Sure, there are roles that Jeff Daniels has had to stretch for.
In real life, he’s never been painted blue; he’s never been a gay man mourning lost love. He hasn’t been a president, good (George Washington) or bad (Warren Harding); he hasn’t been dumb or dumber.
He handled those roles easily. Still, he’s at his best playing rock-solid guys with a Midwestern vibe. That peaks as Del Harris in “American Rust” (shown hee), debuting at 10 p.m. Sunday (Sept. 12) on Showtime.
“Del had a lot of things in his life that drove him to seek refuge,” said producer Dan Futterman. “He had been in the Army; he had been in the Pittsburgh (police). There were things … haunting him.”
So he became a police chief in small-town Pennsylvaniaq. He soon found the complications of a world in which a prime suspect is also the former star linebacker … and is the son of Del’s sometimes lover.
This is the sort of world that Daniels, 66, knew as a football player in Chelsea, a Michigan town of 5,500. “High school tight end, with no dreams of going beyond that,” he said. “Nor did anyone ask.”
He grew up comfortably – his dad had a lumber yard, his grandfather had an auto dealership – but in a blue-collar world. “I grew up working class,” Daniels said. “I drove a truck during the summers; I unloaded stuff. That’s what I did. And I knew these guys; I am one of these guys.”
The life can be both comforting and confining. “We know there’s another world out there,” he said, “but this is the only one we live in and care about.”
Daniels did go to college, but not a high-image one. Later, he was the only Central Michigan University guy in big-city auditions. He was “a young actor going to New York with a chip on my shoulder, going ‘Well, I’ll show the guys from Juilliard and RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art).”
Marshall Mason, founder of the off-Broadway Circle Repertory Theatre, had discovered Daniels during a sunmmer workshop in Michigan and suggested he move to New York. Daniels was soon tempted to return home, but his mother urged him: “Try to find a way to stay.”
He did and Lanford Wilson, a small-town Missouri guy, wrote “Fifth of July” with Daniels and William Hurt in mind. Daniels went with the play from off-Broadway to Broadway to a PBS movie.
Two years later, he had co-starred in movies by James L. Brooks (“Terms of Endearment”) and Woody Allen (“Purple Rose of Cairo”). Hollywood fame has continued, but he’s avoided moving west; he has a home in Chelsea – where he launched the Purple Rose Theatre – and an apartment in New York.
He needs multiple homes, to hold his collection of somewhere between 30 and 45 guitars. “Instead of, you know, doing heroin, I bought guitars …. One from the ‘20s, a few from the ‘30s. And I just need to stop. It’s a great joy in my life …. I need to stop.”
Daniels also has the New York place because he did three Broadway plays in a decade – “God of Carnage,” “Blackbird” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (He got Tony nominations in each, to go with his five Emmy nomiations and two wins.) When “Mockingbird” re-opens on Oct. 5, he’ll be back for a three-month stint in the central role of Atticus Finch, a tower of sturdy values.
That’s a role with a lot in common with two other recent ones – James Comey, the real-life former FBI director, and Del Harris, the fictional cop. “The three of them believed in the rule of law,” Daniels said, “believed in right and wrong, telling the truth. That’s where Del kind of veers off.”
He’s a troubled guy, as we learn from two quietly emotional monologs, the second at a campfire with Maura Tierney. “There are certain key scenes that I don’t know which way they’re going to go,” she said. “I’m just listening to him and watching him.”
That’s the approach he prefers. “I went over to (the director) and said, ‘Look, I’m just going to tell it to her.’” There would be no “acting,” no extraneous actions; she would “hear it on camera the first time.”
It’s Daniels’ way, the Midwestern vibe that delivers quiet impact.