Brian d’Arcy James has been a fixture on Broadway since 1993, starring in productions as diverse as The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Shrek the Musical, and the Off Broadway run of Hamilton at the Public Theater, where he originated the role of King George III. But for film audiences, he’s still a relative unknown — especially compared to his three teammates on the titular Boston Globe team in Spotlight, movie stars Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, and Mark Ruffalo — though perhaps not for much longer. Shortly before he and his co-stars won Best Acting Ensemble at the Critics’ Choice Awards on Sunday night, Vulture caught up with James, who’s currently starring on Broadway in Something Rotten, to talk about inhabiting the persona of Matt Carroll, the horror and importance of Spotlight, and joining a Hollywood all-star team.
Tell me about your introduction to Spotlight.
The thing that stuck out to me immediately was Tom McCarthy’s name — I’m a big fan of his work, and I’ve seen all his films. I just thought, Oh, I know this is going to be good. I read his script and realized that this was a really powerful story, and I learned a lot in the process about the Globe and all that. I think I knew when I auditioned that Mark and Michael were involved, but by the time I got the part I’d heard that Rachel and Liev [Schreiber] and [John] Slattery and James Sheridan and Stanley Tucci, all these names were attached to the film. [Laughs.] I couldn’t quite believe it, based on the nature of the role I was going to play, which was one of this quartet of reporters.
When you were researching Matt Carroll, how did you develop the character?
I spent a decent amount of time with Matt — I was cast pretty soon before production started, and I was also working in New York at the time, so I wasn’t as mobile to see him. Thankfully, he came to New York for a conference with his new job at MIT and we made a plan to sit down and talk. We had about a two-and-a-half-hour coffee, and I asked him everything I wanted to know about his job, his life, everything I could think of. It was figuring him out — seeing what he was like and his mannerisms, but also his philosophy and his essence and all that. Subsequent to that time, I was in constant contact with him, emailing him specific questions and having conversations.
Josh Singer, the co-writer of the screenplay, and Tom also helped me become familiarized with Matt’s writing. They did an incredible amount of research, and Josh came in with his little USB hard drive with all of the articles written by the Globe staff reporters and Spotlight reporters and also the historical context of some of the other things that led them to it.
You also nailed Matt’s mustache.
[Laughs.] That was just luck, I suppose.
There’s one moment in particular that feels like the pivotal emotional scene for Matt — when he learns that rehabilitation house is so close to his own home. It was interesting the way you chose to play it, because the moment really seems to activate something in him. Is that something you discussed with Matt?
It is a true story, so I did talk to him about what that was like. Mostly we talked about the idea of what it meant to him as a father. I’m a father as well, so that was something I could easily relate to. It wasn’t hard for him to express his disgust and disbelief. But what I considered in terms of being the actor trying to portray that scene is that it’s the final moment of a long, arduous montage, of watching this inactive experience of going through directories, seeing the reports of the locations. It’s very dreary work, and this particular scene is the release of that.
As a person, as an actor, as a character, what I was trying to convey, and what I was very aware of throughout the process of making the movie, is the level of information that these reporters had as they went down the road. They thought they were looking at a hill, and then it was a larger hill, and then it was a mountain. So it was the idea of being stunned into the realization that the numbers are alive and in your backyard. It’s important to realize that these were people who were putting a puzzle together, and Tom was always very aware of calibrating the temperature and the heat of the story very meticulously. He was always communicating to us what we knew and when we knew it, and perhaps how that informed us in terms of our emotional state.
The chemistry between you and Michael and Mark and Rachel is so important to the movie, the way you guys are this cohesive team. How did you all calibrate that familiarity, that unspoken history you seemed to have with each other?
The first part of the answer is that you’re beholden to what’s written in the script in terms of how you’re going to interact with any other character — in this case, four people in the bullpen in the Spotlight office. Tom and Josh created these many scenes where you have these people and their thoughts and their processes ping-ponging off each other in a way that is literally a road map you have to follow. That’s the first-and-foremost thing that is going to establish any chance of chemistry. They created the kitchen that we could cook in.
Secondly, I have a theory about this. I’m speaking for myself, of course, but we were representing real people who did an extraordinary thing, and we were given this privilege to tell their story. I think we all felt a very distinct third rail of responsibility in getting that right, which perhaps led us to being more open to working with each other, because in a way we were not so concentrated on ourselves, per se, but on representing the characters and the people that we played, the actual people. That may have been a binding ingredient.
The last thing I’ll say is that I’m in a unique position to speak about this, because I’m coming out of left field in terms of the team players. I knew who Michael Keaton was, I knew who Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams were, very well, and I’m a fan of them. But they didn’t know who I was — I’d met Mark, so Mark knew who I was, but not very well, and Michael and Rachel had never met me. Yet, there I was, part of this team, and it’s a testament to them as people, because they’re gracious, they’re interested in people, they’re professional, and by virtue of that they were willing to invite me in with no questions asked. That is a testament also to people trusting Tom McCarthy and saying, “If Tom has invited this guy into the pool, then let’s just go without even wondering about it.” I’m not trying to sell myself short, but they treated me as an equal from the very beginning.
That’s interesting to hear, because you’ve performed with a lot of really great actors in theater and have a very impressive résumé onstage. What is the difference between doing a Broadway performance and walking onto a set like this?
It’s in the gestation and the execution. In the theater you have a long time to mull over the script and to rehearse it and then rehearse it again and connect all the dots and then rehearse them in sequence. What you’re presenting, ultimately, is an uninterrupted sequence of events that tells an emotional story. It’s necessary to iron all of that out in a sometimes-grueling, always-rewarding process of rehearsal. That is the main difference in terms of the attack. The execution is essentially the same, although obviously with a play, you just keep barreling forward, and the way that moments connect to each other are organically linked, whereas in a film they’re not. This is something that I’ve marveled at with great film performances over the years. Great film actors are very aware of the road map in their minds in terms of what should be organic moments that are ultimately cut together with film — they have to know where they are in the labyrinth in order to have those moments be successfully connectable by an editor.
I read that you grew up Catholic. Do you think that helped you understand the nature of the community and the impact of what was happening in the film?
I don’t know that it had any impact in terms of feeling like I had any kind of secret information that maybe someone who wasn’t Catholic wouldn’t have. In fact, I didn’t fully understand the nature of the scandal and these horrific things that were happening, not only in terms of the abuse but also the institutional malfeasance of the cover-up. That’s the thing that will shake anybody who’s an objective observer, Catholic or otherwise. I will say, though, that we have to address this, that we can’t look away from this, and by being a part of that community, I better be a part of that conversation. It’s hard to reconcile your own spiritual pursuits in an institution that has done this. But to be a part of a film that tells this particular story, one that is unfathomable almost to understand, makes me feel very proud.