Iron Man 3 actor James Badge Dale might be best recognized for his role as reclusive Simon in the 1990 film adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But Dale, who has appeared in over 30 films and television shows, actually grew up in the wings of theatres. The son of actor Anita Morris, who originated the role of Carla in Nine, and dancer-turned-director Grover Dale fondly remembers running around orchestra pits and watching his parents from behind the curtains. After a four-year hiatus from performing onstage, Dale is back, starring in Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall at New World Stages about the previously unfathomable happening in Trump’s America. Before starting previews, he spoke to Playbill to prove his theatre bonafides.
What was your first professional job?
James Badge Dale: As an adult, it was Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, but as a child it was this little movie called Lord of the Flies. It was just something I fell into and then I fell out of. My first Equity play was in 2003 at the Flea Theater.
What was the stage show that has most influenced you?
JBD: I saw Judith Light do W;t in 1999 at the Union Square Theater and that changed me. That was the moment…I sat in that theatre and I grieved my mother’s death properly for the first time. The house emptied out and I couldn’t leave the house. I was sitting there wracked with sobs and it was cathartic for me. That was the moment that I understand that when an actor is standing onstage and you’re telling the story, you’re not telling it for yourself. You are telling it for the audience. It’s an honorable job. It’s a job of service. You’re doing it for other people. If you can touch one other person, it makes it worth it. That was the moment I wanted to be an actor. Judith actually knew my mother and when I went backstage she gave me a big hug. I’m still friends with her today.
What’s been the most rewarding experience onstage for you?
JBD: We were doing a play for MCC called Small Engine Repair and the playwright was onstage with us. It was really his first New York City professional production. He came in from out of town and as previews were going on I could see the bags under his eyes getting bigger and bigger. You start to understand the pressure that this man is under—not only as an actor, but his livelihood, his writing career seems to be hanging in the balance. The New York Times…released their review a day early and it was a love letter to the playwright. I watched John Pollono, our playwright, in his dressing room that night and the bags were gone and there was a little hop in his step. He got up onstage and I cannot tell you how happy that made me to be onstage and just witness that transformation.
Is there a stage moment you witnessed (from the audience, from the wings, in rehearsal) that stays with you?
JBD: The first play I ever did—Getting Into Heaven at the Flea Theater—the character I was playing was acting as a sperm donor. [I] was holding the child for the first time and, as I walked downstage to deliver a monologue, I heard one woman in the front row lean to another woman and say, “I wouldn’t trust him with that.” [Laughs] I just stood there. I could not remember where I was or what I was doing. I just knew I had to exit after the monologue so I just walked offstage.
What’s been the biggest challenge in your career?
JBD: You spend time doing this for a living and you are going to be constantly challenged. I think the biggest challenge on a macro level is persistence and keeping a level head because you’ve got to get out of this okay. I’ve watched this business grind people spiritually and mentally. Try to keep yourself sane because this whole thing is insane.
Both of your parents were performers, how was it growing up in the world of theatre?
JBD: I’m a carnie kid. I was surrounded by writers, actors, directors. My father was a dancer and then he went into directing and choreography. My mother was an actress. They were strong onstage. They were powerful. I did learn a lot about performing from them. My father is 81 years old now and he still talks about energy and filling space. He was a strong dancer. He was explosive. My mother was a very funny, shy woman at home, but onstage she would just kind of expand. That’s what I watched from the wings growing up. A lot of these sights and smells when I’m backstage are very comforting because that was my childhood.
Building the Wall starts previews this week, how has the process of creating the show been?
JBD: We’ve only rehearsed for two weeks so we’ve all been locked in a room together. Obviously this is timely material. I like that. I like throwing stuff out there that will make people think a little bit—maybe they like it, maybe they don’t. It doesn’t matter to me. It’s been a wonderful process and we’re burning the candle on both ends trying to get it up.