What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The playwright Lanford Wilson told me, and it resonated with me for years, “Whatever you choose to do with your career, make sure it matters.” And I’ve tried to do that—even in a stupid comedy like Dumb and Dumber. I went to Walter Reed Hospital, and you walk in 25 different rooms, 25 different wounded soldiers, and every one of them wanted to talk about Dumb and Dumber. It was obvious right off the bat: Make me laugh, please, God, make me laugh. I lost my legs three days ago in Iraq, please make me laugh. And that’s why it matters.
How should a man find his true calling?
You find out what comes naturally and then spend the rest of your life learning how to do it better. I stumbled into acting because they needed guys to play sailors in a high school production of South Pacific in tenth grade. But it’s what I was good at.
Your dad ran a lumberyard in Michigan. Is there something from him you took with you to Hollywood?
My dad told me, “Believe in yourself. It doesn’t matter that you’re from a small town in Michigan. Whatever it is you’re going after, go get it. You’re as good as they are.” And when you’re sitting in waiting rooms, with Yale and Juilliard and the Royal Academy of Arts, and when they ask, “Where did you go?” And you say, “Central Michigan,” and the whole room is silent, and they all look away…my dad was saying, “Go get it.” And I did. That was the audition for Terms of Endearment.
You play a jerk in Terms of Endearment and The Squid and the Whale. What’s the key?
The trick is to play him like he’s the hero. You don’t play an asshole, you play a guy who truly believes he’s doing the right thing.
Is there an adventure or a trip that changed your life?
Driving my RV from Vancouver to Michigan a few years ago. My wife was unavailable, so I said, “I’ll just drive it myself.” There was much concern back home that I wouldn’t make it. Suddenly, I was Lewis and Clark. But it was great going through these little towns, driving through Glacier National Park and the Dakotas. I enjoyed the solitude; it was therapeutic. You spend a lot of time with yourself, you talk to yourself, you get into arguments with yourself. So Clooney got a jet; I got an RV.
You’ve been active in trying to help Detroit rebound. How hopeful are you about the city now?
I’m hopeful in that people are buying low. Now that it’s bottomed out, the 20-somethings are starting to come in and buy the lots, at dirt-cheap prices. But it’s going to take effort and focus to reinvent Detroit. We can’t be the car capital anymore. What can we be that we’re going to need 10 years from now? I’m sick of the business community thinking in short term or only about their bottom line. I want businesses to think about 10 and 20 years from now, and make those kinds of investments.
You’ve released five albums, play guitar, and tour with your son in the Ben Daniels Band. What does music do for you?
There’s a pureness to it. There’s no editor, director, studio. It’s all the blame, all the glory. And when I play with my son, I walk offstage going, “What just happened?” I never would have dreamed that I could be out on tour with my son’s band and that we just blew the roof off the place. You know, what is that, and how do we corral it and do that again?
You’re married to your high school sweetheart. What’s the secret?
The secret is to look in the mirror and just go, “I can’t believe she’s still with this.” I mean, I wouldn’t, fuck it. But apparently, it’s still worth her time, so I’m lucky. So what do I have to do to keep this going? We’ve had a good time—we’re still the two kids in the one-bedroom apartment in New York in the early ’80s—and now we get to be together again, like we were before we had kids. And I like that.
What do you want your legacy to be as an actor?
I’d like to be known as one of the guys who could go from A to Z, one of the guys who could do both masks of comedy and tragedy equally well. You know, we laughed, we cried, and then he died.