Michigan Native Jeff Daniels to play City Opera House with son Ben Daniels
By Kristi Kates | Oct. 28, 2017
Actor, musician, storyteller, voice-over artist, playwright, theater founder, Broadway performer, Emmy Award winner.
Shall we go on? Jeff Daniels is a man of many hats, not the least of which is his musicianship. We chatted with him in advance of his upcoming concert at Traverse City’s City Opera House, where he’ll take the stage with his son Ben, of the Ben Daniels Band.
If you’re not familiar with Daniels’ music, you’ll certainly recognize him from his films, which include the wacky Dumb and Dumber movies with Jim Carrey as well as a number of more thoughtful roles in big-screen epics like The Martian, The Divergent Series: Allegiant, Looper, Good Night and Good Luck, and Gettysburg.
But right now, it’s music that’s taking center stage for Daniels, who most recently collaborated with Michigan singer-songwriter Brian Vander Ark (formerly of The Verve Pipe) on the album Simple Truths.
“Jim Fleming, my music agent, also works with Brian,” Daniels said. “He suggested that Brian and I might enjoy writing together. So Brian sent me part of a song called ‘My Little Town.’ I threw him some stuff back for that song, and another song called ‘Overboard,’ which I helped him finish in a darker way than I think he expected.”
Both men then spent six months in 2016 writing back and forth on songs, a process that would become the start of Simple Truths. It was initially a process that Daniels didn’t expect to work.
“I don’t collaborate well with others,” he said with a chuckle. “And I don’t collaborate often. As you know, songwriting is a solitary pursuit. So writing with someone else was interesting. But it was also a lot of fun.”
One person Daniels has long collaborated with on music is his son, Ben Daniels. His Ben Daniels Band is a folk-rock outfit that’s been playing shows throughout the Midwest.
“When I write songs, I usually start with an audio memo in iPhone. Sometimes I’ll put the song into GarageBand to add a few things,” Daniels said. “But then I just hand it over to Ben; he records and engineers at our recording studio in Chelsea. Otherwise, the songs I record on my own pretty much always just sound like demos.”
Daniels has recorded a full-length album with his son, Days Like These, but he’s especially enjoying his current trek, the one he and Ben will bring to Traverse City.
“This is an acoustic tour, which I’ve looked forward to doing a lot,” he said. “I’ve been writing a lot of stuff in particular for this tour, and the acoustic approach really lets the instruments sing. It’s also very family friendly, a very father-son kind of show. As a matter of fact, my other son, Lucas, is the tour manager.”
BACK TO THE SCREEN
After Traverse City, Daniels’ tour dates will continue throughout the Midwest. He’s pondering releasing some of the audio from the tour as well.
“We might specifically record it as a live album, or we might come off the road and go right into the studio, so we can record the songs as they’re fresh,” he said. “I haven’t really decided on that one yet.”
Part of that decision might depend on how busy he gets with the other side of his career: acting. Daniels just wrapped work two weeks ago on a Hulu series called The Looming Tower (based on the 2006 book by Lawrence Wright.)
“It’s about the lead-up to 9/11,” Daniels said. “I play John O’Neill, an FBI agent working with the counter-terrorism unit. He’s worried about Bin Laden long before Bin Laden is really a thing.”
Is anyone listening to O’Neill?
“Not really,” Daniels said. “The book and the series are based on a true story. It’s really a pretty exhaustive study of how Al-Queda came to be.”
Also just wrapped for Daniels is the limited series Godless, a dark western that’ll hit Netflix on Nov. 22. Godless will co-star Michelle Dockery from Downton Abbey, Thomas Brodie Sangster from Game of Thrones, and English actor Jack O’Connell.
“I play the bad guy, Frank Griffin,” Daniels said. “He’s a man with a lot of issues. The series may take place in the 1880s, but what Frank really needs is a shrink.”
Daniels admitted that he quite liked playing a less sympathetic part, after taking on so many roles where he’s either entertaining, leading, or holding down the proverbial fort.
“Oh, everything they say is true — playing the bad guy is great!” he said. “There’s so much to work with, plus you don’t have that obligation of setting your jaw square and being the hero.”
The sets and costume design for Godless also immersed Daniels firmly in the middle of the 19th century, right down to, well, his face.
“For playing Frank, I’ve got a beard on me that took six months to grow,” he said. “It was great, too, because this kind of story, a Western like this, is something I hadn’t done yet. It’s so interesting to go from Will McAvoy (of the HBO series The Newsroom) to the 1880s; from Dumb and Dumber to Gettysburg. I try to do as many diverse roles as possible.”
So has he portrayed his dream role yet? He paused thoughtfully when asked … and then seemed to realize that he’s right in the middle of it.
“There’s not really a dream role project out there, I don’t think. Well, wait — you know, the music thing is kind of it, really. It’s the trip of a lifetime, with your kid who actually wants to be up on stage in front of people playing guitar with you. So I get to do that. And I get to write plays. And work on Broadway. And make movies and TV shows. Well. It’s all part of it — it’s just a creative life I’ve got.”
Jeff Daniels and Ben Daniels Band will be in concert at the City Opera House in Traverse City at 7:30pm on Thursday, Nov. 9. For tickets and more information, visit cityoperahouse.org or call (231) 941-8082. For more information on the music, visit jeffdaniels.com and bendanielsband.com.