Jeff Daniels’ Bold Broadway Return in “Blackbird” (Interview)

Jeff Daniels (Photo credit- Brigitte Lacombe)

Jeff Daniels has one of the hottest careers right now in Hollywood – one moment serious and harsh in HBO’s The Newsroom (for which he won an Emmy) and on the opposite spectrum, he can hightail it into goofy alongside Jim Carrey in the Dumb and Dumber To comedy. Daniels stars alongside Michelle Williams in Blackbird, a return for the actor, who debuted the role of sex offender Ray in 2007’s Manhattan Theater Club production under the genius of the same director, stage veteran Joe Mantello (Wicked, The Normal Heart). Daniels took on the updated version with a daring energy that can be most appreciated live and on stage. Though Daniels comes off major films like AllegiantThe Martian and Steve Jobs, he stands by his principles that Broadway-trained actors are thrilling to work with and to keep the acting muscle strong. Daniels considers this new incarnation to be his first marquee achievement on Broadway, a long time coming for the actor who is no stranger to the stage. New York City Monthly was honored to speak with him recently…

Jeff, having been nominated for Best Actor for God of Carnage at the Tonys, working alongside greats like James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden and Hope Davis must have been a real pleasure. While that production was intense in its own way, do you think Blackbird carries a lot more of a punch being a live production where audiences can react in person rather than if this were a film?

When theater’s at its best, it does what Blackbird does, and that’s the strength of David Harrower’s script. And it’s one reason I came back to it. Even God of Carnage, it takes a while to take off and get airborne. With Blackbird, we get in at 30,000 feet. It grabs the audience like no other play I’ve ever done. When we get it like that night after night, Michelle and I – I think there’s nothing like it.

Michelle Williams is obviously another respected talent, as is Blackbird‘s director Joe Mantello. Since we are dealing with a sexually-charged, rather taboo theme about a man having a relationship with an underage woman, is this a role unlike anything you’ve done in the past?

It’s just challenging, and especially returning to it, to go deeper. Joe and I worked hard to really find the darkness in this guy and to find it in a way that isn’t normal to him, but that made sense to him. Any time you get an opportunity to do a role like that, you grab it. There’s risk of failure – but to be challenged like that I’m thrilled – to be doing this in my fourth decade. Newsroom was the same way with McAvoy. Blackbird is the same thing – you have to take everything you’ve ever learned. It reminds you what you’re supposed to do as an actor which is different than being a star – you have to be fearless and go where this guy is supposed to go, physically, emotionally, mentally and Michelle works the same way.

How did you decide to return to Broadway after your latest projects, being that this is draining, powerful material you said you probably would not return to? 

I’ve never done what I’m supposed to do – ever. That goes all the way back to the first Dumb and Dumber. I had agents that were begging me not to do it. That comes from New York, you do a different character in each play. No one ever says “we want you to do that same thing you did in that play.” Always trying to scratch, always trying to do something different. When you go from Will McAvoy [Newsroom] to Harry Dunn [Dumb and Dumber], I like that, being able to pull that off, they are from A to Z. I thought that’s what we’re supposed to do as actors. Then people think you can do Blackbird, and they send you the play 10 years ago, or they see Blackbird and they think you can do God of Carnage – it usually leads to other things.

Like television, I think one could argue that Broadway is having a golden age return from musicals to comedies to dramas. Why is Blackbird a show like nothing else that cannot be missed?

It’s controversial and it’s what I think the American theater should hang onto when it can. Not something that’s feel-good with a happy ending. And I understand commercial risk, Blackbird certainly falls under that category. If it’s well done, and it takes you somewhere you didn’t expect and moves an audience like Blackbird does then why not Broadway? If you go back to O’Neill, Mamet, Sam Shepard, August Wilson, they all challenge the audience. Certainly it’s safer not to, I love that Scott Rudin wanted to bring it uptown.

Some of your most memorable films take place in New York City – The Squid and the WhaleThe HoursTerms of EndearmentThe Purple Rose of Cairo, and there are others, not to mention your stage work. What have you found to be enjoyable about working in New York or working on a project with New York as the story setting?

Every time you come in and do something – film or theater in New York – you know that the level of talent that you’re going to be with, that the actors are at their best. As far as the craft of acting, there’s a fearlessness in New York, a willingness of doing whatever the character needs to do to get there. There’s no worry about image, branding, whether you’re likable or where there’s a speech where I’m unlikable at the end. The really really good ones have all come from New York theater.

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(Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe)