Jeff Daniels isn’t acting when he’s playing role of musician

Jeff Daniels has been performing with his son's group, the Ben Daniels Band. (Jeff Daniels / Courtesy photo)
Jeff Daniels has been performing with his son’s group, the Ben Daniels Band. (Jeff Daniels / Courtesy photo)

By Jack Stone Truitt
The Seattle Times (TNS)

You’ve probably seen Jeff Daniels act, but have you heard him sing? And no, the “Mockingbird” scene in “Dumb and Dumber” doesn’t count.

Having written hundreds of songs and played almost as many gigs over the past 12 years, Daniels knows his music can stand on its own.

“I love watching their heads explode,” he says. “The audience going, ‘Oh my god. I had no idea that you could sing, that you could play, that the band is this good … I get the same feeling and reward out of what we do with the band and playing as I do between ‘action’ and ‘cut.’ I just have been doing the action-to-cut thing a lot longer.”

Daniels has been performing alongside his son Ben and the Ben Daniels Band, playing a blend of acoustic blues-rock that he hopes will make you laugh one moment and cry the next.

When Daniels first began playing in public, he felt like he had to prove that music wasn’t just a vanity project. “As an actor with a guitar, that’s two strikes against you,” he says. “I’ve been doing this privately for about 30 years, so the fact that I haven’t been out or haven’t been known or haven’t been marketed just means that it’s more of a back-porch thing.”

Working and learning over time, and encouraged by the positive response to his music, Daniels has grown less reliant on his acting skills and more comfortable letting his songwriting win the crowd over, even if they came expecting Harry Dunne, from “Dumb and Dumber,” with a guitar.

“We’ve seen it night after night after night,” he says. “I had to earn that.”

Which isn’t to say a show won’t offer something for fans of his acting. Daniels might tell the behind-the-scenes story of the day they shot the opening of “The Newsroom” — when, he says, “everyone was crossing their fingers hoping Jeff was good enough” — before launching into the song that experience inspired, titled “Now You Know You Can.”

Other times, he might leave the stage entirely to make sure his son’s band is the focus. “The negative to me fronting him is that he can’t get rid of me,” Daniels says. “OK, fine, but shut up and listen for a little bit while they get to play. And they can play … Who knew? Who knew, 20 years ago, that this would happen, when he was 10? No idea. Now here you are doing this, with him, again? Pretty great. Parental highlight.”

Writing music provides Daniels with an outlet where he has more creative control than the collaborative world of acting. “You can work at your own pace, you are your own editor and then it’s done and you go onto the next one,” he says. “You don’t have to wait for a studio.”

Both art forms, however, have an element of rhythm.

“You’re interpreting,” he explains. “You’re phrasing the rhythm of, say, a McAvoy speech in ‘The Newsroom.’ There’s a rhythm to it and you’re playing like an instrument, and the instrument is McAvoy, and how he thinks and feels.”

But, like theater, the musical stage allows for an immediate and intimate connection with the audience.

“When the curtain goes up, you got to grab them by the lapels and hang on until the curtain goes down. And I take a similar approach to music,” he says. “I talk to them, include them and I grab them, and hopefully I hang onto them.”

The tour comes at a time when Daniels, who won an Emmy for “The Newsroom” in 2013 and is currently starring in “The Martian” and “Steve Jobs,” both of which are attracting Oscar buzz, is enjoying as much on-screen success as ever.

So how does his music fit into his increasingly busy schedule?

“Not well,” he says. When a film he’s in has Oscar potential, “there’s a whole campaign that happens. I mean, it makes what the politicians are doing look like they’re not very busy.”

But Daniels says the movies aren’t necessarily more important to him than the music.

“It all means something, and the trick is not to let something mean more than something else,” he explains—even if his music may never gain the recognition that his acting has.

“I’m not asking for validation, I’m asking for you to listen and jump on the ride.”

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