If you know the name Jeff Daniels it’s probably as the guy who’s not Jim Carey in “Dumb and Dumber” or the cantankerous anchorman who occasionally threw phones and sharply-worded rebukes on writer Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series “The Newsroom.”
Daniels will re-team with Sorkin this fall for a Broadway production of author Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Before that he’ll be stopping by The State Theater on Aug. 16, where he’ll join his son and the rest of Ben Daniels Band on stage.
Daniels recently spoke with the CDT about what locals can expect from the show, playing music with his son and working with Aaron Sorkin.
Q: So in 1976 you bough a guitar in Michigan and put it in a Buick and drove to New York. What was in your heart then? Were you looking to be a musician? An actor? A little bit of both?
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A: Oh, definitely an actor. The music was only something that I was going to do for myself, just because I knew that I’d be sitting around, waiting for the phone to ring for years. It still happens. So what do you in between times? Creatively it was kind of an impulse decision but I’ll take a guitar to New York and learn how to play it. So a lot of the times sitting around the apartment that’s what I was doing ... I was there to be an actor but this was something that I enjoyed doing and then maybe about 10 (or) 12 years ago I thought maybe I might do more of that exclusively. I was tired of the career and everything and then ‘Newsroom’ happened and kind of changed that career path.
Q: How do you keep that fresh for yourself both as a musician and an actor, because in TV you’re kind of picking up the same character over a prolonged period of time and in music — like the tour you’ll have this summer — you’ll be performing night after night.
A: Well the fact that it’s in front of people keeps it fresh. Broadway is the same experience. Once you kind of lock in the show, which is one of the ways not to let it become stale, is to know let’s do this instead of that. That wakes everybody up, including me. Each audience is different. You want to make sure they walk away as entertained as the last one where it went well. So there are plenty of reasons to do it, plus I just love doing it. It’s what I miss about Broadway is that live audience and creatively to walk out with my son’s band and with these guys kind of go, ‘no, this is what we want to do.’ There’s no studio, there’s no network, there’s nobody else telling me what to do and I kind of love that creative control and it’s working so we’re doing more of it.
Q: That sounds incredibly freeing, just to be able to get up with your son and some friends and just play whatever you want.
A: Yeah, I’m the first to say I’m not making my living at it so, you know, that immediately makes it easier. You can buy, not buy it. Come, not come. I don’t care. I just enjoy playing. You know, you want people to show up and you want to make sure that they have a great time and that they would want to come back if you came again so it’s the same deal, I just have been working quietly at it for 40 years.
Q: Do the songs that you’re writing change at all from when your the guy playing in New York City waiting for the phone to ring as an actor to now where you’ve obviously created a mark as an actor and can do this on the side? Does that change your process?
A: I still get to write what I want and I try to find ... I’ve always been attracted to the songwriters who have a distinct point of view. Same thing with playwrights or screenwriters. I mean Aaron Sorkin and Woody Allen — only Aaron would write that or only Woody would. Same thing with Darrell Scott, with Chris Stapleton, with Jason Isbell, Christine Lavin, Cheryl Wheeler. People like that, they’re very distinctive. Lyle Lovett, that’s a distinctive voice and I’m attracted to that, so I try not to write ‘Moon in June.’ ... When I feel “oh this is an interesting way into this ...’ And then it makes sense to me. It’s what I try to do now where before whatever I was writing next went into the notebook as I tried to get better. Now I’m a little more — you know — I’m throwing darts.
Q: Did you teach your son how to play guitar? Were you his instructor?
A: Initially. In high school I had said, ‘Ben, if you ever want to learn the guitar, let me know.’ And he goes, ‘yeah, right.’ You know, it was hockey and it was girls. And then I think he was about 19, just walks into my office here at home and he goes, ‘I’m ready.’ And I’m going ‘ready for what?’ And he goes, ‘teach me the guitar.’ And he got into the blues early and he’s 33 or something now. It’s like he’s got a guitar in his hand every day and it kind of opened up the artist in the kid and then he started songwriting, his own band. He paints, he draws. It’s kind of thrilling to see whatever artist I am be passed on and to have him kind of go and push him off the cliff and eventually he flew. It was kind of a beautiful moment: ‘Yeah, I’m ready. Teach me.’
Q: How do you think he’s different than you as a musician?
A: His point of view is different. He finds things I wouldn’t find. You know, Arthur Miller said, ‘I look forward to seeing what my work inspires in others.’ And it takes people who do this a long time, It’s the megalomaniacs who go, ‘no, no, no, I know how to do it. Do it this way.’ For Arthur Miller to say ‘What do you think it is? What do you hear? How do you hear it?’ That’s kind of what I’ve done with these guys. I never tell them what to play. I go, ‘what do you hear?’ And then I wait. And whatever that is is what we do. It’s pretty cool.
Q: Yeah, that seems like the most interesting way to collaborate to me. If you’re on a stage or making a movie or whatever.
A: It’s hard to do. You’ve got to trust the people around you but once you do that then you’ve kind of empowered them, you know?
Q: Do you and your son get to experience different sides of each other on the road?
A: It’s a joy for me every night to look over and see him and to know what we’re doing and a lot of the show is designed so that those with family can feel the same thing we’re feeling. It’s pretty special to be on the stage in Pennsylvania playing with your son and having people wanting to see it. The first song we do together is something called ‘The Good on the Bad Side of Town,’ which is stuff my own father said to me. I start it alone and then Ben walks out alone in the middle of it and starts playing and it’s pretty obvious this is my son and I’m singing about my dad talking to me. It’s a pretty good visual. That always means something to me. What’s great is that you also get to teach them and show them what professionalism is, what discipline is, what accountability is. Be on time. Load in starts at 3. This band is there at 3.
Q: Do you guys get to take in any of the touristy stuff wherever you go?
A: Not really. We kind of stack them up night after night and we’ve got a couple dates where we get to sit in Maine with some friends but basically we come in, we load in, we play and then we’re kind of on the road.
Q: Not bad. It’s efficient.
A: It’s fun. We like getting down the road, sleep in truck stops sometimes. ... It’s fun. Nobody knows who I am. It’s just great.
If you go
What: Jeff Daniels and the Ben Daniels Band
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 16
Where: The State Theatre, 130 W. College Ave., State College.