Does this look awkward?” Michelle Williams politely asks the photographer after fixing her shoe and revealing some leg. “No, I think that’s enchanting.” Without skipping a beat, Jeff Daniels, practically dripping with dry wit, turns to the crew and shoots back, “Do you think I’m enchanting?”
The two actors seem like work buddies on break while huddled in a warm office deep in the Lincoln Center complex, keeping up a breezy banter, with the discrepancies in their ages (he’s 60, she’s 35) and auras (he’s pretty grizzled, she’s pretty radiant) serving as running jokes. But the reason for our chat is no laughing matter: They’re gearing up for the Broadway premiere of Scottish playwright David Harrower’s Edinburgh International Festival favorite, Blackbird. They play—big spoiler alert here, sorry—Ray, a sexual predator, and Una, his grown-up former victim who forces a deeply fraught reunion in a nondescript office break room.
Williams curls up catlike on a couch next to Daniels, a 40-year veteran of stages both big and small (including a 2007 revival of Blackbird Off Broadway) who exudes a contemplative aspect that frequently provides a counterpoint to the Midwestern affability he brings to his roles. And while these days Williams is more known for her work in front of the camera, the actor has theater roots. (She starred in Tracy Letts’s Killer Joe back in the late ’90s and graced Broadway just two years ago in Cabaret.) In an hour, the two begin their second week of rehearsals for the brutal Blackbird, but at least for now, they seem happy to spend some time together without Ray and Una’s issues hanging over them.
How well did you know each other before working on Blackbird?
Jeff Daniels: You never saw it, but we did an independent movie together once. Imaginary Heroes. I was just thrilled that she was doing [the play]. Knowing where we’re going to end up, in front of people and the whole Broadway thing, it really is a crash course in trusting each other.
Michelle Williams: It’s only, what, day eight?
Daniels: We don’t have time to really get acquainted. We’ll do that later. If you fall, I’m gonna grab you, and if I fall, you’re gonna grab me. That’s how you go in.
The relationship between Una and Ray, your characters, is obviously in a very dark place. What’s it like to explore that?
Daniels: What’s interesting is finding the light. Finding the reasons they ended up together. He didn’t just grab her, throw her in a car and take her somewhere. It was built up. And that’s why, as wrong as this is, [you’re led to ask], “Where’s the good? Where’s the love?” Since I did it before, I’ve already done all that. Michelle changes it by what she brings. She’s going through the “Who am I? Where do I come from?” thing that every actor has to go through when they hit something for the first time. It’s been good for me to hear that.
You’re both parents. How’s that affected the way you’ve dug into the topic of molestation, which is probably a parent’s worst nightmare?
Williams: Being a parent, of course I’m in a world where 12-year-old girls circulate. It’s a hard thing to imagine. Being a parent affects every part of my work. There’s nothing I do that isn’t affected by it. But this isn’t something we’re going to talk about at the dinner table.
Daniels: The stage manager’s going, “No, you won’t be backstage with Mommy on this one.” I go bipolar on it. Because it’s so unimaginable, I don’t even go there. I’m just someone else, and then I just leave. I really work hard on the separation. He’s him, and I’m me.
Sexual abuse is something that most people feel a certain moral clarity toward. But Una and Ray both talk about what seems to be a romantic connection, which muddies the waters a bit.
Williams: I think it speaks to the confusion of a relationship. Unequivocally, it’s wrong. But something is created in there that resembles love, care, affection, attention. And so then, for the person who’s left to deal with it, it’s a life’s work to unravel and understand it. I find the moral clarity of it to be intact. I do find that aspect of it to be black and white, and I think it’s dealt with in the play.
Daniels: It gets real clear.
Williams: It gets real clear.
Daniels: Friends who saw it before got deep into the play and found themselves pulling for the two of them, against their rational selves. They couldn’t believe they were hoping the pair gets together. Which is, I think, what David [Harrower] has done with the script. I think he makes that happen with his writing.
Williams: Yeah, he pushes you to the edge of something.
Daniels: And then he wraps you up.
“You have to be willing to do certain things to support the thing you love—whether you’re starting out or you’re an old bag of bones.”—Williams
Photograph: courtesy Blackbird production
“You’re going to pay a lot of money, and we’re going to hit you right in the face.”—Daniels
Blackbird has been performed all over the world—from Australia to Slovenia. What do you think makes it so universal?
Williams: Maybe it’s just that ambiguity going so deeply into it.
Daniels: I think as far as drama goes, it’s hard to find something from page one that is as instantly compelling as what this guy wrote. Man, woman, with an insurmountable problem, and they’re in the room, and they can’t leave, even though there’s a door. That’s a pretty good structure for a premise. And David found that. It’s an emotional sprint. It’s hard to find plays that start and stay like that. It’s hard on us, because we have to brutalize ourselves and each other eight times a week. We ain’t merrily going around singing and dancing. And that’s one of the things I like about the choice that [producer] Scott [Rudin] made: Let’s bring this to Broadway. This is not a safe choice. The tourists who come in are going to get their ears pinned back. As they should. The arts should do this. Broadway should do this kind of thing. The safer choice is to just do the movie of it or an Off Broadway, where it’s a smaller [audience]. Scott’s going, “Let’s go; let’s do it.”
Is this play risky as far as your careers or images go?
Williams: You really only want people to feel strongly about things. People stand in front of a painting for a long time if they have a violent hatred for it or a longing to go deeper into it. You just want the opportunity to put your painting on the wall. That’s the thing I’m so excited about, to have the opportunity to hang it on the wall and have people come and see it.
Daniels: I don’t think I worry about them liking
it. I don’t care. You can’t care. We’re onstage; you just happen to be watching. This is what we’re doing, this is what they went through, and the curtain comes down whether you like it or not. Those things [like likability] are the producers’ concerns. This isn’t about “like me, like me, like me.” This is about how deep we can go. We’ll be fine.
You’ve both done big plays and small ones. What do you get out of each?
Daniels: Acting’s acting. It doesn’t get any bigger than Broadway, so there’s that. We’ve earned the right to be on that stage as actors, with the careers we’ve had. It’s nice to be one of those actors who people think can do this at the highest level. That’s not lost on me. But for me to take that kind of Off Broadway, Circle [Repertory Company] approach, which way back in the ’70s and ’80s didn’t mix with Broadway, it’s like bringing Circle Rep to Broadway, in a way. And Michelle, she’s honest. She’s there. And that’s essential. We just happen to be on Broadway. We could be in front of cameras on some hundred-million-dollar movie, and it’s the same stage. Pay your money, sit down, and buckle your seat belt. You’re going to pay a lot of money, and we’re going to hit you right in the face. If that’s how you like to spend your money, come on in.
How often do you check out theater here?
Williams: Subways and theater are my favorite things about New York City, so I try to take advantage of both of them as often as I can, which is never as often as I’d like. I’m going to my friend Kate [Arrington]’s play tomorrow, the Richard Greenberg play [Our Mother’s Brief Affair]. She’s my neighbor. We live next door to each other, so we can put the kids to bed and be like, “How is your day? Are you going to be okay?” [Laughs] Two moms, two plays, three daughters.
Daniels: You’re going to see the Greenberg thing tomorrow; that’s one more than I’ll see. I just like staying in my apartment. I go into shut-down [mode]. I don’t have the energy or time. We’ve got lines to get in our heads and this buildup to the previews. I plan on coming out of the hole around March 11, the day after we open. To get away from it, I play guitar a lot. Especially this time through, I’m really going to work on leaving it at the theater. I didn’t do that the first time. It just stuck with me.
Jeff, you’ve spent a lot of time in New York over your career. Does it feel like home for you?
Daniels: Artistically, it does. I don’t feel that in Los Angeles: the history of theater, the history of people who kept going back to it. I like being one of those guys. It’s hard to do what we’re doing. Blackbird is especially hard. I remember the Newsroom guys telling me, “I couldn’t do what you’re doing.” You want people to look at the two of us after we’ve got our shit together on it and go, “I don’t know if I could do that.” The reason is because it’s really, really hard to get these things in your head.
Williams: I dreamed about it all night last night. I couldn’t let go of it.
Do you think someone breaking into the business could move to New York City today and make a living as a stage actor?
Williams: I don’t know. Does any actor only want to be onstage?
Daniels: I didn’t. I think if they’ve got any kind
of business sense, they don’t. You gotta get to television. You gotta get to film.
Williams: There are ways to pay your bills to support the thing that you love. I think no matter where you are in your career, especially if you have a family, you have to be willing to do certain things to support the thing you love—whether you’re starting out or you’re an old bag of bones.
Daniels: The money! We have an apartment on the Upper West Side on the top floor of a brownstone. We know somebody who bought [a brownstone near there] for $8 million and flipped it for $15 million. Single family. Those all used to be for artists, places where the artists would live. The actors, the dancers, the designers. I know some people from the Purple Rose [Theatre Company] in Michigan who have moved here: actors, stage managers. I don’t know how they’re doing it. Just the rent. Just the rent! I moved to Staten Island in ’78 after two years in the city because my rent went from $225 a month to $250.
Daniels: And I couldn’t afford it. Now that’s, what, $2,500 for that one room on 23rd and Seventh? What I think it’s gonna do is, the only young stage actors or actors who come to New York City are ones who have rich parents and a bank account. The kid who’s got nothing…I don’t know where he or she goes.
Williams: Can anybody do anything in New York anymore?
Daniels: I don’t know. I did 12 commercials when I was here. I had a commercial in the first three months I was here. It saved me. Saved me.
Daniels: Yeah. Pepto-Bismol. In [the commercial], I was a student at the University of Mexico City, and my two parents—with Hawaiian shirts, cameras around their necks, golf hats—had come to visit me. And I was telling them I had just taken a diarrhea test. Out of 500 students, 250, including me, had Pepto-Bismol, and the other 250 didn’t. And my diarrhea went away! Boy, did it work! That was the commercial.
Williams: But it kept you here!
Daniels: It paid me enough. I’m gonna say 10, 15 grand over the course of a year or two in these surprise residuals, so I could work at Circle Rep for 120 bucks a week. It’s what you do: One for you and one for them. “Them” being the bills.
The whole experience with the play sounds so immersive. Can you even think about what else you have coming up?
Williams: This [play] is as far as I can see. This takes me from January to the end of the school year. This is the only finish line that I’m looking at. It’s really all I want, though.
Daniels: I have Divergent number three, and then we shoot number four in the summer. But I’m with Michelle. That’s someone else. Somewhere, some other time. Some other life.
See the show
David Harrower’s anguished and shocking tale of a man and a younger woman reuniting in an office room comes back after its New York premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2007. Jeff Daniels plays the man, and Michelle Williams is the woman, who was only 12 when first they met.