Hollywood's resurrection man - Jeff Daniels
Ten years ago, Jeff Daniels was ready to give up acting altogether. Thanks to a change of fortunes he's now enjoying the best roles of his career
Jeff Daniels has jet-lag and a cold. Which might explain, in part, the dry nonchalance of his demeanour.
Or maybe that's just his way. He tends to speak with a low, rumbling drawl. And even when he is expressing his enthusiasm for, for example, his latest role, playing Apple CEO John Sculley in the new Steve Jobs biopic titled, um, Steve Jobs, there's something spare and economical about his delivery, as if he might be conserving his energy for more important things later on.
About 10 years ago, Daniels was considering giving up acting altogether. After a successful three-decade run in Hollywood between the 1980s and the early noughties, during which he knocked out everything from art-house films (The Squid and the Whale) to multiplex pleasers (Speed, Dumb and Dumber), things were starting to stall for him. He was bored, and disenchanted, and felt as if he'd run out of steam.
Luckily, he also has a pretty successful sideline playing the guitar. So touring was his plan B. "I'd probably have picked up the guitar, and would probably have done enough of that," he says. "I like playing 200 to 300 seaters. Opera houses. I can play," he says casually. "But it's also funny, and I tell stories, and it works. It's a lot of travelling but I could have seen myself doing that."
But then Aaron Sorkin, the renowned scriptwriter, came calling. And Daniels's full-time musical career was put on hold. Sorkin cast Jeff in Newsroom, his next TV project after the iconic The West Wing, and in one fell swoop transformed his fortunes. The show, featuring the razor-sharp writing that has made Sorkin arguably the best-known writer in the business, was a hit, and Daniels picked up a Golden Globe.
"I think because of Aaron, I have another 10 years, easily," he says. "Because if you can do Newsroom, you can do pretty much anything, I think is kind of the attitude. You get older and you want to be challenged or it's just a waste of time . . . To just go pick up a cheque and do some movie that is just God awful and it's a sequel to a sequel to a sequel, I just don't want to do that. I'm real fortunate. I was able to get Newsroom. It did what it did for as long as it did, and that's just jumped me into a whole other calibre of person to work with, that I haven't been able to work with for quite a while, in the movie business in particular."
Daniels has never been a true Hollywood animal in the classic sense. After more than 35 years, he's still married to his high-school sweetheart. And at the height of his career, he moved from LA to Michigan with his wife to raise their daughter and two sons away from the madness of LA LA Land. It was a gamble back then, but one he hasn't come to regret.
"I just assumed that if I had an airport close to me I could fly to things I needed to audition for, and we could raise the kids there, and it would all work. And it did. The kids stayed there, they would come to LA and Hollywood. I remember they came to London for 101 Dalmations. That's pretty cool for young kids. And it turned out all right, it really did. As we look back they're now 31, 28 and 26, something like that, I don't know. It changes every year," he jokes. "We just didn't know how to raise 'em in LA. So we had gone back to Michigan for two or three summers leading up to that decision. But it takes you out of the game that is Hollywood and LA, and you kind of just have to rely on whatever talent you have. And then create a range. Which I did. And then hope people think you're good enough to keep hiring you. And then if you get in something that is a big hit, now you've bought five years or so, 10 years. That was kind of the game with it, and I've almost pulled it off," he says.
He has relished every second doing Steve Jobs, in which he plays Jobs's life-long friend, mentor, and, latterly, nemesis John Sculley, a man who knew he was nurturing genius and whose heart was broken when he and Jobs's career-defining friendship ultimately fell apart, resulting in Jobs being fired from Apple, (or leaving, depending on whose version you believe) in 1985. Jobs never got over what he saw as the ultimate betrayal on Sculley's part. "To be around that kind of genius is special," Daniels says of Jobs. "There was Eddison, there was Alexander Graham Bell. There was the guy who built the railroads. These guys who changed how we live. And Sculley was a guy who knew he was with one of those guys."
After they fell out, Sculley and Jobs did not reconcile, to Sculley's regret. Which Daniels says he "could see" when he went to meet Sculley while preparing for the role. "He was fine, but he was very free to say that it was painful. And he disappeared for a while. It hurt him a lot."
Sorkin is the writer behind Steve Jobs too, and Daniels is openly thrilled to be working with him again. "I just love saying his words, I love the rhythm of his words, the music of his writing and to be asked to do that on his next movie project, I really was honoured by that," he says. He's delighted too, to be part of a Hollywood top-brass ensemble including director Danny Boyle, Michael Fassbender as Jobs, and Kate Winslet in the role of Jobs's right-hand woman, Joanna Hoffman.
"To be thrown in with Michael and Kate, Danny - really good actors who were about to be challenged. Nobody could phone in something, nobody could kind of do what they've done before. You gotta go to work, and to get on top of Aaron's words so that you can do your work."
But there are plenty more juicy projects on the horizon too, including a role in the upcoming teen mega-franchise, Divergent. And it's all thanks to this professional second-wind that he's enjoying - a rare and precious gift for a man of 60.
"What's nice about Newsroom, is that you're now known as a good actor, you win the Emmy. You've got range, with Dumb and Dumber, to that. So you're known as a really good actor in the industry. And that's just going to translate into interesting, challenging jobs, roles, versus taking something to take something."
He's determined not to waste the chance. "Even though I'd love to coast and do something that's easy, I'm not wired that way. There's something coming up now that if it happens will be as challenging as anything I've done. I can't talk about it. But I'm drawn to those things. Which is good. Otherwise get out. If you're not going to risk failure and challenge yourself, and take chances on things, then get out." 'Steve Jobs' is in cinemas nationwide now
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