Jeff Daniels: 'Dumb' and strummer
By Deborah L. Kunesh | Contributing writer
Published: 2/29/2008 12:06 AM
With more than 45 movies ("Arachnophobia," "Dumb andDumber," "101 Dalmatians," to name a few) and dozens more television movies, Jeff Daniels is a versatile leading man.
A.little known secret is that he is also a singer/songwriter and playwright with more than 30 years experience.
It's only in the last seven years that he's taken that musical talent from the back porch out to the public to benefit the theater that he founded -- and is also executive director of -- The Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Mich.
We spoke with Daniels, who performs in Schaumburg this weekend, by phone to find out more about his music, the man behind the guitar and his work on the big screen.
An aspiring actor, Daniels moved to New York at the age of 21. Then came the big black notebook full of songs that sprang from trying to figure everything out. A self-taught guitarist, Daniels continued to pen songs as a way of keeping a musical diary of his experiences. Fast forward to three albums later…
Q. You've said on your Web site that you can be found in your black notebook full of songs?
A. A lot of them are observations. As a playwright, you learn you've got to open up yourself and lay some stuff out there emotionally, and if it's universal it will connect. The same thing with songs. You've got to find ways through the lyrics, the playing, the timing and the inflections just like an actor would. You've got to find a way to make the song theirs, even though it came from you.
Q. Do you still have that notebook?
A. They're typed into the computer now. The notebook pages in the folder are up on the shelf somewhere. My kids will enjoy them when I'm gone. (It's) full of songs that are just God-awful, but they're everything I was going through and dealing with.
Q. What inspires you most in songwriting?
A. The radar is always out. As a playwright it is, and certainly as a songwriter it is. Sometimes they hit you right in the head, like "Grandfather's Hat," somebody says something and you just know right away. Or even "Have a Good Life and Die." I knew right in the middle of this guy's tirade, he was screaming at me for this transgression on the road, that this is a song. When he's done yelling at me, I've got to find a piece of paper. Other ones you just kind of play and find your way to them. So, it's interesting.
Q. Your business partner, Steve Curran, encouraged you to take your music public?
A. I was sitting in the back of the sound room (for "Escanaba In Da Moonlight") typing my songs into the computer, and he walks in and says "What are you doing?" And that's when he made the remark, and I said, "No, I don't want to be William Shatner." He said, "That sounds like a song to me," and walked away.
Q. Do you have a favorite of all the movies you've done?
A. Certainly, "The Purple Rose of Cairo" meant a lot to me because I was working with Woody Allen. Woody told me I was good, and for a young actor, that just was gold.
Q. What can the audience expect in your upcoming performance?
A. Expect a good time. I deal with the Hollywood thing. I don't walk out and want you to ignore the big elephant in the room, which is, I'm known for something else. I have a lot of fun with that. Some of the songs are about that side of my life. It really becomes a very entertaining evening. If I don't have them when I walk out, I usually have them about 15 minutes in. So I have a good time with it, and hopefully they will too.
Q. Do you still drive an RV to your gigs?
A. I won't be driving it (to Schaumburg). It's in the shop right now. I hit another guy. I was parked at a truck stop and I took out somebody's Jaico. It's getting fixed, but it won't be arriving with me. It's a 42 foot Travel Supreme.
Q. You and your wife moved back to your home of Michigan?
A. It's been great for the kids. Kathleen and I are both from Michigan and that's what we understood, and so when it came time to have kids and raise them, we went back to the place we understood, which was home. We didn't know how to raise kids in Hollywood. You can do it. People do it all of the time, but we didn't know how to do it. So that drove the decision. We just moved back here in '86 and hoped the phone would keep ringing.
Q. You have some new movies coming out…
A. "Space Chimps" is one of those animated voiceover things. "Traitor" is a movie I did with John Cheadle. I've got a supporting part in that. I just finished a movie called "Sweet Nothings in My Ear" with Marlee Matlin. It's a Hallmark Hall of Fame thing. It's going to be on CBS, I believe the end of April. I'm about to shoot a movie, "The Dream of the Romans," written by John Hindman. It's a really good part. An independent film.
Q. Biggest accomplishment?
A. That my kids are sane. Dad worked in Hollywood, and my kids are sane. It's a huge accomplishment.
8 p.m., Saturday
Prairie Center for the Performing Arts, 201 Schaumburg Court, Schaumburg.
$38 to $40
Q: Your business partner, Steve Curran, encouraged you to take your music public?
A: I was sitting in the back of the sound room (for Escanaba In Da Moonlight) typing my songs into the computer and he walks in and says “what are you doing?”, and that’s when he made the remark, and I said, “no, I don’t want to be William Shatner.” He said, “That sounds like a song to me” and walked away.
Q: And you then told him to go finish tweaking the fart scene? (the scene from Escanaba In Da Moonlight that Steve was currently editing)
A: That took about a day to get the flatulence just right. Do we want more bass in that? Can we see the mid-range? What’s the mid-range? Extend that.
Q: Sounds a little like Harry Dunne (character Daniels played in “Dumb and Dumber”)?
A: Yeah, the toilet scene.
Q: Many people still associate you with that character? Does it ever annoy you?
A: No. It makes people laugh, which is a cliché, but it’s true. We need that.
For more information, go to
More About Jeff
Jeff Daniels’ Albums:
*Live and Unplugged (2005)
*Grandfather’s Hat (2006)
*Together Again (2007)
*He wrote, acted in and directed Purple Rose Film’s “Super Sucker” about a vacuum cleaner salesman, which was awarded the “Audience Award” at the 2002 US Comedy Film Festival in Aspen, CO.
*Has written at least 12 plays so far for his theatre company. “I actually turned in a play this morning,” said Daniels. “Five straight days of pushing, like giving birth, or what I imagine it to be like. I have a feeling they may do (the play) this summer.”
*First debut in front of a camera was a Mutual of New York life insurance commercial in the fall of 1976. “I was in New York about 6 weeks when I got that,” said Daniels.
*Inducted into the Michigan Walk of Fame, along with Stevie Wonder and others, in 2006. This was the first set of inductees for the Walk.
*Daniels’ family owns the Chelsea Lumber Company, which also provided all of the lumber for the building of the Purple Rose Theatre.
*Proceeds from the sale of Daniels’ CD’s funnels back into the theatre. “We’ve given the theatre about $35,000 so far,” said Daniels.
*Nominated for 3 Golden Globes. To see more movie nominations and awards, go to http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001099/awards
*Played guitar on Don Johnson’s 1989 album “Let It Roll.”
*His musical influences:
Songwriters: Lyle Lovett (who Daniels was able to perform with) and Guy Clarke
Performers: Keb Mo, Kelly Joe Phelps, Christine Lavin, BB Goodman. “They’re really inspiring and they’re always looking for the next song. It’s fun to emulate these guys and go and see them live,” said Daniels.