Over the span of his 37-year career, Jeff Daniels has repeatedly defied what kind of career a square-jawed, 6-foot-3-inch, light-haired Midwesterner belongs in. He’s played all manner of ordinary suits, from the secretly feckless (“Terms of Endearment”) to the in-over-his-head (“Something Wild”). Just to put a spin on things, he went toe to toe with boundary-free funnyman Jim Carrey in “Dumb and Dumber.”
In 2013, he refocused his room-filling energy and took home an Emmy for his turn as cynical news anchor Will McAvoy on Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom.” So when writer-director Scott Frank asked him to accept the role of Frank Griffin, a furious, Scripture-spouting criminal in “Godless,” a seven-part New Mexico-based period western on Netflix, Frank knew exactly how to get a yes from Daniels: “Scott said to me, ‘Do this. No one will expect it.’”
What’s the first thing you do when you say yes to the role of a trigger-happy villain with one arm and terrible mood swings?
I’ve been around long enough to know that you can’t get away with lying about your riding ability. So I trained for a few months in Michigan with a guy who teaches the local mounted county police. He’s a rodeo guy and the whole deal. You’ve got to be able to stay on the horse. Which I was able to do most of the time.
How many times did you end up in the dirt?
Three. The last time I broke my wrist on the second-to-last day of shooting. That hurt. We had one more day to shoot so there was morphine and all kinds of stuff to get me through the night. If I could stand on the mark and remember what I was saying, then I could make it. Then they put me in the car and drove me [home] to Michigan. That was an interesting two days.
Talk about growing your showpiece of a beard.
I’d said to Scott , “What do you want?” And he sent me a picture of Henry Fonda with some stubble. But it started to look strange so I just kept growing it. And I just showed up on set with that. And Scott said, “Oh, yeah. Keep that.”
You live in Chelsea, Mich., pop. 1,500 (ish). How did you explain your whiskers to the locals?
They always assume that whatever I look like has to do with something I just did or something I’m about to do. It’s my mother who doesn’t get why I have to change my look. She’ll say, “Why can’t you just look nice and clean-cut?” and I’ll say, “What can I tell you? This is the look. I’ve got long hair and a beard because I’m doing a movie about geese.” “Well, you look nicer when you don’t have all that.”
You have three children. What part of being a father offered insight into Frank’s command over his gang?
It didn’t at all — except that I know how to talk to someone who’s in their 20s, to talk to a young man who hasn’t learned everything yet. But my kids listen to me. So that’s a different story.
You’ve said that Frank has mental health issues. Dr. Daniels, what’s your psychological evaluation?
I’m not going to diagnose him. But he certainly wasn’t getting any help back in the 1880s. He’s out there just spinning in all kinds of directions. He doesn’t know which way he’s going. That was fun. It’s like having a short attention span. I could be as irresponsible as [Harry Dunne] in “Dumb and Dumber.” Frank just keeps going from [reciting] biblical verse to revenge to rage to loving his son. He has these moments that overtake him like a drug. So I just made the decision to not understand him and just ride the wave.
Has starring in a western always been on your to do list?
Every actor wants to do a western. Until you get one.
Some of these guys — Bridges, Costner, all these guys — they’ve been riding for decades so it’s nothing. But for me, it’s two months of learning how to gallop and stay on the horse so you don’t look like an idiot. Then you realize that you’re sitting on an 800-pound 4-year-old who after the third take decides he isn’t interested in doing this anymore. The first shot on our first day was 30 horses coming up a rise and galloping 200 yards to hit a mark.
The horses all think they’re in the Kentucky Derby, they all want to finish first. So right before you go, the wranglers will say, “He may be a little energized,” and then they’ll call out, “Action!” and the wranglers will say, “Hang on!” Before I had a chance to turn around, an ambulance was pulling up. That’s when you know you’re in a western, when they say, “Action” and the ambulance driver turns on the engine.