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Jeff Daniels And 'The Answer Man'


Jeff Daniels has had a remarkable career both on stage and on film this year. He was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Actor for his role in the Broadway play "God of Carnage." He has starred in movies ranging from the heavy-duty "Terms of Endearment" to the lighter-than-air "Dumb and Dumber." He won the Independent Spirit Award for his performance in "The Squid and the Whale."

And in his new movie, "The Answer Man," he plays the reclusive and curmudgeonly Arlen Faber, a popular writer thought to have a direct line to God who actually can't sit through a meditation without swearing. In one scene, his mailman finds out that he's face to face with the great Arlen Faber and presses him to answer this question.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Answer Man")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) Mr. Faber, is there such a place as hell?

Mr. JEFF DANIELS (Actor): (as Arlen Faber) Yes, there is. I think it was Sartre who said it best really when he said, and I quote, "Hell is other people."

(Soundbite of door slamming)

NEARY: And the door slammed in his face.

Jeff Daniels in the new film "Answer Man," which opens tomorrow.

Acting has never been enough for Daniels. He is also a musician and playwright, and he founded the nonprofit Purple Rose Theatre Company in his hometown of Chelsea, Michigan.

If you want to talk with Jeff Daniels about his career in film or on stage, or about his life out of the spotlight, give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255, and the email address is [email protected].

And Jeff Daniels joins us today from our bureau in New York. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. DANIELS: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: You are a man of many talents, and you once said in an interview that if you were to be addicted to anything, it might as well be to creativity. And I - it made me wonder, is that what really drives you, that need to be creative?

Mr. DANIELS: Well, I keep waiting to fall face down into my soup from creative exhaustion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANIELS: I don't rest. I don't vacation. I just write something else and - or do something or act something or something. So it's - I've chosen to live a creative life. And when the movies aren't calling, I do a play. And when that's not happening, I write songs and play the guitar. And I just - it seems to - it helps me get through the day. And I just enjoy it.

NEARY: Yeah. I get the sense that acting is not quite enough for you, and yet you really have created some wonderfully memorable characters both on stage and on screen. I mean, do you enjoy acting?

Mr. DANIELS: I enjoy between action and cut…

{Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANIELS: …the actual doing of it…

NEARY: Uh-huh.

Mr. DANIELS: I mean, once you've been on a movie set, and certainly a movie set of a big studio film, you find that most of your time is spent sitting in the trailer. So there are hours and hours that go by when you're not needed, and so I just - I chose to, when I started the theater company, just turn myself into a playwright and, you know, brought the guitar along so I could fill that time.

But yeah, once I'm in - once I'm in front of the camera or on a stage with really good people, I still enjoy it. I look forward to the next time I get to do it.

NEARY: Well, what about this character we just heard a little snippet of in "Answer Man"? That was a pretty serious, grumpy guy, but also very funny. Did - was he fun to play?

Mr. DANIELS: He was, because I didn't have a clue as to how do him.

I - the chance of failing miserably was certainly on the table. And you know, after 50 movies, that's a reason to take something. Creatively you're challenged. You will be challenged throughout the entire process of shooting a film. So that was one of the reasons I took it.

Also, John Hindman, who had written it and was directing it, he knew Arlen. He was - he had been with that character for three years. So I had this wonderful source sitting right there. So I just, you know, peppered him with questions and used and abused John mercilessly in order to kind of pull this guy off.

NEARY: Yeah. This is a guy who people think has all the answers to life because he has a direct connection to God, and yet time after time, which I thought was the funny - some of the funniest moments were, you know, when you were trying to meditate or you were trying to pray and, you know, it just wouldn't work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANIELS: Well, he's completely dysfunctional, you know, when he looks in the mirror. I mean, he has no answers for himself, and yet for some reason when these people come to his door and ask questions, he has some wonderful, profound answer for them and then he shuts the door and weeps, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANIELS: He just can't figure his own life out.

NEARY: Right. And, you know, I wanted to ask you too, something else about yourself. You famously have lived not in Hollywood, not in New York, but you've stayed in your hometown of Michigan. And how has that sort of fed your creativity or helped you? Or has it? Because I think you made that choice because of your family. But does it also feed your creativity?

Mr. DANIELS: Well, Kathleen and I, we really wanted to raise the kids in a place we understood. And we're both from Michigan, and that was the choice. Right or wrong, good or bad for the career, that's what we were going to do. The career was a close second, but it was second. And it's, happy to say, 20 years later and more, we - it worked out fine.

What it did creatively, you know, aside - it - you know, you give up being the biggest star in the history of stars. You end that quest simply because you're living in the Midwest. And that's really not of interest to the people who make big stars out of you. But creatively, it brought back the fun of what I do, the reason I got into it in the first place as a young actor.

It brought the enthusiasm back for film. They weren't films. It wasn't cinema. It wasn't a job. It was a movie. And when you end up walking on the Paramount lot in L.A. or the Warner Brothers lot and you're in Hollywood, you become a fan again and you walk by a soundstage where Brando shot "Streetcar" and you feel lucky. You're grateful…

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. DANIELS: …for this opportunity you've gotten. And I think living outside the industry and being away from it only fanned that flame so that years later and decades later I still have it. You know, when a movie comes and I'm shooting a movie, I still get excited because I'm making a movie.

NEARY: You're not jaded.

Mr. DANIELS: No. No, it helped. It really helped.

NEARY: We're talking with Jeff Daniels. He's starring in a new film, "The Answer Man." If you would like to ask him a question or converse with him, the number is 800-989-8255. We're going to take a call now from Matthew, who is calling from Kalamazoo, Michigan. Hi, Matthew.

MATTHEW (Caller): Hi, Mr. Daniels. I am so pleased to talk to you. I live in Michigan, and I just - I don't know if you realize how utterly grateful Michigan theater people are for you to have the stake in your home state that you do. And with The Purple Rose and everything else that you do, it's just wonderful, and I want to thank you for that.

Mr. DANIELS: Well…

NEARY: The Purple Rose, of course, is your theatre company, which is based in your hometown. Go ahead.

Mr. DANIELS: Yeah, Chelsea, Michigan.

MATTHEW: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. DANIELS: Thanks, Matthew. I appreciate it. I mean, I never lost sight of the fact that I was a 21-year-old kid from Michigan who went to New York and then went to Hollywood. I never - you know, if somebody said, you know, what kind of actor are you? Are you a New York actor or are you a Hollywood actor? I said, I'm a Michigan actor.


Mr. DANIELS: And a lot of people are from other places. And I just - you know, it was a chance to kind of - whatever it is I have accomplished, whatever it is I've learned, I've brought back to the Purple Rose Theatre Company and I've shared it. And I think that people are better for it and they've taken their own talent and have only - I've given them a place to kind of, you know, show it off.

MATTHEW: Mm-hmm. One other question I had, in that I'm an actor in Kalamazoo. And I'm just wondering if you could briefly describe, if it is not too personal, your acting style. Do you work from the method? Do you work from the outside in? Is it different for each role? Is it different from your stage roles versus film?

Mr. DANIELS: Well, I'll keep it simple, Matthew, because nothing is more boring than actors talking about acting.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. DANIELS: But, but I will say this. I mean, I think if you look at Hollywood, it's almost a disservice, you know, the famous quote - Look, I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille. That implies that I'm ready to act with myself. Look at me, look at me, look at me. And I think the secret that I learned at Circle Rep in New York and I learned on "Purple Rose of Cairo" with Woody Allen, it's about the other actor. You react. You listen.


Mr. DANIELS: And ion "God of Carnage" on Broadway. That's what the four of us are doing. We are reacting and we are listening to each other as if we're plugged into each other. And that is the simple version of what chemistry is. And when two actors do that, you have chemistry and you have life on a stage.

NEARY: All right, Matthew. Thanks so much for calling.

MATTHEW: Okay. You're welcome.

NEARY: We are going to take another…

MATTHEW: Thank you.

NEARY: Thanks. We're going to go take another call now from Dave, who's calling from Waterbury, Connecticut. Hi, Dave.

DAVE (Caller): Hi, there. How are you today?

NEARY: Good. Thanks.

DAVE: Well, let me just say, this is a wonderful pleasure for me, because Mr. Daniels, you have been my favorite actor for quite some time. And that's one of those days that you sit, you know, when you're in the theater, when you're home watching a video and you just think that to yourself and you - you know, hope that you might have the chance to express it someday. And so, this is great, I get a chance to express that.

Mr. DANIELS: Well, thanks, Dave. I appreciate it.

DAVE: Everybody gets a favorite.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVE: I especially enjoyed seeing the type of range, you know, and the transition that you could make from, you know, the comedic, embarrassingly comedic "Dumb and Dumber" portrayal, you know, into really serious work. And I think throughout the whole thing, I think maybe it's the choice of roles, I'm not sure, but somehow you always come across as very likeable.

And I wanted to ask you if in choosing your roles, you're really looking toward the general presentation that you end up with as you look over the body of work, the way you as a person come through as an actor.

Mr. DANIELS: No, I don't. You know, that's - I think that suggests image and how I'm perceived by the public. And I really could care less. I think the good actors are - that I have admired will play the villains, will, you know, will do anything, you know? I've played killers, you know, and, of course, and "Dumb and Dumber" and things like that. So, it's just - the range is kind of just strictly for me. If people get into it, if they go with it, great. But I could care less about being likeable or sympathetic or - you know, those are the things that you learn at star school, and I didn't graduate.

So, I really - the range was something I created, one, because I thought that's what actors were supposed to do. I was brought up that way, to have each character be completely different and - inside and out, and especially inside. And so that's kind of how I went about it. It wasn't until I got to Hollywood that I heard the word image and create an image and stick to it and things like that. And I said, ah, well, you know, I'm not really interested in that.

Again, moving to the Midwest, I felt that the bigger range I had, the more job opportunities in between a "Dumb and Dumber" and a "Gettysburg" and "The Squid and the Whale," the more jobs I would have, and that's turned out to be true.

NEARY: We're talking with actor Jeff Daniels. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

We're going to take a call from Audrey. And Audrey is calling from Columbia, South Carolina. Hi, Audrey.

AUDREY (Caller): Hi. Mr. Daniels, thank you so much for bringing your one-man show to the Piccolo Spoleto in 2006.

Mr. DANIELS: Oh, that was fun. I remember that. Yeah.

AUDREY: Yeah. And I wanted to ask, is there a character or acting experience that has stayed with you?

Mr. DANIELS: You know, pieces of several of them stay with you more than others. Certainly, "The Purple Rose of Cairo," playing in that film two roles for Woody Allen, I'll never forget. That was a turning point for me.


Mr. DANIELS: And also "Gettysburg," the Little Round Top sequence in "Gettysburg," and "Squid and the Whale." And I love the soda jerk guy in "Pleasantville."

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. DANIELS: I mean, there are all kind of guys, they become your friends. My idea is that, you know, when I'm, you know, 80 some day, I hope that I'll invite all my characters over for dinner and, you know, listen to them talk to each other.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANIELS: I can't wait to see the guy from "Dumb and Dumber" talk to the guy from "The Squid and the Whale."

(Soundbite of laughter)

AUDREY: Wonderful.

NEARY: An interesting group.


(Soundbite of laughter)

AUDREY: And please come back to South Carolina.

Mr. DANIELS: Thank you very much.

NEARY: All right. Thanks, Audrey. So why was that a turning point for you, "The Purple Rose of Cairo"? You said that was a turning point.

Mr. DANIELS: Well, like any young actor, you're battling the rejection, you know, that you - for every job you get, you don't get 20. That's probably a good ratio. The critics, you know, you're going - especially up through the New York Theater, I mean, you say you don't read them but you do. And when they don't like you, it hurts. And you start to question whether you're good enough for this business or not, whether you can make a life out of it or a living at it.

And it wasn't until halfway through "Purple Rose of Cairo," and Woody Allen told me I was good. And I didn't say, oh, well now I'm going to be a star. I went home and I told Kathleen, I said, I'm going to be able to make a living in this business now. Why? Well, because if I'm good enough for Woody, I'm good enough for anybody.

And instantly, the critics - while important, and we all need them and I get it - they didn't matter to me. It was just - now, it was somebody like that, and there were others leading up to Woody, believed in me. And so I wasn't alone and I knew I could make it.

NEARY: Okay. And Kathleen, we should mention, of course, is your wife.

Mr. DANIELS: Yeah.

NEARY: This is a very - your - and your partner. It's clear that the two of you have a very strong relationship.

Mr. DANIELS: Yeah. That's what she keeps telling me, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: I believe her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANIELS: Okay.

NEARY: Let's take a call now from Matt. We're going to go to Matt in Sacramento, California.

MATT (Caller): Hi. It's a great pleasure to speak with you, Mr. Daniels. I had a quick question in - there's a film that you did in 2001 called "Escanaba in da Moonlight."

Mr. DANIELS: Yeah.

MATT: And this film is a wonderful film to me. It's one of the most entertaining films I've seen in a very, very long time. And I just want to hear - I was hoping that you could talk about it and just where the impetus for the movie came from and how you came up with some of the characters.

Mr. DANIELS: Well, the Purple Rose Theater Company in Michigan is a theater company I have, and "Dumb and Dumber" had come out. And I - we knew 15-year-old boys would like it, but we weren't prepared for the six to 60 age demographic of that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANIELS: And I - you know, like a lot of theaters, I'm looking to build an audience. And we used comedy in our theater company a lot. I mean, the last time I looked, the Greeks were holding up two masks. And I equate comedy with tragedy. So it's of equal value. I wanted to write something as a playwright that would get the "Dumb and Dumber" crowd in.

And I didn't mean I'd write "Dumb and Dumber" the play, but what - is there a story in Michigan, which I'm writing for that corner of the country? And I came up with five guys in a deer camp. We did the play. It was a huge hit. We brought it back a year later, another huge hit. We then ran it in downtown Detroit, not the easiest play to - place to play something, and it run for 16 straight months. And it's about deer hunting and family and hearts and, yeah, it's got some, you know, it's got some five guy and deer camp jokes.

But then we decided to make an independent film of it, and we shot it in Escanaba, Michigan with a lot of the same actors. And happily, the late great Harve Presnell played my father in the indie film. And we fought - we - you know, nobody wanted to distribute it because we didn't have an A-list guy, you know, doing a cameo.

So, we decided to just four-wall it. And it - we played it on 30, 35 screens, and it did very well, you know, in the upper Midwest. And now people like you are finding it on DV and saying, ah, this is very good. So I'm very happy with it.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for joining us today, Jeff Daniels.

Mr. DANIELS: Thank you, Lynn.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: Actor, playwright and musician Jeff Daniels joined us today from our New York bureau. And he stars as Arlen Faber in the new film "Answer Man" which debuts in theaters tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.