Jeff Daniels keeps risking it onstage
"I used to open with a song called 'If William Shatner Can, I Can Too,' which is just me dealing with it, the elephant in the room that I'm not known for this, and you paid money to see me do something that could be a train wreck," Daniels told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview. "You go in knowing that for some, or many, expectations are low because actors who try to do this over the decades haven't always succeeded. So, I kind of embrace that. You open a show in a way that draws them in and gets them to relax."
The Chelsea, Mich., native has long admired how musicians such as Berkshires legend Arlo Guthrie can enthrall crowds with little to support them onstage.
"They come out, and they can hold an audience. They don't have a set. They don't have like what you would have on Broadway. There aren't any other things to look at. It's just this guitar and this song and how you present yourself, and there's an art to that. I enjoy that," Daniels said.
Emulating his idols, the Emmy Award-winning actor has forged a musical following over the past decade-plus by touring with little more than a guitar and chair in tow. The stage will be a bit more crowded when he plays at Northampton's Iron Horse Music Hall on Thursday, Aug. 9, and Norfolk, Conn.'s, Infinity Music Hall & Bistro two nights later. His son Ben's group (Ben Daniels Band) has joined him for this series of shows, playing Americana songs that range from poignant to comedic.
"My job is to hold your interest for 90 minutes doing something I'm not known for," Daniels said. "There's a wonderful challenge in that, and I admire all the guys that I saw coming up that made me think, 'Maybe I could do this.'"
There are fewer skeptics in audiences now than when he first started playing concerts.
"Certainly it's easier. 'Oh he plays? Let me Google him.' They can kind of sample me now, [whereas] 10, 15 years ago, they had to risk it," Daniels said.
He uses humor and humility to disarm any remaining doubters. Referring to his own ability, Daniels said he's "north of somebody who knows three chords and south of [Andr s] Segovia."
Songwriting occupies much of his time; he has penned hundreds of tunes over the years.
"There's always something in progress, always something in progress," he said. "It's not the same with acting; you wait for the phone to ring. It's not the same with playwriting; you finish the eighth draft of a play, which I just did for my theater company [Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, Mich.], and you start thinking about the next one. But I probably won't write it until after the first of the year. The songwriting is daily. You pick that thing up, and you fix that riff that you missed last night, or you attack that third verse of that new song that you know isn't right."
Daniels has been relishing playing with his son Ben, especially on "When My Fingers Find Your Strings." Another crowd-pleaser is "How 'Bout We Take Our Pants Off and Relax?"
"It always works," Daniels said.
The song is based on an encounter between Daniels and Ryan Reynolds while they were working on the film "Paper Man."
"We were going to pass each other like you would on a two-lane highway except we both went in the same direction. And now we're like bumping each other, and he looked at me and said, 'How about we take our pants off and relax?'" Daniels recalled. "I thought it was the funniest thing I've ever heard. I had the song written about three steps past him."
Daniels' has long tried to tell stories through song.
"The ones that [audiences] can relate to are the most gratifying. The last thing I want to do is get up there and gaze into my navel and sing for my diary," he said.
Daniels hasn't had a career that many people can relate to. In 1982, he received an Obie Award for his performance in "Johnny Got His Gun," an off-Broadway, one-man show based on Dalton Trumbo's novel.
"We got a lot of great reviews [for it], and The New York Times kind of dismissed it, and so it didn't move anywhere. But I was as proud of that as anything," Daniels said.
He has since received Tony nominations for his roles in productions of "Blackbird" and "God of Carnage"; later this year, he'll play Atticus Finch in a Broadway run of "To Kill a Mockingbird."
"That's where I'll be every night for a year," he said.
On screen, Daniels emerged with performances in the films "Terms of Endearment" and "The Purple Rose of Cairo" during the 1980s. "Gettysburg" and "Dumb and Dumber" came later, solidifying his Hollywood versatility. Daniels has also taken full advantage of the streaming era, winning an Emmy for his portrayal of news anchor Will McAvoy in HBO's "The Newsroom" and earning 2018 Emmy nominations for his roles as an outlaw in the 2017 Netflix limited series, "Godless" and a counterterrorism official in the 2018 Hulu miniseries, "The Looming Tower." Onstage or on screen, Daniels cherishes the roles that have scared him the most.
"They're the ones where maybe you took the biggest risk," he said, citing his role in "Johnny Got His Gun" first before mentioning a few others.
"'Godless' was a huge risk. I had no idea what I was going to do or how to do it, but Scott Frank, who wrote and directed it, he and I got together and said, 'Let's try this.' And it worked," Daniels recalled. "Other things, like Will McAvoy in 'Newsroom,' will outlive me. And Harry Dunne in 'Dumb and Dumber' — to be with Jim Carrey, who's a comedic genius, and to hang with him comedically and stay there and contribute to the movie — those are risks. I like risks."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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