Jeff Daniels is an actor, of course, but every so often he grabs his guitar and takes the stage.
Several stages, in fact.
He is currently on a tour with his son Ben’s band that will bring him to three nearby locales: The Acorn Theater in Three Oaks, Michigan, on Oct. 23; the Delphi Opera House in Delphi, Indiana, on Oct. 24; and the State Theater in Kalamazoo on November 22.
And a production of a play Daniels wrote in the mid-‘90s, “Escanaba In Da Moonlight,” opens Sept. 10 at First Presbyterian Theater for a three-weekend run.
Daniels said he started playing guitar and writing songs as a way of filling career lulls with creativity.
He understands that many people who attend these shows aren’t coming because they’re well acquainted with his musicianship.
Perhaps they expect protest songs a la Will McAvoy of “The Newsroom” or parody songs a la Harry Dunne of “Dumb & Dumber.”
What they get is Jeff Daniels songs a la Jeff Daniels.
“As long as I play well and write well and make it entertaining,” he said in a phone interview, “then you exceed everybody’s expectations. The expectations are never too high when an actor walks out with a guitar and they can be, frankly, pretty low. I’ve got that going for me and I actually use it.”
Daniels said one of the things he appreciates about the stage patter of the brilliant guitarist Leo Kottke is how he can sound at times like he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
“I love that,” he said. “Making them lean forward because, ‘You’re right. You’re absolutely right. This might be a train wreck.’
“If you open with three or four good songs,” Daniels said, “then it’s like you’re (expletive) U2.”
As an actor, Daniels is enjoying a career renaissance thanks to his Emmy-winning portrayal of McAvoy in the much-debated HBO drama series from the much-debated Aaron Sorkin.
Daniels can soon be seen in Sorkin’s “Steve Jobs,” Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” and in two films based on the last book of the “Divergent” trilogy.
Despite this intensified Hollywood cachet, Daniels has no plans to leave the place that he and his family have called home since 1986: Chelsea, Michigan.
Daniels said he and his wife moved there initially because he was not optimistic about enduring acting success.
“My thought was that when my career was over, I’d already be home,” he said.
He also didn’t know how they’d be able to successfully raise well-adjusted children anywhere else.
“We didn’t understand how to do that in Hollywood,” he said. “New York seemed difficult at best. We had a 2-year-old boy at the time and I was getting offers to be in movies and I could fly out of Detroit as easily as New York and we could live on a lake.”
Chelsea was where Daniels founded the Purple Rose Theatre Company, and the Purple Rose Theatre Company was where “Escanaba In Da Moonlight” was presented for the first time. (Daniels’ theater is named for the movie that launched his career, Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo.”)
Two things inspired the play: standard community theater desperation and the film “Dumb & Dumber.”
“I just wanted to write a play that would get people into my theater,” he said. “‘Dumb & Dumber’ had just come out and I’d stand in the back of the (movie) theater and listen to what an audience thought was funny. They were dying and I thought, ‘I want to hear people laughing that hard in my theater.’”
So Daniels mined some of the richest comic material he knew: The characters and characteristics of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, aka “Da Yooper.”
The play was designed specifically for Lower Peninsula audiences steeped in lore from the north, but it has since been performed across the country and was even adapted for the big screen by Daniels.
“On a movie set in Louisiana, a crew member said he owns the indie movie we made of it and watches it all the time,” Daniels said. “Based on that, it’ll work in Indiana.”
To fully appreciate Daniels’ acting range, one should merely consider the disparate projects that gave his career two needed shots of adrenaline: The broadly comic “Dumb & Dumber” and the incisive “Newsroom.”
“I just finished a movie this summer down in Atlanta,” he said, “which is where we shot ‘Dumb & Dumber To’ and I had the same stand-in for this movie as I did for ‘Dumb & Dumber To’ — a guy named James.
“So James is talking and he goes, ‘You know, I gotta tell you. When I saw what you were doing in ‘Dumb & Dumber To’ everyday and I knew about ‘The Newsroom,’ I said, ‘This guy’s got a screw loose,’” Daniels said, laughing. “He was genuinely concerned that I needed help, which was great.”
“The Newsroom” wasn’t just notable for what happened on screen. The show stirred up an assortment of controversy.
The critics hated it initially, for one thing.
Daniels recalls facing, alongside Sorkin, a hall full of mostly hostile pundits at the Television Critics Association summer tour in 2012.
“We just sat in front of 300 television critics and it was a tough room,” he said. “Finally one of them asked me if the reaction to Aaron Sorkin’s work on the show affected me at all. And I very politely said, ‘It’s taken me years to stop reading you so, with all due respect, you don’t matter.’”
Daniels told the critic that if he wanted an accurate assessment of his work he’d ask another actor.
“I pointed to this guy and said, ‘You love me. You think I’m the greatest actor you’ve ever seen.’ Then I pointed at this other guy and said, ‘But you hate me. You can’t understand why I am still in the business.’
“‘What am I supposed to do with that?’” Daniels recalled saying to them. “‘Which one am I supposed to go with? Here’s my answer. I delete you both.’”
Critics stop mattering when the artist being criticized realizes he knows more than they do, Daniels said.
“I told the critics, ‘If you really want to help, be there at 6 in the morning the day we shoot the scene,’” he said. “Because then I’ll turn to you and go, ‘OK, tell me what to do.’”
Another phenomenon Daniels encountered while starring in “The Newsroom” had to do with viewers, usually conservatives incensed by McAvoy’s viral Northwestern University rant from the first episode, seeming to confuse the actor with the character.
“I had a radio guy — right-wing radio show host — say to me, ‘You know what you should do is come into the studio and take calls from our listeners. Because a lot of our listeners would like to tell you what they really think of ‘Newsroom’ and your character and what you said on that show.’
“I said, ‘You do know I’m fictional, right?’”
It is, perhaps, a testament to Daniels’ skill at portraying McAvoy that some people still think he is McAvoy.
Daniels said McAvoy bought him some time in Tinseltown just like Harry Dunne bought him some time in the ‘90s.
He said he threw everything he had at “The Newsroom.”
“I walked away from that going, ‘Everything I ever learned, I put into those three years,’” Daniels said. “Other people in the business saw that and suddenly I have a later-in-life resurgence.”
Every actor needs those flashy chances to refresh people’s memories and not every actor gets them.
“Man, to get those,” he said. “ I know a lot of really good actors who are just screaming for work. It’s tough.”
One day, Daniels may run out of flashy chances and he said he’ll be at peace when and if that happens.
“John Goodman said something years ago that made so much sense to me. He said, “The limo you’re riding in tonight? Someone else’s ass is going to be in it tomorrow.’”