I first met Jeff Daniels back in 1995, when I was a fledgling journalist for an obscure indie magazine out of Chicago. I’d somehow gotten the plum gig of interviewing Daniels, who was suddenly hot again because of the Farrelly Brothers’ gross-out comedy Dumb & Dumber. He agreed to meet me at his Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea, Michigan, a shortish four-hour Amtrak journey away. It was the first time I’d ever interviewed somebody of his B-list celebrity stature, and aside from a few semi-relevant questions about diarrhea, I was shamefully unprepared. He endured my amateurish attempts at engaging him in conversation, and when I asked why he seemed annoyed, he scolded me for asking boring questions. And then, for reasons I don’t entirely recall, we got sidetracked talking about German clowns in dom-sub relationships, and we laughed and laughed through the rest of the interview. It was, as the kids today like to say, a hot mess. But it was exactly the trial by fire I needed, and at least in my mind, definitive proof that Daniels was an underappreciated genius.
Fifteen years later, Jeff Daniels doesn’t need some punk journalist from Chicago to sing his praises. Thanks to Sundance favorites like The Squid and the Whale and Broadway hits like God of Carnage, he’s gone from “that actor who had so much potential in the 80s, it’s a shame he never went anywhere” to sharing the same rare stratosphere of indie actors like Steve Buscemi, where audiences will go see a film just because he’s in it. That definitely holds true for Daniel’s latest, Paper Man, which co-stars Emma Stone and Ryan Reynolds and opens today just about everywhere. It’s the story of an alienated middle-aged novelist trying to make sense of his life. In other words, pretty much like every decent Jeff Daniels indie movie in recent memory.
I called Daniels in New York, and at least at first, it was like some horrifying flashback. He had roughly the same enthusiasm for talking with me that I imagine he has for calls from his accountant about missing receipts. But when he warms up to you, joking with Daniels about bloodthirsty reality TV and grateful funeral directors is one of the best ways to spend an afternoon.
Eric Spitznagel: When I heard you were playing a novelist in Paper Man, I was hoping you’d grow another one of those awesome super-bushy writer beards like you did for Squid and the Whale.
Jeff Daniels: Yeah, that was an outstanding beard. But I can’t do a beard in every movie. You’ve gotta mix it up. In Fly Away Home, there was a battle with the studio for my beard. I think the corporate line was “None of our leading actors have facial hair.” The order came down from the eighteenth floor of some building in L.A. I took a stand and at the end of the day they said, “O.K., fine, whatever. Grow your beard.”
How long does it take you to grow a beard so ridiculously shaggy you could lose food in it?
Well, for Squid I started growing it in late April and we started shooting on the first of July. We actually trimmed it down. My beards go wide. They go east to west. I don’t have one of these hanging down to your belly button type of beards. It goes from shoulder to shoulder. So we’ve got to take out the hedge clippers and funnel it forward.
A lot of teenage girls might come see Paper Man thinking it’s a Ryan-Reynolds-cavorting-in-tights kind of movie, and instead they’ll get a movie about a lonely middle-aged writer. Shouldn’t there be some kind of disclaimer?
I think there’s enough of Ryan in there to keep them interested. They’ll just have to wait out my angst in order to get to another shot of Ryan in the yellow shorts, or just take another trip to the concession stand.
So you’re condoning that they leave the theater during your scenes?
Sure, why not? As long as they pay full price, I don’t give a damn.
Reynold’s career has taken a superhero path lately, with Wolverine and the upcoming Green Lantern. As a fellow actor, do you sit him down and say, “Dude, seriously, you have to stop?”
You’re talking to one of the guys who was in Dumb and Dumber. I know a good career move when I see one.
Even in hindsight, you still think Dumb and Dumber was a good career move?
Oh yeah, sure. I did it because I wanted to change things up, and I wanted to prove that I had range. That translates as longevity to me. If I can do Dumb and Dumber and then something completely different like Squid and the Whale, that obviously means I have a big range. And a big range means more jobs and more opportunities over the decades, which in turn means I can live in Michigan and get away with it.
Is that how you pitched it to your wife? “Listen, I’m gonna do this movie with a pretty graphic toilet scene. But I’m only doing it so we can stay in Chelsea. I’m doing it for the kids.”
When the movie came out, I was a hero to my kids. We knew the movie was gonna be big, and in a little town like Chelsea, we weren’t sure how the boys would handle it. After the opening weekend, I did all these press junkets and they gave me t-shirts and hats, and the boys of course had to wear them to school the next morning. Not since Moses parted the Red Sea has there been something so miraculous. They walked down the hallway of their school in full Dumb and Dumber regalia—the hats and shirts and everything—and the crowd just parted for them. They were a pretty big deal in their elementary school for a day or two.
Your family owns a lumber company, right? You must know a lot of interesting fun facts about lumber.
(Laughs.) When I was growing up, attempts were made to fill my head with exciting information about lumber and wood, but it was like putting a square peg in a round hole. I just couldn’t do it, much to my frustration.
So if I was to ask you if cedar or redwood are more rot resistant, you’d tell me…
I’d look at you with a glazed look in my eyes, and kind of fumble to put together a sentence in the form of an answer. I’m quite embarrassing when it comes to things like that. What’s a 2-8 door? I don’t know, just put the damn door in.
I guess your parents had no illusions that you’d take over the family business someday?
I worked at the lumber company for four summers, driving a truck and making deliveries, and I was competent at best. I’d take a corner too fast, and I’d look out the side mirror and two hundred cement blocks were rolling across some guy’s lawn. When I announced that I was going to New York to be an actor, there was a sigh of relief from my whole family.
Did you have to sit your parents down and tell them, “I’m sorry, lumber’s just not for me?”
We never got to “lumber’s not for me.” I just went straight for “I have a chance to go to New York and be an actor.” It wasn’t a big surprise. They always knew I’d go in that direction. I was in high-school musicals and community theater. They knew there was something above and beyond for this one.
With your lack of woodworking skills, does that mean your wife is the fix-it person in your house?
She’s been claiming recently that she’s the man in our relationship. Which of course pisses me off.
Because it’s not true?
Oh it’s true. She’s Mrs. Fix-It right now. I’ve also noticed that she’s far more into sports than I am. Sports used to be my religion. I still follow the Detroit Tigers, but she’s watching everything. College basketball, the Masters. She cares about golf now. And me, I’m wondering what time the Kardashians show is on. There’s a role reversal going on with us that I’m not quite comfortable with.
You seriously watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians?
Not really, no. But I’ve got a weird curiosity with all those reality shows. Every time I flip by one of them, my jaw drops. Really? So apparently there is no shame left in America. Eventually somebody’s going to get murdered on one of those shows, right?
You think so? How’s that gonna happen?
Drama is conflict, and for all these shows, you just know the producers are off-camera, egging them on, saying things like, “Get at her, get at her!” Because without the drama, there’s no show and no reason for people to watch. In order to top what we saw last season, somebody’s got to get snuffed out eventually. Someone’s got to die. Literally die. Right there on your TV screen. And let’s make sure we’ve got three cameras filming it as it happens.
Will reality TV follow that old Chekhov rule? If there’s a pistol in the first act, it’ll get fired in the third?
Forget that. The first act? Somebody’s going to kill somebody in the first episode. They have to keep topping themselves, and a televised murder seems to be the only thing left. My point is, I think it’s only going to get worse.
You’re back on Broadway, starring in Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage through early July. You were in the original American cast last year, but this time you’ve switched roles, playing James Gandolfini’s part instead. Is that the Broadway equivalent of a Chinese fire drill?
A little bit, yeah. We’re in our seventh week of performances so I’ve gotten used to it, but for the first couple of weeks it was weird. The other role is so ingrained in me, it was almost hallucinogenic. When a cue would come up, my body would literally twitch. The other line was still in my head. That took a little doing. But once again, it’s about showing my range. I wanted to be one of those guys in the history of Broadway who’s flipped roles in the same production. You can count the actors who’ve done it on one hand. That appealed to me.
You weren’t concerned that Gandolfini might have your knees broken?
We’re friends. He couldn’t have been more supportive. He was like, “Naw, you gotta do it. You gotta do it. I can’t wait to buy a ticket and see if you can pull it off.”
That’s really what every stage actor dreams about, isn’t it? To look out into an audience and see James Gandolfini sneering back at you?
I can’t wait. I’ll lean into a laugh and it won’t be there, and Jimmy will be the one person out there laughing at my pain and misery.
Last week you and Kyle MacLachlan lobbied on Capital Hill for arts funding. That’s got to be frustrating for conservatives who hate celebvocates. What are they going to say? “What does a goddamn Hollywood actor know about… oh, yeah, right.”
They don’t want to spend any money. I get it, I understand. Everybody wants their taxes cut. And I get it that some people hear the word art and they run in the other direction. But as I said on the Hill, we’re what you do on a Saturday night. When I first opened the theater in Chelsea, people were telling me, “Jeff, you have to understand, art is somebody who lives north of town.” We had to win them over, and we did it with comedy. I wrote comedies, and I wrote about them. I wrote about the people sitting in our seats, which is just what Shakespeare did. Write about them, and for them. Challenge them, make them think, make them laugh, make them cry.
You argued that the National Endowment for the arts needs $180 million in federal support for 2011. But to paraphrase one of my right-wing relatives who shall remain nameless, how is a community theater production of Rent going to keep us safe from terrorism?
(Laughs.) Oh my god. Well, then I’ll say… (long pause) I guess it doesn’t. But it distracts us. Where else do you want to be when the next bomb drops? What a great place to be, singing about (sings) “Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes…”
(Sings) “…Till this whole building blows sky high.”
(Laughs.) Yeah, yeah, right. And all of a sudden, boom, it’s all over. The end of the world happens. There are worse places to die than a theater.
The obvious knee-jerk Republican follow-up is, “Are you advocating socialism?”
(Laughs.) Sure, whatever. No more taxes at all! Who needs anything! Let’s eliminate roads! We don’t need ‘em. Daniel Boone didn’t have a road. He just had two ruts going down the hill with grass coming up in the middle. Get rid of the roads! But to be fair, there are Republicans who are for the arts. They understand that they create jobs and money. The Purple Rose theater company brings in 40,000 people every year to a 5,000-person town. Tell me that doesn’t add up to something at the cash register for the people who’ve opened businesses around me. If that’s all we care about in this capitalistic country, fine, art can be a good investment.
Didn’t you mention something to Congress about a funeral director in Chelsea thanking you for the business?
Yeah, that’s a true story. There’s a Methodist retirement home in Chelsea. It’s a senior assisted-living facility that’s been there for decades. I guess people would come to Chelsea to see Mom or Dad or Grandpa or whoever, and then they’d all go see a show, and then Grandma died. So they just walked across the street to the funeral home and, you know… bought a funeral. The guy who runs it came over to the Purple Rose and wanted to thank me. I didn’t know what to make of it, so I just said the only thing you can say in that situation, which is, “You’re welcome.”
The promotional opportunities are endless. Your theater needs a new logo like “Come Stroke Out at the Purple Rose.”
(Laughs.) Yeah, sure, that works. Maybe we’ll do a matinee and a funeral. Two for the price of one. I don’t know. There are some nice tie-ins.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com