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A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Which character does Jeff Daniels more resemble? Will McAvoy, the brainy, world-weary anchorman he portrays on The Newsroom? Or Harry Dunne, the lovable doofus who gets his tongue stuck to a ski-lift pole in Dumb and Dumber? After sitting down with the 59-year-old actor for the better part of two hours in a Beverly Hills restaurant, the answer turns out to be … well, you decide for yourself from the Q&A that follows.
One of Daniels’ roles, of course, is about to end (The Newsroom‘s third and final season began Nov. 9 on HBO), while the other is about to be, after 20 years, reprised on the big screen. Daniels and Jim Carrey have reunited with the Farrelly brothers to bring back their most moronic characters — and worst haircuts — in Dumb and Dumber To, arriving in theaters Nov. 14. “At the time [we made the first film], we just thought 12-year-old boys would think it was funny,” says Daniels. They did — to the tune of $250 million worldwide. A prequel (with different, younger actors) was released by New Line in 2003, and an animated show ran (briefly) on ABC in 1995. Still, it took several years to get Dumb and Dumber To up on the screen, with at least one studio (Warner Bros.) passing. (Universal ended up distributing.)
Over the years, there have been scores of other high-profile parts for Daniels. Early on, after critically acclaimed turns in such films as Terms of Endearment and The Purple Rose of Cairo, he seemed destined for the A-list. But then, just as his career appeared to be peaking, he moved with his family (he’s married to his high school sweetheart and has three children) back to his home state of Michigan, where he concentrated on smaller, lesser-seen indie projects (Sweet Hearts Dance; Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael), emerging only occasionally in such Hollywood fare as Arachnophobia, Speed and Dumb and Dumber. It wasn’t until he was in his 50s, when Aaron Sorkin cast him as The Newsroom‘s perpetually grumpy anchor — a role that last year won him an Emmy — that Daniels once again started getting noticed in Hollywood.
You went from The Newsroom straight into Dumb and Dumber To. How do you prepare for a change like that?
I won an Emmy on a Sunday night, and Tuesday at 9:30 in the morning, I was showing butt crack walking down the street. But the transition was frighteningly easy. Jim [Carrey] and I had met a couple times in the months leading up to [production], but we hadn’t done anything, so we just started shooting. Jim would just go, “Ooh, let’s try this. If I do this, you do that.” And we would just do it.
That’s a considerable shift from The Newsroom, where you say every word on the page.
Yes, but what makes it a little easier is that it’s all a reaction. With Jim, you want Jim to be Jim. This is not a competition. He goes through the door first, dragging me.
Were you surprised at how long it took to get this sequel made? New Line did a prequel in 2003 with other actors …
I knew it wouldn’t be a slam-dunk. It never is. But I didn’t think it would take three years and five drafts.
Why did it take so long?
We’re too old. Comedy has moved in a different direction. It’s different guys who aren’t in their 50s. But Jim has two gears — first and fifth. And he arrived in Atlanta in fifth gear and stayed there. We both threw everything we had at it, and it felt funny when we did it. The only wild card is whether under-25s will come or not.
You’re both in very different places in your careers today than when the first Dumb and Dumber came out 20 years ago.
I’ve got pictures of the mountaintop, but Jim’s been to the mountaintop. And whoever gets to the mountaintop, I don’t care who you are, you don’t stay there long. I think he’s very aware of that but also loves working and loves making people laugh. That’s the bottom line with him.
You ran away from the mountaintop. After Purple Rose of Cairo came out in 1985, GQ put you on its cover with the line, “Is Jeff Daniels the Next Cary Grant?” But already you had moved your family back to Michigan.
Yeah, that worked out well, didn’t it? For about eight or 10 years, I did a bunch of indies before you were supposed to do indies. I was going to do challenging, crazy, offbeat stuff. You know, stuff no one will see. So now the next Cary Grant has made some career choices and is flying out to L.A. ’cause he needs a job, and he auditions on five movies and one of them is Dumb and Dumber.
Daniels in The Purple Rose of Cairo
You were an unexpected casting choice opposite Carrey.
I had been on the phone with my agents the night before I came out to do the wardrobe fitting, and three of them were going, “OK, we’re stepping in. You’re not gonna do this movie. We’re gonna get you out of it. You’re on the Oscar trail to get nominated.” One of them goes, “Jeff, with all due respect, you’re gonna get wiped off the screen.” But I wanted to do comedy. And this was a chance to do it with somebody I thought was really good at it.
Did fame scare you? Was that part of why you went back to Michigan?
I think I’ve always been kind of mistrustful of the 15 minutes. That’s one of the reasons that we wanted to raise the kids in Michigan because we knew how to do it there. I didn’t think my career would last because they usually don’t. You do four or five movies, and unless you’re Dustin Hoffman or Robert Redford — and I never for a minute thought I was — it’s not going to last. So when it’s over, at least this way I’d be home.
Were there roles you didn’t get because you were in Michigan? Have you ever kicked yourself because you chose the route that you did?
I don’t know. If I had stayed [in L.A.] and not gotten married and not had kids, I’d have had a different career. Maybe I’d have had more success early. Maybe I’d have blown up. I remember my agents saying, “We’re going to pretend you’re on 82nd Street in New York, or up in Beachwood Canyon, so when we have a meeting we’re going to assume that you can get in your car and drive down to that meeting. Don’t ever tell us that you’re not going to pay for the plane to do the meeting. …” So I moved to Michigan after [Purple Rose of Cairo] and Terms of Endearment and Something Wild. And for the first five years, they came to me. Literally, it was these guys walking up my driveway to sit on my dock in Michigan. But that didn’t last because I started doing the indies, and then I’m just the guy who moved to Michigan and isn’t serious.
That almost sounds like regret.
There weren’t regrets [back then]. There were regrets when I got into my 50s. When I was in my 30s, I made the mistake of thinking that when I got older I’d be like Gene Hackman, that they’d be making those sorts of movies that they made in the ’70s. But when I got into my 50s, they weren’t making those sorts of movies anymore. So now you’re doing indies and you’re getting offered scale plus 10 and you try to get another 10 grand out of them and they go, “No, take it or leave it.” I didn’t plan on that part of it, and I was angry about putting myself in that position. But look, I took the long scenic route to getting to that place where I no longer have to prove myself anymore.
You’ve played the awards game on occasion. You campaigned heavily for The Squid and the Whale, didn’t you?
Oh, I campaigned like I was running for president for five months. Anything above a high school newspaper, I was talking to. Not again.
I played the game to the best of my ability. I got nominated for the Globe, and we were at the Squid table when they said the winner is Joaquin Phoenix for Walk the Line, which was great, and we all clapped. But look, I went to Michigan and reveled in my outsiderness. I’m not in Hollywood. And this is a business of mercenaries. So I’m a hired gun. I’ve worked with many of the A-listers — Meryl, Demi, Keanu — and you bring me in to be good next to somebody so they can put a lot of their focus on him or her. I’m that guy, the one who’s good on take one.
And that guy has career longevity?
He does. If you want to live in Michigan and not play the game, then you need to be that guy on the set that producers love because you save them money. That doesn’t mean that I have to go to the cast party or the wrap party or schmooze or go to someone else’s premiere on an off night. I come in, I do my job, I try to be good right away and then I leave.
How does the paycheck factor in for you at this stage of your career?
Taking something for the money? I’m hoping that’s over. I’ll let you know in about three months. But, you know, you do indies and then here comes My Favorite Martian, and you’re thinking, “I guess the kids will go to college now.” Maybe it costs you, but the kids are going to go to college. Because you’re living in the Midwest, and you want to continue making a living in this business, it means occasionally you do something that maybe everyone forgives you for, or maybe they don’t, or maybe it works for 10-year-olds — and then you try to balance it out with a Good Night, and Good Luck. When you have a wife and kids, occasionally you do something so that they’re OK even if you’re not, artistically.
Where are you more comfortable: film, TV or stage?
As thrilling as stage is, it’s eight [performances] a week, and that’s a grind. I like TV, if the writing is there. Movies? I remember meeting [Jack] Nicholson on Terms of Endearment. I was terrified, but he was so nice. He said, “What have you done?” I said some Broadway and off-Broadway. He goes, “Well, this ain’t Broadway. This is the pro game.” I didn’t know what he meant until it was 5 a.m. on the set of Something Wild and I knew how much money [was on the line] and the sun is coming up and I look at all these people and it’s ka-ching, ka-ching. It’s a pro game.
Daniels’ onscreen family in 1983’s Terms of Endearment
You’ve got Ridley Scott’s space adventure The Martian lined up next. There were a lot of big names circling that project.
I wasn’t first on the list. You know, the studio has their A-lister guys who look at the part and go, “Are you f—ing kidding me?” So Ridley finally gets to me and he goes, “Great, I got the guy I wanted.”
Does it surprise you that it’s taken this long to get to that point?
I’ve been nominated for some things, but I’d never won. And when I won [an Emmy for Newsroom], that was not small, personally. All that stuff matters, especially when you’ve been through decades and decades where you don’t get nominated, or you do and it goes to guys who are 15 years younger. But then Aaron [Sorkin] comes along and he writes that Northwestern speech [from The Newsroom pilot], and I’d been waiting decades for a speech like that.
The critical response to The Newsroom‘s first season was disappointing, but you gave a group of critics at a press conference your own Northwestern-like statement. You told them, “You can’t help me.” What did you mean by that?
I said: “You just can’t help me. I’ve been doing it too long.” And it’s true. You’ve got to remember that they’re not writing for you. They’re writing for the guy with the remote in his hand. But it takes years to get there. It takes years to not read The New York Times where they call you “empty as a balloon.”
Presumably you’ve read those words about yourself?
Oh my god, I was crushed. I forgot the [name of the] show, but in The New York Times: “Mr. Daniels seems to stress the lifelessness …”
It must be even harder on celebrities these days. The entertainment media is more demanding than ever.
I was coming out of the airport today and there are two TMZ boys — it’s a slow celebrity day — and we’re standing at the light and they’re all, “God, I love The Newsroom, it’s one of my favorite shows, Jeff, isn’t it a great show?” I mean, their head is so far up your ass, but no matter what you say they’re going to spin it into something that they can make fun of. So I just looked at them. Finally, I said, “What camera is that? It looks really expensive.” And I just walked away. I don’t envy 25-year-old actors today. I pity them. How do you play the social media game? How do you play the tabloid game? I don’t know that I could have done that. I can barely do it now.
How are you feeling about The Newsroom ending? Would you want to do another TV show?
I like the format. But I completely get [why Sorkin is ending the show after three seasons]. It’s a bitch to write, and every two weeks he had to live up to himself. And, in a way, we don’t have to deteriorate — year four, year five, year six and you’re still Will McAvoy and it’s year nine, and it hasn’t been good since year six. So we don’t have to go through all that.
One running theme in your career seems to be doing the unexpected. What’s driving that?
Jack Lemmon told me years ago, “You got to be different, kid. Everybody’s the same. They walk through the door, and they’re all the same actor. You got to be the one who’s different, and sometimes that gives you choices.” How many guys, and this is assuming I can pull it off, can go from The Newsroom to Dumb and Dumber? So, isn’t that a challenge? Why would you not try to do that?
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