Jeff Daniels is an Emmy Award winning actor and movie star who’s on screen in two of the fall’s biggest movies, “The Martian” and “Steve Jobs.”
Daniels is also a musician, a noted singer-songwriter who plays guitar at home, in the studio and on the road.
Touring with the Ben Daniels Band, a five-piece Americana/folk-rock outfit led by his son, Daniels plays clubs and small vintage theaters, driving an RV from town to town to play for a few hundred people a night.
While he’s a movie and TV star, Daniels knows that having his face on a movie screen or in your house every week is no guarantee that people will come out to see Jeff Daniels, the musician.
“No one wants to go see an actor playing a guitar,” he said. “In a way you’ve got a strike against you…There’s no reason for me to go out there beyond I enjoy doing it. The great thing about going to these places is we’re coming to you. You don’t have to get on a plane and fly to New York to see me on Broadway…I enjoy playing clubs and the old theatres and opera houses — there are lots of them across the country. It’s more intimate. And the audiences really appreciate it.”
Daniels, however, isn’t your average dilettante actor turned musician.
He’s been writing songs and playing guitar for four decades, committed to the music to the point where he plays a Martin OM Jeff Daniels Signature Edition guitar.
That’s right, Daniels has a guitar named after him.
“I had an old 1934 C-2 archtop Martin,” he said. “They made about 500 of them. The top piece was replaced with spruce so I had a 1934 guitar with a 2003 top piece. God, did it play. I played it for about 10 years.”
Daniels then visited the Martin’s Nazareth, Penn. headquarters and showed them his guitar.
“It was just one of those great days,” he said. “They decided to make it. They’ve sold 50, 60 of them. It’s inactive now, which ups the value. But, for me, it’s not a collector’s guitar. I use it. I play No. 26 on the road.”
Daniels uses his Martin on songs that come from the same place as, say, John Prine and Todd Snider, a blending of folk styles full of sharply written lyrics with plenty of humor. Those songs, some of more than 200 Daniels has written, fill his four albums and are showcased in his live performances.
There, he said, acting and music feed off each other as he works to connect with the audience and crafts a set that has a beginning, a middle and an end. The biggest differences: on stage he’s playing a character and there’s a distance from the audience. Playing a show, he’s Jeff Daniels and the audience is right there.
The only downside for Daniels in getting so close — the selfie.
“The cellphone is the bane of my existence,” he said. “It used to be you put a Sharpie in your pocket and it got you through the situation. Now… I live in Michigan and whenever I go to a Lions game, someone will come up and want a picture. If you do one, you’re doing 30. So you say, ‘Thank you, no. That’s the deal.’”
Daniels, 60, started writing songs in 1976, when he moved from Michigan to New York to become an actor. He’s continued throughout his career, often penning songs while on the set waiting for his scenes to be called.
Daniels had just finished promoting “Steve Jobs,” for which he has been widely praised, when he headed off on his fall tour.
The role in the bio-pic about the Apple founder came to Daniels via his connection with Aaron Sorkin, who created and wrote “The Newsroom,” the HBO series for which Daniels won an outstanding lead actor Emmy in 2012.
“I did ‘The Newsroom’ for three years,” he said. “We knew there wasn’t going to be a fourth season. Aaron had moved on to writing ‘Steve Jobs.’ As we were shooting, Aaron came up on the set one day and said ‘you want to play this John Sculley guy.’ It was a three-year audition, but I got the part.”
Sculley was the vice president of Pepsi who Jobs convinced to become Apple’s CEO. After the disastrous launch of the MacIntosh, Jobs was fired by the Apple board and was convinced that Sculley was responsible for his firing.
That’s covered in “Steve Jobs,” in a story arc for Sculley that Daniels calls “Shakespearean.” In each of his scenes, Daniels is acting against Michael Fassbender, who plays Jobs.
“It’s a heavyweight fight, right through the movie,” he said. “You’re bringing everything you’ve got. Aaron writes such good scenes…That last meeting (between Jobs and Sculley), that’s a quintessential example of a Sorkin screen.”
In “The Martian,” Daniels plays a NASA official working to try to save Matt Damon an astronaut trapped on Mars. That film, Daniels said, required a very different kind of acting, adhering to director Ridley Scott’s vision.
So how does Daniels, a true Renaissance man, balance acting, playing shows, playwriting and running his Purple Rose Theatre in his hometown of Chelsea, Mich.
“You’ve got to schedule,” Daniels said. “A lot of things are done ahead of time. But sometimes things change. ‘The Martian’ was scheduled for Christmas and moved to early October. So there was promotion and interviews I had to do for that that weren’t expected. But I said, ‘The tour is sacred. Don’t count on me moving things. I want to go out with my son again.’ It’s our fourth tour. It’s just a joy. It’s beyond a parental highlight to do it.”