Chelsea Boy: Jeff Daniels

Photo: Patrick McMullan

Jeff Daniels’s New York pied-à-terre, a fourth-floor walk-up on the Upper West Side, could just as easily belong to the grandiose, tweedy writer he played in The Squid and the Whale. On one wall, there’s an antique poster of the Chelsea Hotel—no, not that Chelsea hotel but a bygone place in Daniels’s full-time home of Chelsea, Michigan, ten miles west of Ann Arbor. He’s run a theater there (the Purple Rose) for fifteen years, occasionally putting on his own plays. Now that he and his wife are about to become empty-nesters, Daniels is using his Manhattan apartment for its intended purpose: as a place to stay while he’s appearing on the New York stage (where he was last seen in 1993). He’s currently starring in Blackbird, a two-hander in which Alison Pill confronts him about an age-inappropriate relationship they shared a long time ago, as well as the new movie The Lookout. Daniels spoke to Boris Kachka about the problem with New York audiences, and why Farrelly brothers comedies should be considered art.

Is doing theater again a bit rough after all these years?
It’s the rehearsal process—man, you go deep. On the second day of rehearsals, I was ready to shoot it—my body was ready to shoot it. And then [director] Joe Mantello said, “No, you’re not.” The horse wanted to run. But on a movie set, you’re fighting the clock on a $75 million budget. Here, we’ve got three weeks of previews. And I really don’t care about an audience during previews.

Don’t you think you would have gotten more theater cred, for acting and for writing plays, if you hadn’t left New York in the mid-eighties?
If I’d stayed in New York, I don’t think I’d have survived as a playwright, with all the pressure and all the competition. I wanted to create my own theater company. I wasn’t interested in what New York thought about it.

Why haven’t more of your plays at the Purple Rose transferred over here?
One of my plays did come to New York [Apartment 3A], and that was fine. But if you want to see my plays, come and see them. If you want to put one up in New York, come here and put together one of my productions and then bring it to New York. There’s a lot of theater west of the Hudson.

Is there a difference between audiences at your theater and those in New York?
The midwestern audience dives in. They bought a ticket to see a play, and they’re committed to whatever it is we’re going to do: “Take me for a ride.” But reviews are so important in this town. You get a sense of the audience waiting to be told about what they just saw. And then when the reviews are raves, they can say, “Oh, that was a great play. I saw it in previews!” I want people to buy a ticket just for that play, just for that experience. I want the guy that loved Dumb and Dumber. I’ve got to turn him into a theatergoer.

Oh, yeah, Dumb and Dumber. Did all those fart jokes hurt your reputation?
You lose your membership in the serious-actors club, so it took me a long time to get over that.

Apparently you have, but you’re still playing unsavory characters. There was The Squid and the Whale, and your Blackbird character is arguably a pedophile.
Maybe I just flee from the image of the really nice guy from down the street that they want me to play. Maybe it’s a gene I’m missing, because there are a lot of actors that would insist on redemption. They’d say, “Can we have that scene in the hospital, where he apologizes for everything he’s done, and everyone’s okay with it, and everything’s restored?” I never have that conversation.

Your character in The Lookout is sort of a blind live-in guidance counselor. Playing blind couldn’t have been easy.
It’s high-stakes make-believe. But the research helped immensely. And when I had sunglasses on, I just closed my eyes.

A bit more challenging than Dumb and Dumber, I’d imagine.
Yeah, but I visited Walter Reed in February and met these vets with horrible injuries. And every single one of them knew Dumb and Dumber. It made them laugh. You can’t tell me it doesn’t matter when a guy with no legs and half a face is laughing through his painkillers, reenacting a scene from Dumb and Dumber. That’s art.

At the Manhattan Theatre Club—Stage 1; opens April 10

Chelsea Boy: Jeff Daniels