Photo by Kevin ScanlonWhen you look like Jeff Daniels — more Heartland than Hollywood handsome, with a twinkly eye and a goofy grin always on the boil — it’s going to set certain career limits, no matter how good you are at what you do. And Daniels is very, very good, in an unobtrusive, can’t-see-him-acting way that has caught the attention of some of America’s top directors even as it has locked him into mostly supporting roles. From the day in 1983 when the actor, then 28 years old, got his first real break, playing Debra Winger’s weak, feckless husband in Terms of Endearment, Daniels has shuttled between parts that call for either an amiable doofus or a spineless cad, or both. But what flags him as a serious actor is that whether he’s rendering flawed but warm-hearted fathers in children’s movies both delightful (Fly Away Home) and lame (Because of Winn-Dixie), cutting up in a furry dog suit with flapping ears as Jim Carrey’s clueless sidekick in Dumb & Dumber, forging straight ahead as Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in Gettysburg, ceding the limelight to cute puppies in the live-action 101 Dalmatians or embodying the colorless CBS functionary Sig Mickelson in George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck — he plays them all absolutely straight, without so much as a wink at the audience on the side.“To a fault, I think,” says Daniels, his cowboy-booted feet up on a conference table in the offices of the Samuel Goldwyn Co., distributor of Daniels’ latest film, The Squid and the Whale. “It’s not how you win awards. It’s not how you make money. But I was brought up in theater, at the Circle Rep in New York, where the playwright was king, and that means you serve the story. Things get out of whack when you start to chew scenery, unless the character is supposed to do that for some reason. I remember asking one actress I worked with what she was doing next, and she said, ‘I’m going to do a comedy, it’s a whole different thing.’ I said, ‘No, it’s the same thing. You don’t know you’re funny.’ The guy in Dumb & Dumber didn’t know he was funny. He had an IQ of eight.”
To read Paul Malcolm's review of the film The
Squid and the Whale, click here.
To read Scott Foundas' interview
with director Noah Baumbach, click here.
In person, Daniels is affable, relaxed and Midwestern down-to-earth. Tall and comfortable in his body — he was a three-sport athlete in high school until an enterprising choir director strong-armed him into a song-and-dance routine in South Pacific, which he instinctively improvised as comedy — Daniels seems almost karmically self-effacing in his acceptance of the limits that making his home (with his wife and three kids) in Chelsea, Michigan, has imposed on his Hollywood visibility. Laura Linney, who stars opposite him in The Squid and the Whale and also runs her career with longevity rather than laurels in mind, says, “I respect the way Jeff lives his life, that he lives in Michigan, has a family, runs a theater. A lifetime of work, particularly where you get to see an actor grow and change, is better than becoming a rock & roll movie star.” “Any actor would take that in a second versus one $20 million movie and then you’re gone,” Daniels says. And then, quietly, “Maybe not.”The giveaway to something deeper, darker, more ironic and more ambitious in Daniels’ nature is that thin line of a mouth curling away from his teeth, the one that can give you a big dope or a devious schemer with no more than a twitch. His most perceptive directors have mined that duality. Woody Allen even double-cast him in The Purple Rose of Cairo (still Daniels’ favorite movie) as a vain film star and the pith-helmeted explorer he plays, who longs to climb out of his celluloid prison and into Mia Farrow’s arms. Jonathan Demme, with carnal support from Melanie Griffith, teased an avid radical out of Daniels’ corporate cog in what may still be the actor’s best film, Something Wild. His mild-mannered soda jerk in Gary Ross’ Pleasantville turned out to secrete an inner artist and ardent suitor to Joan Allen. And in Blood Work, Clint Eastwood spotted in Daniels a smiling killer, casting him as a trust-fund bum moonlighting as a homicidal maniac.If that dichotomy of good/bad, funny/sinister has kept Daniels’ phone ringing steadily for more than three decades, it’s also proved something of a prison keeping him from subtler roles. Until now, that is, when the young director Noah Baumbach has given Daniels his big chance to break out into a leading man, albeit one you’d think twice about inviting over for dinner. I have my reservations about The Squid and the Whale, an adept and sophisticated comedy based on Baumbach’s adolescent experience with his parents’ divorce; its portrayal of the neurotically self-absorbed couple seems at times to be settling old scores. But Daniels, who plays the movie’s most obnoxious character without discernible effort to soften him, also ends up humanizing him. Bernard Berkman, a has-been novelist and desiccated academic, is a whining narcissist and cheapskate so eaten up with rage over his stalled career and his divorce from his up-and-coming writer wife (who’s no picnic either) that he fails to see he’s using his two sons to prop himself up. Daniels lobbied hard for the role, and over a three-hour lunch he convinced Baumbach that he could play Bernard.“I wanted someone funny to play the part,” says Baumbach, “but who was also a great actor, rather than me trying to get a serious performance out of a comedian. Jeff has very sad eyes, and they are very blue. As Bernard he can be very off-putting, but there’s also something that makes you want to reach out and take care of him.”Daniels had met Baumbach’s father, Jonathan, and liked him, but was a little freaked when he hung around the set on the second day of the shoot. (“There was a certain amount of denial on my part,” says Noah with fetching understatement.) The actor was even wearing some of Jonathan’s clothes, and found many mannerisms to steal, which turned out to be the wrong way to go. “I immediately went back into rehearsal,” Daniels says, “and started doing an impression, and it was false, not connected to anything.” Noah agreed that Daniels needed to make the role his own, which he did, tapping into his experience as a playwright for his own Purple Rose theater. “One, Bernard’s a writer, and I understand the writer’s mind, the solitariness of it all,” Daniels says. “The second thing — and it’s not a problem per se, but it’s there — is that I have a lot of friends who have been nominated for Oscars, who’ve won, who’ve made $20 million a movie. And I haven’t.” Slipping unconsciously into the second person, he adds. “You live in the Midwest and it’s family first and career second, and you accept it. But the whole thing of being under-appreciated or ignored, I plugged into that.”And so the very stardom issues that continue to nag at Daniels have struck gold in a performance that transcends any he’s given before. Gone is the goofy grin, gone the twinkle, buried in an outgrowth of bushy beard and the dead eyes of a disappointed man. Daniels’ Bernard is a bore and an appalling stuffed shirt who insists on having the last pompous word on any given subject, especially when the subject is himself. He’s also a comic figure, oblivious to how others perceive him. Daniels plays him — not deadpan, but straight-faced — as a ludicrous Malvolio for the ages, but also as a poor tragic figure who can’t help himself, and in doing so he gives Bernard something that’s largely missing in this movie — a morsel of kindness.