Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Jeff Daniels talks career, vacuums, Clint Eastwood

If limited to a single word, the best way to describe Jeff Daniels would be versatile.

The veteran actor/director/writer/producer has done it all, and more importantly, he’s done it on his own terms. Never one who felt the magnetic pull of Hollywood life, Daniels lives and works in rural Michigan, hardly a hotbed of entertainment. Working out of his home in Chelsea, Mich., Jeff Daniels has made himself a virtual household name in the acting business without living in L.A. or New York, something few have the luxury of doing.

His time in Michigan has allowed him to build a very memorable career while staying true to his Midwestern roots. In addition to forming his own film production company, Purple Rose Films, Daniels has also opened his own theater in Chelsea called The Purple Rose, which develops young stage talent and helps small-town hopefuls who dream of “making it” in showbiz. His roles have been as diverse as his approach to entertainment, and Daniels has been acclaimed for performances in both serious and not-so-serious roles.

It was Woody Allen who first saw Daniels’ comic aptitude, and he was subsequently cast in a starring role opposite Mia Farrow in the critically acclaimed film “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” a film Daniels has always credited as being a vital career boost. Daniels was also acclaimed for his work in “Gettysburg” and “Terms of Endearment,” but it was still his role as Harry Dunne in 1994’s “Dumb and Dumber” that will stand as an indelible comedic legacy.

Daniels’ list of films is impressive; in addition to the aforementioned hits, he also starred in “Arachnophobia,” “The Butcher’s Wife,” “Speed,” “2 Days in the Valley,” “101 Dalmatians” and “Pleasantville.”

Currently, Daniels is looking forward to the upcoming release of his film “Super Sucker” (, a comedic tale of a vacuum cleaner salesman who discovers his female customers have taken an interest in “nontraditional” uses for his product. To say the least, it’s not a film for the whole family. Daniels wrote, directed, and acted in “Super Sucker.”

While on location in California with Clint Eastwood, Daniels spoke with The Badger Herald about his career, upcoming films and showbiz.

BH: Having done it all — written, directed, produced, acted — what is the most rewarding role for you and why?

JD: When you do all four jobs at once, obviously there is more personal involvement in the project than if I were simply acting. Acting in a film is to give your performance to a director, provide him or her with options so that they can take those options into the editing room and build your performance. While it’s a thrill to focus on an acting scene and nail it in front of the camera, in the end, your performance is out of your hands. The story is someone else’s, the film is the director’s vision, and you show up at the premiere, hoping what you did adds up. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

As the writer/director/actor, all three of those people share the same vision. Right or wrong, there’s a consistency to the project that I find refreshing. The flip side is, you have no one to blame but yourself.

BH: Since you are a prolific writer, where do you your ideas for scripts come from, and how do you know if they are good enough to put out to the public? Is there one person whose opinion makes or breaks your willingness to do a project?

JD: Instinctively, I trust myself. After 32 films and working with some of the best people in the business over my acting career, I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. One of the biggest lessons was learning how to make that magical connection between what’s happening onstage or onscreen and how the audience reacts to it. For me, that’s where the art lies, especially in comedy: finding that connection without getting caught displaying the mechanics and technique it takes to make the connection.

In pursuing an idea, I ask questions along the way. Does the idea as a story propel itself forward? Does it interest me? Are the events as they unfold surprising? Because if they are, your story will hold onto an audience. Predictable story lines written out of formulas bore me to death, which causes me to search for ideas I haven’t seen before. I tend to drop story ideas that people can “hybrid,” meaning, “oh, it’s “Dumb and Dumber” meets “We Were Soldiers” or some such nonsense. This makes it difficult to get your films made in Hollywood because they like to hybrid; hybrid stories are easier to market.

Generally, if I find the concept or initial idea original, surprising and unpredictable, it works as a story for both me and an audience. When I’m writing, it helps me immensely to sit back at certain points and imagine asking the audience to guess what happens next. If they’re wrong, I keep writing.

BH: Let’s talk “Super Sucker.” Where did the idea come from, and how was the experience of bringing it to the big screen?

JD: A couple of years ago, a friend of mine told me about his experiences as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. At the time I was trying to think of new play ideas, but when it came time to write a second screenplay for Purple Rose Films, I went back into that idea, researched it and came up with the characters and something to say. The turning point in the story, where my character discovers his wife in bed, having sex with her vacuum cleaner, was simply a case of the writer thinking, “What’s the most outrageous way for Fred, my character, to sell vacuum cleaners?”

BH: Did you like having so many responsibilities on the film (director, actor, writer), or did it get overwhelming at times?

JD: Besides the never-ending hours of doing all those jobs simultaneously, it felt like I was finally using 100 percent of myself. As an actor, you’re constantly sitting in your trailer or the hotel, waiting to be called to perform in short spurts. I don’t know how many studio films I’ve been on where I would spend hours in my trailer rewriting a play for the Purple Rose Theatre. When it came time to write, act and direct, it was like I was simply filling my whole day.

BH: You’re currently working with Clint Eastwood on a film. What’s the film about, and what role do you play?

JD: It’s called “Blood Work,” based on a Michael Connelly novel. I play Buddy Noone, a California boat bum who helps Clint’s character (Terry McCaleb) solve a murder. I’m told it’ll be released in August. I also reprised my role as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in “Gods and Generals,” the prequel to “Gettysburg,” set for release this fall.

BH: Having worked with so many great actors and been involved in so many memorable moments on screen, what are the three projects you’ll never forget?

JD: Of the studio films, “Gettysburg,” because of its historical value, “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” for what it meant to me professionally, and “Dumb and Dumber,” because it will make people laugh forever. “Escanaba In Da Moonlight” and “Super Sucker,” our two Purple Rose Films projects, are closest to my heart because there is so much more of myself invested in them.

BH: Finally, your theater in Michigan, The Purple Rose, has given many young people a start in the industry. What’s been the best part of starting up the theater, and what advice do you have for young actors/writers/directors who are trying to find a break in the business?

JD: The Purple Rose Theatre was created because, when I was 21 years old, I remember walking around Michigan with raw talent and nowhere to refine it. Thinking of moving to New York, I didn’t know what a professional actor was supposed to know. When I moved back to Michigan 10 years later, I wanted to provide a place where not only I could write my plays and provide the community at large a professional theater the way I thought it should be run, but also to create a place where the next 21-year-old kid with talent could learn.

It’s a great launching pad for those who want to go to New York or L.A., as well as a great creative home for those professionals who either went and came back or decided to stay in the Midwest. People forget that very few actors, writers, directors, and designers grow up in New York and Hollywood; they move there from places like Michigan and Wisconsin. Ask around any audition on either coast; everyone is from somewhere else. The Purple Rose is an example of what the arts can do for the Midwestern theater artist, what it can provide culturally to an audience and what it can provide artistically and economically for a community.

As for “breaking into showbiz,” first you have to ignore what “making it” means because it means something different to everyone. Regardless, the odds of succeeding at any level in the entertainment industry are astronomical.

Let’s start with the fact that less than 10 percent of the Screen Actors Guild members make a living. Still, if they must, I would never tell a young actor/writer/director not to try. But if they do, they have to be singular in their approach. Nothing else can matter. They have to be driven to learn, focused only on their career and hold a never-ending belief in their own talent because when you start out, the only person who believes in you is you. If you’re lucky, you’ll collect important people along the way who agree with you.

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