Off Script: Jeff Daniels Explains His Strategy for "Sprinting a Marathon" in 'Blackbird' on Broadway
With help from his guitar, the Detroit Tigers and co-star Michelle Williams, the Tony nominee aims "to successfully grab [the audience] by the lapels from the first minute on ... then give them a gut-punch at the end."
Jeff Daniels’ second time starring in Blackbird onstage has earned him his second Tony nomination. The actor first played the haunted Ray in Joe Mantello's 2007 off-Broadway staging of David Harrower's volatile two-hander. This season, the lead actor nominee revisits the role on Broadway opposite Michelle Williams, who also nabbed a Tony nom for lead actress. The Hollywood Reporter’s review said "the actor now brings a noticeably deepened middle-aged gravitas that adds fascinating layers to his character — of bitter defensiveness, corrosive dishonesty, subjugated desire and, ultimately, ice-cold fear."
As two people who reunite years after an illicit relationship that scarred them both, Daniels and Williams goes toe-to-toe, eight times a week — but not without the help of healthy foods, hydration and “horizontal” days off. Daniels, 61, goes Off Script with The Hollywood Reporter to talk Broadway’s drama standards, pre-show phone apps and the Detroit Tigers item decorating his dressing room.
What do you love most about playing your character?
How hard it is to sustain it. How difficult it is to make what happens to him happen for the first time, because it is so painful and it costs so much. And that’s the only way to do this play. It’s what we do, Michelle and I, but you don’t just show up and do the show.
What’s been your favorite part about revisiting this play?
Broadway audiences, especially for a drama, that’s as smart a theatergoing audience as you’re gonna get. Many of them have seen everything for decades. So to successfully grab them by the lapels from the first minute on, and then at times throughout the show, hear that audience in dead, you-could-hear-a-pin-drop kind of silence, means the world. We feel like we’ve accomplished something when we can hold that audience like that, and then give them a gut-punch at the end.
What habit does this show require?
You have to seriously hydrate before the show and after, and just hope you don’t pass out in the middle.
What have you given up to play this role?
Any semblance of a social life.
Any pre-show rituals?
Solitaire on my phone. I play that about an hour before I go on, just to get my mind sped up and to mentally get moving. Because from the second I walk onstage, his brain is going a hundred miles an hour.
Do you eat dinner before or after a performance?
If I have an 8 o’clock show, I’ve eaten by five. With a two-hander like Blackbird, you have to train like an athlete: You have to sleep constantly and you have to eat healthy or you won’t make it.
How do you unwind after a performance?
I usually play guitar.
Do you have trouble sleeping?
No, but it’s important to be rested, because we’re not running a marathon. We’re sprinting a marathon.
What time do you wake up on a show day?
My dog has been in town, so I walk the dog by 8 o’clock in the morning in Central Park. That’s usually the trigger – 70 pounds of love, laying on my belly, going, “Dad! Dad! Dad! I gotta pee and poop!”
Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels in 'Blackbird.' Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe
What’s something special in your dressing room?
I’m a Detroit Tigers fan, so I’ve got a rug with the Tiger emblem on it. My favorite Detroit Tiger baseball player was Al Kaline from the 1960s, and on the rug is inscribed, “Al Kaline is my god.”
Best audience reaction so far?
We have other actors come back, and several of them have said, “I can’t do what you guys are doing.” It’s very generous of them to say, and it means a lot.
What do you do on your day off?
Anything that allows me to be horizontal. I’ll watch the Tigers, or read until I sleep again. If you’re vertical at all on your day off after Blackbird, you’re in trouble Monday night.