Loose and lanky, with a Dudley Do-Right jaw, Jeff Daniels seems the antithesis of a brooding, introverted Method actor. He’s an easygoing regular guy, kind of like the young doctor he plays in the recently released Arachnophobia. But when it came to spending two agonizing weeks shooting the climactic battle scene with his on-screen nemesis, Daniels remained unusually standoffish. Which is probably a wise approach when playing opposite a nine-inch Amazonian bird-eating tarantula nicknamed Big Bob.
”We had no rapport,” Daniels jokes. ”He’d rear up and hiss. They’d feed him a rat every weekend. It would be, ‘Have a good Saturday night, Bob. See ya Monday.”’
A self-possessed performer who has held his own against such accomplished scenery chewers as Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine (Terms of Endearment) and Melanie Griffith and Ray Liotta (Something Wild), Daniels admits that when it came to Bob, ”I had a problem. Especially when the spider wranglers were off camera wearing thick, heavy loves, yelling, ‘If he comes after you, we’ll be jumping in right away,”’ he recalls. ”But meanwhile, it’s the movies, you know, and they’re going, ‘Let’s do it again. Let’s see if we can get him to crawl closer to Jeff’s hand.”’
Even though a mechanical arachnid was substituted for Bob in some of the hairier shots, Daniels spent much of his time fending off the superstar spider’s unwelcome advances. ”Bob apparently likes white boys,” laughs Daniels between bites of a club sandwich. ”I guess I was enough bait for him.”
Until Arachnophobia thrust him back into the spotlight this summer, the boyish-looking 35-year-old actor seemed to have shied away from a promising Hollywood career. Raised in the small town of Chelsea, Mich., where he still lives with his wife and two children, Daniels scored his first major screen role as the feckless Flap Horton in 1983’s Oscar-winning Terms of Endearment. In 1985 his portrayal of a ’30s matinee idol in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo established him as an up-and-coming leading man. But Daniels viewed himself as more of a character actor and chose to work in offbeat films that have barely registered at the box office. Sweet Heart’s Dance, a rural romance starring his pal Don Johnson, disappeared quickly in 1988. Last year’s Checking Out, in which he played a morbid hypochondriac, arrived at theaters DOA. And Love Hurts, a drama about a newly single father, is searching for a distributor.
Daniels defends his choices. ”I took chances,” he says. ”I always took them for good reasons. But if it doesn’t work, then you move on to the next. Luckily, people kept calling.”
While Arachnophobia may reestablish his commercial clout, it was actually last season’s CBS drama No Place Like Home that reminded audiences of Daniels’ dramatic potential. Teamed with Christine Lahti in a harrowing study of homelessness directed by Lee Grant, Daniels found the experience emotionally exhausting. ”Christine holds nothing back,” he says. ”If you don’t bring everything you’ve got to the scene, she will blow you away because she’s that talented. Lee demands that you use and abuse your emotions. If you’re supposed to break down, you break down eight different ways, and you’re left to pick up the pieces of your emotional self.”
Working with eight-legged costars presented angst of a different sort. But after Big Bob, everything else was a breeze, he says. Does that mean Daniels wasn’t afraid of the three-inch Delena spiders that portrayed Bob’s troops? ”I was okay with them,” he reports. ”Though I’d rather they weren’t crawling on my face.”