One of the great theatre actors of his generation, Brian d’Arcy James has been making a name for himself on Broadway for quite a few years now. He’s been in everything from the Shrek musical to Time Stands Still and Giant, picking up a collection of awards and nominations along the way. Though he still primarily remains a New York theater actor, James has begun to expand into film and television. This week the actor’s most prominent film role to date hits screens in Tom McCarthy’s searing, heartfelt, and powerful Spotlight.
The film is about the team of Boston Globe journalists who uncovered the Catholic Church’s disgusting practice of concealing molestations and hiding priests caught for the crimes. James plays Matt Carroll, one of the four investigative journalists involved in breaking the story (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo play the other three). The role required the musical theater actor to stretch some very different muscles as an actor amongst a very talented crop of co-stars and he succeeded admirably.
Brian d’Arcy James was in Toronto for Spotlight’s premiere at TIFF last fall, where Dork Shelf got a chance to chat with the actor about his research-intensive role, the challenges of portraying a real person, and of course, his stunning moustache-growing abilities. Read on for all the details.
First off, I wanted to let you know that you have by far the best moustache of any movie that I saw at TIFF.
Thank you so much. I’m happy to say that it’s my own.
Well done. The big hair as well?
Yeah, that all comes very naturally to me. For better or worse.
How long did that take?
Not very long. I sneeze and I have a moustache and the hair grows like weeds. So it was easy.
Alright, so besides all the hair how did this project come to you and what drew you to it?
Well, it came about like things do typically for me. There was a submission to my agent and a call to audition. I went in and I met Tom McCarthy and read for the role. It was a typical way for me to audition for a film. But you know, when you have Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams involved, there’s a high level of talent that’s very attractive.
So you knew they were involved right off the bat?
No, actually. I found out later that I was one of the last pieces of the puzzle in terms of the four main journalists. So it all came together very quickly for me, which was thrilling. When I did realize this was the role I was playing and these were the people I was doing it with, it was a “pinch me” moment.
Did you spend any time with the real Matt Carroll?
I did. Because we were so close to shooting, my time with him was a little less involved than what Michael or Mark or Rachel might have experienced. I was working in New York at the time, so I couldn’t get to Boston to meet him. But luckily Matthew was in New York for a conference at that same time. So he made the time and we had a dinner where we sat and talked in a diner on the West side. I just asked him everything I could think of from surface things about who he is, what he does, how he lives his life, his family and so forth. But also the intricacies of what it takes to tell a story.
Were you also looking for mannerisms and ticks and little behaviours from him that you could use?
You’re always watching for that sort of thing, sure. Well, that makes it sound like I have experience doing this specifically, which I don’t really. But every actor is watching people all the time for things they could use down the road. When it comes to wrapping your head around the idea of “I’m going to play you” of course you’re trying to soak up as much as you can. I remember Michael Keaton saying something that I’ll second, “You try not to do an impression”. You try to capture the essence of what makes a person tick and use what you’ve learned to create a three dimensional character.
Did he actually live a few blocks from one of the priest “rehabilitation houses” and did you get to talk to him about that?
Oh yeah. It was quite an alarm bell. I think what’s interesting in the film is that Matt represents a couple of things in the film. Data journalism for one. But secondly, he represents a little bit of the family element in terms of how his work was affecting his home life. How he had to keep a lid on all these things from his family, especially when he learned one of those houses used for re-indoctrinating the priests (as if they were sick) was right down the street. So yeah, that was a true story and an interesting aspect to the personal meeting the professional.
Weirdly, when we shot that scene, we ended up shooting in a house that was a block from where Matt Carroll actually lives. So he came across the street and was hanging out. It was pretty bizarre.
It must have been odd to be in full make up and costume standing next to him.
Exactly. Tom [McCarthy] would call me ‘Matt’ on set. So that day whenever he said, “Matt come over here.” The real Matt would respond as well. He’d have to say, “I’m sorry, I’m talking to the fake Matt.”
And how did you find working with Tom? One of the reasons why I’m so glad he was the one to make this movie was because there are so many speaking roles in the film and he has unique such a dedication to character and his actors that it felt like anyone who was on screen, even for a brief scene for expository purposes, really had a fully fleshed out character and performance in a way they might not have developed with another filmmaker.
Yeah, there’s something about him and I think perhaps it comes from his history as an actor. I really connected with how he communicates. It’s always very clear what he sees and what he wants. He leaves you a feeling of the characters and the actors that he casts. I think he has a great sense of what needs to happen for something to feel authentic on screen. So I agree with you that everyone in the film, from people who don’t speak to people who have maybe two lines or a hundred lines are all seemingly in the same world. I think that’s a credit to his sensibility. He knows how to find people who are right for the tone and the color that he wants to create.
Does he do much rehearsal with the actors to build that dynamic?
We did have some rehearsal before the shooting started. That was extraordinary for a movie. He really takes the time to work with everyone and build the world. For me, that was great for a couple of reasons. Number one, I was in the room before we started shooting with all of these actors that I admire. So that was good just to get that out of the way. Crack that egg and get the shell off the counter and then get to work and think of them as colleagues. But more importantly, with a story like this there was so much information and he and his co-writer Josh Singer had collected. So there was a lot of homework for us to do and detail to digest. That was good for the process as well.
Do you know if the movie has screened for the actual journalists yet?
Yes, they’ve seen it. They saw a screening, I believe in New York. I don’t think it was the final cut yet. But Tom told me that they saw it and were all very impressed and happy. Which is the highest compliment you can get, if you’re telling someone’s actual story.
Do you have any good Michael Keaton stories?
Well, the story that I’ve told a couple of times just to my friends is that Birdman came out while we were shooting. Now, who isn’t a Michael Keaton fan? But I couldn’t believe that I was able to go watch Birdman and then go to work the next day and say, “Hey, you were great in Birdman!” (Laughs) That was quite a banner day. And then, you know there’s something kind of magical about being in a situation about that where you realize that people you admire who seem so iconic and out of touch are just the opposite. They’re just doing their job like anyone else and they love what they do. It was great to be in the same boat with them.
I pleased with the Boston accents in Spotlight because that’s such a fun accent to do that it’s very easy to go over the top. Was there an official “accent meeting” or anything like that to keep it under control?
Yeah, definitely. Tom went to Boston college, so he’s got a good ear for it. My sister did as well, so my first encounter with a big city was visiting her in Boston. I’ve spent a lot of time there. I’m a musical person as well, so I have a fairly good ear. I had what I hoped was a good approach to it. I think what you said is true. It’s easy to oversell something like that. It’s also very interesting for these characters because Mike Rezendes doesn’t have an accent at all and Robby Robinson only has the hint of one. I think Matt might have the most consistent accent because he’s born and raised in the area. But having said that, I was expecting to hear the full flourish of the accent when I met him. It was on a lowburn, from what I heard anyways. So I tried to represent that as well.
I was curious to ask you something. People talk about amputees having a phantom limb that they’ll feel at odd times. Since you did it for so long, do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and feel the Shrek makeup still on your face?
(Laughs) You know? I don’t. Funnily enough I’m doing a show on Broadway right now call Something Rotten. It’s set in Elizabethan England, so I’m wearing these heavy cumbersome costumes that are easy to complain about. But after Shrek, everything is a walk in the park. I haven’t had any moments where I wake up in the middle of the night clutching my face yet though. We’ll see.
Do you think theater will always remain your love and focus? Or do you want to branch out to more film and television projects?
Well, I studied theater. It’s the thing that I’ve learned and defined myself by as an artist and an actor. It’s the thing that I’ve done the most. So I think whenever you get to do something new, it’s exciting. It’s exciting to learn about something new or exercise another muscle, whether it’s in television or film. I like the fact that my eyes are wide open when I’m in that situation. I’m very familiar with the process of what it takes to put a show on stage. So getting the education on moviemaking while acting in a film is something that I want to do more of.
It must be very different experience and style of acting to work on a small character driven film like this versus something like musical theater.
It is. I think the timing is good for me. I’ve had a lot of little surgical strikes on film and television before now and that’s been great in terms of learning how to calibrate a performance for the screen. It is a different muscle completely, but with a great script and director you just have to show up and trust your instincts. In this case, you know you’re going to be guided in the right direction by a brilliant director like Tom.
Going through your credits today, I have to say as a movie nerd that I’m very jealous you got to do The Sweet Smell Of Success on stage. That’s some of the greatest dialogue ever written. It must have been a blast.
Oh yeah. That was great. I didn’t get to meet Ernest Lehman. but I got a nice fax from him. Geez…faxes…(laughs) that shows you how long ago it was. 2001. But he sent me a fax. John Guare, a famous New York playwright did the adaptation and he was very faithful to the screenplay. It’s such a quotable movie. You know, “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river. Match me Sidney.” You can go on and on. So that was a really wonderful experience.
I’ll bet and with John Lithgow as well, right?
Yeah, he played JJ Hunsecker. That was a remarkable thing. That was a big break for me because it was a big show. Then to be in the passenger car with John driving the motorcycle? That was a great way to do it.
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