Jeff Daniels dropped out of college and moved to New York City to become an actor. He left his family behind in Chelsea, Michigan, where his dad ran the local lumber yard. But a few years after moving to the city, Jeff says he got a letter from a young woman from his hometown. She moved to New York, they married, and had their first child. And then, they decided together to raise him back home in Michigan.
"'I will sustain the career from the Midwest for as long as I can,'" Jeff told me. "That became the business plan for us. And it worked for quite a while." But the plan started to falter after a few years, which sometimes meant watching others succeed from the sidelines. "There was a time when I couldn't even watch the Oscars. I had to leave the room," he told me. With a family and a house "in the middle of nowhere," Jeff resorted to less than ideal jobs just to pay the bills. He says movies like Dumb and Dumber—commercially successful but critically lowbrow—took him out of the running for serious roles for a long time.
By then, Jeff and his wife were raising three kids, which led him to another big decision: getting a vasectomy. "I had watched her go through childbirth three times," he remembers, "I said, 'There is no way I am going to force you or ask you to do anything...I’m the one. I've gotta be the one who gets fixed.'" As his kids got older, Jeff started to reemerge on stage and in the spotlight. When his acting career regained traction in the 2000s, the rush of success pushed him off the edge and broke 14 years of sobriety. "Just to take some of the stress away," he says of the moment when he talked himself into a beer, "Just to relax." It didn't take long for him to banish that inner voice that gave him permission. After getting professional help, he quit drinking again after a few months.
Jeff is 61 now, and he's received some of the recognition he desired when he was younger. He won an Emmy for his leading role in The Newsroom and received a Tony nomination this year for his portrayal of a sexual abuser in Blackbird on Broadway. Still, he resists the urge to retire and look back on his career. "I always have to have something in the air," he says, "to feel alive."