“Speaking Freely” show recorded March 1, 2002, in Aspen, Colo.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression and the arts. I’m Ken Paulson. We’re joined today by a highly successful actor with a special commitment to both theater and his hometown, Jeff Daniels. Welcome to the show. Delighted to have you here. You know, you have not followed classic career moves. Just when your — when your career is, like, hottest, you move to that hotbed of Hollywood activity: Michigan, right?
Jeff Daniels: Mm-hmm.
Paulson: What drove that?
Daniels: Well, I’d been in New York for about almost 10 years, and I had, at that — I got out of the gate great as far as films went. I had done a little bit in “Ragtime,” “Terms of Endearment,” right to Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo.” Mike Nichols, “Heartburn,” I mean, he said, “Good enough for Woody; good enough for me.” That was the audition. And so I was, I was doing really well, and I could live anywhere. And I didn’t want to live in Los Angeles at all. I was married. I had a two-year-old boy at the time. We had a one-bedroom apartment in the upper west side of New York, and I just said, “Let’s go back home,” ’cause I didn’t think this would last. I truly didn’t. So we went back home, knowing that we would fail, and I would land there. And, um, you know, and it worked for many years. I’d get on the plane and go do the movie, and they — now have, I now have three kids — and they get to live in the Midwest, which we both call home. And you know, and then just when it was supposed to end, I got “Dumb and Dumber.”
Paulson: And was there a point at which you said, you know, “This may not work. The career may be gone”? I mean, that the —
Paulson: Weekly, OK.
Daniels: Yes, I was really, you know, thinking that this is — well, you know, “Just give me another year, and then I can get out of here.” But I kept succeeding just enough to — that, by the time I was 30, I was going, “Well, I got to stick around and do this.”
Paulson: And you succeeded early, not just in film, but on Broadway, ah, appearing in “Fifth of July.” I understand that Lanford Wilson actually wrote that part for you? What’s the, what’s the, what’s the story behind that?
Daniels: Yeah, I, I — at 21, I moved to New York, and because I had a connection at the Circle Repertory Company, which, at the time, was, perhaps, the leading off-Broadway theater company for doing new American work. That’s all they did. And to walk into that office downtown, and there’s Lanford Wilson, whom — I had done “Hot L Baltimore,” his play, and I knew of him. But I — you know, I — it never dawned on this corn-fed Midwestern actor that he would actually be alive, you know? Playwrights are dead, you know? They’re Shakespeare. They’re people like that. And here’s this, this playwright who had written this “Hot L,” which I love, and he was in the middle of a second act that he was having difficulty with and this and that. And I just — it was so exciting. It was so thrilling to see a living, breathing playwright, and that’s what Circle Rep was. And within two years, he was writing another play, and he just kind of watched me, and he just tailored the part for me and, and four or five other people.
Paulson: And that included Christopher Reeve?
Daniels: No, Bill Hurt.
Paulson: Oh, OK.
Daniels: We started the play “Fifth of July” off-Broadway in the spring of ’78, and Bill Hurt was a member of the company at the time, and he wrote the lead for Bill and me and several other members of the company. And, and then Bill left after six weeks, and, ah, somebody else came in. And then when we finally went to Broadway, Chris — Chris took it over on Broadway.
Paulson: Did you, as a young actor — you know, you just want to work, probably, and find whatever kind of roles you can, but these are roles of great integrity. Did you, did you turn down other things? Are you pretty selective as a — were you selective as a young actor?
Daniels: I was talking out of both sides of my mouth, because I didn’t want to wait tables. And so I would work at Circle Rep for 125 bucks a week doing “Fifth of July,” off-Broadway or whatever, and yet I was going up on McDonald’s commercials, and you know? And so I, I landed a couple national commercials, which paid my rent and allowed me to just go to the acting classes and just work at Circle. So I was kind of doing both, which, which was good, which was a great lesson, because later on, when I started getting into the films, unless you’re on, unless you’re on that A-list of guys that get to turn down 30 scripts before they choose the one, you know, you’re doing — you’re kind of mixing it up, commercially and also the ones you really want to, just love to do.
Paulson: You mentioned your role in “Ragtime” setting the stage, then, for your role in “Terms” — “Terms of Endearment.” Did you have any idea what a big movie that would be?
Daniels: I knew I was lucky to be there on the set of “Terms of Endearment.” I mean, when you’ve got Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine. And I remember being in the rehearsal room, and they didn’t have the astronaut yet. And, and I’m just — I got rent of 750 bucks a month and two grand in the bank and my wife, Kathleen, back in New York in the apartment, and I’m out in L.A. rehearsing with these two mega-stars, and the phone rings, and Jim Brooks, the director, walks over and just goes, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We got Jack.” And I’m goin’, “Jack who?” You know? He goes, “You’re in a Jack Nicholson movie.” And that’s when I was just, I was just, “Everything I’ve ever learned, let me please remember it right now, because I’m going to need it, I think.”
Paulson: One of the things I loved about reading about your career and your comments about your films is, you’ve never stopped being a fan. You know, when you — when you went to go for “Purple Rose of Cairo,” I mean, you’re in awe of Woody Allen.
Daniels: Oh, yeah, not only the director but — and the body of work, but the writer. That’s when I really got around, you know, the, the writing of it. And Circle Rep had done that, too. Lanford, you know, just seeing the process for the first time instead of just the published, finished script. You — you’re seeing it come together just like a performance, and it fascinated me. Then to see Woody do that on film. When we were shooting “Purple Rose of Cairo,” we would shoot the first draft, you know. We would shoot the first draft of the scene, say, or sometimes even the movie, because we came back so much and re-shot scenes, but he had that luxury, which is, which is a great thing to be able to do. And then we would do three or four takes, and then he would go, “All right,” and he’d pull that speech out, move that one up, take this, and go, “I’ll be right back,” and then rewrite a little bit and then hand you that. “How long do you need?” “Uh, five minutes would be good.” “Good. Give, give Jeff five,” and then come in and do it that way. And it was just him getting options, him working the writing. It was just fascinating for me. It really was. It was a big setup for, you know, the writing of plays and screenplays I’d do later.
Paulson: “Purple Rose” was well received. It holds up very well. The next movie you did, “Something Wild.” Are you surprised at the legs of that? I mean, people still talk about it. They — that’s, ah, it’s not a cult film, but it’s much appreciated for —
Daniels: Well, it is. It is a cult film. Because I remember they released it as kind of a, you know, a Chevy Chase, you know, yuk-yuk comedy, and not with Jonathan Demme. I remember standing on the set of that film and looking around and seeing behind me this motorcycle with a dog on it, and the dog had a helmet strapped to the backseat of the Harley or whatever. And I’m going, “This is like Woody. This is like — this is Jonathan Demme.” If you look at the frame, that’s Jonathan — this is a Jonathan Demme frame. This is, this is what he’s doing with it. And so I knew that, that the movie was good. I knew that it would last, and I knew the violent turn that it takes about 2/3 would split the critics in half. But I — I’m not surprised that that one has lasted. I’m really not.
Paulson: At what stage in your film career did you then say, “I’m goin’ home”? Was it shortly after that, or —
Daniels: It was right before, um, I think right before. It was 1986. I — it was, it was right around “Something Wild.”
Daniels: Yeah, I just went home. I just didn’t want to be in New York. And I, I — I’m not a big fan of L.A., so that wasn’t an option.
Paulson: And in addition to being at home in the Midwest where you’re comfortable, you make a commitment to start a theater company, really.
Daniels: Yeah, after I was there a while. I went there in ’86 and played a lot of golf and pretended I wasn’t in the movie business, which was great. Um, but then, then what I missed was the creativity and that you get on a good movie set or on a good play — production of a play, the rehearsal process, where you get around people that are as creative and have that active imagination that Circle Rep did —
Daniels: — or that certain films did. And, and you’re just goin’ — and I didn’t have that. I was playin’ golf, you know. And, and I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t doin’ anything. I was just waiting for the phone to ring, and I just said, “There’s — there must be people around here that either went to New York, Chicago, L.A., and didn’t make it, or never went, have kids, but, given the chance, could still do it.” And so I bought this wooden warehouse in this 5,000-person town, Chelsea, right near Ann Arbor. And at the time we bought it, if there were 25 businesses downtown, 12 of ‘em were boarded up. And we opened the theater, and, and I led with a lot of comedies, because I — I just believe in that art form. And, but I also felt that, that it was a great way to get people in the door, because you — you’re, you know, there’s a huge audience out there that rents movies and watches ‘em on their VCR or that just sits in front of the tube. How do you get that guy off his couch into a theater? Comedy is a great way to do it, and that’s what we did. Within two years, there were restaurants, there were coffee shops, there were art galleries, and there was a waiting list for any business that failed in that town. I mean, it completely — that theater completely turned that town around economically.
Paulson: And could other communities do that without Jeff Daniels?
Daniels: That — it’s a tough, it’s a tough thing. Yeah, they can do it, but I think there’s a way to do it where you, you aim at the audience. You know, Marsha Norman’s a great playwright, and she, she said, at least she was quoted to have said that, “If you’re only going to write for yourself, then you’re going to play to an audience of one.” And you can go the wrong way by just going, “Well, let me write something that’s completely to the lowest common denominator,” like a lot of formula films are, or “Let’s just not ignore the fact that at the end of the day, you want someone to come in here, see this thing that you wrote, leave, and when they see their friends say, ‘You need to go see this thing.’” That’s the bottom line of what, I think, a lot of theaters forget. “We’re giving you — you give — we’re giving you something that’s good for you, and it’s like asparagus. You have to eat asparagus, whether you like it or not, because it’s good for you.” Well, you’re not going to get anybody interested in you that way.
Paulson: The challenge of doing theater in a community, smaller community, I think, you know, you’ve upped the ante as well, because I understand you, you have developed a mechanism to encourage people to write, to produce, and to develop material specifically about the Midwest. Is that — are those the guidelines?
Daniels: Yeah, and that’s the other thing, too, that a lot of theaters don’t do, and, and we did. Whether there are others, I don’t know. But people want to hear things about them, you know? It’s — we don’t have to wait for what was popular on off-Broadway last year and do the premiere production here in the Midwest of whatever Mamet wrote or Sheppard wrote or Lanford wrote or whomever. You know, you — find the writers around there. You’ve got to learn how to develop the writing. You’ve got to learn how to turn that, that 120 pages into a play. But once you learn how to do that, then you write and — get them to write about your corner of the country, wherever you are. They’ll come in droves. I mean, that’s all I would do, the first five plays that I wrote for the theater, ignoring the fact that — the celebrity factor. I was writing plays about Michigan and about that corner of the country. There aren’t a lot of plays about that corner of the country. And suddenly people were coming in, and they were looking in the mirror, you know.
Daniels: It sells tickets, and it also, you know, it justifies, you know, that you’re not stupid, that you’re not, you know, as an audience member, you’re not just everything’s going over your head, like, in the Midwest, you know. They all think that we’re, you know, idiots. We get the jokes. We just don’t think jokes about Newark are funny.
Paulson: When you write a play about Michigan, can you export it? Will it play in Houston?
Daniels: It’s, it’s a little tricky. Like, I wrote one play, “Escanaba in Da Moonlight,” about five guys in a deer camp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. And they’ve all got Upper, you know, yooper accents and the whole deal. It, yeah, it plays better in, like, the five-state region, but it, it was done — Tim Busfield has a theater company. He was “Thirtysomething,” on “West Wing,” and he’s had a great career. And Timmy’s got a theater out in Sacramento called the B Street Theater Company, and he’s done four of my plays, one of which was “Escanaba,” and I got a lot of Michigan jokes in there. He said — he, and he — his first wife, I think, or current wife — I’m not sure — was from Jackson, Michigan. Anyway, he didn’t change a joke. And it was — out of 42 main stage plays, it was their number four box office play. It can travel, you know? And, and, and it can. I mean, look at “Fully Monty.” Look at “Waking Ned Devine.” Look at these, you know, movies that were in Ireland or in London or whatever, and then yet, you know, they transfer.
Paulson: What is the culture — for those who have not spent any quality time in the Upper Peninsula, ah, can you describe that, why it’s different from, um, Tempe, Arizona?
Daniels: Well, it’s brutally honest. The B.S. factor is way down. If they even sense there’s an ego or arrogance on you, they will cut your knees out. There’s a great love of family. There’s a great need for — there’s a great sense of, “We don’t need anybody else.” There’s a joke in “Escanaba”: “If we’d wanted company, we’d-a let you build the Mackinaw Bridge a lot sooner.” And, and they’re very content to be up there by themselves: “Leave us alone.” And inside of all that are decades of families and generations. And that’s what the deer camp was and still is for many, many, many people. I know, my wife’s family still has a deer camp there that’s been since, you know, three, four generations. And they go to that camp every year, the traditions, the rituals. It’s really — and it’s — plus, it’s beautiful country up there.
Paulson: How did people from the U.P. react to, to “Escanaba in Da Moonlight”?
Daniels: Nine out of 10 of ‘em were thrilled. You know, if, if you have a sense of humor about yourself, you know that when you go to deer camp, it’s, it’s, you know, strange things can happen. And so, I got a lot of people that said, “Oh, have I got a deer — deer-hunting story for you,” and “Oh —.” So they all understood that that — the outrageousness of what happened in this particular deer camp was — you know, they recognized and were pretty comfortable with. When we shot the film there, which we shot in Escanaba, I think, part of it was the thrill of just watching a movie being made but also, the fact that we were dumping almost a million dollars, being a low-budget indie, but a low — million bucks into their community by hiring local people, getting materials from them, renting property, all that stuff was — they loved that. And, so that all made it good. There were a couple people that — driving by with the gun rack in the pickup with the sign in the back saying, you know, “Go back to Hollywood.” I had the one guy, one guy was in a complete head-to-toe Green Bay Packer outfit in a restaurant come over to me, and I was sitting with a couple of the other actors, and he’s going, right off the bat, “Mr. Daniels?” “Yeah?” “Ah, are you here to make fun of us?” And I said, “No, just Packer fans.”
Paulson: I used to live in Green Bay. I think I may know that guy.
Daniels: Yeah, yeah.
Paulson: They take a lot of pride in the city.
Daniels: They take far too much pride.
Paulson: I know that you took “Escanaba” and turned it into a film project, and then you’ve got to take it somewhere other than Michigan to sell, I presume, one of the coasts. What kind of reaction to this, to this heartland story do you get from —
Daniels: I got a lot of blank — ah, we didn’t get picked up nationally. We showed it to pretty much every distributor one at a time. So you can imagine a wild comedy about deer hunting and, you know, [Says in yooper accent] “where they’re talkin’ like this, eh? You know, they’re talkin’ this all the time.” And they’re like this the whole time. And you got this junior executive sitting in a screening room in L.A. goin’, “I wonder if this is funny. I wonder if I just, I’m not understanding this.” So we didn’t get picked up, but we decided to release it ourselves, and it did really, really well. And it set up the ability to do another one.
Paulson: Of course, the reality is that there are in the Midwest watching New York-driven or L.A.-driven media and entertainment going, “I, I don’t get it.” Why is it that an entire section of the country has just sort of been ignored?
Daniels: Well, the joke is, and the joke is that, you know, the reason they invented — you know, nobody wants to see the Midwest. That’s why they invented non-stops, you know. They just ppfffew, right over us. But I’ve never — “Escanaba” bothered me in the fact that it didn’t get picked up because, “Well, this is how we do it,” is what we were told. “We pick up your film, and we release it in New York, one theater in New York and one theater in L.A. so they can review it, and then maybe we let it come out.” And I’m goin’, “To hell with New York and L.A. What about the bajillion markets in between? You know, the people that, you know, need a night out and aren’t looking for a New York Times or L.A. Times review.” But that’s not the way it’s done. And so, in our own little way, we tried to beat that with “Escanaba,” and we did $2.2 million in two states. And we just, you know, decided to take that money and give it back to the investors as opposed to, you know, rolling it out in five more states or, you know, whatever. And with “Super Sucker,” the second film we did with many more Purple Rose actors, we’re hoping to get picked up, but we’ll see.
Paulson: And is it viable? Can you actually do independent film and make money in this country?
Daniels: [Pauses] Yes. Yes. It’s hard. You have to have money to start with. And it doesn’t have to be $10 million, you know? But there is — there are distribution costs, even if you four-wall it, if you, even, as they say, you go out to the theater owners yourselves and you call up these, you know, the multiplexes, and you go, “Do you have a screen? Give me a weekend, and I’ll give you something that’ll last four weeks,” which we did with “Escanaba.” Um, if you can prove to them that you can make money and then you have radio stations and people to help you promote it, where you just go — which is what we did; we blitzed the two states — then yeah. But it’s a lot of work. It’s not, it’s not enough just to shoot it, you know.
Daniels: And I think a lot of filmmakers think their job is done. And being one of the two guys that owns Purple Rose Films, you got to see it all the way through distribution.
Paulson: A film about vacuum cleaner salesmen, door to door, is that what it is? Um, that wouldn’t get made in Hollywood, right?
Daniels: Oh, it’d get made. It wouldn’t be this film, and it would probably star Bill Murray, because it’s a great part for Bill. It really is, but, you know, I didn’t want Bill to do it. So I wrote it for myself, and — and part of the reason why we wanted to be independent was — and raise the money privately — was that we think we know what we’re doing. And I don’t want to go through development hell, and I don’t want you to turn it into a kind of hybrid of two other movies that it reminds you, the development person, of. I don’t want to make it like something you’ve seen before. I want it to be different, and that doesn’t help us, because they, you know, distributors will see it and go, “I can’t — I don’t know what it is. I can’t pinpoint it. It’s not like anything I’ve seen.” We think that’s a good thing, but we aren’t going to get to do that if we’re going down their little checklist, and they’re reading their structure book, Sid Field’s structure book and all these how-to-write-a-screenplay books, closing it, and then giving me notes based on the chapter they just read.
Paulson: A movie that those of us who work in the area of free speech loved was “Pleasantville,” which would not have been, I would think, sort of a classic Hollywood model. I mean, that, that’s a, that’s a challenging movie.
Daniels: Yeah, it was a testament to Gary Ross, who wrote and directed it. And Gary had written “Dave” and, oh, “Big,” I think, and a few other things. He really — he’s one of the top screenwriters in L.A. and he had this, just this great script about, you know, art, about the discovery of art. And he used the metaphor of color, black and white versus color and going into this black-and-white world where everything is the same, this TV show where there are only 22 episodes, and that’s our whole world, and that’s all we know. It was a great little trick. And, to be one of the characters in that world who changes, who gets a book on art and painting opened in front of him, and all this color comes out. For the first time, he sees color. I mean, when I read the script, I just said, “This is, this is kind of what I’ve been doing, you know, with Circle Rep to the theater in Michigan.” I said, “It just,” I mean, “it just spoke to me, the script,” and so I was — I loved making that movie.
Paulson: A far different movie, “Dumb and Dumber.”
Daniels: And then there’s “Dumb and Dumber.”
Paulson: Which is — “Terms of Endearment” came into town when you really needed sort of a breakthrough, and you were talking about your rent. Did “Dumb and Dumber” serve that purpose later in your career?
Daniels: “Dumb and Dumber” was — my career had kind of started to do this, [Makes downward motion with hand] and, you know, there — I was on that kind of, “What do we have to do to get nominated,” you know, track, trap. And I was getting tired of it, and no one had really asked if I could do comedy, and I knew I could. “Something Wild,” I had done it and “Purple Rose of Cairo” a little bit, but nobody really, the outrageous stuff. And I just said, “Let me shake it up.” So I went out and read for a bunch of movies. One of ‘em was “Dumb and Dumber.” Went in and read with Jim, and Jim was, you know, I heard, had said, “The guy from ‘Gettysburg’? He’s not, he’s not funny.” I mean, I — and Pete Farrelly was and Bobby Farrelly was, “No, you got to see him, man. I mean, he’ll do it.” So I came in and read with Jim, and it was over after the first two lines of a two-page scene. I mean, we just kind of — you know, I did this hair thing. I just kind of blanked out, and Jim, you know, went into this smile, and Pete said you could see it right then, you know? And so that was, that was a thrill, because I got to work with Jim, who is — as a comedian, as a comic actor, as a person who looks at things comedically in life to get in between action and cut with somebody like that, it’s, it’s a tennis match against Sampras or Agassi. You know, it’s — there’s stuff comin’ at you, and you better be ready.
Paulson: So you went from a point where people weren’t thinking of you in terms of comedy. Then did you get a bunch of “Dumb and Dumber”-like scripts after that.
Daniels: Yeah, now, now I can’t do drama. Yeah, now it’s like, “That guy, he can’t do serious.”
Paulson: Didn’t you fix that by playing George Washington?
Daniels: Oh, I, you know, but — you try — you don’t care after a certain point, you know? You go, “Can I create an image?” Let me, let me do what they did in the old days and what I’m supposed to do now, which is create an image and be that guy, you know, every movie and then do interviews about the acting and the research it took. All I’m doing is bringing up the same bag of tricks. And from, from day one at Circle Rep, we were told, you know, you’re a different character. You know, we want characters. And I just admired the guys like Peter Sellers, you know, Alan Arkin, you know, guys like that, guys that were mixing it up. And I just — it seemed like, you know, for somebody like me that wanted to do other things like move back to Michigan, start a theater that — to, to lengthen the career, I ought to be — I should be mixing it up instead of trying to find some image that you might learn in star school, you know. So that’s what I did. That’s why I can go from “Dumb and Dumber” to “Gettysburg” to “Pleasantville” to “Super Sucker,” and people call and just go, “Oh, he can do that. If he can go from here to here, he can do this.”
Paulson: So you’ve done all that, and you’ve launched independent theater, independent films. What’s your future hold?
Daniels: Now I get to do stuff I just want — that I want to do, you know? We’d love to make a third film. I love writing plays for the theater company back there. We’re getting more and more of a national reputation for doing new work as one of the theaters in the country that focuses on new work. And when the movies call, it’s — it’s, you know, “Who am I working with?” You know? “With whom am I working?” It’s like, one is Clint Eastwood. I’m doing a Clint Eastwood movie right now. And not only to work with Clint but also to watch — he’s directing it as well, to watch how he directs and then steps in front of the camera. Something I’ve done twice, he’s done — what — 20 times? It’s a great classroom, you know? So it’s just — it’s fun now.
Paulson: Great, terrific to talk to you. Thank you for joining us today.
Daniels: Thank you very much.
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