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Jeff Daniels on Switching Roles in God of Carnage and Getting in Hockey Brawls

Jeff Daniels, the movie actor (Dumb and Dumber, Terms of Endearment) turned Broadway star, is about to try something he'd never considered before: switching roles in a play. Daniels has just returned to Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, the acclaimed riotous and painful Broadway drama about two smug Brooklyn couples having it out over their sons’ playground brawl, but this time he’s playing the opposite dad to the one that earned him a Tony nomination in 2009. We spoke to Daniels about returning to a play in a different role, getting hit in the head onstage, and being an overprotective parent.

You did Carnage with Marcia Gay Harden, James Gandolfini, and Hope Davis for seven months, and when you left you said you were tired of it. Why’d you return?
I could not have come back as Allen. But the producers just pitched it: “Do you think you’d like to flip roles?” The idea of flipping on Broadway was a wonderful risk. That’s what keeps me interested. Otherwise, I’ve had enough.

What was it like to step into another place onstage?
It’s kind of like authorized schizophrenia. It’s a bit hallucinogenic, certainly in the first few weeks of rehearsal. But in a way, Michael is a less manufactured role for me than [slick lawyer] Allen was. I can literally go out there and use myself, just as Jim [Gandolfini] did.

And yet, there’s a scene in which you announce that you’re a conservative Neanderthal. It’s really not something I associate with Jeff Daniels.
Well, stop reading the Playbill. I think it’s more in contrast to [Michael’s wife] Veronica’s bleeding-heart liberalism, and it’s the first time he’s really voicing it. It’s all these academic functions that you go to, a room full of liberals, and I’m a guy who sells toilet fittings and I make a good living, but, sure, let’s fix the Congo.

You raised your kids in laid-back Michigan. How do you tap into these overinvolved New York parents?
I wouldn’t restrict it to New Yorkers. Having been through fifteen years of travel hockey, the bleachers are full of well-intentioned parents who know the best for your children. I can remember being in the hockey stands and someone saying, “If your son could just get that puck out of the zone a little quicker … ” “Shut the fuck up! Let’s talk about your son who can’t take a hit!” You’re very protective of your kid.

Did your kids get into hockey brawls?
Oh yeah, especially when you’re the son of somebody who was in Dumb and Dumber, and you’re getting an earful about how you think you’re cool and all of that. I was happy to take the boys down to the garage and show them three ways to end that conversation. There’s the Neanderthal.

There seemed to be more brawling onstage in this new iteration of Carnage, too. Like when Janet McTeer pretends to punch you in the head …
No, she’s actually punching me right in the head. Drew blood this afternoon. Sure, why not.

Good thing you’ve done stunts before. Did she apologize?
Well, eventually.

Nevertheless, it looks like a lot of fun.
It’s mentally exhausting, because there’s no easy way to do it. You can’t phone it in, you’ve got to go there, you’ve got to lose it, you’ve got to tap the rage and the anger and the pain, because the more we do that, the funnier it is.

Photo: Patrick McMullan