Q&A: Jeff Daniels sings at Birchmere, reflects on most iconic screen roles

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Jeff Daniels at The Birchmere (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — He’s built himself into one of the most accomplished actors of our time.

This Saturday, Jeff Daniels joins his son as part of the Ben Daniels Band at The Birchmere.

“He came to me when he was 19 — Ben is 33 now — and said, ‘Teach me the guitar,'” Daniels told WTOP. “He’s had a guitar in his hand the rest of the time. I was doing a lot of solo gigs because I enjoyed that and that’s how I raised money for my theater company. … But then I said, ‘Wait a minute, my son’s got a band. They’re playing. Why don’t you throw it at them?'”

So, for the past seven or eight years, Daniels has toured the world with his son’s band.

“It’s acoustic,” Daniels said. “Listen to the words, to the songwriting because we spent time on that. I’m here to entertain you. I’m gonna make you laugh, I’m gonna soften you up, then I’ll drop a couple on you like ‘Back When You Were Into Me’ [and] ‘Hard to Hear the Angels Sing.'”

Music is a refreshing creative outlet for many actors, including Kevin Costner, Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland and Billy Bob Thornton, who have all recently played gigs at The Birchmere.

“I don’t think anybody’s looking to take over Nashville,” Daniels said. “This isn’t our livelihood so we don’t have to pay the bills with our touring every year. … Movie acting, once you learn how to do that, you’re really at the mercy of the studios and the networks. Suddenly, you’ve got this guitar [and] no one’s telling you what to do. … You have complete creative control. That’s certainly a big attraction to me and one of the things that attracts the other guys.”

Of course, Daniels’ filmography speaks for itself. After a supporting role in “Terms of Endearment” (1983), his breakout was a dual role in Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985), playing both sides of a love triangle with Mia Farrow: (a) the fantasy character who hops off a movie screen to romance her, and (b) the Hollywood actor who flies in from L.A. to convince him to go back on screen — the reverse of Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.” (1924).

“Me and Buster!” Daniels joked. “At that time, 1985, Woody was one of the great American filmmakers. Here you are a young actor, he’s going, ‘Here’s the script, don’t show it to anyone,’ and you have two leading roles in a Woody Allen comedy? That just doesn’t happen! Fun wasn’t the word because you took it so seriously; you wanted it to come through. You knew it was going to be a huge break and it turned out to be just that. That one meant a lot.”

Soon after, Daniels appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in the first “Chris Farley Show” sketch.

“It was the first time they did that sketch,” Daniels said. “I kept going, ‘Oh, jeez Chris.’ Lorne Michaels said, ‘No, no, endure it. Straight man, just completely patient with this idiot.’ Two weeks later, it’s [Martin] Scorsese and a month later [Paul] McCartney. I’m in good company.”

A new generation discovered him alongside Jim Carrey in “Dumb and Dumber” (1994).

“I’d say at least 80 percent of it was scripted,” Daniels said. “Jim would come up with stuff like the ‘Mockingbird’ song, ‘triple stamp, double stamp,’ that was sort of written but we extended it. Then the ‘most annoying sound in the world’ was an ad-lib that they kept. I didn’t know what he was doing! All the sudden he’s screaming nasily. I’m going, ‘Oh, that’s what? Alright.'”

Despite some improvisation, Daniels admits most of the film was carefully planned out.

“Jim was really great about making sure if he thought of something that we set it up right,” Daniels said. “If there was something I could do that was funny, he wanted to make sure that he set it up right so it could score. There was a lot of back-and-forth precision teamwork.”

What line of dialogue still cracks him up to this day?

“I don’t know why, but when Jim looks [in] the news stand and … he leaves something in there and he says the word, ‘Cripes!'” Daniels said. “It just cracks me up.”

Since then, he has done more serious work, such as his monologue in TV’s “The Newsroom.”

“It will outlive us,” Daniels said. “It will outlive Aaron Sorkin and myself, that Northwestern speech from Episode 1 of ‘The Newsroom.’ Whatever YouTube is 50 years from now, it’ll be up there, you’ll find it pretty readily I would think. I knew it when we were doing it that this was going to make some noise — and ‘Hard to Hear the Angels Sing’ is similar to that.”

His original song is based on Kathleen Parker’s newspaper column after the 2016 election.

“It’s so hard to write a protest song,” Daniels said. “It says, ‘When your bells of freedom ring after this election it’s hard to hear the angels sing.’ That means the way you went about it, how you went about it, who you stepped on to get to where you are. … You can agree with that or not, I don’t really care, but as Kathleen’s column noted: That’s what you did and this is where we are. … It’s the responsibility of the artist not to preach, but to illuminate.”

Beyond all of the music and movies, he tries to appreciate the joy of touring with his son.

“You hope your kids will speak to you after they’re 20, let alone be on a stage playing music with you,” Daniels said. “We cherish it, [my wife] Kathleen comes with me, my daughter who teaches high school will join us occasionally. It’s the Von Trapp family with RV’s. … The third song of the set is ‘The Good on the Bad Side of Town,’ which is stuff my father said to me, then Ben my son walks out doing harmonies. Every parent in the crowd will just go, ‘Ugh!'”

Find out more on the Birchmere website. Listen to our full conversation with Jeff Daniels below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Jeff Daniels (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

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