Saturday, September 11, 2010

Jeff Daniels letting music do the talking


These days, Jeff Daniels is as comfortable on a music stage as he is on a movie set.

The star of such films as "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and "The Squid And The Whale," Daniels will perform Tuesday, Sept. 14, at The S.P.A.C.E., 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston.

The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets are $25, available at

Daniels is touring in support of his latest CD, "Live At The Purple Rose." All proceeds from CD sales benefit The Purple Rose Theater, a nonprofit arts organization he founded in his hometown of Chelsea, Mich.

I had the chance to talk to Daniels about making music and movies.

Q - How has the tour been going?

It's been going real well. It's kind of just started. We did 10 shows at the end of August. The shows have been well attended.

Q - Was it hard picking the songs for the CD, what songs you wanted on the CD?

It was more like, let's do five shows and take the best performances and get a CD out by the end of the year. It had been a while since I recorded a live solo one. I'm writing all the time. Songs pile up, and I decided to put out another one.

The first one ("Live & Unplugged"), was just kind of ''Let's see if we can sell it in southeastern Michigan and raise a little more money.'' Then Christine Lavin heard a couple of songs off of it, and she put me on XM Radio, and the next thing I know, I was getting an agent.

Q - Why did you want to start Purple Rose Theater in the first place?

There were many reasons behind it. We had moved home after 10 years in New York City. I had been here two to three years and creatively, I was going to sleep. You can't compete with the creativity on a good movie set or in the theater in New York. It's just a whole other environment, those two places, and I missed that.

After being brought up in Circle Repertory Company, which at the time was one of the leading Off Broadway theater companies doing new work, I said, ''Why can't I do that here?'' So I bought a building, and started painting and putting seats in.

But the kind of condition was that I wanted to do new plays. I wanted to write about this part of the country. I didn't want to just do "Hello, Dolly." And the gamble was that there would be enough talented people - actors, writers, directors, designers, both young and old - who I could get my hands on and kind of develop, and then get out of their way.

And 20 years later, I'm happy to say that while it is my theater, it's more theirs.

Q - And it has lived up to your vision?

It's gone beyond it. The vision was really this pipe dream. So many things have happened that came out of the theater. Aside from wonderful stories about some 70-year-old actor whose career didn't happen for him in New York and now he's back in Michigan and now he's getting these great roles written for him by playwrights who are going, ''Don't worry, I'll fix the scene.'' They come back and they are writing specifically for the guy's strengths. That's a cool story.

The 21-year-old kid who I used to be, he or she now has a place to learn, before they go to New York, or Chicago, or L.A. I didn't have that. I just got in a car and moved to New York blindly.

We don't take everybody. We put you through the program and we teach you - here's the acting style that we want, which is very honest and truthful, kind of like film. The theater is 168 seats. The first row is two feet away from the actors. So you can't lie. As an actor, you have to tell the truth.

Landford Wilson. Here's a guy who won a Pulitzer Prize for playwriting. I was hoping maybe 20 years ago he might come out and just see it. Well, he not only came out, but he wrote two plays for our theater company.

Q - The first time you stepped out on a music stage, how did that compare to your first time on a movie set?

It was a similar terror. The movie set, it's a foreign land, you don't know what you are doing.

Now, 55 movies later, it's like a second home. It's like your first game as a major league ballplayer. Everything is brighter, everything is faster, everybody is bigger.

And walking out with a guitar, there was a nakedness to it that I didn't expect or wasn't prepared for.

Q - Does the music stage feel like a second home now?

Yeah, it's real comfortable, because you've figured out how to do it. There's an art to it. And that's the chase every time I go out there. How do you win over this particular audience? Many are just curious. Some have heard the music. Most have seen the movies, and just want to see you live.

I try to give them the feeling that I drove all this way to sit on their living room couch for an evening and play for them. I tell them stories. Here's a story about getting shot and killed by Clint Eastwood. You give them a little of the behind-the-scenes Hollywood stuff. Make sure they are laughing harder than they have in a long time. And then drop in some of the non-Hollywood serious stuff.

And by the end of the evening, they're going, ''How do I get his CDs?''

So it's kind of a coming together of all these guys I've gotten to be. They are all out there with me. So it's not just me walking out with a guitar.

Q - I understand that Loudon Wainwright is kind of an inspiration for you.

A lot of guys are. Loudon is. Steve Goodman is a huge inspiration. The guy could walk out and hold an audience all by himself. Arlo Guthrie, John Prine, John Hiatt, Todd Snider. Guys like that. Guys that could fill the room with their stories, with their presence, with their songwriting. Those guys, I go to school on them.

Q - Would you want to bring your music into your film projects?

If asked. But I don't push that too much. I never have. There's something I'm working on now. We haven't closed the deal on it that would use the music in a whole new way. But it's a good idea.

Q - Do you want people to take you seriously as a musician?

I think eventually they will if they let themselves. I don't really care. My job is to make sure they had a good time. If they look beyond that, they'll see it is somebody who has been playing for 30 years. It's there to be noticed.

Q - Would you describe your music as folk music?

Whatever that means. I describe it more as acoustic finger-picking, which is kind of all I do now. Story telling. I've spent my life telling stories, as an actor, as a writer, now as a songwriter.

Q - Is there a role out there you are itching to do, playing a certain type of character?

I've never been like that, dying to play King Lear or something. I'm more kind of what's available, who wants me and what for. That's kind of how I approached it.
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