With a career that ranges from Dumb and Dumber to his Emmy-winning turn in The Newsroom, Jeff Daniels has been a familiar face on screen for decades. During that time, his voice has also been recognizable to guitar lovers through his albums and a few music tours. Now, Daniels is hitting the road with his son, Ben, making a concert stop at the Cabot Theatre on Aug. 10. Daniels chatted with us about what keeps him going in all his performances, including Godless and Looming Tower, which both earned him Emmy nominations this year.
How did the musical bond with your son start? It’s the father-son thing. You hope he takes an interest in anything you might be doing. I had offered, “If you want to learn how to play the guitar, let me know.” When Ben was 19, he walked into the room and said, “All right, I’m ready.” I said, “Ready for what?” And he said, “Teach me the guitar.” I said, “OK, let’s start with the blues.” He’s 33, and I don’t think he’s had a guitar out of his hands since.
Did you play a lot at home when they were growing up? I play probably every day to the annoyance of the family. And I have since the late ’70s. It was always with me. You look back and find out what a great friend the guitar was. And what a great creative oasis it can be in the middle of waiting for the phone to ring to be an actor again. It became this wonderful creative home. So they were around it. I have a granddaughter with Ben and Amanda, and it’s interesting to watch him play in front of the 5-month-old. To watch the 5-month-old stare at the guitar as you’re playing it on the porch. It was always around. It was always there. But it was never, “Here, learn to play this now that you’re 6 years old.” We didn’t do that. But it was there if they wanted it.
You go from acting on screen to this concert tour to Broadway for To Kill A Mockingbird at the end of the year. Are there advantages to having this wide range of creative outlets? I still enjoy doing all four—if you count playwriting as well. It’s just a matter of compartmentalizing and scheduling, whether it’s playwriting or songwriting or stage. But to go out there with a guitar, creatively you have complete control. It’s the only one of the four in which I have complete creative control: All the blame, all the glory, all the decisions, everything. I like that. I enjoy working with other people on the plays I do or shooting some scenes. But you do know—whether it’s Godless or Looming Tower—that you shoot five takes five different ways, and they’re going to do with it what they want. So you let go of it before it gets to the audience and other people get their hands on it, which is fine. That’s their project, and you decide to do that. This is different. There’s a creative control that you can relax into. I relax into that very easily.
How did the decision to tour with your son come about? I had played solo for years, which I enjoyed. I played in a twosome with a mandolin fiddle player, and that was fine. I enjoyed it. But there were some songs where I wanted harmonies and the full band sound. I could go out and get a bunch of guys my age, or I could say, “Wait a minute, I know a band. They’re out there bar-gigging and playing. And I’m wondering, “Would this work, and would they even want to?” And they all jumped in. They’re all really good musicians. You give them something to play, and then you look forward to seeing what they do with it. Arthur Miller the playwright said, “I look forward to seeing what my work inspires in others.” And this is an example of that. And they’re younger. It’s just a good group. It’s a little bit like the von Trapp family in RVs driving around, but that’s OK. Our family is pretty close, and this is a great thing that we get to do together. My daughter will fly in sometimes. We’ve got three dogs and a grandfather and a granddaughter in an RV. We enjoy this. We really enjoy this. The show really features family. The third song in to the show, I’m doing a song called “The Good on the Bad Side of Town,” and it’s about the things my father said to me like, “Being kind to strangers, you run the risk of them being kind to you.” It’s just things that only he would’ve said. And early in that song, without introduction, Ben just walks out and starts playing with me. So every parent in the crowd can see the connection. We really tip our hat to those of us who are still able to talk to their kids after they’re in their 20s and 30s. It’s a little bit of a celebration of family, but also to the audience’s family—that they can relate in their own way to their own family dynamics. We toured this in October and November, and that really worked.
You mentioned you wrote a lot of songs. Is there a favorite that stands out? For years, it was ‘We have no idea what this guy is going to play. All we know is he’s an actor. We could be in for a night of covers.” They didn’t know. They kind of paid the money and hoped it was worth it. Usually it isn’t. Usually when actors try to do something else—well, William Shatner comes to mind. Songs like “Recreational Vehicle,” which is my answer and tribute to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” which is just a different story. It’s scoring under a 12-minute story that’s true. “Dirty Harry Blues”—these are songs that always work. I made a movie with Clint Eastwood, where he shot and killed me. And for an actor to get shot and killed by Clint Eastwood is a great honor. I wrote a song about the night he killed me. People know Clint, and they’re familiar with the whole shoot-‘em-up, and suddenly it’s an inside look. There are other songs like “Grandfather’s Hat.” “Hard To Hear the Angels Sing” is one we get asked to do a lot because it deals with what’s going on in the country right now. We’ll probably play that one a lot.
What’s been the key to in some ways being in the prime of your career in your 60s? Well, I got lucky. Certainly HBO and Showtime, but with Netflix and Hulu and Amazon and God knows what other ones. I hear Apple’s going to do television. But they all need content, and it’s where all the writers went. So actors—not necessarily stars, but actors—chase writing. I got lucky after [James] Gandolfini sort of changed television, not only how it’s to be shot but also viewed. I’m the beneficiary of that. Lucky me. I keep chasing things I want to do. The thing about the arts—whether it’s writing or music or acting—you get better. We’re not athletes who hit 40 and you just lose it. We get better and we know more. So that by the time you’re in your 50s and 60s—if you’re lucky to get opportunities I’ve gotten—you just know more. It’s a blessing because some of the last few things I had to do were complicated and complex. Godless and Newsroom and Looming Tower. And now here comes Atticus. That’s tricky stuff. I like having four or five decades behind me because I’m going to need it.
Does the Atticus Finch role loom as daunting for you? You can let it, or you just hit the delete button on that and say, “We open up Dec. 13, come decide for yourself.” It’s kind of the only way you can do it. You can’t deal with all that other stuff: Gregory Peck and what people might expect. You just have to do what you’ve done to get you here in a position for Aaron [Sorkin] and Scott Rudin to say, “We want you to play Atticus.” So I’m going to keep doing what I do.