Jeff Daniels is a great jerk

Studio 360
Jeff Daniels

Jeff Daniels arrives on the red carpet for the film "The Martian" during the 40th Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, Canada, September 11, 2015.

Mark Blinch/Reuters

If you’ve seen any of his movies or TV shows, you know Jeff Daniels is great at playing a particular kind of jerk — the almost-likable kind.

From “Terms of Endearment,” to “The Squid and the Whale,” Daniels has a knack for those deeply flawed guys who make terrible mistakes, but somehow convince you that deep down they’re just wounded.

“They're hard. Some roles are real hard to play, they’re complex,” Daniels says. 

So why does Daniels keep coming back to roles portraying jerks? He doesn’t do it because it’s easy. He does it because it’s interesting. 

“They're characters with flaws kind of like us,” Daniels says. “In comparison to some of the squeaky-clean heroes that you might see in a lot of movies — as soon as they have a flaw they, you know, redeem themselves. ... These guys don't. They kind of live with [their flaws] and I just find that interesting.” 

Daniels is currently starring in the Broadway play “Blackbird,” where he plays one of the most challenging and un-likable characters of his career. The role is a man who, at age 40, had sex with his 12-year-old neighbor. Fifteen years later, after Daniels’ character has served time in prison and started over with a new name, the woman, played by Michelle Williams, tracks him down at his office. The play covers what happens over the next couple of hours.

“It ain't a Disney movie,” Daniels says. 

He’s played this character in Blackbird before, back when it was an off-Broadway show many years ago. But Daniels wasn’t satisfied with his performance then. 

“I had thrown what I thought was everything I had at it before,” Daniels says, “And I remember Dustin Hoffman came to see it, and he came backstage and he's very complimentary, but he kind of looked at me and said ‘You know, you under played it didn't you?’ And, you know, from someone of his stature ... that’s his way of saying ‘There's more there.’”

Nine years later, Daniels got the call asking if he’d be willing to take the role on again. 

“My first thought is, you know, as despicable as this play and what this character has done and what you have to go through to get there, to become him, I hadn't gone all the way and I wanted to,” Daniels says. “I've been at this almost 40 years — to maybe learn something new, to maybe fail, to risk failure by going further — that is the reason why you keep going.” 

This is not the first time Daniels has made an unexpected career decision. He doesn’t exactly fit the Hollywood star mold. For starters, he doesn’t even live in Hollywood. He lives in Michigan with the wife he's been with since just after high school. 

“There was always a fatalistic view of this career — I didn't believe it would last. They usually don’t, and I didn't know how to live in Hollywood,” Daniels says. “She's from [Michigan], I’m from there. It just was easier, and then when the career is over, when you get that call ... you're already there. You're already home, you don't have to move.”

The actor credits his attitude toward acting and his career to his early involvement with the New York theater company, Circle Repertory Company, or Circle Rep. 

“It all goes back to Circle Rep. You’re not a star. You’re an actor. We’re going to teach you how to be an actor…we can do that, and you can get better at being an actor your entire life. Why don't you focus on that? And I just stuck to it,” Daniels says. “[Fame] is fleeting. It doesn't last long. You're only as good as your next performance. That's why I came back to Blackbird, you know, you gotta keep challenging yourself because especially now ... you're famous for — forget 15 minutes — 15 seconds. And if you aren't doing something to sustain it so you can continue working, you're going to look up and 10 years ago it was the last good thing you did.”

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.