Jeff Daniels: Checking in With a Pure Michigan Performer

The actor, playwright, comedian, singer, songwriter, guitar player, movie-maker and owner of Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre, Michigan’s own Jeff Daniels, comes to the Cheboygan Opera House on December 8th at 7:30 p.m. MyNorth caught up with him in an interview from his home in Chelsea:

MyNorth: You’re just back from New York after a run on Broadway in the play God of Carnage for which you were nominated for a Tony Award. How long were you away from home?

Jeff Daniels: It was almost all of this year, to be honest. We went into rehearsal the end of January. We opened in March. We left the show—the four of us—November 14. So I spent the year in New York doing Broadway.

MyNorth: Are you glad to be back in Michigan?

Jeff Daniels: Yes, I am, and I think that’s one of the reasons I booked all these December gigs (including the Cheboygan Opera House) at this time. I knew I’d need it. Sure, I could sit on the couch and vegetate and just get my rest back. Or I can completely remove myself from the Broadway experience. For me, 180 degrees from that is to play gigs in Cheboygan and go through the U.P.—just from the setting standpoint alone! It’s the opposite of Times Square. To float through Northern Michigan and the U.P. … I am looking forward to doing it!

MyNorth: How do you decide which of your talents to pursue, and when?

Jeff Daniels: I compartmentalize really well. And the music is really important to me. You rely on no one else except yourself. On Broadway, while I was with three really great people—Marcia, Jim and Hope—(Marcia Gay Harden, James Gandolfini, Hope Davis) … everything depends on you supporting them and them supporting you. That’s tough to do eight times a week, especially when you’re having a bad night. But with the music, especially without having a band, just being able to walk out on the stage and plugging in, holding an audience for a night: you get all the glory. You get all the blame. But you also have all the creative control. I choose what I’m going to do sometimes on the fly. That’s a whole different experience than, say, Broadway.

MyNorth: Do you take this music and comedy show on the road throughout the U.S.?

Jeff Daniels: I’ve done it all over the place. But for me, playing here in Michigan and being from Michigan, it allows for me to play a lot of those Michigan songs I’ve written that are truly appreciated by Michigan audiences. I do the song about a state trooper—about getting a speeding ticket on the Seney stretch—the audience gets it. So it’s a fun place for me to go. I probably have played 250 gigs over the past 8 years: New York. Houston. Chicago Portland. Omaha. Seattle. Down in the Carolinas. But I love the off-markets. I love the Oshkoshes, places like that where the people really turn out. They’re ready to have a great time on a Saturday night.

MyNorth: Have you played the Cheboygan Opera house before?

Jeff Daniels: I played the Cheboygan Opera house two years ago. It’s a lovely little place. I love playing those little opera houses that have so much history to ’em. It’s real attractive to me. It reminds me of doing a play on Broadway on the same stage where Mae West and Laurence Olivier played.

MyNorth: Why Michigan?

Jeff Daniels: It’s home. It’s always been home. I was in New York City for ten years before we moved back. I told one of my actor friends when I made the decision to come back and he says, “You never left. The whole ten years you were here, you always had a foot in Michigan. Get outta here!” He was right. It’s home.

MyNorth: You’re currently involved in a special campaign on TV and radio called “The Upper Hand” to promote Michigan.

Jeff Daniels: When home’s in trouble—being a celebrity, being one of those visible people that’s connected to the state—I have a choice. I can do nothing and complain and sit around and say, No we shouldn’t do this, or No we shouldn’t do that. Or I can try to find solutions and try to be part of the way forward. I am one of many people who are doing the heavy lifting to bring our state back. We are going to have to reinvent ourselves. We will get out of this.

MyNorth: I hear you’re working on a new CD.

Jeff Daniels: I’ve got a new live CD Live at The Purple Rose that’s coming out right after Christmas which includes the song I’ll be playing in Cheboygan called ‘The Michigan in Me.’

MyNorth: Do you ever sleep?

Jeff Daniels: I sleep but I don’t sleep long. I don’t want therapy to figure out why. I’m not interested. All I know is that I’m kind of like a shark that has to keep moving, except my shark is creativity. (It could be other things, and that would be a problem.) The fact that it’s one thing to another—whether it’s writing the next play or working on the guitar or writing songs or acting—it seems like I’m doing a hundred things, but they’re not. They’re all coming from the same place. They’re trying to say the same thing but in a different language, whether it’s a song or on Broadway or in a movie.

MyNorth: But if you had to choose one thing … one profession?

Jeff Daniels: I’ve prided myself on a business that doesn’t really care whether I’m here on Tuesday. I’ve been real happy with being able to do it on my own terms. I live in Michigan. I’ve been able to choose films that I’ve wanted to do—sometimes for the money for the kids for college, sometimes for the mortgage, and other times, for me, like “The Squid and the Whale.” I’ve gotten to choose more often than not. But, you know, careers change. I’d like to continue in film. I’ve had my fill of Broadway for the time being, that’s for sure. But if it all went away, then I’m happy to pick up my guitar and walk out onstage. Because that’s everything I’ve done. When I sit in the chair with a guitar, for 100 minutes or so, the actor is behind me. The playwright is behind me. The director, the performer, the editor is behind me. The onstage Broadway performer. So they’re all the same guy. They just inform that guy who’s just picked up the guitar and says, “How ya doin? Let’s have some fun.”

MyNorth: For someone who’s never seen this side of Jeff Daniels, what can we expect in Cheboygan?

Jeff Daniels: It’s a lot of storytelling. Imagine me coming into your living room and sitting on your couch with a guitar. And then I tell you what it’s like to get shot and killed by Clint Eastwood in a movie, and all of a sudden I sing about it and it’s funny. “Daddy’s Little Daughter” is a song about your kid, and being a passenger while she’s getting her learner’s permit to drive a car. There’s a lot of humor. And then here comes the song called “Grandfather’s Hat” about missing someone in your life, and wearing a hat similar to what he wore. “Michigan in Me” I wrote in a rest area just east of Naubinway on Route 2 while I was driving cross-country. It’s about what it means to be from Michigan, who we are, what we are, where we’re from. By the end of the evening, you will have laughed harder than you’ve laughed in a long time.

Cheboygan Opera House, 7:30 p.m., December 8. Tickets are $35. A meet-and-greet will be held backstage following the show, tickets for that are $10. Call 231-627-5841.

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