Jeff Daniels on Reuniting With Harry Dunne Immediately After Winning an Emmy

The smartest dumb guy in show business on his unpredictable career.

Will McAvoy, the pontificating anchor of The Newsroom, and Harry Dunne, the dumb in Dumb and Dumber To, wouldn’t have much to talk about. But for Jeff Daniels, who has been the least predictable actor in Hollywood since taking a bit part on Hawaii Five-0 in 1980, both men remain relatable. Daniels, a plainspoken guy from Michigan, takes his work seriously despite having a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward some of his more serious work. If being a thespian instead of a working actor means missing the opportunity to mess around with the Farrelly Brothers, he’s not sure that’s his goal. He’d rather just be Jeff Daniels, it’s considerably more fun.

Maxim spoke with the actor about his show and his movie and the next step in his bipolar career.

Money aside, why did you want to make a sequel to Dumb and Dumber?

There were a bunch of reasons. Jim and I were both surprised how the demo went from teenage boys, which is where we thought the first one would land, to eight to eighty [years olds]. We were stunned over the years at how men – older men, middle aged men – would come up with their kids and say, “We watch the movie together once a month.” Funny is funny. There was a great chemistry between the two of us, which is even better now. It’s hard to find funny. It’s hard to find something that truly works. Here’s something that works.

The only wild card was whether we put in the effort. Jim has two gears: first and fifth gear. We shot for nine weeks in fifth gear. Now it’s just fun.

Still, it’s a lot of pressure. The first film was a classic.

I kept walking away from the set going, “Well, that felt funny.” But you never know. It’s not up for us to decide. When the film hits theaters the fans of the first one get to sit down and they’re the real critics. Did we deliver for them? We’ll see.

What was it like the first day on set when you became Harry Dunne again?

I had won the Emmy on a Sunday night in September. I win Emmy; I give a speech. Tuesday morning I’m in Georgia on day one of Dumb and Dumber To and I’m jumping off a bus and walking across the street. That was an intellectual free-fall. But I remember the bus pulling up and Jim and I would just start going. All you’ve got to do is look at Jim and he’s Lloyd. You just feed off that. That’s the whole key to the success of two guys together. You use each other. You’re really just one guy. You have to do far less work if you plug into Jim Carrey. That’s the secret.

It’s a very strange juxtaposition between Harry and Will McAvoy on The Newsroom, but you seem to genuinely care about both guys.

Obviously, I need therapy. I need a team of Vienna shrinks, but then I wouldn’t have a career. In life, I compartmentalize pretty easily, whether I’m doing music or I’m writing a play or I’m going from Harry to Will. I’m able to forget everything else and do this one thing. They’re completely different guys. You’re never going to see these guys sitting in a restaurant together. That, in a way, makes it much easier. The approach is the same, but they’re so completely different that it’s an easy transition.

What makes it worth your time as an Emmy-winning actor to do something like Dumb and Dumber To?

As a career choice, there would be a line of people in the industry going, ‘You can’t possibly do this. You’re going to ruin your career.’ That’s when I go, ‘Great. That’s a yes. I’ll do it.’ I’ve always been interested in range, as wide a range as possible. There’s the Something Wild guy and then there’s Gettysburg and there’s Squid and the Whale. I like that change, completely changing it up and creating these different people inside and out. In Hollywood, they want you to sell this image or this brand.

Did you get a lot of comedy offers after the first Dumb and Dumber?

Not really. At the time it came out, Jim Carrey was off and running on this great career and he was at the beginning with that. I think if anybody got that, Jim did. I was still the actor who was in it with Jim who was funny who was also in Gettysburg and some other dramas. I didn’t get ten years of silly comedies offered to me.

Do you wish you had?

No. All I did with Dumb and Dumber was say, ‘I can also do this. Let the confusion reign!’ And it did.

Is there ever something you don’t want to do in a role like that or a line you won’t cross?

No, because Jim Carrey will do anything. And it’s a waste of everyone’s time if you go, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ You’ve got to jump off the cliff with him. If you want to be in Dumb and Dumber and you want to be with the Farrelly brothers and you want to be standing next to Jim Carrey, you have to be fearless.

What was it like to go back to The Newsroom after that?

You put on the suit again and you’re Will. But it was fun to sit on The Newsroom set as they were lighting and pretend to be Harry and entertain the camera crew.

Is it different shooting a TV show when you know it’s the final season?

Yeah, I mean Aaron wrote it to end it – and end it very strongly, I think. For us there wasn’t any begging for a season four or a season five. This is it. It is what it is. That’s three more seasons with Aaron Sorkin than I had before the show.

Once The Newsroom is done, what do you want to do?

I feel like, after 38 years, I don’t have to prove myself anymore. This is what I can do and if you have something in between Dumb and Dumber To and The Newsroom, then great, I can probably do that. I’m going to sit down and turn the phone on and, one, see if it rings, and two, see who is on the other end. I’ve really enjoyed working with great people who know what they’re doing. There’s an advantage to looking around a set and having everyone be top of their field. I like that. I’d be interested in that again. 

Photos by Hopper Stone / Universal Pictures / Everett Collection