Actor Jeff Daniels is omnipresent right now, appearing in the sci-fi blockbuster The Martian as well as the biopic Steve Jobs. Dumb and Dumber To lingers in some second-run movie houses. When not fielding calls from his agent or conducting interviews about said films, Daniels can be found on stage pursuing his second passion — playing the guitar.
For Daniels, acting and music have always gone hand in hand. When Daniels arrived in New York City in 1976 pursuing an acting career, a guitar proved the best company between auditions and waiting for the phone to ring.
"Months, it was months between phone calls," he says with a light laugh. "Looking back on it, I just wanted to learn how to play it. I'd done a lot of musicals in high school and college and I just wanted to keep music in my life . . . I sat around a lot waiting for the phone to ring, so it gave me something to do. That's really all the thought that went into it."
Daniels credits Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson for his inspiration to master songwriting. Spending time with Wilson, Daniels witnessed the many stages a play would inhabit before reaching a final, workable conclusion.
"Just to see the writing process that playwrights go through, I was instantly taken with that," he says. "I tried to eavesdrop every time he came in with a play and we'd read it. You'd see the changes, the rewrites. I never thought about writing that way. So I applied that to the guitar. I remember writing a play and it was awful, but the guitar was there and I was getting proficient at writing songs. I like it a lot. I wrote a lot of bad songs, but each one made you better. Then I'd go on to the next one.
"The guitar became a best friend, and you never stop learning and getting better at the guitar," he adds. "That was great therapy for sitting alone in my apartment for months on end."
Once those calls came, however, the guitar traveled with Daniels, filling downtime and providing a regular outlet against the tedium of filming — as well as providing lyrical fodder.
"It was a great source of sanity. Movies and theater can be pretty chaotic and insane — big highs, big lows kind of business — so the guitar was a constant."
Daniels' first musical gig came in December 1999 at the Purple Rose Theater, which he founded in Chelsea, Michigan. Daniels' duties included money-raising ideas, and it was suggested that his musicianship was the best option during holiday downtime. He was reluctant, at first, as Daniels felt his music was somewhat personal and not right for a wider audience.
"I guess maybe at some point I was planning that if the acting career fell apart I might try this, but I never felt I was good enough," he says. "Then [the theater company] said, 'Why don't you go out and play some of your songs? We can sell tickets and raise money.' So I went through the songs to find ones I could play for people as opposed to playing some personal diary or something. It's one thing to play on your back porch, it's a whole other thing to play for people who've paid to hear it. That's a huge leap. It was terrifying, but I did it."
Daniels, also known for roles in Dumb and Dumber, Speed, Pleasantville, State of Play, and numerous other films, as well as the acclaimed HBO series The Newsroom, practices the (mostly) lost art of fingerpicking-style folk and blues. His music recalls blues artists like Skip James, Robert Johnson, and Son House and architects of the folk movement like Stephan Grossman and Leadbelly — "All that stuff that really lends itself to a guy sitting in a chair telling a story with a guitar." Over the music flows Daniels' rambling, bouncy vocals mixed with humorous recollections and peppered with anecdotes from time on sets, waiting to get on the set, or unusual occurrences on the road. The resulting warm blend makes each concert feel intimate and personal.
"That's the intent," he confirms.
Still, Daniels freely admits it took a lot of work to reach this stage of his musical career. Despite having spent countless hours in front of cameras and on theater stages, sitting alone on stage with a guitar required a more nuanced approach than initially expected.
"You're not known for being able to play the guitar, so instantly everyone sitting in the audience can play the guitar better than you. That's the first thing you've got to get over. Some can, most can't," he says. "The difference I found, and I didn't find this out until I went out there, was that there was no character. There's always a character. It's like a filter or a veil, it's protection between you and the audience. You have to go through it. If it's an emotional character you can get there, but it's always someone else that you play. When you're sitting there with your songs there's an emotional nakedness to that. I wasn't prepared for that. It took a lot of shows, I'd say about 30, to figure out that I had to come out with a character, and the character was me in a good mood. As long as I could put something on, it was okay."
Even after 15 years of solo touring, when Daniels hits the stage, separating the roles of actor and musician isn't an option. Typically, the actor garners a larger share of attention — at least early in the performance. Audiences, excited to see the "actor boy," as he sometimes refers to himself, expect acknowledgment of Daniels' acting career. Daniels accepts this as part of his reality and "gets it out of the way" up front.
"Whatever gets them in the door," he says. "And to ignore that elephant in the room, which is Dumb and Dumber and everything else, is not what they want. They want you to talk about it. They want you to make them laugh like you did in that movie. I chose to kind of embrace it, deal with it up front, and then by that point we've all got it out of our system. In a way, they're thanking you for doing that movie, but now we're going to listen."
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Daniels' latest album, Days Like These, is a more serious attempt to not necessarily separate the two personas, but provide a greater balance between the two. The album features a more personal, direct, and less comedic side of Daniels' songwriting.
"From the Oscars on down, comedy is kind of treated like a second-class citizen. I don't consider it that," he says. "Last I looked, the Greeks are holding up two masks and they're equal. My acting career shows it. They're the same to me, one isn't more than another. Days Like These, was more a focus on songwriting. It's serious. I'm not trying to be funny. We just took the comedy away to see what the reaction is . . .
"So far, the reaction is good."