Jeff Daniels Interview

Actor Jeff Daniels

Jeff Daniels is one of the film world’s most versatile actors. He set the lower end of toilet humor in Dumb and Dumber but has also turned heads for The Squid and the Whale and Imaginary Heroes. Chris Neumer traveled to the frozen tundra of Michigan to talk to this Hollywood outsider.

by Chris Neumer

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CHRIS NEUMER: She indoctrinated me that you were in this neck of the woods and then I found out that we had the same birthday.

JEFF DANIELS: Next Monday.

CHRIS NEUMER: Next Monday.

JEFF DANIELS: Aw, congratulations.

CHRIS NEUMER: Haylie Duff also has the 19th and the guy who did My Date with Drew, Brian Herzlinger, also has the 19th. (Read the interview with Brian Herzlinger)

JEFF DANIELS: Haylie Duff I was aware of. (Read the interview with Haylie Duff)

CHRIS NEUMER: Now you have another one you can put on that list and me. The February 19th crew is going on. Long live Russ Nixon.

JEFF DANIELS: We’re well represented.

CHRIS NEUMER: Yes. I was excited to talk to you because there’s a press photo of you in The Squid and the Whale–a movie which I haven’t actually seen yet. The press photo is of you. You’ve got your beard and you’re sitting on a chair looking like the world has had its way with you. I actually cut it out of the newspaper and I tacked it to my bulletin board in my office. I thought, “Here’s a guy who is depressed and there’s energy coming out of it.” I wasn’t sure how you did it. It struck me because I spoke to Josh Lucas for the cover story that you see there. He had said that the hardest thing for an actor to do was to play a boring character and have it not be boring for the audience. I remember there was a scene in Imaginary Heroes where you went trudging past a door and I wondered how the hell you made that interesting.

JEFF DANIELS: That’s nice, that’s nice.

CHRIS NEUMER: So I have to ask; how do you make that interesting?

JEFF DANIELS: I have no idea why it’s interesting. It’s that thing of once you do it and it’s in a movie, and it’s gone and it’s no longer yours and it’s completely how you perceive it as an audience. There’s no way for… I mean I don’t know what Josh actually said. Before they say “action”, I never say, “How do I be bored and uninteresting and make it not boring. ” I never think that way. It’s just actor stuff. What’s he thinking about and think it. You really simplify it. Squid and the Whale, which you really should see. It’s not like, “See my movies”, but that’s one that’s …

CHRIS NEUMER: That’s one that is on the list to see.

JEFF DANIELS: Noah [Baumbach] did such a great job with that and it’s just the little movie that could. Anyway, you put thoughts in your head and you think them. Thoughts that are specific to the character.

CHRIS NEUMER: It seems like a very simple acting technique.

JEFF DANIELS: We make it far too complicated. We really do. You have to go through that as an actor where you do tons and tons of research only to realize that once you get there, it’s like memorizing lines, you have to forget them. Do all the work and then forget all of it. It’s still there, but now just simplify it down to whatever it is you are thinking at that moment. Hopefully everything else that you have done, all the research that you’ve done on the guy, the squid, whatever, all those books, all that writer … there’s a lot of osmosis. I really studied Noah’s real father, just his mannerisms and how he held himself. Sometimes it’s not does he blink a lot or how does he use his hands, but sometimes it’s just the way he sits. There was a sag to the way he was. Then you personalize it. As soon as possible you want to get rid of all those other people. You don’t want to put on a funny mustache and funny glasses and pretend. You want to kind of assimilate it so that it becomes you until you can’t tell the difference of whether you are depressed or he is depressed. Then they say “action”.

CHRIS NEUMER: That’s a good state to be in.

JEFF DANIELS: Well in this case it was. Then there’s Dumb and Dumber.

CHRIS NEUMER: There is that.

JEFF DANIELS: You can dial it down to one… an IQ of 8.

CHRIS NEUMER: I wasn’t going to bring that up until later, but … I’m going to go back to my original question. I didn’t talk to actors for a while. I remember when I first started to, I felt sort of out of my element because I’m not an actor. I never studied acting. I don’t know how you guys do what you do; how you cry on cue, how you get depressed and you can express feeling the weight of the world as someone who isn’t feeling that. But when we talk about this, I realize there are so many different approaches to acting that you can take and they all hopefully end up at the same point.

JEFF DANIELS: The same point being not what we feel. That’s irrelevant. The same point being hoping that we make you feel a certain way, but we have no control over that either.

CHRIS NEUMER: I know you say once you have delivered the performance, that is it. It’s out of your hands.

JEFF DANIELS: I wasn’t the first to say it, but it’s no longer ours. It’s yours.

CHRIS NEUMER: Are there certain places in the process after it is out of your hands … I know this is where the term ‘trust’ with the director comes in, but where it tends to get screwed up more here or there? Or is it the type of thing where somebody is just cutting into pieces… cut, cut, cut that can ruin it? So, rephrasing, is there any place along the way where it tends to get sidetracked more after it is out of your hands?

JEFF DANIELS: Well, certainly the higher up in the studio system–meaning the more money attached to the film–the more people there are who are going to help. And with more help come more people who have the authority to make suggestions, throw out opinions, and then eventually just tell you to change it. Depending on the power of the director–and there are very few who have final cut approval–you battle, battle, battle, over certain sequences and then usually you have to change it. The less money attached to the film–like The Squid and the Whale which was shot for just over a million I think. If you were on the set with me, you’d see me and Laura Linney and Jessie and Owen and Noah Baumbach and some producers.

CHRIS NEUMER: That was something like twenty-three shooting days?

JEFF DANIELS: Twenty-three but it was Noah’s movie. He wrote it and he directed it. If there is a problem, how do we fix it? There’s no phone call to the coast. You don’t have to get clearance from anybody. That lessens the number of people who get involved. Is that a good thing? I think it is. It brings back that singular vision, right or wrong. Good or bad. I was watching a movie the other day. Even back in the ‘70s they put two or three screenwriters on them. Now there seem to be 10 to 15 producers on a television show or on a feature. 10 to 15. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, 8 to 12. Those are all people who are helping. Back in the ‘70s, Sidney Lumet went and did his movie. I’m sure there was a producer who was hearing it from the studio, but you weren’t outnumbered.

CHRIS NEUMER: Are you telling me that cinematic triumphs like Basic Instinct 2 don’t need 12 producers?

JEFF DANIELS: [laughs] I just don’t know what all these people do. I’m stumped. I don’t know what they all do. I see them on their cell phones or on the set a lot. I don’t talk to them. It’s me and the director. That’s the only person who I’ll deal with.

CHRIS NEUMER: How long did it take you to come to that realization?

JEFF DANIELS: The other thing too is that I’ve been really lucky to work with people who were auteurs. Woody [Allen], Jonathan Demme was running his own ship on Something Wild, Clint Eastwood on Blood Work. Only Clint is deciding what’s going to happen and what’s not going to happen. It’s a wonderful thing. There was Noah on Squid, Gary Ross on Pleasantville.

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