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Jeff Daniels brings show business home to small-town Michigan

Early on in his acting career, Jeff Daniels and his wife decided they would take a risk: leave New York and return to the small town of Chelsea, Michigan, to raise their family. There, the TV and movie star built a theater and his own company of actors and technicians, launching an apprenticeship program and commissions for new plays. Daniels gives Jeffrey Brown a tour of the unlikely arts mecca he calls home.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Maybe you can go home again.

    Actor Jeff Daniels did it, and even built his own professional theater company.

    Jeffrey Brown visited Daniels in his Michigan hometown.

  • ACTRESS:

    He’s going to insist that, if you want the part, you either audition together or go home.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In the new play “Casting Session,” two actors vying for the same role, desperate for any role, await their auditions.

    The playwright is Hollywood and Broadway actor Jeff Daniels, who’s known both the highs and lows of his profession.

  • JEFF DANIELS, Actor:

    I have been in this waiting room where you’re just trying to get the next gig, the next job that pays $125 a week, and maybe someone will come and see it and maybe get you a better job, but got to get this one.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That was you?

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    Oh, God, that was me for years.

    The board believes you’re no longer necessary to this company.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    At 60, Daniels is seemingly everywhere now, with major roles in two big new movies, “Steve Jobs.”

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    He’s going to starve to death long before we can help.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And “The Martian.”

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    Good evening. I’m Will McAvoy.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    He won an Emmy two years ago for his starring role as a television news anchor on HBO’s “The Newsroom.”

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    You have been faking for 20 years?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And last year, he reprised his role in the lowbrow comedy “Dumb and Dumber To.”

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    Awesome!

    If you’re going to live in Michigan in the middle of a movie career and try to sustain it, my theory was, you better have range.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You went to Central Michigan?

    Early in his career, Daniels and his wife, Kathleen, made a decision about how they would live their lives.

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    I knew it was a risk. And I had come back for three summers.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A risk because you’re kind of leaving behind…

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    Why aren’t you moving to L.A.? What do you mean? You’re an actor.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. I mean, you’re an actor, right? You got to be in New York or you got to be in L.A.

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    Yes. What do you mean you’re going to Michigan? Why?

    Well, it’s home.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Daniels had grown up in the small rural town of Chelsea, Michigan, about an hour west of Detroit. Its major claim to fame, as home to Jiffy mix muffins.

    A teacher encouraged Daniels to act in high school plays. He left college when he was accepted into an important apprenticeship program at the Circle Rep Theatre in New York, renowned for fostering acting talent and showcasing new American plays.

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    I got to speak to you.

  • ACTRESS:

    You mean me?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    He had some success in films, including, at age 30, in woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo.”

  • But, Daniels says:

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    I didn’t trust it. I never trusted it. I still don’t.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Meaning what? Trust…

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    Meaning, you’re absolutely brilliant, you’re brilliant. Oh, my God, you have changed the way that actors should act. And you start to go…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    People said that?

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    Well, they — but that — there’s no — the extremes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Right, of course, yes.

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    The extreme, not only the highs, but the — you’re over, your career is over. There’s no consistency there. This is consistent.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Right.

    This is the life Daniels created by returning home to Chelsea, raising three children here, and 25 years ago, building his own purple rose, the Purple Rose Theatre.

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    Initially, there were a lot of people going, you know, your theater won’t work. It just won’t work. Nobody’s going to come.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Because it can’t work in a place like this.

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    It can’t work. And it’s just — forget it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    He renovated an old garage that his grandfather had once owned, and was later used for school buses.

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    Wally Grossman’s bus garage.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Wally Grossman.

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    I remember Wally when I was in school here. And he would — he was head of the bus drivers.

  • GUY SANVILLE, Artistic Director, Purple Rose Theatre Company:

    Across from you is someone that hurt you very badly. You have got to forgive them.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Daniels built his own company of actors and technicians from nearby communities, and created a year-long apprenticeship program to train young people.

    Guy Sanville, the artistic director here for 20 years, is another Michigan native who left for New York and came back.

  • GUY SANVILLE:

    New York is a great place. But we wanted to raise our families here. We wanted to be able to put our kids on the bus in the morning when they go to school. And it’s just — it’s a little slower pace, and — but just as rich, I think.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All fine, but to survive, Purple Rose had to build an audience in a small town with no professional theaters and little cultural life.

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    You have to create that. You have to get them to not just go to the plays that have a happy ending. Is it a comedy? OK, it’s not a comedy. When’s the next comedy? All right, I will come to that. And you have to get those people to take a chance once in awhile.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And how’d you do that?

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    With comedy.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    You got to get them in the building. It’s still a sale. Art out here is more often than not a guy who lives north of town. JEFFREY BROWN: But then what happens?

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    Then they go to see Tennessee Williams and they — they get their ears pinned back.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It hasn’t been easy, but 25 years later, Purple Rose is still here, a creative and economic engine in the town.

  • GUY SANVILLE:

    They used to roll up the sidewalks at 6:00 on a Saturday night. Well, now it’s booming. And it’s not just the theater, but the theater has been a great draw. It’s a town of 5,000 people and we draw 40,000 people a year.

  • ACTRESS:

    It’s the role of a lifetime.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The theater commissions new plays from contemporary writers, and Daniels has made himself a playwright. “Casting session” is his 16th play written for Purple Rose.

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    You have got a slide thing on it. Don’t — let’s keep that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    He’s also developed another Michigan-centered piece of his artistic life, as a musician and part of a traveling band.

    It’s a family affair, including his two sons, Ben, a guitarist, and Luke, who serves as manager. We watched the band rehearse in a newly-built studio on what Daniels jokingly calls the family compound.

    The next day, some 150 miles away in Three Oaks, Michigan, they performed at the Acorn Theater, the first gig in a month-long road tour west and back, mostly playing in smaller cities and towns.

    Acting in major films, writing plays, founding his own theater company, and on the road playing music, it began with one big decision made early on to move back home. But nothing about this life, says Daniels, was the slightest bit inevitable.

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    I remember saying goodbye to my dad across the lake. And I remember driving down the road, tears in my eyes, because you’re 21, you’re from a small town. Nobody is an actor from this town.

    And I wish I could jump in that car and tell that 21-year-old, look, you’re going to have some success. It’s going to be great. You’re going to learn a lot. Really not going to happen until your late 50s. So just hang in there. Hang in there.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    For about 35, 40 years, right?

  • JEFF DANIELS:

    Yes. And just be patient. Be patient.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Hang in there and maybe succeed on your own terms.

    From Chelsea, Michigan, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Online, you can watch Jeff Daniels and his band perform an original song, “Wicked World.” That’s at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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