Jeff Daniels: The actor’s work, in his own words
"Funny is funny. I'm a student of comedy. I really am. I love it. I will argue until the day I die that comedy is harder to do and more worthwhile when done properly – which means making the audience, not a critic, laugh – than drama. Do 200 people in a theater fall out of their seats laughing? That's the verdict."

Jeff Daniels offers first impressions from a shortened list of his film credits. Afterward, he reflects proudly, “There are six to 10 that will outlive me.”

* “Terms of Endearment” (1983): “I was scared to death. Jack (Nicholson), Shirley (MacLaine), Debra (Winger) and me. What’s wrong with this picture?”

* “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985): “My turning point. Halfway through that film, Woody Allen told me I was good. From then on, not one critic in the country mattered.”

* “Something Wild” (1986): “My tribute to Dick Van Dyke. I always watched his TV show. You can see the influence of Dick Van Dyke in my character.”

* “Heartburn” (1986): “I got to work with Meryl (Streep), which is a little like playing one-on-one with Michael Jordan.”

* “Radio Days” (1987): “Woody (Allen) called and I said, ‘Sure.’ A couple scenes were cut that were fun to do.”

* “Arachnophobia” (1990): “I had done a few independent films and I wanted to be in something that people saw.”

* “Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael” (1990): “Good script. I got to work with Winona (Ryder), who was up and coming at that point.”

* “Speed” (1994): “My attempt to be an action hero. In one scene, you can actually hear me try to speak in a lower register like an action hero would and fail miserably.”

* “Dumb & Dumber” (1994): (deadpans) “My Oscar film.”

* “Fly Away Home” (1996): “It’s a perfect example of a family film that got great reviews and nobody went. And you wonder why there aren’t any family films.”

* “101 Dalmatians” (1996): (shrugs) “Six months with dogs.”

* “Pleasantville” (1998): “Great script, great role. It was my life, a simple guy who discovers art and spends the rest of his life chasing it. That was me in a nutshell.”

* “My Favorite Martian” (1999): “A paycheck. … Although apparently anyone under 12 years old thinks it’s the greatest movie ever made.”

 * “Escanaba in da Moonlight” (2001): “I can almost remember every single day of filming on this one, which I can’t say of the other ones.”

Jeff Daniels makes a personal appeal for his deer-camp film

Jeff Daniels’ eyes are shut. Stretched across two chairs, he naps in a dreary conference room near a private runway on the Dane County Regional Airport grounds.

When I arrive on a late Tuesday afternoon, he awakens, pumps my hand and apologizes for his disheveled appearance.

“Please,” Daniels says, mustering cheerfulness, “sit down.”

This ain’t the way Hollywood typically works, babe. Popular actors don’t pitch their new films by flying in tiny rented planes from Green Bay to Madison to Milwaukee, offering interviews at each stop to any media slug with a microphone or a notepad.

But Daniels – whose credits make him a star but not someone besieged by autograph seekers – really, really, really wants you to go to his virtually unknown deer-camp comedy “Escanaba in da Moonlight,” opening today at Point Cinema and Star Cinema.

Daniels, who is 46 and big-screen handsome, issues the ultimate bait to mainstream moviegoers, especially male ones with a penchant for making funny noises under their arms.

“If you liked Dumb & Dumber,’ ” he says, noting the blockhead blockbuster he co-starred in with Jim Carrey, “you’re going to like this.”

But the independent film “Escanaba in da Moonlight” arrives in Madison theaters without big-studio backing or any buzz, unless you’re from Michigan where the film opened exclusively in January to eager audiences who had followed its filming in the state’s Upper Peninsula, known as the U.P.

So Daniels — who wrote, directed and stars in “Moonlight” – must be a one-man marketing machine for “my baby,” which he calls the film, as it expands from Michigan to Wisconsin theaters.

He had hoped a national distributor would purchase “Moonlight” to give it the promotional push that two or three films receive each week. But Hollywood and New York movie-buyers balked, requiring him to release the movie alone.

“Moonlight” is, after all, a regional comedy about one family’s deer-hunting cabin in a section of the country few people, say, south of Beloit, can identify. Yet Daniels wrings deer camp for humor, staying true to the U.P. dialect (go ahead, judge this one by its title) that can make someone sound like they’re eating cotton balls while talking.

Celebrating deer camp’s obnoxious macho behavior, “Moonlight” features Daniels, with an unkempt beard and an Everyman persona, as fortysomething Rueben Soady, the only Soady family member never to bag a buck despite decades of trying.

As a result, Rueben’s Escanaba neighbors taunt him with the moniker “Buckless Yooper.”

(Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at any Burbank private screening, where West-Coast types puzzled over the word “Yooper,” not knowing to put an “er” after U.P.)

“Moonlight” includes a 10-minute(!) flatulence scene, da “Titanic” of all film gas. That scene may have played well with the show-biz suits in Pacific Palisades, but how did residents in Escanaba and Delta County, where Daniels shot the film, react to it and the entire movie?

“Some people were afraid we were going to make fun of them. But once they saw the film, sure, among the beer and flatulence scenes, they could see there was this love of family, the U.P. and all the great things about that area,” he says.

Daniels still lives in his hometown of Chelsea, Mich., 20 miles from Ann Arbor. Ten years ago, he opened a live theater there to showcase Midwestern talent, but he also used it to produce his own scripts. “Moonlight” became the most popular work of his six plays and ran for more than a year at a Detroit theater.

Inspired by actor Stanley Tucci, who wrote, directed and starred in the 1996 independent film hit “Big Night,” Daniels formed Purple Rose Films. The name acknowledges his breakthrough role in triple-threat filmmaker Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo.”

For Purple Rose’s first effort, Daniels picked “Moonlight.”

“I wanted to get out of the gate with something I knew worked,” he says, noting that the play’s popularity proved its appeal extended to non-hunting men and women.

Daniels, however, has never hunted. The idea for “Moonlight” struck when he visited U.P. deer camps used by his wife’s family and friends. “I sat in the corner and took notes all weekend,” he says.

But is Daniels, who has made his mark as an actor in everything from “Terms of Endearment” to “Pleasantville,” shooting at comedy that’s too low-brow with deer-camp hijinx?

Daniels nods.

“Funny is funny,” he says. “I’m a student of comedy. I really am. I love it. I will argue until the day I die that comedy is harder to do and more worthwhile when done properly — which means making the audience, not a critic, laugh — than drama. Do 200 people in a theater fall out of their seats laughing? That’s the verdict. That’s of equal value to anything nominated for an Academy Award.”

He continues, more revved up: “I saw Tootsie’ on HBO the other day and watched it again. Dustin (Hoffman) is playing it like it’s Death of a Salesman.’ He never gets caught going for the joke. It’s a great comedic performance.”

Daniels remembers his personal and professional soul-searching before taking the role in the stupid-is-funny “Dumb & Dumber.”

“My career was kind of in a nosedive at that point,” he says. “I went out and auditioned for seven films in one week. Dumb & Dumber’ was one of them. Another was Bye Bye Love’ about three divorced dads — Paul Reiser, Matthew Modine and Randy Quaid ended up doing it. Both films wanted me, but Bye Bye Love’ was paying three times more. Dumb & Dumber’ was paying this much” — he holds his thumb and forefinger a half-inch apart — “but if it did well at the box office you got more money.

“I had three agents on the phone and two of them were screaming at me, You cannot do this! We’ve worked too hard! We’re trying to find films that get you to the Oscars!’ The agent I’ve been with for 22 years said, Look, if he thinks he can hang with Jim Carrey, let him.’ And I hung with Jim Carrey.”

He offers a yard-wide smile at that screen achievement.

Now he calls “Moonlight,” which he made for $1.8 million, “my most rewarding film.” Its box-office success in Michigan has caught the interest of national distributors who will be watching this weekend’s Wisconsin box-office numbers closely.

“We believe in it for Wisconsin,” he says. “We believe in it for Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, northern New York and out West. If you love the Upper Midwest and have any sense at all of what might go on in a deer camp, that is what’s in this movie. It was written to make people laugh harder than they have in a long, long time.”

With that, Daniels acknowledges a publicist who mentions that they’re late for a radio interview. There is a car waiting to whisk Daniels to a low-rated, all-sports outlet in Madison.

Daniels looks at me, wanting to make one more appeal for “Moonlight.”

“If you have any more questions, call me on Thursday,” he says then adds, “Any questions at all, please call me.”


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