Brian d’Arcy James knew that he wanted to be an actor ever since he was a teenager. But it wasn’t until he went to Northwestern University and began to study acting there that he realized there was “a science, a skill, a craft to it,” which is something he credits to one of his instructors there, Bud Beyer. “He taught me how to act,” he says.
James got his Actors’ Equity card before he graduated by appearing as Claude in a production of “Hair” and has been working ever since.
One of James’ trademarks is his rich tenor voice, which he will show off Friday and Saturday at Carnegie Hall when he appears with the New York Pops. Among other songs, he will be performing one he wrote himself, “Michigan Christmas.” He is also a PopsEd ambassador for the New York Pops, which means that he works to raise awareness of their music education programs.
James is a well-known theater actor who has appeared in many Broadway productions, including playing the title character in “Shrek the Musical” and George III in “Hamilton.” He is performing at the St. James Theatre in the satirical musical “Something Rotten” as Nick Bottom, one of two playwright brothers who are jealous of rock-star-like William Shakespeare, and so invent a musical comedy to steal his thunder.
“Working with Brian eight times a week is a true joy,” says one of his costars in “Something Rotten,” Brad Oscar. “He is always present, giving and playful, our fearless leader who anchors the show. They don’t come any better.”
James is also appearing in the critically lauded new film “Spotlight,” which also stars Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, John Slattery and Rachel McAdams. It has been nominated for Golden Globes for best picture, best dramatic ensemble, best director and best screenplay — which its director Tom McCarthy wrote with Josh Singer — and is regarded as a likely Academy Award contender.
The actor, who is from Saginaw, Mich., seems genuinely surprised to find himself in such starry company, and recalls that, after his audition for “Spotlight,” which his agent secured for him, he had no sense that he nailed the part at all, and says he was simply glad to have had the chance to try out for it.
Of making “Spotlight,” James says, “It’s kind of like sculpture, always there in the marble, and you have to unveil it. [McCarthy] structured it in the way he created it, very meticulously building the blocks of the story. He always told us to stay true to how much we knew of the story at any given point.”
The film concerns the efforts by a team of reporters at The Boston Globe to uncover a scandal in the Catholic church about pedophile priests who were being systemically taken out of parishes when they were accused of sexual misconduct, then later recycled to other parishes elsewhere, without addressing any of the problems that they had caused and would go on to cause again. The reporters won the Pulitzer Prize.
The movie is notable for its understated verisimilitude in showing a working newsroom and the effort required to uncover such a far-reaching story, which required large amounts of difficult and tedious detective work. James’ character discovers the fact that there are yearly log books which show whether priests were out “sick” or “on leave,” which often contained the names of priests accused of molesting children. His character, Matt Carroll, he says, is “the data geek” of the group.
“I’d never worked with him before,” says McCarthy. “But he’s very solid, so no matter what I threw at him, he responded with something rooted in his character and with confidence.”
“I wasn’t all that familiar with Brian’s work,” says Michael Keaton of his fellow performer. “I knew he was a really well-respected stage actor. I just knew I really liked him as a person. The more I watched him during shooting, I kept thinking — man, this guy is really good. Really honest in his acting. So sure and confident. Not overselling anything. Since then, we’ve become friends. Really talented and really a good guy.”
Actor Bobby Cannavale calls him “the real deal.” Cannavale was a host of a dinner honoring James and the film at Sirio Maccioni’s Manhattan restaurant Circo on Sunday.
The difference between stage acting and film acting, James says, is a question of “calibration, how to calibrate your performance to exert more and give more to reach 200 yards so that those people can see what you’re doing. The physicality of what you can do by flaring a nostril on screen is the same as doing a jumping jack onstage. “
Then there’s the difference in the amount of rehearsal — weeks for a play and days for a film — and the fact that films are generally made out of sequence to the order of the action. He compares the role of a director to that of a chemist, knowing what to add and what to subtract from a performance or a film.
During a conversation at a café, Laurie Metcalf came in and greeted him. James told her that he often thinks about how, when he is about to play the third act of “Something Rotten,” she and Bruce Willis, who are appearing in “Misery” nearby, are already done for the evening.
James’ father was a lawyer who was very active in civic affairs and who died at the early age of 50. His mother runs a children’s publishing company, while his two sisters are both actresses. His brother “invests for the University of Chicago,” as he puts it. His uncle Brian Kelly appeared in the TV series “Flipper” and many spaghetti Westerns, and, after a bad motorcycle accident, stopped acting but went on to produce “Blade Runner.” His wife, Jennifer Prescott, is an actress who is also active in environmental affairs and who received a commendation from the Michael Bloomberg administration for creating a conservation protocol that was adopted throughout the city school system. The two have a daughter, Grace.
The actor’s maternal grandfather, Harry Kelly, served in World War I, during which he received the Croix de Guerre for rescuing two French soldiers, losing one of his legs in the process. He went on to become a district attorney, in which role he prosecuted the Purple Gang of Detroit and later became the governor of Michigan. Brian is a dead ringer for him.
He likes to tell stories that poke fun at himself. He recalls a boy who was one of his daughter’s schoolmates who, when he was picking up his child from school one day, pointed him out to a friend and said, “He plays Shrek on Broadway.” The other boy’s response: “That’s impossible.” James said he considers that assessment a compliment.
After performances of “Something Rotten,” audience members often stick around to see the actors and collect autographs. One woman who did so mentioned that she’d just seen his new film, and he asked her what she thought of it. She said, “Well, you had the smallest part.”