Note: I recently had the opportunity to interview actor/playwright/singer/songwriter Jeff Daniels. My wife and I caught his live show last night and greatly enjoyed it. Because of that, I wanted to publish my full interview transcript, which was cut down to less than 500 words for print. The edited version appeared online here and in last week's print edition of the Weekly Volcano. Enjoy.
If William Shatner can, he can too
The multi-talented Jeff Daniels
If you’ve seen a movie this week, there’s a good chance you’ve enjoyed the work of reliable talent Jeff Daniels. He plays a NASA chief in The Martian and Apple CEO John Sculley in Steve Jobs, written by multiple-award winner Aaron Sorkin. We spoke to Daniels in advance of his Broadway Center appearance as singer, songwriter, guitarist and raconteur. He was amiable but groggy, understandable given his movie career plus concert tour plus Emmy-winning lead performance on HBO’s The Newsroom.
Weekly Volcano: A lot of your music is very frisky and jokey, but is there a song in particular that moves you when you perform it?
JEFF DANIELS: Yeah, we do a song in the show called “California.” I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the place. I couldn’t imagine living there. The problem was all mine. That’s where I’ve done most of my work over the career. It turned from a necessary evil to a place that I needed and grew to love a little bit, doing Newsroom. It was written in the early ’90s, when I’d fly out there and do meetings and take the redeye home that night. It’s kind of, “I’m out here, and yet I don’t feel at home here, and yet I need to be here,” kind of looking around at all those things it is. "All’s fair in love and war, and everything means so much more in California." It’s a young actor observing that this is where his life took him. The other one is “Back When You Were Into Me.” Amanda [Daniels, daughter-in-law] sings it in the middle of the show, and it stops the show. This is the fourth tour we’ve done together with [the] Ben [Daniels] Band, and the first one was last year, August. It did what it did: it stopped the show. So we were putting Days Like These together. We were almost mastering, and we stopped, and I said put it on the end of the CD. I don’t care, It’s a good song. It’s well-written, and she sings it great. They’re going, “Well, you aren’t singing it.” I don’t care. I tell the story in the show, which is true with a lot of these songs. It was a crew member sitting in McAvoy’s office with me, and they’re lighting something somewhere else. You spend seven months with people, sixteen hours a day, you get to know ’em. It’s kind of forced friendships and you tell each other things that you wouldn’t ordinarily, because you’re spending so much time together. And she started talking about her marriage. I was more just a listener, and she’s talking to me about talking to me, talking to herself. And she said, “Y’know, he used to do this for me, he used to do that, but that was back when he was into me.” And she said it so plainly, it just hung in the air. I just grabbed it. Those are the ones that you grab, and they usually come pretty quickly. “Mile 416” is a song that we aren’t doing in the show right now, but I might, ’cause I wrote it driving down Route 2 at the top of the country. I went via eastern Montana, which is flat, as you know, and you go by and there’s one of those wooden crosses with flowers at mile 416. And I just grabbed a legal pad and had a conversation with this person that had gone away.
WV: Did the woman whose husband wasn’t into her anymore give you any feedback on the song? Have you heard from her?
JD: No. Never told her! She would never know. She would never remember. That’s what you do as a writer. Playwrights do it. Lanford Wilson taught me that. Just grab things. People say things. Grab ’em, and they’ll turn into something: a play, a book, a song, a poem, whatever. But you have to be listening. You have to be aware of what people are doing. It’s all fair game. I mean, you put her name in there? Sure. Absolutely. But I don’t. It could be anyone, and that’s the universal truth of the song, is that there are a lot of people out there going, “Y’know, back when he was into me.” You’re damn right. I probably have a couple of wives out there looking at their husbands after the song.
WV: Speaking of your playwriting, tell me a little about your new play Casting Session.
JD: Casting Session is a love letter to the off-Broadway actors. And I used to be that, and I still occasionally go to New York and do a reading for an off-Broadway company or a theater like that that’s considering doing a play. You’ll come in and you’ll read it, and they’ll make a decision as to whether to go forward with the play or not. But I’ve been in that casting director’s office. It’s the fifth floor of some midtown casting office, and you go in, and it’s for a play that’s not good, but you need the job. And it’s gonna be off-off-Broadway, and you’ll play to 14 people a night.
WV: For 14 bucks.
JD: Yeah, and I would do those plays. I mean, my God, that’s how you start. It was seven years before I got Terms of Endearment, kicking around off-Broadway, just trying to stay in the business. And you worked where you could. And a friend of mine who’s in his 60s, and you know, he’s doing some television and audiobooks and stuff like that, so he’s out of that room. But sometimes he’ll go into that room, because he wants to do a play and wants to stay in the city and all that. But he said he was sitting in that room, and he started telling me--I mean, you just wonder why you’re doing this. And the young director for this play is not back from lunch yet. He’s late and unprofessional, and the receptionist doesn’t care whether you’re there or not, and you hear these footsteps coming up to the fourth floor ’cause the elevator’s out. And you see another 63-year-old guy that this actor recognizes, ’cause they go up on the same auditions quite a bit and have for decades. And the guy just leans into the doorway breathing heavily, and just says, “I’m too f***in’ old for this.” And I said, there’s the play. I blew it up, I put two 60-something actors in there who have auditioned against each other for decades, and their careers have never progressed. They’ve never gone beyond that kind of play at that level. And they hate each other. They compete, they’re rivals, they’re Michigan/Michigan State, and they’re just saying, “Here’s that guy again.” And they’re stuck in that room together, auditioning for what they think is a play.
WV: Boy, I’ve been in that room so many times. If you could have your manager email me that script, I’d love to read it.
JD: I imagine it’ll be available soon. Here’s what we do with my scripts. We premiere ’em at the Purple Rose, and it’ll go till Christmas. I don’t know when they’ll make the script available, but we license them out of the Purple Rose. I’ve done a couple Samuel Frenches and Dramatists Play Services. Four of them are with Dramatists, and the other twelve including Casting are Purple Rose. And I just split the cut, heavy on the side of the Purple Rose whenever someone does the play. So the point is that they’ll have a printed copy of the script, I would think, by the end of the year.
WV: Back in those early days, Jack Lemmon once told you to “be a little strange” in auditions. How did you put that advice into effect?
JD: You gotta stand out. That’s [the name of a song] I do in the show. He went on. He said, “You can’t be normal. You gotta be strange. You gotta be a little bit different, kid. Go in with a corncob pipe.” I said, what? You mean an actual--? He goes, “No, it’s a metaphor. I’m kidding. You gotta stand out. Don’t be like the five guys in front of you and the ten guys after you. And whatever that means to you, and to crazy actors who need work--some guys can get pretty...you know. I know one actor who during an audition punched a hole through the wall to show them. ’Cause the guy gets angry in the scene, so he punched a hole through the drywall.
WV: Did it work?
JD: He ended up getting the part, yeah.
WV: It’s interesting, because both you and Lemmon are known for being in that “everyman” mold, so I guess you probably are sitting in a room with twenty-four Jack Lemmons, or wannabe Jack Lemmons anyway.
JD: Oh my God, yeah, I mean, you get to New York and L.A., and trust me, there are a hundred guys behind you who can’t wait for you to get done with your audition. And they all look just like you. They’re all variations on you or whatever that “everyman” thing is, yeah.
WV: I’ve seen both The Martian and Steve Jobs. I quite enjoyed both. Sorkin wrote you a terrific argument scene in Steve Jobs, and I don’t know your method in particular, but how close were you to punching Michael Fassbender?
JD: Oh, not at all. Not at all, and that’s the fun of it for us. It becomes a dance, because once you get on top of the words--which is a lot of work, because Sorkin writes so many--a lot of work and a lot of repetition so that they become second nature. Y’know, you may have read this somewhere, but you try to get them so ingrained in you that it feels like the one-hundredth performance of a Sorkin play. I mean, you aren’t even thinking about it. The curtain goes up and you just--it’s like dominoes. It just falls, one at a time. And that’s different from the opening night, where every line, every moment, you’re all, "God, I’ve gotta remember this, remember that." Once you get on top of it, then it becomes this, you know, “it takes two to tango” kinda thing. And we’d come out of a take, and cut; and I’d go, Michael, I was late on that. He goes, “No, no, I was early. We’ll fix it.” Okay, good. And then you go: take two. It becomes this choreographed thing that, when we work together and we use each other—that’s what’s so great about working with the people at this level, in Jobs and other movies. We use and abuse each other, and then help each other up when they say cut. That’s the fun of it. That’s the joy of it, you know, in taking your emotions and twisting ’em like a pretzel in front of the camera. And also making it happen for the first time in front of the camera. I mean, a lot of what Michael and I did was--the camera just had to catch it. We never had gone that hard at it, purposefully, in rehearsals. We kinda walked up to it and kind of did the speech maybe at 25 percent steam. But when they say action, it’s like the start of the Kentucky Derby.
WV: Well, it’s just an amazing scene, and I think people will be talking about it for a long time. What is the key to performing a Sorkin “walk and talk?” And I ask because I just came off a Sorkin play myself. I’m an actor as well, and I find the speed of it is very challenging.
JD: Yeah, back to that--it’s the repetition of the lines, the preparation. Because it’s one thing to sit in your chair at home and do the scene. It’s--in a way, because you’re moving now, you’re doing two things. It’s the walking and chewing your gum at the same time, that joke. But you’re doing an independent activity, other than what you’re saying. You’re going somewhere. You’re going from point A to point B. So part of you has to be focused on where you’re going, and I’ve got to get to the newsroom, and what is it you want? Y’know, but you’re going somewhere. And you just have to be talking as you’re going from point A to point B. A helpful thing for me was always--I mean, it’s silly, but you memorize the lines and you walk from the living room to the kitchen, and you pour a glass of water, and then you walk back and set it on the table in the living room. You’re doing something else while you’re saying this other thing. And that’s confusing and difficult, and your body and your mind want to do one thing, not two. It’s getting your mind right, and that’s just forcing your mind to multitask when it’s trying to remember lines, if that makes any sense at all.
WV: No, it absolutely does.
JD: You gotta do the mechanics of what you’re gonna do as well as remember all those words. Yeah, and the two are not really related. You’re going to the newsroom to do the broadcast, and Mac’s talking to you about the weather. They don’t relate, but...
WV: But it adds urgency to the scene.
JD: It allows you to do two things at once.
JD: Which is what we do in life, y’know? We’re constantly walking and talking and going somewhere and saying something and probably having a conversation that has nothing to do with where we’re going.
WV: Is there a movie of yours that, if you pass it on cable, you have to watch it to the end?
JD: No, they um, no. There are movies of other people. I mean, I’ll--no, I tend not to even look at my stuff, to be honest. I mean, I’ll see Purple Rose of Cairo or I’ll see The House on Carroll Street. I rarely go to it, rarely if ever. I can’t remember the last time I stopped and said I’ll watch--let’s watch Dumb and Dumber, y’know?
WV: If I pass Pleasantville, especially if it’s before the scene where you see paintings for the first time, I’m done. I’m stuck till the end. That scene is one of my favorites ever. It’s a stunner.
JD: Gary Ross wrote a great, great script. I loved what he did with that. I wish that film had gotten more attention.
WV: My wife would slaughter me if I didn’t ask you: is there any chance of a Dumb and Dumberest in our future?
JD: Y’know, I think the second one did pretty good. Y’know, there were a few studios that just said, it’s gonna die, it’s just a horrible idea, and so it did fine. It comes down to Jim and the Farrellys, and I have a feeling it’d be like Lemmon and Matthau, y’know? Maybe when we’re almost 70, Jim’ll go, “Hey! One more time!” And you go, okay, here we go! They’re always fun to do. It’s so inappropriate, so outlandish, and the second one--to be middle-aged and still that stupid was uh--it’s very refreshing, I must say. It’s like a cleanse.
WV: Well, I really enjoyed your SNL appearance in support of it. That seemed like a fun day in New York.
JD: Oh, it was. It was great of them to include me, yeah.
WV: All right, Mr. Daniels, I know you’re super busy, and I will let you get back to it, but I appreciate your time.
JD: All right, thanks, Christian. Take care.