Brian d’Arcy James has, professionally, been on a hot streak for about five years now.
So that the actor has also found time to train for and run his first marathon last October in Chicago amidst TV, film, and Broadway projects, speaks to his ability to keep up the pace over the long haul.
James has been in demand since 2013 when he juggled TV spots and a starring role on Broadway in Shrek. From there, he went on to a buzzed-about part in 2015’s Oscar-winner Spotlight, the lead in Something’s Rotten! on Broadway (for which he was nominated for a Tony and Drama Desk award), and a stint as the original King George III in Hamilton. Things kicked into high gear when he was cast as Mr. Baker (aka Hannah’s dad) on Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and as “Bad Brad" in the film Molly’s Game, across from Jessica Chastain and Michael Cera.
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James came by the InStyle offices at the start of the year to talk about pretending to play poker, the second season of 13 Reasons, and his next project, acting alongside Ryan Gosling.
What was your Molly’s Game experience like? We shot in Toronto, which was fun for me because my only other time working there was doing Spotlight so there was a sense of familiarity. And it was pretty fantastic getting to work with Aaron [Sorkin, the film's writer and director]. His work is meticulous, not only in just the words that are chosen, but the rhythms that are created.
Your character is nicknamed “Bad Brad” because he’s not the best poker player—how are you at the game? I’ve always been allergic to poker, and maybe it’s because I don’t compute things quickly. So I didn’t have to do any research. But Brad had other reasons for being at that table, and is not necessarily concerned that he’s bad at poker. So in terms of the actual playing of it, it was helpful for me to feel that sense of intimidation and just being lost in a maze of rules.
Did you and the other actors play between takes? Yeah! There was constant playing because most guys there were players and they wanted to play. So in between takes people would play quick hands. I remember having a “Bad Brad” moment when I actually won a big hand literally not knowing what I was doing at all and they were like, how did you win that?! It was a great way of mirroring my reality.
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In addition to your film work you’re also on 13 Reasons Why as Hannah’s dad, Mr. Baker. Is there anything you can reveal about the second season? I just finished shooting last week. So it’ll be back in the spring sometime. The second season is all new terrain—but I think what’s great about the story is that there’s so much ground to cover.
What is it like having a 16-year old daughter in real life and playing Hannah’s father in the show? Last season, particularly as we were kind of heading towards the finale and what transpires for Hannah— not just suicide, but the rape and the sexual assault and all those things leading up to it—were harrowing to read, particularly as a father. I remember reading a couple of scripts towards the end and engaging my daughter in conversation to ask, what’s your experience like at school? Has there been anything that comes near to this? It’s opened the door to a conversation about things I never dreamed I would talk about with her.
Was there any specific feedback she gave? She loved it! In total, she loved it. The story, the way the kids were drawn, how they talked to each other … she found it very realistic. Brian [Yorkey, the show's creator] gives the characters such dimensionality.
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Your next project is First Man, the period drama about astronaut Neil Armstrong directed by Damien Chazelle. Have you wrapped that yet? I have one more day of shooting in February. It’s fascinating—such a great story about Neil Armstrong, getting to know who he was and what led him to be. How fate and his own talent and ability led him to this historic opportunity. And I’m watching The Crown right now, so I just said to my wife I’m so glad I didn’t see any of The Crown before I met Claire [Foy, who plays Armstrong’s first wife Janet Shearon] because I wouldn’t have been able to talk to her! She’s so amazing in that show and I had a couple of scenes with her. I’m just blown away by what she brings. And, of course Ryan Gosling is terrific as well. And, Damien is the director that did La La Land and Whiplash—I’m a huge fan of his. It’s always really exciting when you get to meet people you admire and they turn out to be even better than what you imagined. That’s the case with those three.
Who did you spend the majority of your scenes acting with? Ryan! I play a character who is a bit of a mentor to Neil, Joe Walker. He flew X15 research planes which was the precursor to the space program. So, he’s an astronaut technically because he flew past the marker—there’s a French term that says if you go past this point you’re in space and you’re out of the atmosphere. And he was able to do so in a plane. The way that Damien and I describe him is like he's 5 minutes late to the party. So, he was Neil’s senior and they worked together and he did become kind of a friend in crisis. They share some painful history, so there’s a bond there that starts off the movie.
On top of film, TV, and Broadway, I heard you just ran a marathon? Yes, I ran the Chicago Marathon in October! I would train wherever I could. I’d go back and forth to San Francisco a lot for 13 Reasons, so I got to run around Napa County where there’s some gorgeous places. I would just run whenever I could, you just have to.
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How does the adrenaline of crossing a finish line compare with the feeling of walking off a Broadway stage or wrapping a scene in a movie? Theater is a sport in a way. You feel the psychical exertion of starting at A and ending at Z in a play or a musical—it’s undeniable and you have to be there to do it. You cross a multitude of finish lines in a film. You cross one in a 30 second scene, you cross one in a one minute scene—it’s just a different adrenaline rush. I would say for me, the adrenaline in a film or TV is always present at the beginning of the process before the cameras start to roll because you have an expectation of what you want to achieve. Whereas, the adrenaline that happens during a play is kind of a constant steady burn and you feel at the end when you’ve done it, it’s like you’ve just run a race.
Molly's Game is out now, nationwide.