It’s no act: Jeff Daniels can play music
ASPEN – In March 2009, Jeff Daniels originated the Broadway role of Alan, a father and type-A attorney, in the four-person play, “God of Carnage.” His performance earned him a Tony nomination for Best Lead Actor, while “God of Carnage” took the award for Best Play. But perhaps the biggest honor for Daniels came earlier this year, when the producers asked Daniels to rejoin the cast – only this time as Michael, a self-made businessman who had originally been played by James Gandolfini, in another Tony-nominated performance.”To be one of the handful of guys to flip roles like that on Broadway – that meant a lot to me,” Daniels said while driving in southern New Jersey. “It had failure written all over it – I’m stepping into James Gandolfini’s shoes; there were many other actors who could have done it, and could sell a lot of tickets. But the producers came to me because they thought I could do it.”Perhaps what the producers saw in Daniels is someone who has shown a unique capacity to fill a lot of roles. Daniels first established himself as a film actor, with early roles in the Academy Award-winning “Terms of Endearment”; Jonathan Demme’s edgy “Something Wild”; and the lead role, as a movie character who walks off the screen and into the real-life Depression, in Woody Allen’s masterful “The Purple Rose of Cairo.”While working in film, Daniels made occasional side-trips into live theater; he earned an award for the family drama “Fifth of July,” and one for the anti-war play “Johnny Got His Gun.” In 1991 he spun his love for the stage into the Purple Rose Theatre Company, a nonprofit theater troupe he founded in Chelsea, Mich., where he was raised. At the Purple Rose, Daniels’ job description included not only founder and executive director, but also playwright; he has written more than a dozen plays that have been produced by the company.Aspen audiences will see Daniels in yet another role. On Friday, Nov. 5, the 55-year-old brings his acoustic guitar and his original songs to Belly Up and dons his singer-songwriter hat.Professional musician is a part Daniels didn’t expect to play. But heading to New York City, after studying in the theater department at Central Michigan University, he figured he would become intimately familiar with the character of the aspiring actor, spending many hours in a small apartment waiting for the phone to ring. So he got himself a guitar and began writing. It was a way to keep the creative juices moving.As it turned out, Daniels didn’t put in as many lonely hours in the apartment as he might have expected. In 1977, he was part of the original cast for “Fifth of July.” The performance kicked off a long-lasting relationship with playwright Lanford Wilson, and also got Daniels’ foot in the door of New York’s acting scene. The guitar wasn’t hocked, or locked away in a closet – Daniels would often record songs on a cassette and swap them with a colleague from the Circle Repertory Theatre – but any professional aspirations he might have had as a musician did a quick fade.”Why confuse the issue?” Daniels said. “And it’s a matter of, What do you want to be? It takes all your focus, drive, ambition and talent if you want to succeed. The guitar became background, something I did for me.”Even as he became established as a film actor, with career highlights in “Dumb and Dumber” and “Pleasantville,” Daniels kept the guitar off to the side. Energy outside of his movie career went into the Purple Rose Theater, an ambitious regional company that produces four shows a year in a 168-seat venue, in a building once owned by Daniels’ grandfather.In the late ’90s, the Purple Rose invited Lanford Wilson to come to Michigan to write a new play. One night, in a bar that featured a musician playing in the corner, Wilson told Daniels to get up and play. Wilson knew Daniels could make music. Years earlier, he had seen the actor loosen up in a dressing room by picking on his guitar; Wilson even wrote out lyrics for a song, “Road Signs,” for Daniels to compose music for. (Daniels still has the piece of paper pinned to his wall.)Daniels resisted the idea of getting up in the bar, just as he had resisted all impulses to go public with his music-making. But Wilson was persistent, so Daniels responded: “I do what Lanford Wilson tells me to do,” he said. Daniels said the reception that night was a revelation all around: None of the Purple Rose members in attendance knew the actor could play, and Daniels had no idea that his music could get such a warm reception.In December 1999, when the Purple Rose staff was looking for ideas for a fundraising event, something cheap and easy, fingers pointed to the boss. Daniels agreed to do a handful of Christmas-time shows, but when he got up on-stage without no character to play, no fellow actors to play off of, and no script written by someone else, he got stage fright. “White-hot fear. Terrifying,” as he recalled the experience. “There was no character. The character can act as a filter to the audience. When you’re out there on your own, the nakedness I felt … I wasn’t ready for that.”For three years, Daniels did the holiday gig at the Purple Rose, accompanied only by that sensation of being alone and uncomfortable. But in the fourth year, something clicked. He realized there was in fact a character he could play, a variation on Jeff Daniels. His tour manager had told him that if Daniels wasn’t having fun, no one was having fun. Daniels had his character.”So it’s me in a good mood, me glad to be there,” said Daniels, who made his Aspen debut early in 2007, a well-received show at the Wheeler Opera House. “Actors do all this research, go on-stage, and then they boil it down to a couple of key thoughts that lead to everything else. This was the big thought – it’s a version of me, but playing me in a good mood.”Daniels’ repertoire consists almost entirely of his own material. “We don’t need to hear me doing a version of ‘Fire & Rain,'” he said. Virtually all of the songs on “Live at the Purple Rose,” recorded last year, are comedic, but they also have sharp, real-life edges to them. The album opens with “Here’s a Little Somethin’,” which riffs on the less fabulous parts of being a celebrity. “Baby, Take Your Tongue Outta My Mouth, I’m Kissin’ You G’Bye” is funny, but it puts Daniels in the role of the done-wrong bluesman (“I don’t know where you been/ But you’ve been passed around lately like a bottle of gin.”) “Gettin’ Good at Bein’ Bad” catalogues his past drug use. Daniels’ singing is good; his between-song stories are engaging; his guitar-playing is impressive.Daniels seems to have become fully comfortable as a singer-songwriter. He told his agent that this fall was out for film jobs; he’s on a 32-show tour that takes him from Georgia to Alaska. Like other film actors who become live performers, Daniels likes the opportunity to present something like his real self in public.”People see you in movies and decide they know you. But they don’t,” he said. “In the songs, it’s sides of me that no one’s ever asked to come out. The great thing about writing is I get to play all these characters I’d never be right for. It’s fun to stretch the personality of it. Or destroy it.”Daniels might have to once again put aside his music career. He and Tim Busfield – another Michigan native who has gone on to start a theater company – are deep into developing a TV series for Showtime. Tellingly, it will not require Daniels to set down his guitar. In the series, his character works at an auto supply company – but chucks it all to become a folk firstname.lastname@example.org
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