With a 2016 Tony Nomination, Jeff Daniels Sprints the Marathon of Blackbird

After nine years, Daniels returns to David Harrower’s intense play, this time on Broadway.

Eight times a week, Jeff Daniels lays it all on the line opposite Michelle Williams in David Harrower's Blackbird at the Belasco Theatre. The two-hander, which Daniels initially performed nine years ago off-Broadway, takes the pair on a dark, emotional journey into the minds of two very broken people. Ray (Daniels) and Una (Williams) knew each other 15 years before the play begins. Now, she finds him once again, demanding answers to questions she's had ever since.

When he got the call to do Blackbird in 2016, directed once again by Joe Mantello, Daniels admits that he sighed out of displeasure. But as he thought about it, he realized that he didn't go as deep as he could in 2007. Subsequent jobs — namely Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage on Broadway and Aaron Sorkin's HBO series The Newsroom — broadened his acting arsenal to the point that he knew he could do justice to the part in a way that before was impossible.

It paid off: Daniels received a Tony nomination. "It just means the world," he says. "You got an invitation to the big dance. It means the month of May, especially in a brutal play like this, is gonna be slightly easier."

Jeff Daniels as Ray in David Harrower's Blackbird at the Belasco Theatre.
Jeff Daniels as Ray in David Harrower's Blackbird at the Belasco Theatre.
(© Brigitte Lacombe)

Please note: The following interview contains important plot points from Blackbird that readers who haven't seen the show might not want to know.

Since the play is so emotionally intense, how are you and Michelle holding up?
We're surviving. Michelle and I have a pact that the only way to do it is all in. It's mostly about doing it tonight and worrying about tomorrow's show tomorrow. But we're fine. We can make it different every night. Joe Mantello has given us the liberty to keep it alive and spin things differently at each other. That helps make it happen for the first time, week after week.

Does it take a lot out of you two to go through the journey of your characters?
Physically, you get beat up. We both have injuries. The physical toll it takes on you…We're definitely sprinting a marathon. But emotionally, I found it more like a workout. You literally walk away from it. You don't take anything with you, which is great. I remember from Newsroom completely forgetting what we did yesterday. You're shooting everything today, and it's intense, and then you're done, and tomorrow is a whole other day of a different intensity. It doesn't linger.

When you got the call to be in Blackbird again, how did you react to revisiting this character?
We just said let's approach it darker. That made it a new challenge. I was able to find some things that I hadn't found before. It upped the stakes, it amped up the performance, it put more on the line from the first minute on. Joe and I talked about that before we even started rehearsal. I don't recall ever going, "Let's do what we did before here." We never did that.

And you can't possibly remember everything that you did nine years ago.
It's amazing what you remember. There are rhythms to it. The script didn't change. You blow it up. The fact that you've got Michelle changes everything. Coming out of Circle Rep in the seventies, I was taught to react and to listen and to use the other performance to feed yours. When it's a different person across from you, that changes everything immediately. It really became harder and more of a challenge and a different play for me right off the bat. There's a fearlessness to her, and a danger to her, and a threat.

How did you see Ray differently this time around?
Part of what I came to this time around was this: Why? Why a twelve-year-old girl? I don't know whether it's the media or the Internet nine years later, but it's more in our face now. And you want to know why. I don't think I understood that enough.

I likened it to an alcoholic. No alcoholic wants to have a bottle of whiskey every night. Most of them would love to stop, especially those who have gone into treatment. One of the first things they learn is that they're powerless against it. I think that's what I substituted. When we walk in, Michelle is the bottle of whiskey. I'm not only fighting her, but I'm fighting within myself. I'm not one of them. I've changed my name. I changed my location. I have a new wife. And all of a sudden, here it is. It's the whiskey bottle going, you're the same as you were then.

This version also delves into the implication that the two characters could actually love each other.
Certainly that's in the room. I ask her, "Do you have someone now?" and she says, Yes, but we're not together. I loved him, I still love him, but I'd like to love him again. And Ray is sitting there and that's all he hears, that she's talking to him. It's things like that where you just kind of go, "Maybe it is OK. She's twenty-seven now. Maybe it is. But it isn't. But maybe it is." The problem is, he looks across the table and he still sees her as twelve.

How do you justify that?
You don't judge him. This fascination with twelve-year-old girls, as he says, "It's in me." He's powerless to stop it. He has to admit that "I do think about you and it's wrong and I know but I do." And that's just his normal. It's wrong, he knows it, he can't share it with anyone, but there it is."

At the end of the day, has doing Blackbird again made you a better actor?
Oh yeah. The thing I came away with early on in previews was that the stage truly is a home. I'm comfortable sitting in front of an audience at the Belasco. [On film] no one's judging you. Nothing's really on the line. You can screw it up and take two. But to walk out on the Belasco stage with a thousand people there? After Newsroom and Carnage, I know what I'm doing up here, but it's taken decades. As hard as this play is to do, it's thrilling to do every night, because you can only go through this and pull the audience with you. You never would get that in a film of this show. Ever.

Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels face off in Blackbird at the Belasco Theatre.
Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels face off in Blackbird at the Belasco Theatre.
(© Brigitte Lacombe)

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Closed: June 11, 2016