“I’m recovering,” says actor Jeff Daniels, responding to this reporter’s perfunctory, “How are you?” “It’s a show from which someone needs to recover.”
Daniels had just completed the first three previews of Blackbird, the wrenching drama by Scottish playwright David Harrower. He stars opposite Michelle Williams, who plays a young woman named Una who seeks out and confronts the much-older man, Ray, who sexually abused her when she was 12.
Daniels knows the kind of toll Blackbird can take on a guy. He portrayed Ray when the play had its New York premiere Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2007. His co-star in that much-lauded production was Alison Pill.
“Even back then, Alison and I thought, ‘How are we going to sustain this?’” remembers Daniels. “They were talking about moving it uptown. We looked at each other and wondered, ‘How are we going to do this another night, let alone move it to Broadway?’”
At the end of the Off-Broadway run, Daniels was so tense that, even though he’s “not a big fan of people touching me,” he submitted his wound-up flesh to a massage. “The masseuse said ‘Jesus, it’s like you’ve got cement back there,’” he recalls.
So why return to a role that has the potential to flatten you eight times a week?
“Having done God of Carnage and The Newsroom, I’m a better actor now than I was then,” explains Daniels. “There were certain things that weren’t landing for me the first time that are landing now.”
Joe Mantello, who was the director of the MTC staging, returns to the helm for the Broadway debut. Daniels credits him with deepening the interpretation of the play this time around.
“Joe likens it to a boxing match,” says Daniels. “And the punches we throw hit harder now. They hurt.”
Having worked with Mantello previously on the play, according to Daniels, has allowed the artistic team the luxury of devoting extra time to focus on Williams. “In a way it’s a luxury for her,” he says. “Most of the rehearsal time is spent on her, and I come in as something for her and Joe to bounce off of.”
That said, Daniels made it clear that his Broadway performance won’t be a repeat of his previous work Off-Broadway. “I can’t and won’t do what I did before. Circle Rep taught us that acting is reacting,” he says, citing the legendary Off-Broadway troupe where he cut his teeth as a stage actor.
“Your performance is in her and your reactions to her,” he continues. “Blackbird has to be the two of us banging each other around and reacting. It’s a great play to take what I learned at Circle Rep. It’s just us up there. You people just happen to be watching these two people in a room.”
Williams was always the production’s first choice to play Una, Daniels attests. Luckily, she was up for the challenge. Others weren’t. “There are a couple name actresses who said ‘I want to work, but I don’t want [to work] that hard,’” Daniels says. “It ain’t Barefoot in the Park.”
Daniels’ first go-round with Blackbird came at a critical juncture in his career. After a run of popular and critically-praised performances in classic 1980s films like Terms of Endearment, Something Wild and The Purple Rose of Cairo, as well as an uncharacteristic turn in the hit 1994 Jim Carrey comedy Dumb and Dumber, his career fell into a fallow period.
“It was at a time when I wanted to be challenged,” he says of the moment when Blackbird crossed his desk. “The film roles would come around, but they weren’t very challenging. And I read Blackbird and I didn’t know how to pull this off. I said yes right away.”
He was nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award for his efforts. Just prior to that success, he enjoyed one of his best-received film performances in years, playing a pompous divorced New York novelist in director Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and The Whale. In 2009, he returned to Broadway for the first time in 15 years as part of the all-star ensemble in Yasmina Reza’s smash domestic comedy-drama God of Carnage. It netted him his only Tony Award nomination to date.
Beginning in 2012, he starred as the principled news anchor Will McAvoy in the Aaron Sorkin series The Newsroom, a part that won him an Emmy Award. In 2015, he was featured in two high-profile films, The Martian and Steve Jobs.
Blackbird stands out in a Broadway where three-quarters of the theatres are occupied by musicals and other feel-good entertainments. But Daniels believes the play has a place in Times Square.
“Great drama is great drama,” he insists. “Broadway should do plays as challenging as Blackbird. We walk on and grab you, and we don’t let go for the whole length of the play. It’s unusual what Harrower has done here in keeping that tension up. You’ve got to love drama, in-your-face drama.”
You’ve got to love it as an actor, as well, and it’s clear that Daniels does—despite his daily need for a recovery room.
“It’s almost like starting over as an actor. It’s like risking failure. There’s no phoning Blackbird in.”