Volume 75, Number 20 | October 05 - 11, 2005

Photo by Samuel Goldwyn Films

“The Squid and the Whale,” starring Jeff Daniels, opens October 5 at the Angelika (angelikafilmcenter.com).

A new role for Jeff Daniels: the macho intellectual

By Rania Richardson
Hailed as one of the best films at this year’s New York Film Festival, “The Squid and the Whale” is a dramatic comedy that revolves around a divorcing couple and their two adolescent sons in 1980s Brooklyn. Writer/director Noah Baumbach, son of former “Village Voice” film critic Georgia Brown and writer Jonathan Baumbach, fictionalizes the true story of his family’s breakdown in an emotionally candid story.

The film is bringing fresh attention to Jeff Daniels in his vivid portrayal of the self-absorbed patriarch Bernard Berkman, a man who sees himself as a victim in marriage and a talent too superior to be fully appreciated. Well known as the movie star who steps out of the movie screen in “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and the dim-witted partner of equally moronic Jim Carrey in “Dumb & Dumber,” Daniels has a likeability that makes Berkman’s arrogance palatable on screen. “He enters this role with authority and completely meshes with the character,” says Richard Peña, chairman of the New York Film Festival selection committee. He plays a new type of character, an urban man who blends machismo with intellectuality.

I recently sat down with Daniels to briefly discuss his role as Bernard Berkman, his parallel career in theater, Michigan and New York.

The Villager: What attracted you to “The Squid and the Whale”?

Jeff Daniels: The script was smart and it was a great role. Laura Linney [playing wife Joan Berkman] was [another] good reason. My agent said, “You can steal this. They’re having trouble casting the male lead.” So I flew to New York and I met with Noah. He believed in me and thought there was something in me that was untapped.

TV: What did you learn from meeting Jonathan Baumbach in preparation for the role?

JD: I really wanted to try to figure out how he thought. I write plays for my theater company [Purple Rose of Cairo Theatre Company in Chelsea, Michigan], so I understand the writer’s mind. I was trying to pick his brain about his writing process and how absorbed he becomes when he’s writing. That seemed to be part of why the character— which is only loosely based on Jonathan— went so deep into himself, oblivious to how he’s perceived.

I went back and did an impression of Jonathan, but it wasn’t working, so I had to personalize it. I have a lot of friends who make 20 million a movie and have gotten awards and yet another nomination, yet another Emmy award, and I haven’t. I don’t brood about it, it’s just there. I moved to Michigan and put family first, career second. So being underappreciated in comparison to others, I just kind of poured gasoline on that and lit it. And out came Bernard.

TV: Why does your character hesitate and then get involved with his student?

JD: There’s pain and there’s hurt there. He feels betrayed by Joan. He considers himself a victim. He did everything he could to make the marriage work. This is not his fault. So near the end of the movie, he makes a play, to try again, but the Joan thing isn’t going to happen. Then comes a student so, ‘I’m going to have this little dalliance, but I’m your teacher and this is wrong.’ He knows it’s over before he starts it.

TV: Before you settled back in Michigan, you lived here in New York?

JD: I moved here September 1, 1976, I came through the Holland Tunnel at 2 PM that afternoon and that’s an anniversary I celebrate religiously. I was 21, and I became a professional actor when I drove through that tunnel. I lived initially with Marshall Mason, the artistic director of Circle Rep. Then I moved right next to the Hotel Chelsea. I literally lived on the 10th floor and looked out and saw them carry Sid Vicious out. I was very active and involved with the [former] Circle Repertory Theater in Sheridan Square.

TV: A recent “New York Times” profile suggested that you are “becoming restless with the Midwest.”

JD: Oh, there’s truth behind that. [Laughing.] I love where I live. I have a theater company and that’s not going away. But in another three years the kids will all be in college or out of it. I’m not restless so much as thinking, great, I can finally say yes to a six month or nine month contract on Broadway. I’ll always love to go back to Michigan, though. It’s home.

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