"Kathleen, my wife, and I wanted to raise my family in the Midwest," movie actor Jeff Daniels told OMC during his recent publicity tour for his new indie movie, "Super Sucker." "I didn't really think that my career would last. But even if it did, I wanted the kids to grow up in the Midwest. I think it's a great place to live. And we decided that family came first."
So, in 1986 Daniels moved back to his home state of Michigan to raise his family with those good old Midwestern values. But Daniels' career in theater and film didn't end. In addition to continuing his acting in Hollywood films, Daniels established his own theater company in 1991 in Chelsea, Mich.
"I was always really fascinated with writing plays," said Daniels, as a partial explanation.
Most of his productions are written for and about people in the Midwest, feature Midwestern actors, directors, playwrights and designers and therefore attract Midwest companies to perform them. "Apartment 3A," a modern day love story, was recently performed on Milwaukee's stage by In Tandem Theatre.
As an extension of his theater company, Daniels began to produce films as well as write, direct and star in them. His first effort, "Escanaba in da Moonlight," met with critical acclaim and box office success, selling over 80,000 DVDs and videos and grossing $2.3 million since its release.
"Stanley Tucci did a film called 'Big Night' and actually, I saw him recently and I told him, 'You were an inspiration. You did all three and it really worked.' So I decided to try, but I wanted to emphasize comedy because I enjoy it so much," said Daniels.
This week, Daniels was in Milwaukee to promote "Super Sucker."
"It's using all of me instead of just being the actor-for-hire," said Daniels, at a question/answer talk back session after the movie's premiere at South Shore Cinemas. "I love writing and I know I can make people laugh."
The film centers around two competing door-to-door vacuum cleaner salespeople, vying to win the sales rights for the entire territory of Johnson City, Michigan. The movie takes a risqué (and predictable) turn when Daniels' character, Fred Barlow, finds an alternative use for a long lost vacuum cleaner extension -- a sex device dubbed the "Homemakers Little Helper." The carnal use of the household appliance meets with controversy in the conservative small town.
"That's what the film is about, but we deal with it comedically. It's sexual repression," Daniels said. "Kind of like, we aren't going to talk about what we're doing. There's this veneer of normalcy in the film. Everybody looks but nobody sees. But it's a comedic look at it, and I took that idea and ran with it. That, and I found the character of a vacuum cleaner salesperson fascinating."
While set in modern times, "Super Sucker" could be almost from another era, with an apple pie, "Leave it to Beaver" feel. Daniels' character lives with his doting wife, who prepares casseroles, loves to clean and is always cheery and bright. The subject matter, however, isn't something you'd find Ward and June Cleaver discussing over dinner.
Daniels said the idea began to form in his mind after a trip to Europe with his wife.
"Europe is very open, there's nudity everywhere. Then we came back to America and everyone's got their shirts buttoned up to the top," said Daniels. "I just found that interesting and I thought, 'Is there a funny way I can use that theme?'"
Normally, when a film debuts, it opens first in New York City and L.A. and then eventually rolls out toward the Midwest, said Daniels. But he decided that this indie film written in the Midwest and about the Midwest should also open in the Midwest.
"We're not going to wait for the New York Times to deem this film OK to be seen in the Midwest," said Daniels. "People in Milwaukee and Chicago aren't waiting to hear from New York to tell them what to watch. And so we refused to give away our movie and we raised the money to distribute it ourselves. We're breaking the rules, and I hope that we're successful."
"Super Sucker" opens in theaters in Milwaukee on Friday. Daniels can also be seen in recent works, "Blood Work" with Clint Eastwood and "The Hours" starring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore. Later this year he will reappear as Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain from "Gettysburg" in its sequel, "Gods and Generals."