Being underappreciated pays off
Seattle Times movie critic
Actors deal in shades of gray, even with unsympathetic characters. It's easy — and not very interesting — to play a mustache-twirling villain; it's far more challenging to find humanity in someone who, quite simply, isn't a very nice guy. To play Bernard Berkman, a self-involved professor and writer who drags his children through a miserable divorce, Jeff Daniels had to look within and find some unexpected common ground.
In Noah Baumbach's semiautobiographical "The Squid and the Whale," opening today at the Varsity and Uptown, Bernard has a bitterness that he makes little effort to conceal — and which Daniels found, surprisingly, that he could understand. "I have a lot of friends who have been nominated, who have won awards, made $20 million a movie. And I haven't," said the actor, in an interview earlier this fall in Toronto. "So Bernard feeling underappreciated, I could relate."
"Actors learn to use themselves, however ugly that might be."
The affable star and dependable supporting player in numerous films over the past 25 years undertook an initially rocky journey to play this character, a man who signs "Best wishes" in a book inscribed to his own son and who constantly talks of his book and his own brilliance. Though Baumbach is reluctant to describe Bernard as a realistic description of his father — "I just think of [the film] as fiction that comes out of a lot of familiar areas," the writer/director said in an interview — the character is loosely based on writer Jonathan Baumbach.
After spending a little time with Jonathan, Daniels found himself imitating the writer in rehearsal. "I started doing an impression of him, and it was false, it was contrived," remembered Daniels. "I said, this is wrong. I've got to personalize it."
Daniels thought about how to connect with the role and realized they shared sense of underappreciation. Another key note was that Daniels, a playwright who founded the Purple Rose Theater Company in Chelsea, Mich., in 1991, felt that he understood a writer's mind. "When I'm writing a play, if I'm not talking about my play, I'm thinking about it," he said. "But subsequently, I've learned to not even talk about it, to leave it in the office and be a father and a husband. But Bernard never understood that. His novel was on his mind, it was all he wanted to talk about."
In his long film career, Daniels, now 50, never quite maintained the early fame he found in two key roles in the mid-'80s: Debra Winger's unfaithful husband in "Terms of Endearment" and the more lovable adventurer Gil Baxter, who walks off a movie screen and into Mia Farrow's heart in Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo." But he turns up regularly on screen (he's also in the current film "Good Night, and Good Luck," in a supporting role), and has done fine work in films as varied as "The Hours," "Dumb and Dumber" and the little-seen indie "Chasing Sleep."
Looking back, Daniels singles out the "Purple Rose" role as a key one in his career; if pressed to name a favorite role, he said, that would be the one. "Halfway through that movie, Woody told me I was good. For a young actor, that's what you need. From that moment on, I knew I was going to make a living."
There's an ironic coda to playing the role of Bernard, a character obsessed with recognition: It just might lead to the biggest recognition of Daniels' career. In a season ripe with star turns from actors never on the A-list — David Strathairn in "Good Night, and Good Luck," Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Capote" — Daniels' bold, honest performance (in which he never apologizes for Bernard's behavior, or gives in to temptation to make him more likable) could well be remembered at Oscar time.
But he's no Hollywood star. Daniels still lives in his hometown of Chelsea, with his wife and children, and relishes his role as executive director of the Purple Rose, where his latest play, "Guest Artist," will premiere later this winter.
The play is, he says, "my angry look at the state of the American theater right now." Daniels speaks passionately on the lack of support given to new American playwrights and on theater's excessive dependence on the classics. "I think that the country right now is scared, and fearful, and all we want to be is safe. We don't want to be disturbed, we don't want to be challenged, we want to feel safe. That's seeped into the arts. A lot of ["Guest Artist"] deals with that."
While his first love is the theater, Daniels looks forward to more film roles. The process of finding a character is the same, he says, whether on stage or screen, drama or comedy. "It's the approach and the research, whatever you need to get there," he said, "whether it's day one of shooting or 8 o'clock at night on a stage somewhere. It doesn't change for comedy or drama. You're creating someone else who doesn't think he's funny, if it's a comedy. Certainly Bernard can be very funny, but he has no idea he's funny."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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