I think a lot of the people who do the junket circuit have a checklist. I was pretty happy to be able to check Jeff Daniels off of mine – I’ve been a big fan of the guy for years now, and it’s been especially great seeing him make a big comeback after his brilliant performance in The Squid and the Whale last year.
In this year’s RV he plays a very different kind of father. He’s the patriarch of the Gornicke clan, a preternaturally sunny family who travel the nation in their RV, home schooling their kids and practicing dance routines to positive songs.
When Daniels came to the RV press day he was wearing a huge beard. It took us a couple of minutes to figure him out, I think – he has a deadpan interview style that at first seems hostile, but really isn’t.
Q: We heard that you drove an RV to the set. Is this true?
Daniels: Yes, yes, I did. They’re not just for senior citizens.
Q: You took your family with you?
Daniels: Kathleen, my wife went. She’s learned how to enjoy them, as long as the hot water works and she can take a shower with hot water in the RV. One trip I didn’t make that happen and that became a requirement. But other than that, we left Michigan, where I live, and it took four or five days to get to Vancouver, went through the Rockies.
Q: Do you get a chance to take a lot of family vacations?
Daniels: We’ve got a pretty close family. Just ended fourteen years of travel hockey with two boys. My daughter was always a part of that. So there’s a lot of trips to the hockey games. As I tell idiotic, stupid, youth-sport parents, it’s about the drive there and the drive back, not about the trophy or how your kid played. We’ve always had a good relationship with our kids, because you’re driving with them and talking to them at the age of eight, nine, ten. The RV thing, though a little eccentric, was [about] why should we fly to St. Louis for a baseball tournament that one of them’s in. Why don’t we just rent an RV and go there? Make it about the journey.
Then when you start telling the kids we’re sleeping in a truck stop: ‘No, Dad, no! We’ll die!” It’s a truck stop, we’ll pull in, we’ll be alright. It became this adventure and they learned to love it. You connect, you really do. It’s not for every family. If you hate each other, you’re going to hate each other even more. It worked for us.
Q: Have you met any couples like the Goreckis while you were RVing?
Daniels: No, it’s a weird thing. They kind of all keep to themselves. It’ kind of an unwritten rule. You pull in, you park, everybody kind of tips their hat, says how you’re doing. Nobody (knocks on the table), so where you from? There isn’t a lot of that.
Q: You don’t even run into them on the trips to the bathroom?
Daniels: No, but then I kind of keep to myself. I don’t want to be walking around and then [have someone go] ‘Hey, are you…?’ That’s why I kind of sleep in truck stops and pull in behind a convenience store in Chinook, Montana. I don’t get recognized back there.
Q: What’s your approach when you’re working with such a big comic performer as Jim Carrey or Robin Williams?
Daniels: We’re here because of Jim, or we’re here because of Robin. He got the movie made, so he’s got to score. You want him to score. You don’t compete with that. One of the things, probably the smartest thing I did in Dumb and Dumber was, instead of trying to top or compete with Jim, I backed off and let Jim be the leader, which he was going to do anyway. My character was the follower. Wherever Jim went, I kind of went with him. That way Jim could lead the way and I could bounce off him, react to him.
This one was a little different because Robin, in a way, is the straight man. Amidst all the things that go wrong with his RV, I’m another thing that goes wrong. He wants to get rid of me. In a way, it became easier, because when Robin starts to riff or go off, just put him in a headlock. He was kind of fearful of Travis, so I could kind of get in there. Robin doesn’t like to be hit, and if you tickle Robin, he’s gone, he’s disabled, he’s a basket case.
Q: Why the beard?
Daniels: Two reasons, I sometimes do that, I’m in the middle of a movie right now. They asked me to grow a beard for the movie, so I started after the Golden Globes. This one’s for a movie. But you never know when you might need some [hair]. With the cameras, what we’re shooting in Winnipeg right now is high-def, so they’ll see everything. You let everything go, the hair, the beard, just in case you need it, because you can always cut it off. That’s why I would do it.
Q: What’s the movie?
Daniels: It’s called The Lookout. Scott Frank, really good screenwriter, he’s had the script for about ten years and he’s going to direct it. Joe Gordon Levitt, who was in Mysterious Skin, is the lead of it. It’s a really good script.
Q: What’s the story?
Daniels: It’s about a young guy, Joe, who had a head injury; he’s in a car wreck. He’s rehabbing his way back, very unhappy. He’s been assigned to live with a guy named Louis, who’s a blind acoustic guitar player. I try to help the kid as he helps me. The kid works as a janitor at a bank. These not-so-great guys became friends with him and basically talk the kid into helping them rob the bank. Slow kid, they take advantage, it’s a real good script.
Q: The character in RV is almost the polar opposite of your character from The Squid and the Whale. Who was easier, who was more relatable?
Daniels: I know I’m not bipolar or schizophrenic, but this career allows you to explore, take some facets of yourself and spin it into characters. With Squid, there were two things I took in Squid. One was the underappreciated factor of lots of people getting nominated and getting $20 million a movie – I don’t. So I could tap into Bernard feeling underappreciated, so I use that. Poured gas on it, lit it, that was Bernard, that was easy to get to. I also write plays, so I understand the writer’s mind, and how obsessed you can get writing. That became Bernard. For Travis, RV’s, it’s about the journey not the destination. You suddenly plug into that and the Bernard goes away, and you funnel everything into that guy. It’s a weird kind of using yourself, sometimes abusing yourself, whatever you need to do to get there.
Q: The underappreciation continued this past year. You gave a great performance but still didn’t take home the gold.
Daniels: It’s disappointing, but it’s an item I can’t control. Robin was real good. We were shooting RV and I said, ‘Robin, I’m probably going to make a run for Squid. It may be my only chance, I don’t know.’ He goes, ‘Just enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts. At the end of the day, you don’t have control over it. So enjoy it, don’t expect it.’ It’s true. I use that a lot. You get to the end of it and there could be fifty guys that deserve the five slots, certainly there were ten. You’re either going to be one of the five or one of the ten. Nice guys finish seventh sometimes, but it doesn’t make it any less. I did win one award, and I got up and made a speech: there is no best anything in art. Phillip isn’t better than Heath; Joaquin isn’t better than David or Terence. They aren’t better than me, we all do different things. It’s true. It’s more of a celebration of a lot of great work than to give the gold to somebody. The Squid and the Whale has certainly bought me five or ten years. Different people are calling now that didn’t call before Squid.
Q: What kind of roles are you getting offered after Squid?
Daniels: It’s not the type of roles; it’s the type of people who are calling. You can tell that you are now a member of the serious, most important actors club again and we’re going to treat you like that. Whether they’re producers or just interested in my agent, know he’s got thirty-five things, he says, that my name is out there for, not offers, but interest. Before Squid, [it was about] trying to get people that were interested after they went through the fifteen [top] guys. So that’s all changed. We are in negotiations for this one thing. It went Nicholson, Hackman, Bruce Willis, then me, which is pretty good. I couldn’t have said that before Squid.
Q: Why stay out of the Hollywood scene?
Daniels: Have you been to Hollywood? I live in Michigan. I just don’t buy the whole thing. What did I do, that AMC Shoot Out? [Peter Guber voice] ‘It’s like you don’t care.’ No, I just don’t think it’s nearly as important as everybody makes it out to be. What’s important to me is between action and cut.
Q: What’s up with Three Stooges?
Daniels: Nothing, I saw that too. ‘Really? We’re in negotiations? Are we in negations? No.’ I saw the Farrellys in New York probably almost two years ago. Pete and Bobby said, we’re thinking of doing the Three Stooges. You think you can play Larry? I’m 6’ 3’’; they were like 5’5”. He would talk about Russell Crowe and Benecio Del Toro and they’re like 6’3”. They have to get a script they like. I think they’re working on something else to be honest with you. Then they’re going to cast Moe. Whoever Moe is, they’ll cast the other guys off of that. They’d like me to do and sure I’m interested, but if they hire someone who’s 5’7”, I won’t be doing it. But no, there’s no negotiations. But we did talk about it.
Q: Is Purple Rose still your favorite film?
Daniels: As a whole if I had to pick one, yeah. There are pieces of other ones that mean a lot. Fly Away Home, the round top sequence in Gettysburg meant a lot, I loved the script for Pleasantville. And then there’s some indies I really liked. It’s hard to dismiss Squid versus Purple Rose, but again they’re so different. I think I got like forty, forty-one films now. Checking Out was a film I absolutely loved doing that still cracks me up, but nobody saw.
Q: What about Purple Rose that all these years later you named your film company after it?
Daniels: The film company is named after the theater company. The theatre company is fifteen years old and at that time, I wanted to name it something that attached me to it without [being] the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre. I didn’t want that. Purple Rose, I just admired Woody and knew that movie would outlive me. It seemed like a really cool name for a theatre company.
Q: What’s your role in Infamous, the other Truman Capote movie?
Daniels: I play Chris Cooper. No, I play Alvin Dooley in that. It’s so ridiculous. We were both making the same movie at the same time. It’s like we were in a race. Cut the film! Get the dailies to the lab! Why? Because they’re shooting in Winnipeg?
Q: I’ve heard it’s different from Capote?
Daniels: It’s really good. My concern, and take nothing away from Phillip’s performance – it was great, it was wonderful, it was terrific – but, the critics went so nuts for their Capote. I wanted to go, you need to leave a little room and exuberance for something else. That’s all I’m going to say. Toby Jones is our Truman. I think he’s toe-to-toe with Phillip.