Jeff Daniels is widely known both for over-the-top comedies like the “Dumb & Dumber” films and serious movies like “Terms of Endearment,” “The Hours” and “The Squid and the Whale” — as well as his Emmy-winning role on “The Newsroom” on HBO. However, it’s Daniels’ love of music and songwriting that brings him back to town for an 8 p.m. performance Thursday night at City Winery Chicago, 1200 W. Randolph.
Daniels’ tour is in support of his new album, “Days Like These,” and will feature the actor-singer-songwriter performing with his son Ben Daniels‘ band.
Working with his son is something Daniels called a “life highlight” when we chatted recently on the phone while the entertainer was on the road in New England.
“I knew I can do the solo performance thing — I’ve been doing that forever. But I needed a band and thought, ‘My son has a band. I wonder if that can work?’
“I was very aware of what Jeff Tweedy [of Wilco] had done with his son — and that was amazing.”
Daniels explained that he ran into Tweedy when they both appeared on Stephen Colbert’s final show on Comedy Central. “I had never met him before,” said Daniels about Tweedy. “But I sat with him and we talked about that father-son musical thing and how he shared how great it was for him.”
Daniels stressed that the Ben Daniels Band is not just a show opener for him but an integral part of the whole evening. “It’s not like they come out and merely open for me. It’s a full-blown, everybody’s participating thing from the get-go. I think it works and is entertaining and is a great time.”
Music has long been a big part of Jeff Daniels’ life, and a big part of it is the songwriting aspect. “It was there in the ’70s when I went to Circle Rep [Theater in New York] and started hanging around living, breathing playwrights like Lanford Wilson, who was always rewriting his second act and working on his next idea. I fell in love with that whole process,” added Daniels, who said he would go back to his apartment and simply start writing songs. “I learned from all those writers I knew back then about imagery and the care for the words.
“Later on, as I got better on the guitar, I was inspired by people like Steve Goodman and John Prine, Lyle Lovett and so many others.”
Initially, the concept of touring and doing the musical gigs was to raise funds for his beloved Purple Rose Theatre in his hometown of Chelsea, Michigan — where Daniels still lives. That process eventually turned into the creation of six albums and a number of U.S. tours that have taken him coast to coast.
Daniels’ voice really becomes enthusiastic as he describes his theater company, which will enter its 25th season this coming fall. “It’s a lot different than running a theater in Chicago, where you have a lot more rooftops,” Daniels quipped. “I think it’s great that we’re able to attract people to see professional theater in a little town an hour outside of Detroit. … The Chamber of Commerce sure loves our theater company. I do know that! We get 40,000 people a year walking through our town who are buying tickets.
“As I tell the chamber, that’s 40,000 wallets and purses walking around, looking in the shop windows, spending money in stores and restaurants around town. It’s a good thing.”
Since our conversation took place in the midst of Hollywood’s “award season,” I had to ask Daniels his take on that whole process — something he’s been part of for both his TV and film work, as well as the Broadway stage, where he was Tony-nominated for best actor in a play for “God of Carnage” in 2009.
“The way I see it, [award season] is a celebration of a lot of great work, which is not what it’s designed for, or what people turn in to watch for. They tune in for a competition. Somebody wins and the rest of the people lose. Yes, if you win, good things usually happen. Your price as an actor goes up. In the case of me, you get an Emmy and that means a lot.
“But when you’re in the room, and you’re looking around at all of those people that have done great work — and you’re part of that — you just feel grateful to be IN that room and with those people. Yes, somebody wins and somebody makes a speech, but it doesn’t take away anything from the fact that you were in that room for that particular year, for having done great work.
“I think that’s the way most of the actors look at it.”
Speaking of his Emmy for best actor in a TV drama series for “The Newsroom,” I asked Daniels what it was like to work with the show’s creator and writer Aaron Sorkin.
“For me it was like working with a Woody Allen or a Preston Sturges or a Paddy Chayefsky. The writer’s not only on the page of your script. The writer’s actually in the room — in the scene with you. When you read a novel you feel that way. I like that. I like knowing that intimacy with a writer who is invested in your work as you are.”