In Next to Normal, the patriarch of a torn family optimistically sings “It’s gonna be good for you…” It’s no surprise that the actor currently bringing those words to life is Brian d’Arcy James.
He not only brings “goodness” to everything he touches, but strengthens every one of his shows with his warmth and gentle humor.
He’s best known for originating the role of Shrek in Shrek the Musical and his Tony-award-winning portrayal of Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success opposite John Lithgow.
Now James has joined the cast of Next to Normal after originating the role of Dan in the Off-Broadway production at Second Stage Theatre.
James spoke with TheImproper about his homecoming with Normal’s Goodman family, as well as his upcoming return to Time Stands Still as a journalist with a passion for documenting the realities of war.
The original production of Time Stands Still earned two Tony nominations this year, and re-opens at the Cort Theatre, Oct. 7th.
Improper: Does it feel like you’re coming home, now that you have returned to Next to Normal in a role you originated?
James: It does, obviously that statement is bolstered because it’s a family drama. It’s a good way to describe it because with the exception of Kyle Dean Massey, I’m looking at very familiar faces and relationships that were established a couple of years ago. It’s really interesting to come back into that. They’ve all been so incredible in the show, it’s a really great experience.
IM: You’re such a light, funny person, and Dan is such an intense role. How do you get into his mindset each night?
James: Well, with every role that you do your instruction guide is the story, the script. So, in a sense you definitely have to allow yourself to prepare for what’s coming, but I think the trick with any kind of performance or any acting challenge is just to allow what’s being said in the story to be the thing that fuels you. You can only prepare so much in terms of what you think something’s going to be like, but that can be a mistake. I’ve fallen into this trap before of trying to have a pre-conceived notion of what it’s going to be like, as opposed to just letting it be while it’s happening. I guess it’s a two-part answer, in terms of being open and preparing yourself for what’s coming, but allowing yourself to let it happen when it does.
IM: After allowing yourself to get in that mindset during the show, how do you get out of that character and decompress, in a sense?
James: It’s not that hard, to be honest. I feel a great sense of relief, particularly with the way my character has developed. There’s a pretty significant kind of full-circle moment. In a way, there’s great release in the play, it is a nice way to kind of wrap things up for the character. For me personally it’s always a recognition that the story is complete. I can kind of just go off.
IM: What is the most challenging aspect of playing Dan?
James: What I’m really curious about is the mixture of the complexity of his feelings of duty and responsibility, which are continually challenged by this illness that no one has a cure for. I can only imagine what that’s like to live. I have a sense of it from my own experiences and from reading and from research. I think the most challenging aspect is to try to find all the positives and all of the negatives in the confusion of trying to assist in making things good.
IM: And that’s essentially what the entire show is about.
James:Yeah, it is. For everybody. I think another great thing about this play is that while it deals with just one very specific aspect of mental illness and bipolar and what that means and how to deal with it, there’s a larger fear of how people function as individuals and also as a collective. And when that is challenged by anything, especially mental illness, or death, or whatever it is that kind of infects the collective, that’s where I think the story becomes more universal.
IM: It’s interesting that your voice is so low, and Dan has to reach such high notes. How did you train to reach that register?
James: I’m coming back into it, so with every show that you sing, you do have to prepare yourself muscularly for what has to happen. I’m still trying to figure that out again, re-learning what it is, what’s required to sing this role. It’s a constant evaluation of how to do it. I certainly can’t say that I’m on top of it. I’m still chasing it a little bit in terms of figuring out what’s the best way to do it.
IM: It’s so rare for the same production of a show to return to Broadway after it has closed. How do you feel about coming back to Time Stands Still?
James: I’m just grateful to have this chance. I think it’s really interesting that both Next to Normal and Time Stands Still have both come back around for me, which is highly unusual. It’s such a great gift, because not often do you get to turn something off, and then let it kind of fade in your mind, and then come back with a new perspective on it. I think once a show stops you never really stop thinking about it, especially if it’s going to have another life. So this is really incredible.
IM: How is the production of Time Stands Still going to have changed when it comes back to Broadway?
James: The most obvious change is the new cast member, Christina Ricci, so that will be a completely new perspective and a new dynamic in the group that’s really exciting. I will miss Alicia [Silverstone], who is astounding, just a beautiful, wonderful person. I have no doubt that Christina will be just as great. That will be exciting to see. But other than it’s hard to say if things will be different. There’s not going to be any difference in the play. It’s not like my experience with Next to Normal, because Next to Normal has changed, but Time Stands Still will be exactly the same as before.
IM: It’s difficult to think of you being on the stage and not singing, despite your long resume listing both plays and musicals! Is being in a play equally fulfilling as being in a musical?
James: Absolutely. That’s one of the things that I’ve always been very conscious of doing, and proactive about, establishing opportunities that didn’t require singing. I want to challenge myself as an actor, not having to rely on the function of music to tell the story is just another way of story telling. So to be able to go back and forth between musicals and plays is really an ideal pursuit because it is like using different muscles and different approaches and different sensibilities. Ultimately, it’s the same in the sense that you have to help a story effectively, but it just requires a different set of tools. It’s something that I look forward to doing, and it is equally satisfying, if not more in some ways.
IM: The role of Shrek put you in the public eye. Are you still finding green paint anywhere?
James: No, however I was looking at a few pictures from my time, and there’s this benefit, and I noticed in the picture if you look at it my ears are still kind of yellow and green. I wonder how long I had yellow ears in my real life!
IM: How do you think Shrek the Musical has changed your career going forward? Is it easier to get roles?
James: I can’t answer that question. You never really know what kind of effect something has in terms of the pursuit of what you’re doing. I can only speak to it as being something unto itself and how that made me feel, which was extraordinary. All the obvious challenges of the make-up and the costume, and trying to combat that and make it work were great fun. And also just the idea of trying to honor the love in our culture of this kind of film icon, and trying to reach the heights of what has already been established is also a great honor and challenge. That was another great thing about the show, I love that.
IM: Have you seen the new Shrek movie yet?
James: No I haven’t. I’m looking forward to it. I can’t wait, I haven’t had a moment. I haven’t been able to go to the movies as much as I used to. I love going to the movies, but I’ll be seeing it soon, no doubt.
IM: If Shrek, Dan Goodman, and James Dodd were to meet for dinner, what would the conversation be about?
James: Wow. I think Dan and Jamie have quite a bit in common. God, I don’t know. The common denominator would be flatulence, I think, all three of those people would definitely have some sort of appreciation for it. (Laughs) Jamie probably would not pay. Dan would probably feel obligated to pay, Shrek would not pay at all.
IM: What is your earliest memory of yourself as a performer?
James: It was kind of a pivotal moment in eighth grade when I sang a song for a school event, and that was kind of the first real moment of taking a step out in front of people and publicly performing. So that was the most defining moment in my youth.
IM: What did you sing?
James: “Piano Man” by Billy Joel.
IM: If you could perform in any show on Broadway, what would it be?
James: I always hesitate with these kinds of questions because there’s really no one burning goal.
IM: Are there any shows you’ve seen where you say, ‘I’d be great in that?’
James: No. I could talk about a show that I just saw that has nothing to do with me wanting to be in it, but it was so inspiring. I saw a production of Jerusalem, by Jez Butterworth, in London starring Mark Rylance. The reason I bring it up is because I’ve never been so inspired by a play and a performance together, and really it was one of those moments where it just reaffirmed everything. Sometimes you kind of ebb and flow in terms of how you feel about what you’re doing, and your dedication to it, or your success in it. This performance really made me feel like, ‘Oh, okay, I can aspire to that.’ That was such a great thing to experience, because it changed me in a really profound way. I had more experiences like that when I was younger, and it surprised me to feel that way because it was kind of like the ceiling had been lifted to a hundred feet higher than existed. That’s always a striking thing, so I was really grateful for seeing Mark Rylance’s incredible performance.
IM: What experiences did you have when you were younger that ‘lifted’ you?
James: I’m thinking of those defining moments of seeing things on stage, even watching community theater when I was a kid and seeing a kid that I once knew who was all of a sudden playing Oliver, and trying to figure out the difference between the person and then this incredibly transformative thing that was happening with this person that I kind of knew that was all of a sudden somebody else. Those things are really, really powerful. I guess that’s what I mean with those kinds of eye opening experiences. I suppose a lot of people in different walks of life have that moment, whether it’s science, or math, or politics, some kind of moment where they feel like the cracks show and they see behind the wall and you want to see how it all works. Maybe I’m just not as adept at noticing them because I’m in it now. That’s why I’m grateful for realizing that, ‘Oh, there’s all kinds of opportunities to be continued to be inspired by people.’
IM: You’ve probably achieved some of their levels of talent.
James: I do recognize and I really appreciate the opportunity that I have and I know has had an affect on people. It’s purely out of just having extraordinary plays or extraordinary music or whatever it is that an actor gets to do that is just of high, high quality. You’re delivering that, and so I would be lying if I said that I didn’t recognize that’s one of the things that makes me so happy about what I do. That’s what I want to experience every time I go see a show or read a book. Participate, that’s the thing you strive for.
IM: Where would you like to see yourself in ten years?
James:I think the goal for me is always to try to find things that I haven’t done, and to not be comfortable in a particular path or repetition of either projects or roles. That means finding different ways to work in television and film, because I don’t do a lot of that at the moment, or even further producing my own things, writing my own things, using that side of my brain, and being more active as a creator of something.
IM: You mentioned that you like to write. What else do you like to do on your days off?
James: Usually when I’m in a show, the days off are kind of just to try and really rest. The older you get, the more you appreciate that’s what days off are for! (laughs) I have a handful of things that I’ve been working on for a while that I’ve written or created, that are now in the phase of me nudging in terms of the production aspect and the selling of an idea. If anything, that’s where the energy is focused at this particular moment.
IM: Tell The Improper readers something that no one else knows about you.
James: I had an appendectomy when I was in eighth grade. That’s something that only my doctor and my family know. That’s not very exciting! (laughs) Oh god. I’m sure everybody else is like, ‘Here’s my weird thing.’ You want it to be unique, but you also want it to be a good one, so you have to suffer through the appendectomies to get to the good ones. I can proudly say that if I could put stock in a product, it would be the Neti Pot. The Neti Pot is a saline rinse you stick in your nose, and it washes things out of your nose. This is not only a unique thing that I do, it’s something that people will benefit from knowing about. It’s an incredible thing for singers; it’s an incredible revelation for me. Isn’t that fascinating? (laughs)
To see Brian d’Arcy James in Next to Normal click to go to telecharge.