Talk to people in the New York theatre community and they will tell you what a nice, regular guy Brian d'Arcy James is, but you might not know it from the gritty roles he's played — the stoker in Titanic, the lout in The Good Thief, the sinister Burrs in Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party and his current role of the hungry New York press agent, Sidney Falco, who sells his soul to the devilish newspaper columnist, JJ Hunsecker, in Sweet Smell of Success. Acidic roles, yes, but James has that soaring tenor voice that songwriters want to write songs for. It's the sort of talent that earns Tony Award nominations, and James got his first nom in 2002, in the category of Best Featured Actor in a Musical, for Sweet Smell of Success. James talked with Playbill On-Line's Kenneth Jones about success, type-casting, critics and the fun of playing the darkness in one of the Broadway season's most talked-about American musicals.
Playbill On-Line: Your work in Sweet Smell of Success delivers what Brian d'Arcy James fans want — a huge song — especially "At the Fountain" in Act One.
Brian d'Arcy James: That's a great song. I think I'm really lucky to have that. For me, personally, it delivers what I want when I get a chance to sing. It's so melodic and tuneful and it's got such story behind it.
PBOL: And knowing your vocal chops, it has a payoff — a big note.
BJ: Yeah, yeah.
PBOL: It's an interesting, dark character you play. His journey seems very clear: This is a guy who is a grubber at the beginning, and what he wants is dough. He doesn't initially want power, but his appetite increases. He transforms.
BJ: It's a fantastic character. In terms of a musical, the character's arc is so complete — where he starts and where he ends. It's such a thrill to be able to play someone who starts from such a place that is so antithetical to where he ends up. That's a joy. I think you're right: He starts off with an innocence and a basic need to survive as a press agent and make a buck, and it's not until the carrot is dangled — and the carrot keeps getting bigger and bigger, and golden — that he becomes more greedy.
PBOL: This is a show about walking away from temptation and "doing the right thing." It all leads to a spot in Act Two. JJ asks Sidney to help rub out the boyfriend of JJ's sister.
BJ: And Sidney realizes this is getting really messy. "I want out." He actually has the courage to walk away — only to be trumped by JJ's offer to take the column [as a reward]. He always has the chance to have moral vindication...he's capable of making those decisions. But the temptation becomes so grand that he can't deny it. PBOL: Is it exhausting playing this kind of dark character?
BJ: It is exhausting. I find it exhausting for a couple of reasons. The need to get from one lily pad to the next, in terms of scenes, and how the stakes rise in every scene — that kind of oil is burning heavily inside you. There's a constant thrust always being excelerated. That takes its toll emotionally. Also, physically, mostly vocally, in terms of singing. And also the confrontations with JJ, as those rise, so too does the passion. I've been trying to find a healthy balance in terms of physically producing the sound that I need to carry off those scenes authentically but not risk my voice.
PBOL: It was clearer to me on second viewing that Sidney emerges from the chorus in the opening scene, which seems like a shrewd bit of writing and direction. Are you singing full out there with the chorus, or are you pulling back vocally because you know what's to come?
BJ: I'm singing as you would with a chorus. As with any ensemble work, you take your cue from what the group is producing. That's not foreign to me, that kind of work. In fact, it's very satisfying to be a part of that.
PBOL: What's it like after the show? You drink a lot of water and go home and have down time?
BJ: I drink a lot of water during the show. I've been trying to make bee-line to get home. I find that I really need to take care of myself. It's kind of like running a marathon or training for a triathalon: You really have to be focused in terms what you physically have to do, to do your job well.
PBOL: Do you read reviews?
BJ: I do, yeah.
PBOL: Not a happy thing for this show.
BJ: For the most part, no. But you reach a point where it doesn't hurt anymore in terms of what people say. God knows, almost every day there's something in the press, either by a columnist or by a critic, that has something completely negative or backhanded to say about Sweet Smell of Success. There comes a point where you realize that is completely none of your business because obviously it's not going to help you.
PBOL: I just read the Times review of John Guare's new play, in which Ben Brantley took a swipe at Sweet Smell again.
BJ: Yeah, that's what I was referring to, Brantley's comment. All I can say, I guess, is that I feel very grateful to have played a heartless, grubbing, wannabe columnist. I've had a wealth of people to study and research that have helped me immensely in my creation of Sidney Falco.
PBOL: Including people working today?
BJ: Solely today. [Laughs.]
PBOL: You wanna name names?
BJ: [Laughs.] No, no, I think to be a little more politic, I should say "including today."
PBOL: Is there any talk of you doing a solo album?
BJ: That has come up a number of times. For whatever reason, I'm skittish about it. I'm interested but I'd only like to do it if the elements are right and if the opportunity seems right. I don't know exactly what those elements are...
PBOL: It's about having the right record producer.
BJ: I think so, and maybe having a like-mindedness about what will be produced. I'd like to do it, but I think I'd like to do it in a way that's unique and novel and to my liking.
PBOL: Do you think it would be a disc of theatre music?
BJ: That's the thing: I don't know. There's a lot of beautiful songs in the canon of musical theatre, but I have a lot of interest in pop music and bridging the gap, and singing theatrical pop — people like Elvis Costello, groups like Squeeze and XTC are who I like to listen to. If there's a way of doing that, I think I'd be really happy to tackle it. Often times I'm in the dark about the history of some of the great shows. I suppose you're just drawn to what you want to listen to.
PBOL: You grew up in Saginaw, Michigan. What kind of exposure to theatre did you have?
BJ: The Star Theatre of Flint [a star-driven summer stock company]. I went down to the Fisher Theatre [in Detroit] quite a bit. I have a very distinct memory of seeing Annie when it came, and A Chorus Line. My parents loved theatre, so they'd always take us to the touring shows. And Saginaw would get an occasional tour. My sister is the biggest influence. She would visit my aunt and uncle in Connecticut and they would take her [to New York]. She had this defining experience when she saw Pirates of Penzance in the park and she came back with tales to tell of this amazing thing. Then she did high school theatre, so I was always looking up to her. She kind of got me interested.
PBOL: How do you look at yourself in terms of "type." Are you a character actor, are you a leading guy? This is a question every actor asks himself when he's not a 6-foot-2 man.
BJ: I think I'd probably put myself in the character category. It's always hard to answer these kinds of questions. You're going where you're needed or where you wanna go. I see myself as a character actor and maybe that's because in some of the roles I've played I've not been necessarily the leading-man type, but having a more colorful presence within an ensemble. I love that aspect.
PBOL: You have an off-stage reputation of being a nice guy, a good actor to work with — what you see is what you get with Brian d'Arcy James. It's interesting that you've played such gritty, dark parts in The Wild Party at Manhattan Theatre Club and Sweet Smell and Titanic.
BJ: And also The Good Thief, which was a very important experience for me, which was an hour monologue by Conor McPherson. That was along the lines of Burrs in Wild Party and also Sidney in the sense that he was adrift morally, and having to deal with a lot of anger and baseness of behavior. These kinds of roles — we're actors.
PBOL: It just makes me wonder when Brian d'Arcy James is gonna do a big, happy Gershwin show and tap dance.
BJ: [Laughs.] Who knows? Who knows! I tap-danced once in Indiana, and that was the end of it. It was at the Wagon Wheel Playhouse and I played Billy Lawlor in 42nd Street. I had to tap dance, and I studied and worked so hard to do what I had to do. It was terrible!
PBOL: Are you any good?
BJ: No! [Laughs.] I could maybe do a time step, but only if you had me doing it in front of a brick fence — so you can see the upper part of my body.