“Pain, pain, pain, curtain call,” deadpans Jeff Daniels of his latest theater experience. Not that you would guess it from the actor’s serene demeanor. Seated in a rocking chair (a gift from his wife after his 1982 Obie-winning performance in “Johnny Got His Gun”) in his Upper West Side walk-up, spring light streaming in through the window, Daniels looks like a man content with his life. And he has every reason to be satisfied: After a 14-year absence from the New York stage, he has returned in David Harrower’s dark tour de force, “Blackbird,” opening Tuesday at the Manhattan Theatre Club.
Daniels stars as Ray, a man trying to rebuild his life, even changing his name to Peter after a prison stint for a heinous act. His endeavor at self-improvement is complicated by a visit from the twentysomething Una (Alison Pill), whose ties with him date back to the time of his crime and whose presence instigates a 100-minute emotional maelstrom.
It is a part that Daniels found irresistible after five years spent searching for a good theater role.
“I read it and thought, I don’t know how I’m gonna pull this off,” recalls the actor, whose home base is Chelsea, Mich., with his wife and three kids. “After a lot of years of doing this, when you get something like that…you can either jump off the cliff and risk great misery and failure and maybe you pull it off.”
Such risks are not unusual for Daniels, who, though he has had a string of what he terms “a lot of nice-guy heroes,” has never been one to balk at appearing unsympathetic. After all, his breakout film, “Terms of Endearment,” had him as an adulterous husband whose wife dies of cancer.
“When you get out of the gate playing one of the all-time jerks that’s memorable, that’s kind of what you’re offered,” he quips. “They’re more interesting to play. You aren’t careening toward that speech where you redeem yourself or at least ingratiate yourself upon the viewing audience by trying to be illogically likable all of a sudden.”
And it was another jerk husband, opposite Laura Linney in 2005’s “The Squid and the Whale,” that helped revive Daniels’ film career from the likes of “Fly Away Home” and earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
This story first appeared in the April 5, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“That woke everybody up,” he says succinctly of “Squid,” which has been followed by parts in “Infamous,” “Good Night and Good Luck” and “The Lookout,” in theaters now. Not that the actor was short of other noncinematic projects. Back home in Michigan (he lives a mile away from where he and his wife both grew up), Daniels is the artistic director of the Purple Rose Theatre Company, named for the Woody Allen film “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and for which he has written 11 plays. He is also a musician, writing songs and touring the country with his guitar and one-man show.
“I’ve got two CDs. Most of the songs are live and most of the proceeds go to the theater company,” he explains, adding jokingly, “which kind of takes me off the Russell Crowe-William Shatner-Kevin Bacon train: Take me seriously, goddamn it!”
Daniels himself has been taking acting seriously since his high school jock days when his choir teacher spontaneously asked him to play a sailor in her production of “South Pacific.” He participated in every musical she did after that.
“I was good and I knew it. I got better every time,” he recalls. “She just kept doing it, like, ‘I want you to play Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”‘ And me, ‘What? I’m 18, blonde and don’t have a clue as to what Jewish is.'”
Daniels minored in drama at Central Michigan University and was discovered by veteran artistic director Marshall W. Mason when he was a junior in college, prompting him to drop out and move to New York. He has been acting ever since.
And, though he has had a steady career of supporting roles in films like “The Hours” and “Dumb and Dumber,” at 52, he is ready, though not desperate, for the recognition that grittier parts bring.
“The whole goal — it’s like grabbing air — but the goal is to be definitive,” explains Daniels. “Whatever it might be you’re doing, you want people to see it and say, ‘I can’t imagine anybody else in the role.'”