When Jeff Daniels first took the stage as a solo musician about 10 years ago, he had 20 years of acting experience under his belt, including award-winning roles on Broadway and a long Hollywood career that included the Oscar-winning “Terms of Endearment,” “Purple Rose of Cairo” and “Dumb and Dumber.”
And he was scared witless.
“It was a flopsweat,” Daniels said in a phone interview from New York City. “I’d never sweated like that in front of a group of people like that in my life. I had flopsweat from my armpit to my belt. That never happened with theater. But you walk out with your stuff and your guitar and no band and 90 minutes? Fear. White-hot fear.”
He got over it, in part learning that a musician on stage is very much a character in the same way Will McAvoy in the “Newsroom” or Lloyd in “Dumb and Dumber” was. Daniels has been writing songs for decades, by turns funny and wistful, but his burgeoning side gig as a performing musician is relatively recent.
He’s performed shows to raise money for his beloved Purple Rose Theater Company in his home base of Michigan, and released several albums on his own via jeffdaniels.com. The New York Times reviewed a show this past January and called him “a semiautobiographical yarn spinner in the mode of Mr. Guthrie and the much-missed Steve Goodman.”
He’s stepping it up a notch on his August tour (which brings him to the Stoughton Opera House on Aug. 23), performing with his son Ben’s rock band.
77 Square talked to Daniels about playing with a full band after years of working solo, of the parallels between songwriting and acting, and putting on the blond wig 20 years later for “Dumb and Dumber To.”
It seems like you spent several years sort of tiptoeing your way forward before outing yourself as a musician. Is this the next logical step?
That’s a good way to put it. I wanted to play where I was wanted. Any time an actor walks out with a guitar, there are many places where he is instantly forbidden from entering. So I would concentrate on the clubs and the opera houses and playing where people wanted to hear me. That was enough for me.
But I do enjoy going out. I enjoy the live audience. Recently I’ve gone out on solo with just the acoustic, and I’ve gone out with a mandolin, fiddle and upright bass. So I’ve got those two shows in my back pocket, but I didn’t have a show with a band. And there are songs that I’ve written recently, and also some in the notebook, that you shouldn’t play unless you do have a band. So I’ve pulled those out, and written a few new ones, specifically to feature Ben’s band.
You’ve done a lot of shows where you play songs and tell stories, but this sounds like it could have a very different energy to it.
There’s definitely going to be some of “Now this is the song you’re going to listen to, and this one is too.” I’m definitely going to err on the side of musicianship vs. making them laugh every 45 seconds. But they’re still going to be some interplay with the audience. But I won’t go off for 10 minutes on a funny story about Broadway, while the band stands there waiting.
But the songs that we’re choosing to do are very entertaining. We’re not out there navel-gazing. The stuff I do, if it doesn’t connect with the audience, I cut it from the set.
Is there an element of performance when you’re playing music live that’s similar to acting?
There’s always a performance. When I started doing this in 2002, it was to raise money for my theater company. People didn’t even know I played. I would just write songs, throw them in a notebook, play on my porch. I’m an actor. I’m not supposed to do this. William Shatner taught us that actors are supposed to stay in their own lane.
I was good enough at it that people said we could throw you on stage at the PR, and whether you’re good or not, we can raise money for the theater. And I went out there and I was terrified. I did it for two to three Christmases, by the third Christmas of doing 10 shows a Christmas, I figured out what it was.
There was a character that I had when I’m in front of a camera. It’s the filter of a character. You’re behind the character. It’s you, but it’s not. You walk out there with the your songs, your guitar, no band, it’s you. There is no character. That was the nakedness that I felt.
And I learned that there is a performance involved. There’s a guy who rises up at 8 o’clock at night, the guy on Broadway whose day peaks at 8 o’clock at night so he can become that other guy. That’s what happens with the music. The guy who is walking towards the stage is not the same guy who walks onto it. There’s a way to let that guy come out, let that guy happen, and then pick up your guitar. It’s almost like a character. The closest thing is like when you’re doing a talk show. It’s like you, in a good mood. Once I figured that out, the flopsweat was gone.
When you’re songwriting, and writing songs based on things you see or experience, is that similar to observing human behavior as an actor?
It’s the same. You’re always filing something. Someone says something. I was just with some friends of mine last night, and the phone rang and she answered the phone. It was some organization looking for funding. This is a woman 65 years old. And she goes, “Yeah . . . right . . . yeah . . . uh huh . . . I don’t know, I’m the babysitter.” And she hung up. And I said, ‘Stephanie, that’s going in a play.’
Music seems to becoming a bigger and bigger part of your life. Would you like to get a contract with Nonesuch Records or something, and take it up to that level?
We’re certainly open to that. We have our own publishing end and we have our own website, and that’s fine. If somebody wants me for that, they know where to find me. But there’s no effort to make that happen. Same with the playwriting. If the end result is done at the Purple Rose in Michigan, that’s fine. The ambition and the drive, whatever amount of that I have in me, gets sucked up in the acting end.
Do you think you’ll make another movie in Michigan? You were making movies in your home state before they even had tax credits.
We certainly made “Escanaba in da Moonlight” in Escanaba before there were any tax incentives at all. We were screamed at to do it in Canada, where we could turn our $1.3 million budget into $2 million just by crossing the boader. I said no. Let’s hire Michigan people, let’s shoot on the main street of Escanaba. I don’t want to fake it in Canada.
John Engler, who was the governor at time, Republican, came up and asked “What are you guys doing?” I said, “We’re dropping a million bucks on the Main Street of Escanaba, that’s what we’re doing.” He went back and put it in the State of the State address and encouraged more of it to happen. And then (Rick) Snyder came in, and unless you’re on “Batman,” which was mostly L.A. people, killed it. For whatever reasons, Michigan isn’t doing it anymore, and I think I’ll wait until we have someone in there who believes in it again.
Could you have ever imagined you’d do another “Dumb and Dumber” movie?
I’d always held out hope, but I had sort of resigned to the fact that it wasn’t going to happen. It was about three years ago that I got the call from the Farrellys – “Jim wants to do it, we’re writing it.” I don’t believe it. It took three years to convince the studio that these two middle-aged guys could still be funny in the world of Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill. We weren’t old news.
Legitimate questions, but finally we were able to do it. We certainly didn’t leave it in the locker room, I know that. We threw everything we had at it, for better or worse. It was great fun to do.
We’re 20 years older, we’re 20 years smarter, we’re 20 years better as actors, the Farrellys and Jim and I know what works now, based on the first one. Jim and I are friends, when we were just acquaintances in the first one. I think all of that breeds better chemistry, better playing of the scenes and I hope something that is as good as the first one.
But that’s not for me to decide. One of the things you learn early on, whether it’s a song or whatever, once you’re done singing it, once you’re done doing the movie, it’s not yours anymore. It’s theirs. ￼