Anyone who’s seen Jeff Daniels’ juggernaut performance in “Blackbird” wasn’t surprised by the Tony Award nominations, announced May 3. Daniels snapped up a nomination for lead actor in a play, having earned praise from the critics when the show opened in March.
Running at the Belasco Theatre through June 12, the tense drama by David Harrower pits Daniels against Michelle Williams, two former lovers meeting for the first time after many years, hurling out secrets and spite until it quickly becomes clear theirs was no ordinary affair — it occurred when he was 40 and she was 12. Then things really pick up.
Daniels, 61, who won an Emmy for HBO’s “The Newsroom,” has starred in a variety of films, from “The Martian” and “Steve Jobs” to “Terms of Endearment” and the “Dumb and Dumber” films. He and his wife raised three children in Michigan, where he founded his own theater company.
This show has a powerhouse opening — when the two of you burst through that door onto the stage, both clearly tense, freaked out, but we don’t know by what.
Before the show, I pace in this 15-foot area backstage, for about 10 minutes — not only to get my adrenaline and heart rate up, but to get me out of my day, and into the speed of my character. He’s just seen her and he’s . . . like a Times Square neon banner that keeps going around: Whaddayouwant? Whaddayouwant? Whaddayouwant? Whaddayouwant?? What’s in your purse? Does she have a gun? Nobody here knows my real name but her. Who’d she talk to? Scared, scared, scared. Whaddayouwant? You start screaming that in your head. Michelle comes down [from her dressing room]. Then 30 seconds later we go on.
It’s a routine that gets me in his head. Later in the play, when that co-worker calls me into the back office, and I exit — that’s my understudy, Tony Ward. Every night he comes up with an improv.
For that minute you’re offstage in the middle of the play?
About how he saw my personnel folder on the boss’ desk. “I don’t know, I’m just sayin’, it may be a good time to get the résumé in order.” Or “The boss walked by the conference room this afternoon looking for you.”
That Ward fella keeps you on your toes.
With this show, I’ve grown more and learned more as an actor . . . which is pretty good after 40 years.
When you and Michelle take your curtain call, is it tough to stand there as yourselves after all the emotional turmoil?
I asked Michelle about that. I said, do you take it home with you? Does it take till 3 in the morning to get rid of it? She said no. I agreed. It’s like an intense workout. You just wanna . . . go down the street and get a smoothie or something, whatever people do after CrossFit training. Which is healthy. I remember with Alison [Pill, his co-star in the 2007 Off-Broadway version], at the end of that 12-week run we literally talked about getting adjoining rooms at Bellevue. We were battered. I don’t understand why it’s different this time. It’s hard now . . . but it was harder then.
On a different tack, you play a mean guitar. I downloaded some of the tunes you have up on your website.
Well, I’ve enjoyed the songwriting. When I was at Circle Rep in the late ’70s, I was around all these playwrights. Lanford Wilson, in particular. I got fascinated with writing. I thought, I can write songs, I have a guitar and know 12 chords. I was a writer before I knew I was a writer. So I’d put really bad songs into a notebook . . . and move on. For decades. It wasn’t till about 2001, when my theater company needed to raise money, and they put me onstage with a guitar, I just started playing these things. In the last 15 years or so, I’ve written specifically for gigs.
You just toured with your son, Ben, and his band.
Trip of a lifetime. Trip of a lifetime.
Did you learn something about him you hadn’t known?
What a pro he is. An artist. The chord progressions and lyrics he’s coming up with, and how he stands in front of a thousand people at a gig and plays the solo. [He laughs.] I couldn’t do that at 31. “Never Gone Before,” that’s the album we played on the tour. Of the recordings on my website, I’m especially proud of that one. In the studio, the band really lit it up. God, with an acoustic guitar and a real band behind me, I felt like Springsteen.