Spotlight on ‘Spotlight’: Brian d’Arcy James’ Broadway odyssey arrives in Hollywood


Source: Jordan Matter

Brian d’Arcy James.

Hayley Glatter, Copy Chief


At a community production of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” nine-year-old Brian d’Arcy James got to thinking.

The Saginaw, Michigan, native wondered what it was like to be an actor, and he has spent the more than 35 years since embodying the answer.  

“There’s this kind of magic dividing line that exists between an audience and the people on stage, and I was very curious,” James said of his first theater memories. “I wanted to peek behind that curtain and see what was going on back there. It was very alluring to me from the very beginning.”

Since those early moments of captivation, James (Communication ’90) has gone on to star in Broadway shows including “Shrek the Musical” and “Something Rotten!” as well as appear in television shows like “Smash.” His recent credits also include parts in the original production of “Hamilton” and “Spotlight,” which was nominated for both Oscar and Golden Globe awards.

And yet, despite his incredible success both onstage and onscreen, James’ humble, friendly demeanor is palpable after just a few minutes of conversation.

“Very relaxed, patient, pleasant — just a really nice guy,” said former Boston Globe reporter Matt Carroll, whom James portrays in “Spotlight.” “You know, it’s funny. It’s one of those things I see repeatedly again and again in the stories about him is that he’s a nice guy, and he absolutely is.”

“Spotlight” tells the story of the team of Boston Globe reporters that revealed the rampant child abuse scandal that permeated the Catholic Church in the early 2000’s. In preparing for the role, James worked to understand Carroll’s motivations both as a person and as a journalist.

In contrast to parts like Shrek and King George III, James said he was particularly conscious of the fact that the man he was portraying was just a phone call away.

“The thing that does change a little bit is your awareness of depicting someone who’s alive and thriving in their profession and you’re honoring this particular part of their life and what they achieved,” James said. “The mental awareness is different in that you don’t have that hanging over your shoulder when you’re playing a fictitious character.”

This recognition and attention to detail can be found interspersed throughout James’ performance in “Spotlight.”

During one lengthy dinner in New York City, Carroll, who was the Spotlight team’s data “geek,” said he described his habits, clothing and speech pattern to James. From the Dunkin’ Donuts coffee he always drinks to the way he wears his glasses on a string, Carroll said James certainly embodied some of his smallest quirks.

“He did a nice job of capturing me,” Carroll said. “Plus, one of the nice side effects of this is that when people hear my name, they have Brian’s image in their head which is really cool because he’s a lot more handsome than I am.”

Yet, despite James’ critically acclaimed role in “Spotlight,” he called the stage home for the majority of his first 15 years as an actor. James chose Northwestern over a conservatory in order to enjoy an authentic college experience, and he said it was in Evanston that his acting hobby was transformed into a skill.

And his professors certainly noticed.

“From the minute I saw Brian as a freshman, he was appearing in a show called ‘The 1940’s Radio Hour,’” said Dominic Missimi, James’ theater professor at NU. The minute I watched on stage and he began to sing, I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is a total professional young man. I knew when he was 18 years old that he was going to be a professional because he had such polish.”

When James was a sophomore, Missimi cast him as Claude in an on-campus production of “Hair.” However, the show didn’t stay in Evanston for long, as Michael Butler, the original Broadway producer of “Hair,” decided Missimi’s production would be the musical’s official 20th anniversary production.

“Hair” then went up in Chicago, and Missimi auditioned professional actors for the show. But when it came time to cast the role James had portrayed in Evanston, Missimi had no doubts that the undergraduate was the right fit for the job.

“From the polish that I saw in him in ‘Hair,’ taking him downtown, I had no qualms at all that he would be as good as anyone I could find in the role,” Missimi said. “Judging by all standards of the people that I auditioned in Chicago who are professionals, he was at the top of the ranks.”

In the nearly 30 years since they worked together in “Hair,” James and Missimi have kept in close contact. James was awarded the 2015 Sarah Siddons Award by the Sarah Siddons Society, of which Missimi is the artistic director, and earlier this month, Missimi went to New York City to see James star as Nick Bottom in “Something Rotten!”

The professor is certainly proud of his student.

“I was just so thrilled to see that when he walked out onto the stage, that he got a big ovation,” Missimi said. “I think that 10 years ago, I don’t think that would have happened. I think that he’s come into the consciousness of New York theater-goers and now they’re like, ‘Oh, Brian d’Arcy James, he’s a really great actor.’”

New Yorkers aren’t the only ones who have noticed. In recent years, James has been nominated for dozens of industry awards, including a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and three Tony Award nominations — two for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical and one for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical.

But despite such high levels of success, James remains remarkably humble. When asked about his greatest accomplishment, the masterful actor didn’t miss a beat.

“My family. My daughter,” James said. “I’m very lucky because I love what I do, and then I love what I get to do when I get home from work.”

This post was updated at 11:15 a.m. following the release of Oscar nominations.

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