Jeff Daniels seems to have done it all over his lengthy career, from blockbuster action (“Speed”) to slapstick comedy (“Dumb and Dumber”) to war epics (“Gettysburg”) and indie dramas (“The Squid and the Whale”). If his screen work and raising a family didn’t keep him busy enough, Daniels is also a playwright, a two-time feature director, a singer-songwriter and the founder of the Purple Rose Theatre Company (named after the Woody Allen film in which he starred) in his home state of Michigan. Currently, he’s also been performing onstage in Broadway’s “God of Carnage,” for which he was recently awarded a Tony nomination.
In the movie world, though, Daniels can next be seen in the indie rom-com “The Answer Man” (formerly titled “Arlen Faber” at Sundance, sharing the name of his character). He plays a reclusive author whose chartbusting self-help book “Me and God” has been changing people’s lives for 20 years, his adoring fans oblivious to the fact that, in reality, he’s a cantankerous misanthrope who doesn’t take his own advice. Inevitably, he undergoes his own spiritual awakening when his chronic back pain puts him into contact with a lovely chiropractor (Lauren Graham). I sat down with Daniels to talk about his home in Michigan, golf self-help books, fame versus anonymity and why he’ll never direct another movie.
If you actually wrote a book called “Me and God,” what would it be about?
Oh, I think it would be the quest to find this elusive being that everyone seems to be convinced is really there.
Why are people so obsessed with finding the Big Answers, rather than living life and discovering them for themselves?
I think everyone’s scared that this is it. So you create a place that’s better than where we are now, so that you aren’t scared. This is from a guy who is in “God of Carnage,” in [which] there is no hope. The theme is that people struggle until they’re dead. I’ve been living that for six months.
Have you ever picked up a self-help book?
I play golf, so yeah. There are golf self-help books, both mentally for your swing, and for between your ears. At the end of the day, you’re trying to end up in some version of utopia, whether it’s the ability to hit a power draw 300 yards, or to be able to function in your day happily. We’re all looking for peace of mind.
There’s something hilariously crass about the “God” business. How do people not see through it, that people writing books can’t possibly know ultimate truths?
No one ever gets the answers, but that doesn’t stop people from asking the questions and hoping that someone, somewhere, will have that answer. Arlen Faber writes “Me and God,” and people believe this is the book that has the answers. Whether he actually has conversations with God, or channels God, they decide that this gives them peace of mind. That’s why there will always be a market for spiritual and afterlife books. People desperately want that, and we will never know. I mean, I’m waiting for Houdini to come back. As he died, he said: “I will be back in one year, and if I come back, there’s an afterlife. If I don’t, there isn’t.” We’re still waiting for Harry to appear.
Arlen Faber chooses to live as a hermit. As someone who has been in the public eye for many years, have you ever had moments when you really craved anonymity?
Yeah, it’s one of the reasons I moved to Michigan and raised my family in the Midwest. There’s nothing remotely interesting about that to the paparazzi and celebrity websites. It’s just boring. So, in a way, I’ve been craving anonymity, at the same time trying to have a career as an actor in this country — they seem to contradict each other. Gene Hackman said, and I believe it: “I went to acting school, not star school.” That’s all I try to be, a good actor. If I occasionally get limos sent to me, and I’m in movies that make a lot of money and up my profile for a while, I also know that there’s a time when people will be looking in other directions. In order to have a life as an actor, I’ve got to have a relationship with fame, so I accept it on those terms. [laughs]
Does it ever make you uncomfortable, being treated as a celebrity?
The older you get, the more you learn. There are ups and downs. That’s the trap of a lot of stars. It’s such a rush to be in a “Dumb and Dumber,” that makes that much money, or to be in a “Squid and the Whale,” and you get all this attention: “Oh, you’re going to get nominated.” But you can’t assume it’s going to be there a year from now. Don’t forget that the limo is rented. Somebody else’s ass is going to be on this seat tomorrow night. It took me a while to actually enjoy it, but to not take it seriously and know that it’s temporary. Fame is fleeting. It’s a cliché, and it’s true. As soon as you understand that, it gets easier. It’s either that, or you’re sitting in your Hollywood Hills home after three years of not being in a movie that’s made any money, and you’re heading to Betty Ford.