Jeff Daniels had just wrapped a long basketball practice when his high school’s theater director pulled him into the auditorium to audition for a production of the musical South Pacific. The actor grew up in such a small town that the director would try to get her hands on anyone who could carry a tune just to fill the ranks of the cast.
“I went in, and I got up and I auditioned,” Daniels recalls in the latest installment of Rolling Stone’s “The First Time.” “I was just off to the side doing this Jim Carrey-esque dance at the age of 16 and she cracked up and had me do it three more times and then put me in the show. That was the first audition — that one went well.”
The two-time Emmy winner was recently nominated for a best actor Tony for his work in the hit Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. But here, the film veteran also remembers meeting Carrey for the first time and following his comedic lead as they performed the famous Dumb and Dumber hot tub scene at a callback audition. He also talks about working with James Gandolfini on the Broadway play God of Carnage. “What surprises you, because you think Tony Soprano, but what surprised me was the heart,” Daniels says. “The guy had a big heart, a very generous heart.”
Daniels also talks about pouring over Elton John’s famed 1971 live album 17-11-70 as a budding pianist, learning the finer points of film acting from Jack Nicholson while making Terms of Endearment and what it was like to slowly become Atticus Finch over the course of performing in the recent stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. Daniels also remembers the first time he really got in trouble as a kid after refusing to mow the lawn.
“[My mom] came down and I timed her — she chewed me out for one hour and six minutes,” he says. “I still remember. I remember looking over at the clock going, ‘We just passed an hour.’ Still chewing on me. You know, I went out and mowed the lawn, but man! A verbal beating.”