Jeff Daniels raises the stakes in "Blackbird" on Broadway
NEW YORK >> Most nights just before he hits a Broadway stage, you can find Jeff Daniels pacing furiously backstage and muttering to himself.
He's busy getting his heart rate up and getting himself thoroughly worked up so that he can hit the ground running in "Blackbird," a provocative, often brutal drama about an illegal relationship.
"It's not for everybody. If you want to see 'Jersey Boys' for the 20th time, go see it. I don't care," said Daniels. "But if you're interested in what Broadway can be, 'Blackbird' does that."
In David Harrower's two-person play, Daniels plays a man forced to confront his sordid past when the preteen he abused as a middle-aged man 15 years ago walks into his place of work demanding answers.
It's actually the second time Daniels has attacked the part, having played the same role nine years ago off-Broadway. This time, he's playing opposite Michelle Williams but has the same director in Joe Mantello.
Daniels has upped the stakes this time. He's turned up the volume on his character's panic about losing his job, and the actor has explored addiction and researched the sort of impulses pedophiles confront.
"They should all be put in prison. I agree. But why? I didn't understand why. I kind of acted why," he said. "I didn't have that struggle, that internal struggle before."
The play is a powerful cage match between two broken souls dealing with regret, guilt, revenge and even buried love. Trash is tossed, they hug, they try to explain, they struggle.
Williams said she has nothing but respect for her co-star. "I love locking eyes with him. I love where he goes. I love wondering what he's going to do next," Williams said. "The man doesn't tell a lie."
Daniels, last on Broadway in "God of Carnage" and who recently starred in HBO's "The Newsroom," has a no-nonsense approach to acting, and playing a predator is no different than playing Jim Carrey's moronic best friend in a dog van.
"You play the guy. Especially if he's well written, he's going to have strengths and weaknesses, good and bad. He's human," he said. "This particular character has made some horrible, horrible criminal mistakes in his life. But the challenge is trying to understand why."
Daniels, a proud Midwesterner, cut his stage teeth in New York at the now-defunct off-Broadway Circle Repertory Theater company. His first Broadway credit was understudying three actors including Reed Birney in a play called "Gemini" in 1977. He never went on — but no matter.
Birney, the Tony Award-nominated actor now in "The Humans," recently met Daniels and joked about his old understudy. "He goes, 'What have you been doing with yourself since 'Gemini?'" Daniels said, laughing.
Daniels created The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Michigan to keep his theater skills sharp and as a refugee from Hollywood, which has underestimated Daniels' skills before.
"Your range is appreciated more in New York, in the theater, because, they say, 'Well, I'll bet you can do that.' And they'll take a chance," he said. "They aren't worried about branding and what your image is over your last four films."
Daniels revealed that he had to fight to star opposite Carrey in "Dumb and Dumber" because the movie's producers didn't think he could be really funny.
The studio said, "'He's from "Gettysburg." He's from "The Purple Rose of Cairo," which was funny, but isn't Jim Carrey funny. So let's get a comedian,'" Daniels recalled. "Jim didn't want a comedian. Jim wanted an actor across from him that would make him react. I'm glad he wanted that because Jim got me the job."
Now he's on a psychological roller coaster of a play, one that leaves both actors disheveled and completely spent. He's getting great reviews but he doesn't read them.
"I mean, if you don't know what you're doing after 40 years, and if you don't know how to make the choices, then get out," he said. "If I didn't work hard enough or prepare hard enough and bring everything I ever learned, beat me up. But if I did and I think I hit it, then I don't need to read them. It doesn't help."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.