Oct. 7 2009 12:00 AM

Versatile Jeff Daniels talks acting, music and finding home

Jeff Daniels wears a lot of hats: actor, playwright, regional theater founder, musician, Michigan-advocate and dad. During a phone interview from his Manhattan apartment, Daniels talked warmly and genuinely about his latest “Escanaba” play (now showing at his Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea, review on Page 13), playing guitar until his fingers bled and the “Dumb” role that made him a superstar.

“You [are] in Manhattan on the anniversary of 9/11. A friend of mine from Manhattan says he will never go there again; he cannot imagine feeling more strongly the sense of loss.”

“You can feel it — it’s palpable. New York will probably never be the same.”

“What’s it like for you to jump back and forth between New York and the sleepy hamlet of Chelsea, Mich?” “I don’t see it one as over the other.

[My wife] Kathleen and I moved back to Chelsea to raise the kids in 1986, and we enjoy both experiences pretty much equally. We love New York; we love Chelsea, too. She’s driving out today with the dogs and we’ll be here together for the 10-week run of ‘God of Carnage’ (this year’s Tony winner for “Best Play,” which also netted Daniels a nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actor) until Nov. 15.”

“You are revisiting this Escanaba shtick for a third time. Are there some particular Midwestern values you are trying to communicate here, or is this just for laughs? Is this a sequel, a prequel or something entirely else?”

“Prequel, sequel — those are Hollywood words. When I wrote the first Escanaba storyline, there was no intention to do more. We just discovered we couldn’t kill the idea. I had done the movie ‘Dumb and Dumber’ and had noticed that it seemed to evoke laughs from more than just 15 year olds, and I started to think about how to evoke more laughter from audiences in live theater. We came up with the idea of five guys at a Deer Camp. And it just took off from there. As to values … it’s the idea that everyone has a home somewhere. It may be Deer Camp for some. For Woody Allen, it’s Manhattan … .”

“It seems to draw new audiences, a whole lot more men.”

“Exactly! That’s what we were looking for. How do we attract people to live theater who have rarely been there before?”

“It seems ironic that many people I talk to recognize your name as the guy from ‘Dumb and Dumber,’ when you have made so many more significant films — ‘Terms of Endearment,’ ‘The Squid and The Whale.’”

“Dumb and Dumber” transformed my career. Before, I was just some actor. Now people in airports see me and say, ‘Hey, that’s Jeff Daniels.’ (He tells a story about visiting wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.) Each guy I visited told me he’d seen ‘Dumb and Dumber,’ and we laughed together and, for just a moment, some of the pain, some of the sense of the loss was gone for them. That’s some of the intention in this third Escanaba play, which is set in 1944, to get people laughing, but also to go backward in time to the roots of things, to see the origins of where rituals and traditions begin.”

“How did you get started with music? Did you have a lot of down time between scenes in movies?”

“I bought a guitar in 1976. I only knew three chords. I studied chord progressions in songbooks, Doc Watson and the originators of the blues. I had a lot of time on my hands waiting for calls. It kept me sane, kept me from getting depressed. I had no intention to ever play in public, and when people at Purple Rose suggested I do a fundraiser, I was terrified. I had the flop-sweats. This was in 2000, I think, and I practiced every day from Oct. 1 until the December performance. My fingers were bleeding at one point. I wanted professional guitar players to hear me and say, ‘He’s got it; he’s one of us.’” (Daniels will return to the Charlotte Performing Arts Center for a concert on Nov. 21.)

“How is your latest movie (2009’s ‘The Answer Man,’ about the inner life of an advice columnist) like your experience of being a Hollywood actor one day and an ordinary person the next?”

“Good question. People expect you to be like the character they just saw in your most recent movie. I just try to be real and hope they will quickly see me as a person — who I am and not just a character. If they seem stuck on my character, I just try to get the hell out of the situation as quickly as possible.”