Like a musician, a talented actor can change beats when the melody calls for it. Jeff Daniels has made that skill a hallmark of his career.
The veteran actor plays the wickedly smart Will McAvoy in “The Newsroom” on HBO, as well as the thick-headed sidekick of Jim Carrey in “Dumb and Dumber.”
In 2013, Daniels won an Emmy for his role on “The Newsroom.” Two days later he was on set with Carrey to film the sequel to “Dumb and Dumber.”
“On Tuesday morning I was showing butt crack on ‘Dumb and Dumber’ and Jim Carrey stood over me (and said) ‘This man just won an Emmy.’ That’s what I call range,” Daniels said in a phone interview from Pennsylvania.
Beat changes come natural to Daniels. When the in-demand actor is not in front of the camera, he’s touring the country as a singer-songwriter of Americana music.
That side career has him coming to the Pantages Theater on Wednesday to perform with his son, Ben Daniels.
The father-son tour is a recent collaboration for the pair. Before then, Daniels was playing solo or as part of a trio. But in 2014 Daniels realized that some of his music required a larger band.
At first he considered putting together what he calls a “Viagra band” (it’s an age reference), but instead settled on one that’s a generation younger. “Wait a minute! I know a band,” Daniels recalled.
Though Daniels performs with the Ben Daniels Band (which includes Ben’s wife, Amanda), the band performs its own set of music in the middle of the show.
It was Daniels who taught his son, now 30, to play the guitar 11 years ago.
“The whole father-son dynamic is a theme throughout the show,” he said.
Occasionally diverting to blues, rock and jazz, Daniels’ music is heartfelt and often humor-infused. His singing style comes from what he said were his beginnings in high school musicals.
“The lyrics are clear, the singing is clear, the diction is clear. There’s a blues influence at times, but there’s also Lyle Lovett, Steve Goodman, John Prine, John Hiatt. The writers.”
Earlier in his songwriting career, Daniels addressed the elephant in the room: actors who become singers, often with cringe-inducing results. In “If William Shatner can, I can too,” Daniels name checks actors who parlayed their notoriety into ill-advised singing careers.
“It’s usually a train wreck when we do this,” Daniels said.
It’s acting, of course, that has made Daniels a household name.
Daniels quickly references the major breaks in his career: “Terms of Endearment,” “Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Dumb and Dumber” — all of which have changed the direction of his career. In between those films, there was “Arachnophobia,” “Fly Away Home,” “The Squid and the Whale” and dozens of others.
In 1978, just before his film career began, Daniels debuted in the stage drama “The Fifth of July,” with William Hurt. He later reprised the role with Christopher Reeve. The experience still affects his career today.
“Artistically, to be around (director) Marshall Mason and (playwright) Lanford Wilson that much, that’s still paying off for me today with the Purple Rose (theater) and play writing,” Daniels said.
In 1991, Daniels founded The Purple Rose Theatre Co. in his hometown of Chelsea, Michigan. The theater operates today with little input from Daniels. He never intended it to be a vanity theater.
“It was built to showcase other people,” Daniels said. “It wasn’t built for me to play King Lear and direct and write every play. I get enough stardom thrown in my face.”
Indeed he does. In the past month Daniels has had supporting roles in two much-heralded Hollywood releases, “The Martian” with Matt Damon and “Steve Jobs” with Michael Fassbender.
Daniels relishes the challenges of tackling characters that bear little resemblance to one another.
“Each new character is a new character. You do not recycle,” he said. “You’re not playing to an image or a brand that is so often asked of you out in Hollywood. It just keeps me interested. Can I pull off ‘Dumb and Dumber’ between seasons 2 and 3 of ‘The Newsroom’?”
Daniels has worked with a who’s who of directors: James L. Brooks, Mike Nichols, Frank Marshall, the Farrelly brothers, Danny Boyle, Sam Mendes, Barry Sonnenfeld, Clint Eastwood and now Ridley Scott.
“That’s part of the fun. When you work with Woody, or Robert Altman or Johnathan Demme and others, you get to see inside their imagination. I love that perk,” Daniels said.
But it’s Woody Allen, the writer/director of “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” who might have left the biggest impression.
“It’s one thing to go into a Woody Allen movie. It’s another thing to come out the other end of it successful,” Daniels said.
By the time Daniels decided to make his own film, 2001’s “Escanaba in da Moonlight,” he had an appreciation for all the planning and organization it takes before the cameras start rolling.
“I made sure, as a first-time director on ‘Escanaba’, that I was as prepared as those guys were,” Daniels said.
“Escanaba” is a raucous comedy that also serves as a love letter to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with its themes of family, ritual and tradition.
“There’s a lot of that up there, whether it’s deer hunting or fly fishing,” Daniels said.
The movie and the play that preceded it were inspired by “Dumb and Dumber,” Daniels said.
When the 1994 goofball comedy about two incredibly stupid pals came out, Daniels was amazed by the intergenerational laughter it spawned.
“I wanted those people in my theater,” he recalled. “I wanted to write something that they can relate to, that will make them laugh so hard they’ll cry. Certainly, that fart sequence does that.”
The “fart sequence” in “Escanaba” might be one of the funniest placed on film. It’s also long.
“I tried to write a sequence that out-Mel Brooksed Mel Brooks in ‘Blazing Saddles.’ ”
Lately, Daniels has taken on characters of power and how that power is taken, challenged and lost.
In the Aaron Sorkin-scripted biopic on Steve Jobs, the Apple computer co-founder, Daniels plays chief executive officer John Sculley, who was later forced out of the company. Daniels met with him prior to filming.
“There were some things that popped up while talking to him that I was able to incorporate into it. It’s a bit of a tragedy for him because he and Steve never reconciled,” Daniels said.
Like Sorkin’s “Newsroom,” the dialogue in “Steve Jobs” moves at a rapid-fire pace.
“I have been through the demands and challenges of Aaron’s dialogue. I was pleased to see how much work Michael (Fassbender) and Seth (Rogen) put in to get on top of those words,” Daniels said.
Sorkin’s dialogue — a ticker tape of witticism, facts and comebacks delivered without pause — might seem unrealistic to some but not to Daniels.
“It’s absolutely realistic,” Daniels said but added, “It is a little stylized. Aaron is in every scene that he writes. And I like that.”
Though “Steve Jobs” has pulled in $15.6 million as of Thursday, according to Box Office Mojo, it pales to the $186.8 million worldwide that “The Martian” has made.
Daniels plays NASA chief Teddy Sanders in the story about an astronaut stranded on Mars.
“It’s Matt Damon’s movie,” Daniels said. “He made the guy so accessible, so likeable. We lived this movie through him. He does a masterful job. The rest of us are just supporting his performance.”
Yes, but only Daniels can say he’s the actor who has been in both “The Martian” and “My Favorite Martian.”
“I guess I am,” he said with a laugh when that fact is pointed out to him.