For much of last year and the start of this one, Brian d'Arcy James has straddled two different worlds, toiling with two elite teams of handpicked players. In "Spotlight," a gripping front-runner for the 2015 Academy Awards, he is one of four investigative reporters at the Boston Globe covering the Boston Archdiocese child molestation scandal of the early aughts. Then, in Something Rotten!, he is designated driver for the clown car that pulled into the St. James last spring to "invent" musical comedy as an alternative to that notorious Elizabethan stage hog, Shakespeare.
For his role as Nick Bottom — the leading man on a mission to tear down the great William Shakespeare in Something Rotten! — James earned Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle award nominations for Best Actor. He shares the stage with Christian Borle, Brad Oscar and John Cariani in what Time Out calls "a powerhouse cast selling Bard-laced punch lines to the ecstatic balcony."
For "Spotlight," the praise for the ensemble, including Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Neal Huff, has been equally laudatory. So far, they've banked a Gotham Independent Film Award for ensemble acting and the Robert Altman Award for best ensemble from the Independent Spirit Awards. As for the Academy Awards, the whole cast is only eligible for supporting Oscars, not starring.
James counts himself an ensemble player in both, but top billing in the musical does get him the only dressing room on the first-floor level, just five or six giant steps from the stage. Once upon a time, it's said, Carol Channing dressed there. Now it's his space, cluttered with personal photos that spur him on. One that looks like him in a road-company "Life with Father" is actually of his father, a lawyer with the same dashing jaw-line and piercing Irish eyes. On the wall is a French movie poster for "Shoot, Gringo… Shoot!," a spaghetti western that starred his late uncle, Brian Kelly. Best known as the dad in "Flipper’s New Adventure" and the subsequent "Flipper" television series, Kelly was two weeks into filming his breakout picture, Jacqueline Susann's "The Love Machine," when a motorcycle mishap halted his acting career. He came back to film as an executive producer on Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner." "I take him with me wherever I go," says James.
In a curious way, he finds himself on the same threshold his uncle was on 50 years ago. He has done movies before, of course — a dozen, in fact — but none of them has fully demonstrated how smoothly and confidently he can play with the A-team.
"There was an immediate sense of camaraderie between us," he says of his "Spotlight" co-stars. "A lot of that had to do with the fact our director, Tom McCarthy, allowed for rehearsal time in New York. We could sit around a table and dissect the script and ask questions.
"It was a steep learning curve for me — not only about the politics of the newsroom, but the actual content of what the Globe had written. The fact we were all thrown in the pool together like that, I think, was a great bonding experience for us. Not that we were doing any kinds of trust falls or stuff like that, but, for me, to be in the room with these titans was a thrilling thing. One part of me was watching them work — I was curious, being a fan, to see how they attacked their work — and then, when I actually did a scene with them, there was such trust and preparation that it all felt natural, like we were passing the ball around equally. I always felt [like a] part of the team."
That's not a new feeling. At the St. James he luxuriates in collaboration nightly. “Everyone here is so suited for their jobs, they just knock it out of the park," he says. "Anytime you're doing something, of course, you hope the communal effort is not only something the audience enjoys, but something you can sense is alive and crackling as it happens.
"Christian Borle is such an inventive guy, always looking for bits within the context of the scene, so you never really know what you'll get; the same with Brad Oscar and Brooks Ashmanskas. There's always a bit of a live wire going on with them that keeps you on your toes and interested and entertained every night in a long run.
"We kinda came up together — all of us, Heidi [Blickenstaff], Brad, Brooks, Christian [and] John. We're all from the same DNA in terms of doing this for a long time. We've had our successes, but we're not marquee names per se — not the stars people associate with what you need to sell a show — but we're very accomplished in our own right.
“That's what I love about this show. Basically, you open up this little music box and see all these glittering little diamonds that maybe a star-oriented audience can't see. I love that exposure of who we are as a group. I call us 'The Backyard Kids.' We've played together a long time in the backyard. Now we do it in front of a lot of people."