The past two years have belonged to actor James Badge Dale. You just probably haven’t noticed it yet. This summer alone, the 35 year old NYC native and former construction worker has already appeared as one of the villains out to destroy Tony Stark in Iron Man 3 and a military captain helping Brad Pitt in World War Z. Last year he was one of the crash survivors in the icy Liam Neeson vs. wolves thriller The Grey, and a one scene wonder in Robert Zemeckis’ Flight as a rehab patient. The tail end of the year before that saw him playing Michael Fassbender’s boss in Steve McQueen’s Shame.
Now, the actor is in a downtown Toronto hotel boardroom talking about his latest in a string of varied roles in high profile productions, Dan Reid in The Lone Ranger. The naturally good looking and extremely down to earth Dale steps into the cowboy boots of the older brother of famed, masked lawman to be Armie Hammer, and appears alongside Johnny Depp in director Gore Verbinski’s tentpole summer blockbuster.
A an admittedly self-effacing nerd and proud workaholic, Dale has also appeared quite frequently on television (most notably in 24 and The Pacific) and has been working consistently since roughly 2002 (not withstanding his big screen debut in the 1990 remake of Lord of the Flies). He’s incredibly charismatic, charming, and remarkably laid back. He answers questions about his career naturally and without even a hint of rehearsal to his answers. He’s the real deal, and it’s easy to see why he’s become one of the hottest young character actors in Hollywood.
Dork Shelf sat down with Dale to talk about working with Gore Verbinski, the feel and scale of dressing up for a period western,Lone Ranger‘s incredible stunt work, never getting recognized in public thanks to constantly changing facial hair, what it’s like to work with so little down time, his dorky love for a certain game involving multi-sided dies, and if there are any childhood fantasies he has left to fulfil.
You’re having a bit of a breakout year – Lone Ranger, World War Z, Iron Man 3 – all three are huge films. Has your life changed at all yet? Do people recognize you on the street now?
JBD: I think the change is in the facial hair. (laughs) That’s what leads to me not really getting recognized. It’s funny because when we were shooting Lone Ranger I was sitting on a flight back and forth and there was a gentleman next to me at the flight attendant was talking to us and she asked us what we did for a living, and I said I was an actor. They didn’t believe it because I was all dirty looking with this moustache and everything and they asked “Well, what have you been in?” And that’s the hardest question for an actor. I don’t really understand it. Do you want me to name off my resume? (laughs) Then you know what happens: You start listing off things and everything you list they say “No, I’ve never seen that.” (laughs) Then I look up and the movie on the plane that they’re playing is this Robert Redford directed movie that I was in called The Conspirator, and the moment they ask me that, I look up and I was actually on screen. (laughs) Then I turn and go, “Well, that’s me right there!” And then they look at me and then the screen and back at me, and then they go “No it’s not.” (laughs) They thought I was a liar and there was this big accusatory look. So sometimes it’s just best not to be recognized.
It’s funny because every time you show up in a movie, I’m able to notice you. I saw you first when you were back on 24 and ever since then I’ve been able to notice when you’re in something with or without the facial hair.
JBD: (laughs) Thank you. At least somebody knows I’m working.
We don’t get a lot of westerns now, especially one on this grand of a scale. What was it like being around these sets and putting it all together?
JBD: It was wild, man. We built an entire town outside of Albuquerque, so we had this entire living, breathing set and then five miles of track wrapping around the town and all through the desert with two working 1850s styled trains. Everything was right there for you and that was one of the beautiful things about working on this film. Gore insisted on doing it right and with natural light and everything right there. He wanted us to feel the dirt and smell the horses and go through all these experiences and in a strange way it was kind of like a childhood fantasy coming true because you grow up watching all these westerns and all of a sudden you just find yourself there. 360 degrees, you just look around and you’re there.
Did you enjoy the costume because it’s a lot of leather, and guns, and big hat in the middle of the desert?
JBD: (laughs) It’s a lot, but you slip on the boots and you spur up and that (puts on a Southern accent) does something to you. When you can clink your spurs and mount up on a horse… Man, I love that sound. (laughs) It makes you feel so tough when you’re sitting there with this gun belt and you can just ease on into that character. There’s a lot of weight when you have all that and a sidearm. It changes the way you walk.
You get to play a leader of lawmen in this, so was that the approach you took on set with the actors around you?
JBD: (laughs) They were probably just sitting there shaking their heads saying “Really? Badge is in charge? What’s he in charge of.” All those guys were great guys, and I think the important thing is to get to know your actors and the people you work with to create a relationship, and that was easy because there was a lot of passion for the project on set between all of the actors and the crew members, and it really all starts with someone like Gore Verbinski. It all came from the top down, man. He was excited about filmmaking and we all kind of carried that with us.
But I’m not really that guy, man. (laughs) I mean, that was something that struck a cord of fear in me because I show up first day and I’m looking at all these guys and you have someone like Kevin Wiggins, who’s kind of this older, gnarly looking guy, and I thought “This guy is never going to do anything I say.” (laughs) (talks really politely) “Would you please mount up? Please?” We all hung out together and lived together and we were able to form a unit and we always talked to each other. It wasn’t really about being a leader or not being a leader on set. We treated each other as equals.
How much of the film’s big train chase at the beginning were you guys actually doing while you were running around on top of it, because a lot of it seemed like actors and stuntmen instead of CGI?
JBD: That was WILD! I mean we have these trains, and they are going, and we’re really running on top of them! So we’re running with Johnny and Armie, and Gore is standing there going “Can we make it go faster?” Then someone said that 30 miles an hour was probably the safety limit, and then we kind of sped it up a bit. (laughs) There was a lot of things that we could do ourselves, but when it came to the actual train transfer, that was the most insane thing to watch. That was when the stunt guys came in and they had been working on that for MONTHS. While I was in cowboy camp and I was just learning to trot on a horse, I was watching these guys rehearsing the train transfer, and there’s a lot of people in the film because you had the outlaws in the Cavendish gang doing them and then all the lawmen were doing them, and so on the day that was all their job. You were talking about life or death stunts and a lot of them and there was zero room for error, and the train transfer you guys see in the film is a composite shot of two stuntmen and myself. I can talk about walking around with my spurs and my sidearm all I want and you start thinking you’re tough, but you start hanging out with those guys and you know who’s really tough.
But that composite was one of the few times when CGI was used and it was my face on a stuntman. I mean, obviously there’s going to be some of that in a film this big, but what I love about it so much is that you see people actually doing stunts. These guys are amazing. You look at the credit crawl and when it comes to the stunt players, it’s like War and Peace. (laughs) Every single on of those guys earned a paycheque and then some. Hats of to ‘em, man. They made this movie really work.
What’s it like working with a mega movie star? Someone like Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt or Robert Downey Jr.? Do you think it’s interesting or that there’s some ego that gets in the way?
JBD: No, not at all, man. It’s absolutely the reverse. It’s interesting, man. In my experience, the people who are difficult to work with are not movie stars, you know what I mean? Johnny Depp is extremely humble and giving and kind and prepared. He there for a reason and he loves his job. Same goes for Brad Pitt and same goes for Robert Downey Jr. Of course, everyone is slightly different, but they’re professionals to the utmost degree. Denzel Washington, too, man. These guys are legit and the real deal and for a young actor like myself it’s a privilege to work with them. You sit down, you shut up and you learn from them and talk to them.
It’s easier for me to work with men, because we can get a rapport going and talk back and forth. It’s again that thing for me from growing up when I have to talk to a gorgeous woman that I start to get nervous. (laughs) That’s intimidating and it’s hard to get a performance out of me, then.
What’s it like working with Gore Verbinski, who kind of knows his way around these kinds of films so well?
JBD: I gotta tell you, I love Gore. I’d go to the end of the earth for him, because he would do it for you. Like I said before, you want to work with people who are passionate, and not only is he passionate, but he’s a student of film. He understands the craft and the entire thing.
He has an interesting way of talking to you sometimes. At one point he came up to me and was like “Badge, just put a bit more sauce on it.” (laughs) They don’t teach you that in drama school, man. (laughs) I’m standing there like “sauce? But you know what, you get it, you just get it. You get what he’s saying and what he wants because we’re on the same page with the story. Everything you see in this film is Gore Verbinski to a T. There’s not a moment or a visual or sound element or moment with the actors that doesn’t have Gore’s stamp on it, and that is the mark of a true filmmaker in my opinion.
So you have three huge films that you shot back to back over the course of two years and they’re all really huge movies with a lot riding on them, but did you get any downtime to just be by yourself or was it a case where as soon as one was done you would just go to the next?
JBD: Yeah, the last two years have been a sprint. This, right now, is the most downtime I’ve had in a two or three years. I went from The Grey straight into Shame to have two months off to go into World War Z, then to lose weight while I was doing World War Z to do Flight and then I had a moment to gain the weight back and learn how to ride a horse for The Lone Ranger and then I went off to do Iron Man 3. And they are all these different films with all these different kinds of characters.
I’ll be honest with you, though. I’m a work horse. I don’t do well with time off. So that’s an actors dream, man. I worked construction for six years. I just want to work. I enjoy my work. I love my work. And I’m lucky.
And they’re all these great character roles that you just mentioned in all of those films. Is that something that draws you in first before the rest of the movie itself?
JBD: This conversation comes up a lot. Is it the story first or the character first? You know, I think it’s a combination of both. The story has to work on one element but I enjoy different and sometimes strange characters. Sometimes I’ve seen movies come across my desk and everyone tells me I should do it for reasons A, B, and C and because of all these other reasons, and I just don’t see it. I’m just not your guy. Hire another actor because they’ll be better at this than I will. It’s not true that an actor has to be good at everything, but you do have to find out what you’re good at and have a range and expand through there.
You were working on all these huge films at around the same time, so was there ever any instances of people trying to dig information out of you while on set. I mean, did Shane Black ever come up to you and be like “So what’s going on with The Lone Ranger?”
JBD: (laughs) No, it’s a bit of small world actually. Everyone kind of knows each other. You work with the same crews over and over again and you’d be surprised how supportive people are. Besides, I don’t think anyone working on Iron Man 3 was worried about anyone else. (laughs) Let’s be honest.
This summer alone you’ve gotten to play a cowboy, a military man, and a comic book villain. Is the 12 year old boy inside you kind of pinching himself? And is there anything left that you would like to tackle?
JBD: I’d love to try playing an astronaut. (laughs) I like sci-fi film and the idea of things that are unknown, so there are a lot of thing on that front that I would love to try on my child fantasy list. I was also… oh man, I open up my mouth and now I’m stuck with this… I was also a fan of Dungeons and Dragons growing up.
Own it, man!
JBD: Yeah, but the embarrassing part was that I really didn’t have any friends growing up so I was my own dungeon master and I was doing everything by myself. I was playing all of the characters. I guess it made everything longer and more interesting. (pauses) Man, I am never getting a date again.
Well, it helps with your creativity, at least!
JBD: (laughs) Absolutely! It was my drama school, basically. But there are other things I love to do out there, and I’m a huge fan of things like Game of Thrones. But this summer was the culmination of a lot of work. It took two years to make all three of these films, and having them all come out together, but you’re absolutely right, man. I mean, come on, zombies, cowboys and Iron Man. It doesn’t get better than that.
Well there is one film I would love to try, but you can’t remake it! I have a Scottish background and I walked Scotland a few years ago and I will admit, when I was by myself, just walking around, I may have re-enacted Braveheart. (laughs) It’s possible. (laughs) That’s one of my favorite films, it’s such a beautiful movie. No one should ever touch it though.
When you were talking about Scotland I thought you were going to say Highlander.
JBD: (claps hands, gets excited) That’s a good one too! I shouldn’t step on anyone’s feet, because that’s a real thing that’s happening. But I know that they’re still looking for a male lead for the remake. (laughs)
My fingers are crossed for you.
JBD: Thank you! (laughs) I’d do it in a second. The original Highlander was such a great film, I loved it.