Jeff Daniels in 'God of Carnage'
When I first hit [James Gandolfini] with [the idea of switching roles], he just started laughing at me."
Chatting with easygoing Michigander Jeff Daniels feels like shooting the breeze with an old high school chum. His self-deprecating sense of humor seems at odds with his impressive resume of over 50 films. Deep down, though, Daniels is a man of the stage. He appeared on Broadway in God of Carnage (for which he was nominated for a Tony), Fifth of July, The Golden Age and Redwood Curtain and off-Broadway in Johnny Got His Gun, Lemon Sky and Blackbird. He is also the founder and executive director of Michigan’s Purple Rose Theatre Company as well as a playwright, singer and songwriter. Now Daniels has returned to Carnage, but not in the role of Alan, which he originated on Broadway. Instead he is playing Michael, a part previously inhabited by former co-star James Gandolfini of The Sopranos fame. Broadway.com caught up with the actor to discuss the switcheroo and more.
Why did you want to revisit this play in a different role?
Because it wasn’t a sure thing that I could pull it off, and that interests me: something where there’s risk involved. There’s a creative challenge trying to measure up to what we were a year ago. It’s a wonderful thing to try to pull off as you dive into it.
What’s it like to see Dylan Baker do Alan, the part you previously played?
You know going in that he has to do his version of it. The last thing I’m going to do is tell him how to do it. It’s got to be Dylan Baker’s Alan, just like there’s Jim Gandolfini’s Michael and my Michael. It’s fascinating to see where he finds the rhythms that work for him and work for the audience. It wasn’t what I was doing and he didn’t get that laugh, but he sure got that one—and I never got one on that. It’s a wonderful kind of master class for actors.
So you haven’t said any of his lines by mistake?
The dreaded echo? No. I have twitched. I was twitching in rehearsals. It has to do with focus. When you’re on stage and you hear a cue, part of you moves like a quarter of an inch to breathe. Then all of a sudden, Dylan’s talking and you’re going, “Shut it down!” That happened once and I was like, “Jeff, pay attention!” And then I was OK.
How does it feel to have another long stint in New York when your home is in Michigan?
I was in New York for 10 years before I moved back home in 1986 so it’s always been a second home for us. Now that the kids are in college and beyond, it’s great to be back. One of the reasons I took Carnage a year ago, was that I could make that kind of commitment for six months at a time. We love it here, Kathleen and I. The dogs arrived yesterday, we’ve got the apartment… and it’s Broadway. You’re in a hit comedy on Broadway and you’re doing something you love decades after you started doing it—and you still love it. I’m lucky.
You talked to James Gandolfini before signing on for this role that he previously played, right?
Yeah, we’re friends.
Did you want his blessing?
No. At the end of the day, I was going to do what I wanted to do. Jim and I are friends, and we went through a lot together on this. If Jim were to flip and do Alan, I would at least appreciate a phone call. I was real happy to call him up and he was great; he couldn’t have been more supportive. We met and he was going, “Oh man, do it! You gotta do it.”
He was tickled by the idea?
When I first hit him with it, he just started laughing at me. He said “I’ll buy a ticket to see that!” Because you know, we both thought we were walking away forever, and then here I come back saying, “I’m going to do Michael and then next year I’ll do Veronica.”
Has he seen it yet?
No, but I will know when he’s there for several reasons: One, he’ll come back and laugh at me. Two, there will be some point in the show where I lay a line out, and it doesn’t get a laugh except from one person because he will know the pain I’m going through. It will be a great night when he is in the audience.
Is the goatee something you wanted to use to develop this new character?
Yeah, my family back in Michigan is in the lumber business, and they’re around a lot of contractors and construction guys and hardware guys and you see a lot of short hair and goatees. So I think it looks pretty authentic. Plus, it’s a different look from Alan for me a year ago.
Is it true you switched dressing rooms?
I’m in the "Gandolfini Suite" now, yeah. Wait ‘til he sees what I’ve done with it. I've painted the walls pink! [Laughs.]