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Training Up

Bryan Reesman • Feature • December 1, 2009

Purple Rose Theatre Company Artistic Director Guy Sanville and PRTC Executive Director Jeff Daniels in rehearsal for Escanaba at the Purple Rose.

Jeff Daniels talks about coming of age as an actor in Michigan and New York. 

Whether through films like Pleasantville, The Squid and the Whale and Welcome Home, Roxy Charmichael, or plays like God Of Carnage, Blackbird and Fifth Of July, Jeff Daniels has utilized his charm to great advantage while also diving into a plethora of diverse roles. Beyond his professional acting career, the Midwestern actor is also an established playwright and guitar player, and he founded the Purple Rose Theatre Company in his home town of Chelsea, Michigan in 1991. It has become a haven for young actors who benefit from a tutorial sculpted from three decades of personal experience, and where new plays and talent are cultivated outside of the popular poles of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Daniels draws no salary from the theatre, and says the people who work there—including Artistic Director Guy Sanville, Managing Director Alan Ribant and development director Casey Granton—”bleed purple.”


“If every job I did had the passion that these people have for that place, I’d be in a great place,” beams Daniels.

Taking a break from the extended run of God Of Carnage on Broadway, Daniels sat down for an hour with Stage Directions to fill us in on his passion for acting and for the Purple Rose.

Stage Directions: I suppose we should go back to the beginning, when you decided to be an actor. Was it a conscious decision or was it something that you fell into?
Jeff Daniels: I fell into it. I had a teacher who saw something in a sixth grade music class. She was teaching music and deviated from the lesson plan and had the kids get up and do little skits. We didn’t even know they were improvs. They were skits. She had me do a politician giving a speech while his pants are falling down, and I guess I turned it into 10 minutes of comedy, not knowing what I was doing or how I was doing it. She went to my parents and said, “You need to watch this one.” Later on, when I was in high school, she put me in musicals, and that’s when it became evident that there was something going on that perhaps should be chased. Then I went to college at Central Michigan University, waiting to fail completely and didn’t. I did well there and got out of musicals a little bit, doing drama like Pinter and various other things and still had success. I had a lot of raw talent. Technique was lacking, but there were a lot of really good instincts as an actor. Then I went down to Eastern Michigan University to audition for a four-play repertory company, which basically attracted kids from around colleges in Michigan. I just auditioned to see how I would stack up.

I had tickets to the Red Wings hockey game in Detroit that night with my college roommates—you know, another drunken spree—and was going to skip the callbacks. A guy from Central who was also down from Eastern with me auditioning, said, “Where are you going?” “I’m going to go to the hockey game.” “You’re an idiot.” I go, “why?” “One of the guys who’s directing one of the shows is from New York.” He flew in and picked up some money to direct some college kids. He and the head of the department were college friends way back when. So he said, “You should stick around. He’s from New York.” So I did. I got the lead in Summer and Smoke, which was the play he directed, and also The Hot L Baltimore, Lanford Wilson’s play. It was Marshall W. Mason, the artistic director of Circle Repertory Company. Near the end of the rehearsal process he took me out and said, “You know what you should do with your life, don’t you?” Of course, I didn’t quite want to say it. He goes, “You should come to New York. I’ll make you an apprentice at the Circle Rep, and you should be an actor. Now I’m not going to make you an actor, and I’m not obligated to get you parts, but I’m just saying you should go. You’ll need luck and a lot of perseverance, but you have the talent which someone like me could work with and turn into something.” So I skipped the last year of college, went to New York and became an apprentice at 21 and joined Circle Rep. I basically went to acting school at Circle Rep.

And from there, into theatre and film?
Two years later Lanford wrote Fifth Of July, and that was pivotal for me because it ran for six months off-Broadway. Then we did it in L.A. and then on Broadway. There were other plays in between those productions, but that really cemented me as one of the Circle Rep actors. That was 1980 when we were on Broadway with Fifth Of July, and that was when I started to go up on movies and got those. I did Terms Of Endearment in 1983, and then there was just a string of them after that.

And soon after, Purple Rose Of Cairo by Woody Allen, for which you named your theatre. It’s very important when you’re younger that people recognize certain talent that you have. It’s very important to cultivate young talent like that.
Exactly. It’s hard to know—even the kids that think they know, don’t—and whether they’re writers or whether they’re actors, they’re those kids who are always jumping to the front of the class and doing the song from Bye-Bye Birdie or Camelot. I was never that kid. And I would probably argue that most of those kids didn’t make it.

I would say that the popular kids, the kids who are known for doing that in high school, often don’t go on to do that at all.

Yeah, and I think it’s deeper than that. You have to look in the mirror and understand, “I’m a writer.” Or “I’m an actor. And I’m now going to go about the decades long journey of trying to be good at what I do.” It becomes a life’s work, and that’s very difficult for somebody in their early 20s or even earlier to know. I believe that there are people along the way who are more experienced than you and have seen more and who noticed something. They noticed a raw ability, a talent, a fearlessness, and in an actor’s case, a lack of stage fright. An ability to ride your instincts or your impulses, and they’re good impulses and good choices. De Niro said you’re only as good as your choices. Someone along the way sees that and tells you that you’re good or believes in you. I tell actors who go to New York and actually have talent: You need to go there believing in yourself, and then you need to pick up people along the way who also believe in you. That was very true in my case. Marshall Mason said, “You know what you should do with your life?” Lanford  Wilson said, “I’m going to write a part for you.” All along the way—Jim Brooks in Terms of Endearments, Woody Allen—they were pressuring Woody to star in Purple Rose himself or to hire a bigger name. I was a no-name. When Woody put me in the movie it was literally a two-hour meeting with the studio to convince them that they could go with this no-name next to Mia Farrow, and that’s Woody Allen believing in me. So if you pick people up along the way who believe in you, and in the Purple Rose’s case teach you what we know, then maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones who gets to spend his life doing this.

Left to right: Purple Rose Artistic Director Guy Sanville, Executive Director Jeff Daniels and Lanford Wilson during rehearsals for the 1997 production of The Hot L Baltimore

It’s been said that artists don’t come up alone. They come up in a community, they come up with peers who they connect with. Was that the way it was in your case—that you came to New York and found other people who you would eventually work with in the future? And then developed long-term relationships with?
Certainly with Circle Rep. I went back to Marshall years later with Redwood Curtain, and Lanford as well. Lanford has come out to the Purple Rose and written; we’ve commissioned him twice to write plays. In that sense, yes. I can only speak for me. I was brought up right artistically, and I was brought up artistically at Circle Rep. They taught me what it means to be an artist versus just an actor. I haven’t always followed that route. I’ve done some movies that were completely commercial, but I used some of that money to support the Purple Rose and my kids get to go to college. I don’t have to worry about that. I also support the person who is the true artist living downtown only doing great art, but I was taught the difference, and as Lanford said: Make it all count. That’s hard to do when you start to get into Hollywood. That’s the goal. It’s an ideal, but that’s the goal. And Lanford, I must say, is one of those people who has done exactly that. He and Marshall both are what I refer to as true artists. “This is what I do. And if you do not like that, then please hire someone else. And no, I won’t do that. And no, I won’t do that.” The book of acting I use, and I still use to this day, is the one that Marshall taught me and is the one we teach predominately, though we do variations on it, at the Purple Rose. Whether it’s people who stay with you or their approach to what it is we do that stays, I’ve tried to pass that along at Purple Rose.

What do you think you’re giving your students at the Purple Rose? What is your mission statement?

To boil it down, I wanted a place for that 21-year-old kid I used to be. I wanted him or her to have a place to go in the Midwest where they have the same amount of talent I did, this raw ability and a dream, and I wanted them to learn to do it properly. All of the stuff that I learned, not only at Circle Rep but beyond—from Meryl, from Woody, from all of these people—we want to teach them that. Now Guy Sanville and company turn around and teach it. And teach their version as they went through it first. Now that kid has a place where he can go and get probably better training than some of our best universities, I would argue, because we don’t deal in the academic. We deal in the practical. I also save you a lot of money as you don’t have to take acting classes in New York, but I will teach you everything New York would teach you and what I know. Now you’re prepared to go or not go. Now you can make that informed decision as to whether you want to leave, in our case Michigan, and go to L.A. or New York or wherever you might go. Or whether you even want to be an actor for the rest of your life. I will give you the opportunity to make that informed decision, and that’s something I didn’t have. I got in the car, went to New York and crossed my fingers.

A moment from 2007 Purple Rose production of Jeff Daniels’ Escanaba In Love featuring Jake Christensen and Charlyn Swarthout

Do you think that people in New York often overlook the theatres in places like Minneapolis or Madison?
It’s the nature of the New York beast. I’ve said it before: The new American play is alive and well, it’s just west of the Hudson River. Not to say that there aren’t people in New York and theatre companies that are doing that, but as you know financially it’s impossible. There’s no room for development. The critics make or break a show right away, whether they want to admit it or not. And the risk of doing a new work, the freedom to express yourself, or as Marshall used to say, “I reserve the right to fail”—that was Circle Rep in the ‘70s. We took chances. We produced writers who were still working on the play going into rehearsal and even through rehearsal. You can’t do that now, and there’s too much at stake. But out in the regional theatres, what playwrights still exist, we’ve been able to develop some at the Purple Rose over the years. If you treat the Purple Rose like Broadway, if you open at the Purple Rose, which we do with all my works and Dave MacGregor and Carey Crim, we’re not developing it on opening night. We’re done. We’re finished. Take it or leave it. Now the playwright is moving on to their next play. They’re going to publish this because now we can self-publish. In my case and MacGregor’s case, we license the plays out of the Purple Rose. Now Omaha and Kansas and Seattle can do it. We don’t have to be knighted by some production in New York. I think there are playwrights all over this country that would happily write, and are doing so in a lot of theatres, for Denver or happily write for Dallas. Go around the country. What we’ve learned, and I tell the playwrights this, is write about the people sitting in the seats. Don’t write about Ireland. I don’t care about Ireland. Don’t write about New York. Don’t write about L.A. or Hollywood. Write about the people sitting in those seats. Shakespeare did it. It was good enough for him. Now you’re holding up a mirror to them. Now you’re relating to them. I have great respect for New York and certainly have spent this whole year doing God of Carnage, and I get it. I understand that when it works that there’s nothing better, but if you do a really great production of a show that is really familiar to people in Michigan, and you’re sold out for three months, creatively there’s no difference.

You license a lot of plays and publish a lot of them through the Purple Rose. Are you trying to give a certain power to the artist that you’re cultivating? Do you work with them when they put on productions in other places?

No. “Here’s the script, would you like to do it?” We basically just self publish it. It’s a way to raise a little bit more money for the theatre and certainly the playwright. The playwright has to give permission. In my case I happily do it. It’s a way to raise a little bit more money for the theatre.

Do the playwrights get a cut at all?
Absolutely. They get the big cut. It’s a way to raise money for the theatre versus Samuel French or a Dramatists Play Service. I have four plays there. That’s fine, that’s terrific. We’re nonprofit. I have to find more ways to bring in revenue. Certainly in my case, with the name attached to it, the plays are done around the country, and it helps the theatre. With the Internet, now that there’s an awareness of the Purple Rose and me as a playwright, at the click of the mouse you’re finding out you can get the Escanaba trilogy, if you want.

You were talking about the artistic versus commercial projects. I have a friend who’s an actor who did not want to do anything he wasn’t passionate about, and my argument was that maybe you can turn something that is not great into something that’s at least good. What advice would you give to young actors who are torn between wanting to follow their artistic passion but also realizing they have to work their way up the ladder?
They have to realize that unfortunately it’s a business. Lily Tomlin said that it’s not show art, it’s show business. And it’s true. Certainly if you want to have a movie or a television career, you’re probably going to have to come down off your artistic horse and do some things you don’t want to do. Now if you’ve got a wife and you’ve got kids, there’s an obligation to support your family in a business that doesn’t care whether you’re here on Tuesday or not. You’re over, you’re done. So when you get a chance to make some money, it’s the old expression—one for you, one for them. One for you is Squid and the Whale, where we finish shooting and don’t know if anyone’s going to see it because there’s no distribution. Blackbird at Manhattan Theatre Club, you’re making no money every week. It’s not Broadway. It’s Manhattan Theatre Club, and it did well, but you’re not going to be at the Tony Awards.

One for them is: “How much money? Are you kidding?” Oh, I could drop a lot of money on the renovation of the theatre  if I did this movie. I could guarantee that my kids to go to college in a business that could be over for me in a year. You start to make choices, and I think over the long haul people forgive you of certain movies, unless you predominantly start doing just that and start cashing in on yourself time and time again. I’ve tried to spread it around. Dumb and Dumber was a great experience. I loved doing it and will never, ever apologize for it. For me, that was part of the plan, to put Dumb and Dumber up against Gettysburg and Squid and the Whale and God of Carnage, and then have people go back and look at the whole body of work. I can’t stop people from going, “Oh, Dumb and Dumber, that’s it. Well, have a good life then die.” There is a range there for people who choose to look, and you start to look at it as a body of work and range, and then it starts to make a lot of sense. It’s a mix. Unfortunately, it’s a mix. I did 12 commercials when I was at Circle Rep, and I was in the hotbed of “we’re artists not actors”. Now they don’t need me for three plays, gee, I want to get some money. So instead of waiting tables, I would do commercials.

Which commercials did you do?
McDonald’s, Listerine, BF Goodrich, Pepto-Bismol. Or you’re the young, Midwestern guy that’s representing Mutual Life Insurance. And they would pay. You would get a check every once in a while, and I didn’t have to get a day job or wait tables. I could go out on auditions. It allowed me to do the art.

It’s always a challenge. I have to balance out writing about people I like and then doing things because I need the money.

One supports the other.

Purple Rose Theatre Company Artistic Director Guy Sanville teaching the annual Actor / Director Lab in 2007

When you’re not in New York and back in Michigan, how often do you teach at the Purple Rose?
I leave that to the others. I created Purple Rose for others to lead a creative life. I come in occasionally if there’s an  acting class in a three month PAD Lab— a Playwright-Actor-Director Lab—and if I’m available they’ll bring me in and just do a Q&A for 90 minutes. These actors can ask me anything they want. If there’s a young acting apprentice who really wants to talk about acting, let’s go out and talk and ask me anything you want. I’m just there. Again, it’s a 21-year-old kid. I just try to be available. I’m a valuable resource, somebody who’s been doing this for over 30 years. Ask me, use me.

What are the biggest concerns for young actors getting into this, other than the obvious questions of how to make money and how to land gigs? Are there certain concerns that you find coming up when you talk to people?
The obvious ones are the ones that poke out—how to make money, how to get an agent, should I go to Chicago or New York or L.A., tell me what to do. I don’t get a lot of that anymore because my answer to them is, “I don’t know. You’re the only one who can know that.” I think what I see more often is people thinking now they know what they need to know and then seeing them try to decide whether they can uproot their life and really chase it. The reality of chasing the dream. I see that and can’t help them. There is a two-hour discussion where I do all the talking about rejection. I can tell you and can explain it to you over the two hours, and some will hear it and others will go anyway and find it out for themselves. If you can deal with that, if you can persevere and hang on to the belief in yourself and that others have in you, and that still to this day happens, then you can probably be relatively happy in this very unhappy, rejection filled business. Back to the point, I see people dreaming and think they can really do this now, and you go, “Good luck.” Again, that kid that gets in his car and drives to New York, but he knows more now. And I wish them luck.

I always joke that my job is 90% rejection.
Absolutely. And dealing with it.

Especially this year. Everyone’s budgets are shot, and you have to work twice as hard to get the gigs. How is the Purple Rose been dealing with the economic downturn?
We’re okay. We were braced for the worst, and what we found at the box office is it’s probably down a little, but I think there’s still an entertainment dollar out there that people want to spend. They just aren’t taking chances. They want to make sure that this thing they’re going to spend their money on his good, and fortunately for the Purple Rose, after 18 years leading into the economy going south, we have established ourselves that it’s been at least good and sometimes great artistically. We take great pride in how we treat patrons and theatregoers. We make sure that they have a great experience from the moment they walk until the moment they leave. We work hard at that, plus what happens on the stage at eight o’clock every night. It’s worth their entertainment dollar, so we haven’t seen a drop off there, but we have seen a drop-off in fundraising just because Michigan is the hardest hit state, so there is less money available for things like the arts, and for theatre in particular. Like you, we’re having to work twice as hard to get the same amount or slightly less in this case.

How much has the Purple Rose grown since you started?
I think we renovated the building in 2000. After eight years we blew up the building and then built a structure that will outlive all of us, and that’s been paid for. That’s us expanding and building a $2 million building by 2001 and then burning the mortgage. I don’t want to build another theatre, I don’t want to expand, I don’t want to open two more. This is it. Where we’ve poured the money into is retaining the people. We don’t have a lot of turnover because we pay people well enough to stay, and we provide healthcare for the staff, which I think for a theatre our size is all but unheard of. That’s where we’ve put the money, so that there’s a consistency not only in how we run the theatre but artistically in what we do. I’m not switching artistic directors every three years. I’m very happy with the people we have and hope they’re around for another 20 years.

Have you heard of a lot of regional theatres closing?
Yes, and I know some that are on the brink, but we have an advantage because it’s me. There’s also a disadvantage in that people think you write a check every year to cover everything. After 10 years of independent films those days are gone. We’re doing okay. I’m confident we’ll be around, but raising money for a nonprofit theatre in the Midwest, it’s the toughest year we’ve ever had. We also live in a part of the country were art is someone who lives north of the town, so we’ve had to create a professional theatre in a place where it really was going to see Aunt Martha in Oklahoma at the community theatre every summer. We’ve had to build an audience, and we’ve done that successfully so people are coming to us as a regular destination. I like to think that because we didn’t have to lay off half our staff—and we have made some cuts across the board in our budget—like corporations do, maybe things are going to be better a year from now and that we’ll be all right.

Do you think it’s ironic that some of these regional theatres might end up competing with you because you have the name in the area?
I think when we came in, there had been theatres—the Attic Theatre, Performance Network in Ann Arbor, the Boarshead in Lansing—that had been around before the Purple Rose even opened its doors. So a movie star comes in and builds a theatre—okay, there’s certainly resentment from some. Not all, but some. I look at it this way: If I don’t compete because I have an unfair advantage, I can pretend that I’m going to stand in the lobby and shake hands and people will just come to see our plays where the other theatres don’t have that advantage. But I’ve never looked at it as competition because I was too busy worrying about how we were doing year to year. I think what’s happened over the years is how we do things, from stage management to acting to writing to developing plays to administering to box office—the apprentice program has six to eight kids come through every year, and we can’t employ everybody, but we have put some people into jobs when those jobs are available and expanded a little bit—but a lot of those kids have gone on to those other theatres and are directing and acting and taking what we do and spreading into some of other theatre companies. I think that’s a good thing because is straight out of how to run a theatre and how a professional theatre should operate. I have a feeling that that’s appreciated now.  I would be very, very happy if all of the theatres were playing to 90% capacity. I wish we were that attentive and participated in the arts like that in southeastern Michigan. We don’t. We’re too busy trying to get anyone to come to all of these theatres to compete. We have to look out for ourselves and have to play to a certain capacity every show in order to meet budget, but I would be very happy if a lot of these theatres were turning people away because they were so popular. That would be a great thing.

Do you see yourself at all is the commodity that other people might see you as?
Only in Hollywood. “You’re a value to us doing this.” “Okay. How much?” The sooner you think of it that way, certainly when you go to Hollywood, the better off you are. However, occasionally you get that Squid and the Whale or Pleasantville or Purple Rose Of Cairo, and it goes beyond that.

When do you decide when you can take a role that makes you little or no money?
More often than not it’s when you can afford to. However when you read Squid and the Whale, you go, “I have to clear things around us. I have to make money after this.” Because I have to do Squid and the Whale. Or Blackbird Off-Broadway. I know it’s four months and it’s no money . I have to do this, so I have to try to make money before it, and then I’m available after it. That’s the business side of it. So as you’re doing Blackbird, you’re on the phone with the agent asking, “What’s coming up after this, and please let it have some zeroes after it.” Again, one for you, one for them. Them being the family and the bank account and the mortgage and the debt. It’s managing yourself financially. But when that thing comes along, you clear everything and you do it.

Patrick Michael Kenney and Grant R. Krause in the 2006 production of Jeff Daniels’ play Guest Artist

Is there any one of your plays that you’re most proud of?
Guest Artist. I’ve told people it took 30 years to write it, although the actual writing of it was about a year. It’s a whole lifetime of anger over the American theatre and frustration with the arts in this country and what we do to our great artists—how we treat them and ignore them and yet how they still continue to do what it is they do. That play kind of poured out, but it took 30 years to write it. I had to live it first.

Neil Gaiman said something similar about writing Coraline. It took him about 10 years to write it. He started it over the course of one year, put it down for six years, and worked on it again in bits and pieces for three more years. On the other hand, Sylvester Stallone wrote Rocky in a few days, probably because he had to get it out of his system.
And I argue that Stallone was thinking about that outline and that three act structure for a year or so. I don’t think he sat down and said, “Boxer. Page 1.”

Have you found any play that just gushed out of you in a short period of time?
No, not one where I stared at a blank page on page one. I’ve done something different in the last two or three plays where I think about it for six months or I make notes. I have a file where I dump things—scenes, ideas, characters, themes, everything—so I know when the deadline is to turn it in and I back it up, whether it’s six weeks or two months, a seemingly short amount of time, but I’ve thought about it for almost a year. It’s been percolating. Gary Ross taught me this—he wrote Pleasantville, Dave and Seabiscuit. Gary said that he thinks about it for seven months and writes for two. He goes, “Don’t let yourself write it until you absolutely can’t wait, chomping at the bit, gotta get ready to go. Go.” Gary would outline it all the way to the last page. You can still journey and explore and find new things, but you have some semblance of where you’re going and tend not to waste pages, time, storyline and subplots on things because you haven’t been thinking about that for seven months or you’ve discarded that idea in month three. So in a way that first seven months of thinking and making notes and percolating would’ve been the first two drafts of earlier work when I didn’t do that, when I just sat down and followed things, and you write 700 pages to get 90. That was frustrating. So I’ve found this to be a lot more efficient. I’m also smarter—this is 13 plays down the road. I can delete quicker because I know this isn’t going to work. Whereas eight plays ago it would’ve stayed in, we would’ve done a reading and people would’ve look at me—I know it’s just two jokes, but I have to keep six pages to make the two jokes work.

What are the biggest life lessons you’ve learned throughout your career, and what do you think your fans would be surprised to learn about you?
I don’t know. I don’t expect people to know I’m a playwright. You stand outside the stage door at Carnage and they go, “I didn’t know you wrote plays!” “I didn’t know you had a theatre!” Maybe the diversity. The guitar, which is just another channel to tell stories. The music is something I really enjoy, and creatively is the purest thing I do. I walk on stage with a guitar and sit down for 90 minutes. There’s an art to holding an audience for 90 minutes and not boring them. Anybody with a guitar in front of a campfire and you just want to shoot yourself. But to come out there and really do it like Arlo does and Stevie Goodman did. There’s a beauty in the simplicity of a well-written song well played, just like a play or a decent movie, it connects with that audience. You can stand by the side of the theatre and watch them watch it. Or a book or a painting. That’s the beauty of art, that connection, and Circle Rep just preached that. If there’s no connection between the play and the audience then we have nothing, and I find that with songs. Whether they’re funny or serious, and you look out and no one is moving because they’re waiting for the resolve, I really enjoy that. It’s very similar to the structure of writing a play or carving a performance out every night on Broadway. It’s all the same thing. All of these different things I do, I think of as the same thing.

Jeff Daniels

It seems that each sensibility informs the other.
Very much so. I’ve been playing guitar and writing songs since the mid-'70s, and I was not even remotely interested in playing anything for anyone until the end of the '90s when they threw me up in front of a bar to raise the money for the Purple Rose. When I walk out with the guitar, the actor is there, the playwright is there, the director is there. They’re all standing behind me, helping.

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