New York’s iconic Empire Hotel to discuss his rollercoaster of a career. At the moment, Daniels — who’s perhaps best known for the film Dumb & Dumber and the TV series The Newsroom — is appearing on Broadway opposite Michelle Williams in David Harrower‘s two-hander Blackbird, in a complex and grueling role he previously played nine years ago, and for which he was recently nominated for the best-actor-in-a-play Tony. He has learned from past experience not to take moments like this for granted: “I’ve taken about 50 pictures of the marquee,” he says, “because it’s special.”
After making his big screen debut in a small part in Milos Forman‘s Ragtime (1981), Daniels went on a remarkable run of successful films for major directors: James L. Brooks‘ Terms of Endearment (1983), a star-studded hit that went on to win the best picture Oscar; Woody Allen‘s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), during the making of which the filmmaker expressed a confidence in him that made him believe in himself; Mike Nichols‘ Heartburn (1986), the first project for which he didn’t have to audition; and Jonathan Demme‘s Something Wild (also 1986).
The same year that those last two films were released, Daniels and his wife decided to relocate to Michigan to raise their young and growing family. He knew he was giving up the prospect of stardom, but also that it would have been fleeting anyway. And, once settled back in Michigan, he fed his creative urges by forming and running the Purple Rose Theatre Company, a 168-seat black box theater that operates for 42 weeks a year as “a version of Circle Rep in the Midwest.” He employed the likes of Wilson to write new plays for it, and he has written many for it, as well.
At the same time, his screen career “was dying” — one notable exception being his work in 1993’s Gettysburg — and “the move to Michigan was in jeopardy.” And then came salvation, or at least a much-needed career reboot, in the unlikeliest of ways: 1994’s Farrelly brothers comedy Dumb & Dumber. Jim Carrey was looking for a non-comedian to star opposite him in the tale of two idiots, and Daniels embraced the opportunity to do something different — even if it meant a scene of him experiencing explosive diarrhea or getting his tongue stuck to a pole. “I never looked at it as anything other than a great thing,” he says. “It did exactly what I wanted it to do. It blew up my career.”
The ensuing decade brought Daniels a host of plum film roles that he knocked out of the park — among them Carroll Ballard‘s Fly Away Home (1996), Gary Ross‘s Pleasantville (1998) and especially Noah Baumbach‘s The Squid and the Whale (2005), in which Daniels, in an Oscar-worthy performance, channeled his own career frustration to play a smug and disgruntled literary professor. (“I said, ‘Let me pour some gas on that and light it,’ he recalls.) It also brought, in 1997, his first opportunity to act in a theatrical production of Blackbird — the story of a man visited by a much younger woman with whom he had a sexual relationship 15 years earlier when she was 12 — Off Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club, under the direction of Joe Mantello.
by the lapels from the first minute on … then give them a gut-punch at the end.””]
“When we did it the first time, I did my best,” he recalls, but, he acknowledges, “I took some easy ways out.” In the nine years that followed, he feels he became a markedly better actor, thanks mostly to his work in the 2009 best-play Tony winner God of Carnage (“the Hamilton of its season … we were rock stars”), for which he was nominated for the best-actor-in-a-play Tony, and on the 2012-2014 HBO series The Newsroom, for which he won an Emmy for best actor in a drama series (“There’s a thing about being number one on a call sheet … this was a great opportunity, to have Aaron Sorkin tailoring a role for you”).
“So, nine years later, when Scott Rudin called, I looked at it and I said, ‘You know what? I didn’t go far enough. I didn’t go dark enough. I didn’t make the choices, even leading into page one, that would give me the chance to make the portrayal definitive.'” This time he did. “The only way to do it is all-in,” he realized. And, once again under the direction of Mantello, that’s what he’s done. “Literally you gut yourselves every night,” he says — as evidenced by his hunched posture entering and exiting the interview room. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s opening night all over again every single show.”