Jeff Daniels has an Emmy on the shelf for The Newsroom, which just kicked off its final season on HBO, he’s appeared in more than 50 films (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Gettysburg, Speed, The Hours) and he’s worked with directors like Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen and George Clooney.
Yet he says he’s most recognized for, you guessed it, 1994’s Dumb & Dumber, playing dimwit Harry opposite Jim Carrey’s equally thick Lloyd. Twenty years later, the Farrellys have brought the duo back for Dumb and Dumber To, opening this weekend.
We caught up with Daniels to ask about comedy and drama, TV and movies, and what music has taught him…
“The scary thing is, in this new movie we’re doing stuff that makes the toilet scene look kind of lame. The Farrellys have topped that, I’m not kidding.”
How did the Farrellys hook you and Jim Carrey back up to reprise your Harry and Lloyd roles?
Basically, they said, ‘We’ll now show them as middle-aged guys but they’re still that stupid.’ In fact, 20 years on, they still have a combined intelligence quotient of not much over zero! The thing about the Farrelly brothers is that there’s no meanness to it. These two dimwits are just oblivious, and we start from there.
Over the intervening period, was there a scene fans would always ask you about from the original?
There are a few of them but [mostly] the toilet scene where Harry finds that Mary’s toilet is broken, only after he’s taken a major laxative-induced dump. I remember thinking, OK, this is either the beginning of my career or the end of it! But Peter was going, “No, man this is going to be great.” And, it was. A few years after, I met Clint Eastwood, and he tells me that scene actually happened to him when he was on a date and ate some bad shellfish. So, Dirty Harry’s favorite scene is the toilet one! Who knew?
Are we in for another laughfest?
The scary thing is, in this new movie we’re doing stuff that makes the toilet scene look kind of lame. The Farrellys have topped that, I’m not kidding. You never know in this business, but you’d think this would be a slam dunk, right? Anyway, we had a blast, and I like our chances with the Farrellys. We threw everything we had at it!
How was it working with your pal Jim Carrey again, especially coming from the heavy drama of The Newsroom?
You know, it was surprisingly smooth. I just had to “dump” it all at the door. You go from portraying big news issues, saying Aaron Sorkin’s superb dialogue in The Newsroom, and slide back into Harry. Jim, who I consider a comedic genius, and I had a great time working together again. It was a thrill to be around his energy. It also helped that we knew each other, and on set that really showed when one or the other would help making a joke or line work. We were able to create the right setup for each other. And, it doesn’t always work out that way.
What’s the difference doing drama and comedy?
You can get away with more in drama. Comedy is harder to do, as you have to hit a smaller target. To look up into the lights and be funny, that’s challenging. And then to be funny without being caught being funny is even harder. I love the challenge but I like being someone who can do both, and it’s fun to go back and forth.
You’d never worked on a television series before The Newsroom. What was the challenge?
The TV series thing is fascinating. You don’t know what happens from week to week. You find out when the script lands on your desk and you do a table read. But it was like Christmas, every two weeks. There’s so much good work going on in television now, so many great performances, so many actors and writers flocking to television. It’s been a great time to be in television, especially on the cable end of things, because of the freedom that you have. It’s an exciting time to be an actor. I’m lucky.
Aaron Sorkin won an Oscar for his rapid-fire Social Network script. How was it working with his words?
There’s a music to it. There’s a rhythm to Aaron, like to Neil Simon and David Mamet, or way back to Shakespeare. Once you find the rhythm, it becomes easier to learn, easier to retain and when you can get on top of it, then it becomes like singing a song—a very good song in The Newsroom’s case.
Sorkin has said that he wanted to end the series “on a high note, on a romantic note.” Have you achieved it?
In Aaron’s vision, as a news network, we’ve been constantly battling to get it right—to tell viewers something that no one else is telling you and be accurate, yet not succumb to ratings. That’s the battle all the real guys do. For this final season, Aaron really wanted to make it the best season yet. So there was no let-up. I like our chances for it being a really good season.
Apart from acting, you’ve also been playing music for more than 30 years, and you’ve released five records. What have you learned from this different art form?
Playing guitar has always been this kind of consistent creative outlet for me, especially when I was younger, and [when] you’re waiting in between phone calls for someone to decide when it’s OK for you to be creative again, you can go nuts. Also, as a singer/songwriter, you’re everything—the writer, performer, editor. It’s not the same in movies or television when you’re in the service of others. With music, you also don’t have to wait for the phone to ring.
What did you take from performing and touring with your son and his Ben Daniels Band during this past summer?
Right off the top, to be a father and have one of your children in their twenties who wants to talk to you is a good thing. Let alone stand on a stage and play music with you. It was all gold. We had a lot of fun. In the past, I’ve performed a lot solo and sometimes in a trio. But to play with a full-out band was something else to add to my repertoire. Ben’s band can do everything from a Jack White type of thing to Dave Matthews kind of blues. But they also worked around what I do. You’re never too old to learn something new.