Daniels' theater company is in Michigan, where he produces his own plays, writing specifically for the ensemble he's put together, as well as for the audience he's developed. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson gives his plays an opening run at the Purple Rose. Book of Days began there before moving to the St. Louis Repertory Theatre and, eventually, to Broadway. Daniels' career began off-Broadway with the Circle Repertory Company, where Wilson was principal playwright and actors such as William Hurt and Christopher Reeve honed their craft in the 1970s.
For now, Daniels is drawn to his home locale for his films. "Whether it's a drier sense of humor," he says, further considering a definition of Midwestern, "I don't know. It's interesting. I watched About Schmidt[written and directed by Nebraskan Alexander Payne]. The guys that sit there and go, 'Hey, how about this weather? Is it hot enough for you?' It exists. [About Schmidt] was loaded with that, and it still felt like outside looking in at us.
There is a Midwestern sensibility, Jeff Daniels contends, "and I don't know what it is. It's this lifelong quest to try to pinpoint it."
"It's in my plays. It's in Super Sucker. It's kind of inside out. We're in the middle of it. There is a guy who's nuts: the Amway salesman on crack, like Fred [Barlow]. I talked to him. Whether they can understand that on both coasts, or whether they understand it more here; whether we're more open to heightened characters, I don't know. I don't know."
"But I do know we get the jokes," Daniels says with Midwestern indignation. "New York doesn't think we get the jokes. We get the jokes -- and they don't all have to be about Newark."
But they don't all have to be about vacuum cleaners as sex toys, either.
Over the years, Daniels has worked with exceptional directors, and he alludes to a few whom he's watched and learned from -- Woody Allen, Jonathan Demme, Clint Eastwood -- as well as those of his own generation who have chosen to take control of their films. "Stanley Tucci -- I got to meet Stanley about three or four months ago. Big Night was an influence: Here he is writing, acting, directing. Tim Robbins did it with Bob Roberts."
Daniels mentions a role model from another Hollywood era, the great writer/director Preston Sturges. Daniels says Hollywood, and the indie scene as well, cares more about "serious" films -- those are the ones that win the Oscars. But, he says, "I know it's not taken seriously and I know it's not important, but there are people out there that love to laugh. I like being one of the guys that can do that."
For a moment, Daniels sounds just like one of Sturges' characters, as in Sullivan's Travels. Sturges, another Midwesterner, created stories and characters that were both complex and funny, outrageously so. He made 'em laugh from coast to coast.