When Jeff Daniels describes himself as “just out of the cornfield,” you know exactly what he means. He looks like a cornstalk – tall, straw-haired, healthy, rural. Onstage, as a member of the Circle Repertory Company, he has been closely associated with the plays of Lanford Wilson, the poet laureate of small-town America. His role in Fifth of July as the lover of a crippled Vietnam veteran (played first by William Hurt, later by Christopher Reeve and Richard Thomas) was written specifically for Daniels. A muscular blond in a tank-top and blue jeans, he had almost nothing to say, but he was a haunting presence – the conscience of the play. And he earned the best reviews of his young career playing Wilson himself in a revival of his early autobiographical play Lemon Sky. When we met for this interview, he had just come off a dizzying string of major movies (Terms of Endearment, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Marie, Heartburn), and he was nervous about doing a play for the first time in a while. The opening of Lemon Sky was only a few days away, so we started off talking about – what else – reviews.
I used to not care. Now, you hope that Frank Rich loves it. When he likes it, people line up at the box office, they come in with a smile on their face, they’re glad they’re here. If he doesn’t like it – and I’ve been in those shows, too – they come in pissed off, because they’d bought their tickets before the review. And you cannot get them to laugh – you know, a chuckle here and there, where before it was holding for five seconds so you could be heard in your next line. But if Frank Rich loves it, man, there ain’t nothing better. No movie experience can beat it.
You’ve had some pretty exciting movie experiences.
Well, every movie I’ve done has been with megastars. Meryl Streep or Debra Winger or Shirley MacLaine or Woody Allen or Mia Farrow or Jack Nicholson.
Did it feel weird to go from Circle Rep, doing shows downtown, to doing these movies with mega-super-household names?
Well, on Terms of Endearment, I was very scared. It was a huge break. Put me in a movie with Winger or MacLaine or Nicholson, but not all three. And a major role. I was afraid it was going to be, “Three superstars – unfortunately, the movie sags every time Daniels comes on-screen,” which could easily have been.
Was the work intimidating on a daily basis?
No. See, ever since the first day I got here in New York and went down to Circle Rep, there was Lanford Wilson sitting in the office. He was a star to me. I had just done his play Hot l Baltimore out in Michigan. To make some money, Marshall Mason [artistic director of Circle Rep] had come out to direct a repertory of four plays at this college theater, and I got cast in two of his plays, Hot l and the lead in Summer and Smoke.
You were still in college?
I had a year to go. I was going to Central Michigan University, which is up in Mt. Pleasant – out in this cornfield. I read in the paper that Eastern Michigan University, right near Ann Arbor, was having this rep thing, where you could go audition. I’d been doing well at Central the first three years, and I wanted to see how I’d stack up against kids from all over the Midwest. I got the lead in the best play. It was kind of annoying, because I had tickets to a hockey game that night, and I had to go to callbacks. It was like, “Shit!” I just wanted the audition experience. But one of the guys who came down from Central with me said, “I think you better go to the callbacks, because the guy who’s directing the play that you’re up for is from New York.” So I stayed and we did the play.
Before the first performance Marshall took me out for a drink. I didn’t know what he would say to me. All I was going to do was ask him, “Should I try New York, or should I not waste my time?” Before I could say anything, he goes, “Well, you know what you should do with your life, don’t you? You should be an actor.” That was it. He said, “I want you to come to New York if you’d like, and become an apprentice at Circle Rep.” So I did. I went the following September. There I was just out of the cornfield, holding the Hot l script, and there was Lanford. He’s the first star I ever met. And I started meeting these people who come to this theater, and they’re good people. Bill Hurt came into the company, walked in a star.
You mean everyone knew he was a star?
Apparently. We did this play called My Life. Bill and Chris Reeve and I shared a dressing room. Bill was waiting to hear whether Ryan O’Neal was going to turn down Love Story II, because if Ryan did, then Bill would consider it. Ryan didn’t. Then Bill said, “Well, I didn’t want to do it anyway.” Chris Reeve, the last week of the run, flew to London to screen-test for Superman, and he got it. Bill told him not to do it. “Don’t do it, don’t do it.” Chris said, “I think I will.” Meanwhile, I was just broke.
So I’d been around stars, and I’d watched. Especially when Chris came back to do Fifth of July on Broadway, I saw the good and bad stuff about being a star. There’s more pressure, people expect more of you. They expect you to do what they’re familiar with. When you try to do something different – like Chris was trying to do – it’s hard. But also I saw all the people, the big names, come back just to say hello, like Robin Williams. So it’s not like I walked onto the set of Terms of Endearment and had never seen a superstar before. I’d seen ‘em. It still doesn’t prepare you to meet Woody Allen, but it helps.
Tell me how Purple Rose of Cairo happened.
Wednesday morning I got up, and on Monday morning I was shooting. That’s how fast it was.
Had you ever met or read for Woody’s other movies?
No. My agent, Paul Martino, calls up that night and says, “(Gasp) You’re going to meet Woody Allen tomorrow.” I went, “Oh.” Terms of Endearment had been out ten days or two weeks, and it had been a big hit.
What were you doing? Lying low? Riding high?
I was…well, trying to get in on Mrs. Soffel. So I went and met Woody. I was told it won’t be a long meeting, so don’t worry about it or be offended or take it personally. It wasn’t. It was two minutes long. He was very pleasant. He asked me, “What have you done?” I said, “Some Broadway, Off-Broadway.”
He didn’t know what you’d done?
Well, he wanted to hear me talk. And I didn’t talk very well. And it was Woody Allen. You’d think all the Terms of Endearment star-stuff would have mellowed that a little bit, but no. It was Woody Allen. I mean, you respect and admire him, and he’s interested in you, and you can’t believe it. I’m working on this, but at that point it was like, “This can’t be true. Woody can’t be interested in me and, please, don’t be. This isn’t funny anymore. Stop this.” So he took a Polaroid of me, and out of that two-minute meeting he said, “I think maybe we’ll do a screen test. We’ll get the scenes to you, and I’ll let you know.”
This was about eleven in the morning, first week of December. I went out to do some Christmas shopping, and I got back about one-thirty. There were seventeen messages on my machine, all from Paul, the agent, saying, “Get down to Woody’s office, you’re screen-testing this afternoon.” So I went down there, picked up the two scenes, the teamster showed up and took me out to the set in Piermont, New York. I’m memorizing in the car on the way out there. There had been, like, a revolving door of name young actors going in for screen tests and coming out every hour and a half or so, and I was the last one. I went in there, there was Woody and everybody, Mia Farrow. I read the two scenes, and there was a lot of huddling between Woody and the producers. Then Woody came over and said, “All right, thanks a lot. We’ll let you know tomorrow by noon.” I looked at him and said, “Th-thanks, Woody” – you know, like I never expected to see him again. I was just thrilled for the opportunity.
I found out later that one of the other two guys they looked at was so horrible, they didn’t even print his test. They just got him out of there and said, “Thanks a lot.” [He lingers over this point, obviously tempted to tell me the name of the actor and exactly how “horrible” he was. But as happened throughout the conversation whenever he started to say something nasty and critical about another actor, he restrained himself and dropped the thought in mid-sentence.] Anyway, it doesn’t matter, it’s the old competitive thing coming out…So the next morning Paul Martino calls me up and says, “The screen test is fabulous and Woody wants you. He’s just got to convince the studio that he can do this with Mia Farrow and a no-name male actor.” That took some doing. The meeting started at five in the afternoon. I went to Paul’s office, and we expected to hear at five-thirty. At seven-fifteen, I’m bangin’ off the walls of his office. I said, “It’s obviously a problem. The joke’s over, I’ll go home.” I was walkin’ in the door, and Kathleen, my wife, was hanging up the phone. She turned around and said, “You got it. You start Monday.”
Did you always want to be an actor?
I just have always been one. I haven’t always dreamed of the marquee and the lights and all that stuff. I stumbled on a stage in high school in this musical because the director needed guys for South Pacific, and I was funny. I knew what to do to make 622 people laugh.
What did you do?
I played a sailor and there was a guy in a grass skirt doing a takeoff on those Bali Hai girls. I just looked at his ass and said, “Look, it moves,” and I don’t know, it got a big laugh. The director had me do it four times in a row. She laughed every time. You know, usually you’ve got jocks up onstage in high school, just standing there in their costumes. So she started throwing me onstage in these huge roles. El Gallo in The Fantasticks, Harold Hill in the Music Man, Fagin in Oliver, even Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof – this eighteen-year-old blond in the Midwest? I was totally, totally wrong for it. But you glue on a beard, do the hair, it’s like college theater. After all, you ain’t going to find a sixty-five-year-old Jew in Ann Arbor who can sing and act.
What do your parents think about your being an actor?
They were really supportive. They were the ones who said it’s all right to skip your last year of college and go to New York. These are parents who own a lumberyard in a small town. There are thirty-five hundred people in this town, and no actors. What do they know about New York? It was very brave of them to say, “I think you better go.” It was hard to go, and it was hard for them to let me do this. They would come see the plays, they would be there for the occasional phone call when it wasn’t going well and you weren’t making money. They tried to help as best they could when TV pilots were sniffin’ at ya, and they’re talking $100,000, and it seems like ten million, and you’re broke, but you want to do movies, and if you do this TV series and it sells, you’ve got to move to California and all this stuff. They were very good about saying: “Stick to what you believe in and what you want to do.”
Did you make a living as an actor as soon as you came to New York?
Yeah, commercials. I wouldn’t work as a waiter or drive a cab. I’m glad I did commercials. That was ’cause ICM signed me and had a commercials department and threw me right into it. It’s really great, especially if you live cheaply, one room with hot plate. The check comes in, and it’s just enough, and you can still do your small role in My Life or whatever play they’re doing at Circle Rep and study from ten to four or five in the afternoon.
How did you resist doing TV pilots?
I did one because it was really bad, and I really was broke, and I said, “No way this can sell.” So I got the bucks, and two months later it was dead. It was a terrific experience. It’s got to be what I want or I’m not going to do it. I wanted to do films, good films if I ever got the opportunity, and Jim Brooks gave it to me with Terms. If I couldn’t do that, then I probably would have gone back and been a teacher and been perfectly happy. I wasn’t going to be a whore. I wasn’t going to be a game-show actor. I just wasn’t going to do that. As it was, I almost left after three months anyway. I hated it here.
Where did you live when you first came to New York?
Twenty-third Street and Seventh Avenue in an old hotel, right next to the Hotel Chelsea. I had one room, a closet that was also a kitchen. You couldn’t open the refrigerator and the oven at the same time. I was there because Marshall had said, “You know what you should do with your life, don’t you? You should act.”
By the time of the Broadway run of Fifth of July, I kind of knew what I was doing. I’d added up all the things I’d been studying at Circle in workshops and all that stuff. Then I did Johnny Got His Gun. That was probably it. It was a one-man show at Circle Rep. It was just me and seventy pages of writing and every emotion a human being can go through in ninety minutes. The New York Times didn’t like the script, so it died in three weeks, but I won an Obie Award for it. But you had to have studied, you had to know what you were doing technically as an actor to pull it off, so that the audience felt this descent into hell, which is basically what it is.
Elly Renfield the director, said, “Keep it under control, keep it bubbling, don’t have a nervous breakdown onstage.” I said, “Yeah,” but the Method actor in me…I tried it once in previews. I sobbed, I was all over the place, I was just streaming tears. She said, “I watched the audience, and they didn’t feel much of anything.” Other nights I would go out there and almost lose it but fight it back, hold it back – and the audience was a mess. I hadn’t know that before, that ability to control an audience. Sometimes you don’t know that stuff ‘til you try it out.
Who are the actors you’ve admired as role models or inspirations?
I’ve always liked Spencer Tracy’s honesty. Alan Arkin did some great stuff in the seventies. I saw Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon six times. I’d just go back and back and back and study him. There’s no way I could be Pacino. But if I lean toward actors that I’m not, it gets me away from just playing me. I’ve always wanted to be a character actor. I try to make everybody a little different so that at the age of sixty or sixty-five, whenever I hang up the skates, I could invite all these guys I’ve played to a big party, and each one’ll be a little different. I don’t want to be a personality performer, the same guy in every play and every movie. Some actors stop going to their psychiatrists and go through all their crap onstage every night. Show me something different.
How does an actor deal with the transition from living in one room with a closet-kitchen to making big money?
I haven’t made any big money. I keep reading about these twenty-three-year-old actors making a million a movie, and I just want to shoot ‘em. I’m makin’ a living. I haven’t had to do anything I didn’t want to do.
Do you have a ritual that you perform before going on?
One of the tricks to keep you honest, especially in films, is thinking that the guy really exists. He’s alive, and he’s going to come see the show, and he’s not going to tell you when. But after the show, he’s going to come back and say, “Let’s go out for drinks, I want to talk to you about what you did.” And you’re going to hope he likes it.
From Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face, a collaboration with photographer Susan Shacter (New American Library, 1986)