Jeff Daniels phones from his car in Michigan. He’s not there to film (though he did just dub some voice-over tracks for “The Newsroom,” the HBO series that garnered him his first Emmy nomination for portraying prickly newsman Will McAvoy). He lives there, full time. It was a choice he made early in his career, to raise his kids in the state where he grew up rather than among the Hollywood crowd. That kind of Midwestern pragmatism makes sense to Daniels: This way he gets to be the father he wants to be, the actor the jobs let him be and, on occasion, an enthusiastic guitarist and golfer.
Actors often focus in on a genre or medium, but you do just about everything. Is there a master plan?
I just didn’t see a brand for me. I saw that if you want to live in a part of the country where we don’t make movies, and you want to stay in the business, you have to create range. I thought if I created as wide a range as possible, I’d be able to live in the Midwest and raise my kids and still be in the business. That translated into more jobs and a career, and then you do a “Dumb and Dumber.”
So “Dumb” was actually quite a smart move in 1994.
I always felt comedy was the equal of drama, and I felt it could create range. It was always about, “Where’s the most interesting role? Where’s something I could absolutely fail at?” I’d say yes to that.
Yet there’s not much TV on your résumé; “Newsroom” is your first series. What changed?
I was of the era when Dustin [Hoffman] and [Robert] De Niro and all of those actors never even did [“The Tonight Show” with Johnny] Carson — forget what we have to do now. And to do television? A series? That was a secondary career move. There was also the seven-year contract, and what was more important to me when we moved to Michigan is that I had young kids, and if the show hits, you’re uprooting your family to live in California. So I stayed in indies, played supporting roles, made single projects, and now that the kids are in their 20s and the movie career has slowed down, you think, “I’d like to do something other than play the [jerk of a] father.” And there’s no drop-off now; cable television is the place to be.
Your late father was once mayor of the town where you grew up. Did you learn anything from him about politics, or how to be political?
My dad would have been very close to what Will is: a moderate Republican who probably believes left of center on more than one issue. He was a good businessman, but he did things that Republicans didn’t do, so that interested me. As Will started going along, and it was established that he was a moderate Republican, Dad was someone whose ideas I could fall back on.
Since taking on Will, do you find people treat you differently?
A little bit. I’ve got to weather guys who tell me everything that is wrong about “The Newsroom,” how it’s just a one-sided liberal fantasy. It’s hard to talk to those guys because they have all the answers. I’ve done interviews where I’ve had to remind people I play a fictional character. My opinion isn’t relevant.
How does this compare to when you made “Dumb”? Did you have to prove you weren’t an idiot like Harry then?
Well, now they’re completely confused. Because we’re doing the sequel [to “Dumb and Dumber”] finally, and they don’t know what to make of it. Because of the intellectual free-fall it’s going to take to go from Will to Harry, people are starting to think about a lifetime achievement award for me just based on that range. It’s fun to watch them catch up to the idea that the guy can do more than one thing.
What show would you guest-star on if you had the chance?
“There’s a show called ‘Epic RVs.’ I just came across it a week ago. They take old RVs and gut them and put, like, I don’t know, hot tubs in them. I have an RV — it’s a weird subculture I’m a part of. It’s like ‘Pimp My Ride’ but for senior citizens.”