News Column

Jeff Daniels proves his vestaility as an actor and a musician

August 24, 2014

By Mike Tighe, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

Aug. 24--Jeff Daniels eschewed the idea of joining his family's lumber business and making a living from timber. He banked instead on the timbre of his voice when he chased his passion for acting and music to the Big Apple.

Unlike so many whose lives have been splintered in the City That Never Sleeps, the 59-year-old Daniels was able to craft a credible movie, stage, playwright, TV and music career that spans the gamut of human emotions -- ranging from the craziness of the movie "Dumb and Dumber" to the seriousness of the HBO dramatic series "The Newsroom."

Daniels will display his musical persona, along with a flair for his humorous kibitzing with the audience, during a performance at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Cavalier Theater, 118 Fifth Ave. N., where his son's troupe -- aptly named the Ben Daniels Band -- will accompany him.

"He's a huge name -- obviously not somebody who comes to La Crosse every day," said Cavalier owner Jason LaCourse, who reports brisk ticket sales and expects to sell out the theater's 250 seats.

A few tickets remained last week and still may be available today, said La Course, adding, "The trend in La Crosse is buying at the last minute."

Daniels' promoter approached LaCourse with the pitch that Daniels is promoting his new album at shows in small towns in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

"I jumped on it because he's a big star," LaCourse said. "He is so multi-faceted. He's been in 30 to 40 movies, in blockbuster movies, and Broadway, and his music."

Daniels easily could have been filling orders for building supplies instead of theater seats.

Asked during a phone interview whether he considered joining the lumberyard, the Emmy Award-winning Daniels quipped, "My dad considered it."

He recalled four rigorous summers of hauling concrete block, making lumber deliveries and other tasks at the Chelsea (Mich.) Lumber Co., adding, "I came out of those four summers with even less interest in wood than I had before.

"Plus, the trigonometry and geometry and calculus you need to learn about building things, I failed," said Daniels, whose extensive list of film credits includes 1994's "Dumb and Dumber" and proves he is anything but dumb.

"I was an artist, an actor, a musician -- I wasn't a lumber guy. My dad recognized that and said, 'If I put you in charge of the lumber company, you'd bankrupt us," he said, laughing.

When he opted out of the lumber business, he headed to New York City in 1976 and attended the Circle Repertory Theater, which he describes as a "high-profile grad school for actors, where I learned what it means to be an artist and not just an actor for hire."

His career reflects that artistry, with roles ranging from the ridiculous "Dumb and Dumber" with Jim Carrey in 1994 (and its sequel, "Dumb and Dumber To" coming out Nov. 14) to the sublime "The Newsroom," which won him an Emmy as the conflicted anchor Will McEvoy.

Also among his 64 film credits are Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo," for which he received a Golden Globe nomination, "Terms of Endearment," "Arachnaphobia," "Gettysburg," "Speed" and "The Squid and the Whale."

Not confined to the silver screen or the flat screen, including a noted performance as George Washington in A&E's "The Crossing," Daniels also has starred on Broadway, most notably in "God of Carnage" with the late James Gandolfini, for which Daniels received a Tony nomination.

Claiming not to have a favorite genre, Daniels said, "It's easier to do comedies, such as 'Dumb and Dumber' or 'God of Carnage.' It's easier to do a rock and roll concert of laughter than it is to do a drama where everyone is sobbing at the end.

"The challenge of going dark and finding the drama -- there's an art to that," he said. "Coming out of 'Newsroom,' I want to do 'Dumb and Dumber,' and coming out of 'Dumb and Dumber,' I want to get to 'Newsroom.'"

Meanwhile, "Hollywood just wants you to do what you did last time," he said. "Gable is Gable is Gable. People are buying tickets to see Tom Cruise be Tom Cruise -- I get that."

Things are different in the Big Apple, he said, adding, "We're all character actors in New York."

Daniels' dedication to the craft of acting prompted him to founded The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, where he and his high school sweetheart/bride Kathleen moved back to in 1986.

The theater's moniker came from Daniels' emotional attachment to "The Purple Rose of Cairo," he said.

"Halfway through the movie, Woody told me I'm good," he said. "I went home and told Kathleen, 'I can do this.' If I'm good enough for Woody, I'm good enough to make it. It was a huge turning point for me.

"I refused to name the theater after me, so I chose the Purple Rose," he said.

Known for being grounded and unassuming, Daniels attributes that reputation to "staying connected, moving back to Michigan in 1986 after a half a dozen films.

"In the Midwest, a movie is a date night, something to do," he said. "Not everybody feels you're as important as in New York or Hollywood.

"I know that, as soon as you're done shooting, nobody else is getting your coffee. After 'Newsroom' is done, you're paying for your own plane ticket. At the Emmy's, you know the limo is rented and you know somebody else's ass is sitting in it," he said.

"I never bought that it was more than 'action,' 'cut,' repeat," Daniels said.

That said, Daniels especially enjoys songwriting and picking up his guitar to perform in what one reviewer describes as his quirky country/folk/bluegrass blend.

"Nobody is telling me what to do," he said. "Nobody has their hands in it. In 'Newsroom,' I can give four or five performances (for a scene), but once they say 'cut,' it's theirs.

"With music, I can write, I can arrange, I can produce, and I can direct. Creatively, it's the purest thing I do. It's also a chance to get in front of an audience. There's an energy to that," he said.

"Sometimes, you can get close on Broadway, or after a take, but walking on stage, playing your own music, just you and me -- like it will be with the audience in La Crosse -- it's special," he said.

Also special is the fact that the Ben Daniels Band is touring with Jeff for the first time.

Having toured since 2002, Jeff said he has gone solo and played with accompaniment, including Ben individually on tour.

"I have those in my back pocket. I didn't have a show with a band. I didn't want to go out and hire session musicians or form a band," so choosing his own son's band was a natural, he said.

"They aren't opening for me," he said. "They'll be featured. I'll do a few solos. Our mission is to entertain. If we don't entertain the people, we've failed.

"I'm not a big one to go out and sing a diary," Daniels said. "Songs have to cause laughter and entertain. If it doesn't connect with the audience, cross it off the playlist."

Asked what has been his biggest test as an entertainer, Daniels said, "I've been challenged before, but I'd be hard-pressed to find a more challenging role than Aaron Sorkin created for 'Newsroom' for me to rise to the occasion.

"'Newsroom' always will be one of my most challenging roles -- I know that now, even before I know what I'm doing next," he said.

___

(c)2014 the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.)

Visit the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.) at www.lacrossetribune.com

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Source: La Crosse Tribune (WI)


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