Jeff Daniels’ Path Less Traveled
Midwest actor, playwright finds Hollywood success on his terms
In fact, this veteran of more than 50 films and numerous stage productions vehemently denies any intention to pursue a thespian career at all.
"I was dragged into it," he says. "I had a choir teacher in high school who did musicals. She needed guys for South Pacific. Any guy who could sing, she put them in the play. It became apparent that I knew what to do in front of 700 people in the auditorium."
After high school, Daniels attended Central Michigan University, where he continued to act. "I went to college and I just kept on going, waiting to fail miserably, so that I could work at my dad's lumber company," he says. "But I kept on succeeding. Eventually, I met somebody and he said that I should move to New York."
Before long, Daniels was cast in several high-visibility Hollywood films, including James L. Brooks' Terms of Endearment and Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo.
"I got out of the gate fast," he says, adding that he didn't want to be a flash in the pan. "Early on, I knew that I was in a business that discards people. I didn't want to be discarded until I was ready. I wanted to be the one who walked away. I wanted to do that in my 70s. Soâ€¦I sat down with myself and tried to figure out, 'How could I possibly do that?'"
Daniels says he examined the career trajectories of some of his favorite actors.
"I just wanted to be an actor like Jimmy Stewart, Alan Arkin, Jack Lemmon, who lasted for decades," he says. "I looked at those guys and how they did it. They mixed it up. They mixed up the characters, they mixed up genres, the comedies, the dramas."
Daniels' résumé reflects that desire to mix it up. His creative choices have varied between live theater, mainstream Hollywood films and smaller indie vehicles.
"I think that in a lot of cases, it helps to keep you sane," Daniels says of theater and smaller film productions. "When you come from the theater, it's just the director or the playwright. And there's just the two of them in a room making decisions."
He observes that an indie film is similar to an off-Broadway theater experience. "You don't have 16 people that you're answering to in an office building in Hollywood somewhere, like you do on a studio film. So I like that on The Squid and the Whale and The Answer Man,we're figuring out ourselves on the set what to do. I like that, on indies, the scripts are more complex and more challenging."
Of course, that's not to say that Daniels doesn't appreciate the appeal of big-budget Hollywood films. "Studio movies are fun because there's more money and you have more toys," he says. "You show up and there's 40 semi-trucks there. It's a big damn movie and it's fun. They put the camera on you and you do your part of it and it opens in 6,000 theaters."
Instead of opting for the big-time Hollywood life, though, Daniels returned to his hometown of Chelsea, Mich., which has a population of about 5,000 people. He lives there with his wife of 30 years, who was his high-school sweetheart, and their three children.
"I did not have a clue about how to live in Hollywood or raise kids in Hollywood," he says. "I didn't know how to do it, so I wasn't going to do it. Family came first. Career was second. It was a close second, but it was second."
Daniels has made some unconventional choices in his career as well-even when people warned him that it could hurt his professional trajectory. When he was offered a main role in the lowbrow comedy Dumb and Dumber, he saw reasons to take a chance on it.
"I can do comedy and nobody knows it. So I'm going to stand next to Jim Carrey and do comedy," he recalls. "I had agents warn me, 'You're going to get killed.'"
In actuality, it turned out to be a great career move "that bought me 10 years," he adds. The freedom enabled Daniels to indulge his penchant for stage work and quirky indie films.
"I focused on the only thing that I could control, and that was whether I was any good or not, regardless of whether the movie was any good or not, whether it made any money or not," Daniels says of the key to his success. "The only thing that I could control was that I was good. All the other stuff is other stuff."