Jeff Daniels vs. The Shatner Thing

Jeff Daniels…singer, songwriter and guitarist…is still out there on the road, playing solo while promoting his first-ever band recording.

Yeah, there’s that film — maybe not what the serious actor intended to have as his movieplex monument, but you do have to admit that he was present at the creation of a new gold standard for the modern slob comedy.

There’ve been other roles, too — the heroes and the heels; the nasty villains and the niceguy victims; the loving dads and the lousy deadbeats; Presidents of the United States and presidents of TV networks. Performances in every subgenre of film from arthouse to actioner, rom-com to ComicCon, spidery horror to gossamer family flicks.

If we had to hold up just one of the many and varied celluloid manifestations of Jeff Daniels, it might be the 1930s movie character who steps out of the screen in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo — the two-dimensional hero who discovers that life on the other side can be equal parts exhilarating and complicated. Not too terrible shabby a metaphor for an artist whose talents have never been fully framed by a motion picture aspect ratio.

There’s a Purple Rose in Chelsea, Michigan as well — the Purple Rose Theatre, the nonprofit Equity playhouse that Daniels founded 20 years ago in the hometown where he contentedly keeps his distance from the magnetic but messed-up poles of Hollywood and Broadway. As spiritual leader, resident playwright, producer, board member and occasional handyman (not to mention auteur of two indie film productions under the Purple Rose banner), the star has long served as the face of this community cultural crown jewel — but as more and more people outside the Midwest have come to discover, Jeff Daniels has a voice and a musical sensibility to lend for the cause.

A singer, songwriter and skilled folk-blues guitarist with five CD releases (two studio, three live) to his credit — and a handful of cross-continent tours adding some endless-gray-ribbon authority to the mix — the movie star’s been increasingly inclined to don a careworn fedora, gas up the RV and hit the road with a crowdpleasing act that combines a real storyteller’s gift with an elegantly easygoing brand of go-anywhere musical Americana. It’s a road that’s brought him to Monmouth University‘s Pollak Theatre twice in recent years — in 2006, and again just this past January.

On his latest disc Keep It Right Here (a collaboration with mandolin player Brad Philips and upright bassman Dominic John Davis), Daniels lays down a set of originals that range from the hilarity of the lapsed-lover’s lament “It’s Not That She Don’t Love Me” to the road-dust grit of “Two Finger Rag.” There’s even a back-country cover of the Monkees hit “Last Train to Clarksville” — and delivered with a porch-swing musicology that’s reminiscent of those “Grateful Dawg” acoustic sessions by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman.

We were pleased as a buck-blessed Yooper to have the opportunity to chat with one of our fave actors, in advance of his 2011 appearance in West Long Branch — a modestly scaled but expansively entertaining show that included some hilarious behind-the-scenes moviemaking stories, and a range of subject matter that took in everything from road rage and aging to Clint Eastwood, William Shatner and the Detroit Tigers. While we used some of this conversation as pull quotes in a feature for the Gannett newspapers, the Q&A appears here for the first time on upperWETside.

So what can we expect in this round of touring? Are you traveling with Brad Philips or other musicians?

It’ll be just me up on the stage once again. I kind of tour whenever I can carve out the time. This current tour is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time; I called my agents and said ‘not available,’ which isn’t easy to do. I’ve done 54 dates in the RV, with my wife and our two dogs…those two useless roadies.

As someone who recalls local shows by the likes of Keanu Reeves, Russell Crowe and their bands, it seems to me that there’s always a danger that you’ll be lumped in with every other actor who’s ever dabbled in the musical dilettante thing. What do you do to keep from looking in the mirror and seeing William Shatner staring back?

It’s a different arena, although it comes from the same creative well. You have to learn the craft…it’s not something you decide to do over a long weekend. It’s not just a way to make money off your own celebrity…The Shatner Thing. In my case, this is something I’ve been doing for a long time…but on my back porch. It was just for me at first.

What do you get from this experience, of being up there all by yourself…and AS yourself…in front of an audience, that you don’t get performing as a character in a play or movie?

A movie set is like a second home to me. I know everybody’s job, and I’ve loved working with actors like Laura Linney and Jim Carrey…people who, when you work with them, every time it was alive. But what’s missing between ‘action’ and ‘cut’ is what you get from the audience…that’s one of the reasons I started getting back onstage; doing things like Blackbird at the Manhattan Theater Club; things like God of Carnage.

You beat the mechanics of filmmaking when you walk onstage…it’s a highwire act, when you take those dangerous ten steps to that chair with your guitar.

There’s such an art to holding an audience…I chase that sort of thing.

There’s a story I’ve heard, maybe it’s a bit of an urban myth, but it concerns you and the Purple Rose Theater just before it opened. You were about to raise the curtain on your first production, when a local fire inspector informed you that you’d need one more exit before he’d let the audience be seated for the show. Whereupon you set about cutting a new door into the back of the building.

Actually it was about a week before showtime, but it makes for a good story. That place was kindling when we moved into it…it was an old wooden warehouse, built in the 1940s, and if you lit a cigarette a mile away, it would’ve gone up. But we painted the ceiling black, we put tiles down, and Woody was kind enough to agree to our naming it the Purple Rose.

Are you still as literally hands-on with the place as you were back in the early stages?

The Purple Rose is run by a team of highly trained, professional people…it’s not Jeff’s Playpen. I still do fundraisers, write plays, attend board meetings, but I’m needed less around there than I was ten years ago. It belongs to the community.

We were talking about comedy…about a “certain” comedy that I’d promised not to dwell upon too much here…and how it’s never gotten the respect that the people who create it knows that it warrants. I’ve gotta take this opportunity to put in a word for a family-type movie you did called Fly Away Home with Anna Paquin…one that I very much enjoyed watching with my daughter when she was a little kid, and one that I always thought favored the basic intelligence of kids rather than their attention-challenged parents.

Family flicks don’t have to aim at the ten year old mind. And comedy is the dirty little secret of the entertainment industry…you have to be as honest and as truthful as when you’re doing drama. Coming off of “Carnage,” I realized that I never noticed the musicality and the rhythm you find in comedy…there’s a rhythm to the punchline.

Who are some of the guys who impressed you with that musicality you’re talking about with comedy? Or drama, for that matter?

Peter Sellers. Alan Arkin. Pacino, in Dog Day Afternoon…watching him, I swear that I could see the script, and I could see the ad-libs.

Turning that one around, who are some people you like who put the comedy and the drama into their music?

Steve Goodman, my personal hero. Lyle Lovett, Arlo Guthrie…

One more: who’s your favorite Michigan-spawned hard rock, punk or metal band?

Hmm…I’d say Grand Funk Railroad!

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