Movie Picture

Jeff Daniels talks about his new movie, Because of Winn-Dixie

If the old saying "Never work with children or animals" is a cliché, refuting it has become a new cliché. More and more actors say the spontaneity of both groups invigorates a set. Jeff Daniels is one such actor.

"I'm the guy to call," Daniels said. "Look at the resume. I have kids of my own. I have dogs. Actually there is a way to do it. There is a way to kind of be ready for anything, and instead of fighting. First of all, Anna Sophia [Robb], it's her first film, I think, and she was a little pro, which was a bonus. You never really expect whether she'll even know lines, whether after two hours of the day, she's tired and wants to go home. That never happened over the three and a half months or whatever we shot. So that's a bonus. But you're just ready for anything, what they may or may not know as far as experience or the craft. You help steer them and with the animals, it's just improv. You just go with whatever and then they say cut, and they either don't use it or the happy little accident finds its way into the film. So you kind of embrace it instead of fight it."

Having worked in another dog movie, 102 Dalmations, Daniels compared that breed to the Picardy Shepard in Because of Winn-Dixie. "They were trained by the same guy, Mark Forbes at Birds And Animals Unlimited. Same trainers for Dalmatians were the same guys at Winn Dixie. But the Winn-Dixie dogs are inherently a little smarter, whatever kind of dogs they are, but the dalmations I think are known to be less smart and hyper. And I worked for nearly six months on the Dalmations, he had to really kind of get them to do what they were supposed to do. I think there was less of that with these dogs."

At home, Daniels is a dog person too. "I have two Australian shepherds, herders. They herd. They herd my wife. She can't go anywhere in the house, and they're right with her. And a Chow Shepherd that somebody about 10-12 years ago — I live out in the country — they just brought him out in the country and kept going, so we took him in. Great dog."

Daniels plays a preacher who moves to Naomi, Florida with his daughter. There, the young girl finds a dog who becomes the catalyst for meeting the town's lineup of eccentric but sweet characters. As the preacher, Daniels gives a few sermons, but doesn't go too heavy into religion.

"I think that was a smart choice not only of Kate [DiCamillo] in the book but also the screenplay and Wayne Wang. It's not about a certain religion. We don't get very specific about it. It's more about a character who happens to be a preacher who is going through some issues of his own which are revealed later in the film. I think this family film has more depth than some family films try and reach for."

Though the film is not shot in Naomi, Daniels experienced the true small town life in the Louisiana town in which the crew shot. "It exists down there. There's a lot of religion, there's just a different feel in the South that I think Wayne captures real well, not only in how he pulled the performances off, but also in the look. While it's set in Florida, we shot in Napoleonville and Donaldson, Louisiana, these two just-nothing, one-spotlight towns, and while there was a lot of production design, a lot of the stuff was right there, and there was some effort early on to polish it up and make it a little nicer to look at, and Wayne really fought for the look that he achieved, and I think it helps the film."

Though his Chelsae, Michigan home is not as small a town as Naomi, Daniels moved his family there in the mid-80s so they would not grow up in Hollywood. "Moved there in 86. I just never bought the fantasy and the surrealism. I just didn't want to raise the kids here. The joke is, and it's kind of true, I didn't want to go on Easter Egg hunts at Sly Stallone's house. And when all your friends are famous, well maybe you can handle it over time, but I didn't want to raise them inside an industry that they may not even be involved in. And while there's a way to do it, we just made a decision. Kathleen is from Michigan, we just went back home, to be honest thinking the career would end eventually. And it didn't. It worked well. I mean, it's cost me money, it's cost me jobs, but the family is in great shape."

Without playing the Hollywood game, Daniels continues to work in diverse roles, approaching three decades now. "Whatever talent I have, I've relied on that, versus image or star. I have just said, ‘Hire me if you want somebody good.' I tried to be as good as I could be every time out, and that's kind of bridged the decades. And that's a lot of the reason for Dumb And Dumber, Pleasantville, the whole wide range because that opens the door to a lot of jobs. I mean Clint was the guy who said, "If you can do Two Days In The Valley and Dumb And Dumber, you can do [Blood Work]. So it was a conscious career move, because we wanted to live there."

Check out the small town life of Because of Winn-Dixie this weekend.