As intelligence analyst Will Travers in AMC’s new show “Rubicon,” James Badge Dale specializes in keeping his lips sealed. He spends his days poring over geopolitical reports, looking for patterns and clues in the seemingly most random snippets of information and his discoveries remain locked up the second he leaves work. Add to this his ongoing stoicism about his wife and child’s death in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and you can imagine how much fun he is at a party. Not much of a talker, Will.
Though not exactly a chatterbox — he’s too soft-spoken and introspective to fit that label — Dale proves open and engaging on everything from his upbringing in Los Angeles to his professional struggles in his mid-20s (but not his tattoos: “I’d rather not talk about them,” he says). So open in fact that, at one point, the actor frets that he should put a lid on it.
“Are we talking way too much? Are we going way too in depth?” he asks toward the end of the interview, between drags on a series of Camel Lights. “I feel like I’m giving away the secrets, giving away a book.”
At 32 and considering his year thus far, it’s safe to assume Dale will be able to collect plenty of material for his next outpouring. In March he played one of the three protagonists in Steven Spielberg’s critically lauded HBO miniseries “The Pacific” and, starting Aug. 1, he will be headlining “Rubicon,” opposite Miranda Richardson and Dallas Roberts.
Set in New York, the show focuses on Dale’s Travers, a brilliant but closed-off federal intelligence analyst. When his boss dies under suspicious circumstances, he finds himself embroiled in a global conspiracy that pushes him out of his hermetic existence.
“I think this guy has an IQ that’s double mine. He’s very good at things that I’m not good at. And there’s this fear of, ‘My god, I’m not going to be able to pull this off.’ People are going to find me out and be like, ‘That guy’s not insanely brilliant at patterns and math,’” says Dale, who read countless books on emergence theory and government intelligence in preparation for the role.
The actor was able to tap into more personal material when it came to understanding Will’s emotional damage from the loss of his wife and child and his resulting social isolation.
“He’s a man who hasn’t grieved,” says the actor, who was familiar with such a state having lost his mother to cancer when he was 15. It wasn’t until Dale saw a production of “Wit” with Judith Light (playing a woman dying of cancer) that he himself was able to properly mourn his mother’s passing. “I was a wild teenager. I was angry, [in] a lot of pain, didn’t navigate it well. And that’s what fascinated me about Will. Here’s a guy who’s at this place that I was as a teenager. He’s withdrawn from the world and hides in his work. What I love about this show is that here’s someone who’s being forced back into the world, to deal with people and to face things.”
Born and raised in New York until he was six years old, Dale grew up surrounded by actors. His father, Grover Dale, is a Tony Award-winning director and choreographer who danced in the original production of “West Side Story” and was Jerome Robbins’ protégé; his mother, Anita Morris, was a successful musical theater actress. When she began getting TV and film offers, the brood moved to Los Angeles.
Dale had his first brush with Hollywood when he was in fourth grade and plucked by a casting director for the movie “Lord of the Flies.”
“[Afterwards] my parents were like, ‘Do you want to do this? We want you to do whatever you want to do.’ I think they knew what happens to children in the film business,” recalls Dale. “They were like, ‘Listen, if you want to do this we’ll support you…but we’re not getting involved. We’re not going to help you with your lines. You want to go to an audition, you walk there.’ What I noticed was very quickly, it wasn’t as much fun, it became a job. And I didn’t know if that’s the experience I wanted to have.”
Instead, Dale focused on ice hockey for many years, playing in a junior league called the Western States Hockey League in Utah and getting recruited by Manhattanville College in Westchester, N.Y.
“I got hurt in the first month and all of my energy went into the theater department,” he says, adding that despite his upbringing and early work, it wasn’t an immediate decision to pursue acting. Again, it was his experience of watching Light in “Wit” that sealed the deal. “I walked away and realized, ‘My god, they weren’t on stage for them.’ They were telling a story that was affecting the audience and it wasn’t just a me, me, me thing, which was the way I’d always thought about it.”
So at 22, Dale left school, settled in New York, studied at Stella Adler and worked construction jobs while going on casting calls.
“I’d show up for auditions covered in sheetrock dust, dirty, wearing gloves, hair was all over the place. And I knew my stuff,” he says, adding without a trace of false modesty, “If I’m peddling in looks, I’m in trouble.”
His last construction job was in 2003, when he landed his first Actors’ Equity Association gig, the play “Getting Into Heaven” at the Flea Theater. Since then, he’s appeared on various “CSI” shows, and had a recurring role on a season of “24.” He recently finished shooting Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” opposite Robin Wright and James McAvoy.
And over the years, Dale has learned to cope with an industry that isn’t easy on the ego.
“I have moments at work where I’m like, ‘Oh god, I’ve got to find another career. I can’t do this anymore.’ We actors are sensitive people. We’re very self-conscious,” he says, recalling a dark period after “24” when he went months without work. “I became unhinged. And there was a moment when I just decided, ‘You know what? I don’t care what you think of me. I’m going to do this because I like to do it.’ I’m going to go back to that state of mind when I was six years old and it’s the joy of the performance, the joy of the story.”