His face is familiar to anyone with a ticket to the movies or a VCR, but Hollywood isn’t his home. Wearing jeans and a cap, Jeff Daniels sits on a worn couch in a space that triples as green room and partitioned offices for the Purple Rose Theatre, which he founded in 1991 in Chelsea, Mich.
Daniels grew up in this rural village, 56 miles west of Detroit, population 3,772. He might have stayed to work in his dad’s company, Chelsea Lumber, cutting wood. He might have been an English teacher. And those who knew his work at the Civic Theatre knew the kid could act. Jan Koengeter, who played Aunt Ella to his Judd in a 1975 community theatre production of Oklahoma!, recalls “the intensity of his gaze made the hairs on my arms stand up.”
First east, then westOrder now
But when Marshall Mason came to nearby Eastern Michigan University to direct one summer and cast Daniels in several student productions, Daniels made up his mind. Heading out from Chelsea’s quiet streets, he followed Mason to New York and the Circle Repertory Company, and stayed for nine years. At Circle Rep, he cleaned toilets, ran light and sound boards, helped with marketing and house-managed, earning the title “bouncer” because “I was pissed off at latecomers.” When he wasn’t tearing tickets, he got on the stage, too, eventually garnering praise for his leading role in Lanford Wilson’s The Fifth of July.
Then he went west. In 1984, when Woody Allen praised his work halfway through filming The Purple Rose of Cairo, his theatre’s namesake, Daniels realized he had reached a turning point. “I turned a corner and for the first time, I thought I’d make a living doing this.”
He makes that living by commuting to work across two thirds of the country. In 1986, Daniels and his wife Kathleen, another graduate of Chelsea High, moved home with their three children. Missing the creative atmosphere he’d known on both coasts, and wanting to “give back” to his community and “help people who didn’t get the breaks I did,” Daniels decided to open a professional theatre in Chelsea.
So he spent $300,000 on a vacant pizza parlor that had earlier incarnations as a bus garage and an auto dealership. His friend Bart Bower, a kitchen designer at Chelsea Lumber, turned it into a 48–by 52–foot theatre that seats 115. “There’s a lot Jeff gives that’s unaccounted for,” says Bower, “like the cottage he bought to put up actors.”
Daniels sometimes uses out-of-town talent, hoping that local actors can learn from sharing the stage with more experienced professionals. But he has no patience with out-of-town attitudes: He rejects prima donnas and scorns pretensions. “Check your ego at the door, or we won’t cast you,” he advises. “We discourage self-indulgent behavior and non-ensemble attitudes. They call me ‘the hammer.'”
As executive director, Daniels is a jack-of-all-trades, chairing board meetings, speaking to arts funding organizations, and painting the place when needed. “I’m just an actor, kid,” he says.
Not quite. The Purple Rose, much like Circle Rep, is committed to developing new play-wrights, and Daniels, who wrote stories in second grade and plays in high-school, is one of them. But this movie star turned theatre producer gets no special treatment. Like any hopeful playwright, he must submit scripts to T. Newell Kring, the theatre’s artistic director. “I turned one down,” Kring notes. “When he comes in as the playwright, he’s the palywright. When he thinks his work is finished and we still have problems with a scene, he scowls for an hour, then goes home and comes back with a whole new scene.”
Daniels and Kring reject plays with New York references their audience won’t get. Daniels’s work has a tri-state humor of its own, pitched directly at the crowd from Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. His first play, Shoe Man, about adultery and golf in a small town much like Chelsea, will be done next year by Florida’s Pope Theatre Company. Last summer, Daniels wrote a crowd-pleasing, laugh-a-minute farce about an ill-fated dinner party, called Tropical Pickle. His latest is The Vast Difference, about a man’s ambivalence about a forthcoming vasectomy and the changing roles of men in America. Daniels, who sometimes holes up in a Winnebago on a movie shoot to write, is currently at work on a play for next season and co-authoring a screenplay to be filmed in Michigan with local talent.
Although he hasn’t yet acted at the Purple Rose, he hints, “If I were to go on stage again, I don’t plan on going back to New York.” Disenchanted by the reception of the Broadway production of Lanford Wilson’s Redwood Curtain, which he starred in, and disillusioned by “a Tony style of acting that cheats to the center section row G for every punch line,” he’d rather work at a place that favors the more intimate, filmic style he picked up at Circle Rep. “If actors stay in the play, audiences get sucked into it.”
What a movie star has wrought
Even though Daniels thinks “producer is a four-letter word,” three seasons at the Purple Rose have helped him begin to understand the pressures. Recently, he learned how to fire an actor: “straight out.” And he’s given some thought to balancing a season: “It’s kind of like asparagus. Some people don’t like it and won’t eat it. You can’t give them four productions of it.”
The Michigan town that Daniels calls home is changing around him and because of him. Local stores stay open later now that there’s a theatre nearby, and more restaurants have opened down on Main Street for the people who come from all over southeast Michigan to see what this movie star has wrought.
This self-described “Michigan actor who makes movies” appreciates his celebrity because it helps fill his theatre and get him the roles he wants. But he doesn’t let it go to his head.
Jeff Daniels is just a playwright-producer, kid.