Justin Cook chats with Molly’s Game actor Brian d’Arcy James…
Over the past 25 years, Brian d’Arcy James has pulled off the miraculous feat of establishing himself as an accomplished performer on the stage, silver screen and small screen. James’ career started off and still continues on Broadway, where he’s taken on roles in some of the most successful productions of the century, including Sweet Smell of Success, Shrek the Musical gand Something Rotten! (not to mention he originated the role of King George in the Off-Broadway production of Hamilton, before returning to the role on Broadway last year). To complement his healthy stage career and three Tony nominations, in recent years he’s become equally prolific in the film and TV industry as well.
Smash, Spotlight and 13 Reasons Why are just a few of the many projects from James’ on-screen résumé, which gained even more impressiveness in 2017, with a memorable turn as Brad Merian, or “Bad Brad” as he’s often referred to, in Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut Molly’s Game. Brad, a wealthy hedge fund manager, becomes one of the regulars at the high-stakes, exclusive card games being run by Jessica Chastain’s titular Molly Bloom. Instead of having the skill and tact of some of the other card sharks at the table, Brad is particularly untalented at poker, losing money on nearly every hand, but is revealed to have an ulterior motive when it comes to his ineptitude.
Molly’s Game is available for purchase on Amazon Video and iTunes right now and will hit store shelves on DVD and Blu-ray on April 10th. In anticipation of its release, Flickering Myth spoke to James about his work in Molly’s Game, future projects and career as a whole in a fascinating one-on-one conversation.
First of all, I just want to say that I loved Molly’s Game. What initially interested you in taking a role in the movie? Was it the chance to work with Sorkin?
Brian d’Arcy James: Aaron Sorkin. That was the first thing, but of course equally as inviting and compelling was Jessica Chastain. Those two things were pretty foolproof in terms of wanting to get involved. Essentially, the roadmap was written by Aaron Sorkin, and I, among most everyone else, am a huge fan.
I know you’ve said in interviews that Sorkin was less beholden to a strict adherence to every syllable of his words than maybe a lot of people would think since his scripts are always so fast and exacting. So in what ways do you feel like you had freedom in bringing the character of Bad Brad to life?
James: I wouldn’t say anyone could go just off-roading with his dialogue. But most of the collaboration came in terms of how the character would ultimately be portrayed. The collaboration was mostly in conversations about what kind of person I was playing, and I’m sure this was true with all the other actors playing characters in the movie. He was open to and encouraged all kinds of discussion about the actor’s instinct as much as was already written on the page. I would say it was more about Aaron Sorkin as a director giving the actors the freedom to just feel like they were just as instrumental in creating the character in terms of how they moved or walked, what motivated them. And then, of course, you just jump in the car and say the words – and the words are pristine.
Do you have a favorite Aaron Sorkin film from his previous works?
James: A Few Good Men stands out to me. That was really my introduction to him. I wish I had seen it on Broadway, I had never seen the play. It was a movie I had seen knowing it had come from the theatre, so I was curious about the history and evolution of [it]. Knowing that it was a play that had been turned into a movie in my generation, that was something that was intriguing to me. I’d say that that was my favorite.
You’ve described yourself as a real-life Bad Brad when it comes to poker. What were some of your experiences and stories of playing poker on set with the cast and real poker pros?
James: [Laughs] Everyone was very helpful to me. That’s why Aaron had me with the consultants – he asked for players along with us. He wanted everything to be authentic, even in terms of little details like how you would move a chip into the center of the table. I would the most surprising aspect of it was art imitating life – in between takes when we would play. I would try to play along with them, and there was one moment where I did just kind of bluff big time and won a big hand, and everyone was kind of shocked. I was kind of doing exactly what Brad was doing in the sense that I had a small sense of what I was doing, but 99% of it was pure luck.
Almost like when Brad goes up against Harlan in the movie.
James: Yes, exactly that!
Did you meet with the real-life Bad Brad, Bradley Ruderman, despite him probably being in jail while you were filming?
James: No, I did not meet him. I did my own work and was able to figure out the models on which these characters were based – not only my character – but just getting a sense of what the real situation was by reading Molly’s book. The script diverts from reality as there are composited people, there are more suggestive depictions of characters, and I would say to a certain extent that was true for me as well.
In your scenes, you really get to work with the film’s ensemble, like Jessica Chastain, Bill Camp and Michael Cera to name a few. What was your experience working alongside these great actors?
James: It’s been my experience, and I’ve been lucky to have this experience, that the people you admire, by and large, are excellent because they work hard and they take care of their work and the people they’re working with. So, I was really happy and thrilled to find out that working with Jessica, as well as working with Bill, as well as working with Michael, was the same experience. They were all excellent at what they do. Particularly, Jessica, cause she has the whole thing on her shoulders. We’d never really worked together before, but she, as well as Aaron, made it so that everybody who walked down to that set was welcomed and immediately part of a family. That goes a real long way for getting actors to do their best work. They were all ready to do their job and ready to be game… so to speak, no pun intended.
And I believe I heard that you’ll be working with Bill Camp again in The Kitchen, right? That project is super exciting to me.
James: Yeah! I just read that he’s doing that. I’m thrilled with that. You know, one of my favorite parts in [Molly’s Game] was getting to do that scene with Bill, and I had just binge-watched The Night Of and so I couldn’t wait to get to do a scene with him and was bummed that I might not get to do that again. I just love his work.
So 2017 was a huge year for you between 13 Reasons Why, 1922, Manhunt: Unabomber, Molly’s Game, Mark Felt and more. And, of course, your career really began and still continues on the stage. Is it difficult jumping from project to project, character to character in the film and TV world, especially sometimes coming right off of playing the same character for months at a time on Broadway?
James: You know, it’s not difficult, I find it invigorating. It’s a change of pace for me because I’ve had a steady diet of the theatre for most of my career, and since Spotlight things have changed into a different gear. I like it because you get a sense of jumping in full force and figuring out how to crack the code of a character and working really hard. In comparison to the theatre, you have less time to get that work done. By the time you’re done shooting a film, whether it’s three days or three months, if you’re lucky to go onto something else you have another mountain to climb, so the time in between is shortened and there’s more stimuli coming at you at a faster rate, which I really really enjoy. So that’s the biggest difference and I’m enjoying that.
Your filmography is so diverse in terms of roles and genres that you play in, so what excites you about a new project? What do you look for in a script?
James: The ideal version of events is that you try to find something that you haven’t done before. Whether that’s a type of character or a particular type of story or something that’s going to challenge you, and that doesn’t always come across your desk, that’s not always possible. The next thing you look for are the people that are involved and if you’re interested in working with them, and usually, 9 times out of 10 the answer is a capital ‘Y’ ‘E’ ‘S.’ From an actor’s point of view, from a challenge point of view, you want to try to find things that are perhaps a degree, or many degrees away from the last thing you did. Cause that’s where you’re challenged and that’s where you grow and that’s what makes it interesting.
I listed some of your more recent projects before and last year you returned to play King George III in Hamilton Broadway and I even read that you ran the Chicago marathon too. How important is it to you to stay busy, because from an outsiders perspective it just seems like an insane schedule?
James: It’s interesting. Now that I’m past the marathon and last year, looking back at it, it is a little amazing to me. The truth is, and my mother always says if you want something done ask a busy person, there’s a certain energy and momentum that one acquires when they are busy. That is the thrill of what I get to do sometimes – that is continue bouncing around like a pinball – there’s a lot of fun and excitement and a lot of power in that. And of course, that’s not always ideal for a long period of time, you have to take your periods of rest. I think I prefer to be busy, it help me do other things as well in my real life. I think all actors are conditioned to that kind of work ethic, in that most of the time you’re out there hustling trying to get work, and then sometimes things change, and you’re going from job to job, audition to audition. In my experience, the bulk of my time as an actor has been ‘hustle, hustle’ to get to the next thing and usually you don’t get it and then you have to get right back on the horse and find something else.
You’ve been able to work with a number of Oscar-winning writers and directors in your career recently between Tom McCarthy, Damien Chazelle and Aaron Sorkin. How has working with directors of this caliber informed your career and performances?
James: Mostly it’s informed my perspective. Being inside the funhouse, if you will, watching these experts create whether it’s Damien or Tom or watching Josh Singer rewrite a scene. When you’re watching it firsthand, number one, it takes away the mystery of it, and you realize it’s just a lot of hard work – and then of course, on top of that, is this layer of genius, or unbridled talent that is just palpable. And that’s the thing that’s really interesting, watching how these things are created. And I’ll be specific in terms of watching Damien Chazelle direct; when he’s capturing something, I find him very instinctual and very collaborative, and it’s fun to watch him work. And you start to realize ‘Oh this is how he’s able to capture not only the imagery that makes his films, but also the performances that are in them. He knows what he wants but he’s not afraid to go outside of the lines when he’s in the moment. I feel blessed to be able to see these people do what they do at such a high level.
I know one of your upcoming projects that I’m really excited for is First Man, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to La La Land. Is there anything you can tell us about being a part of that project?
James: I think it’s gonna be great, it’s got such an incredible cast. There’s not much I can say, other than the fact that I feel really lucky to be in it. I wasn’t there too much, I wasn’t on set a lot, not like Ryan Gosling who literally goes to the moon, but I just think it’s going to be an exceptional film.
Chazelle obviously is a very music-oriented guy, his last three movies all had that common thread. Was there any bonding with him on set considering your musical theatre background?
James: No, not necessarily, but it is interesting. I was aware of that as well, in terms of the musicality. He wanted to capture the kind of music of how these men spoke and that was the conversation we had early on. So I thought that was very interesting in terms of how he was thinking about not only the images that he was going to cobble together but also the sound of it. So that kind of illustrates the musical instincts that he has as well, which I appreciate coming from the theatre and spending a lot of time doing musicals, so that’s a big part of my bag of tricks as well.
Before I go, an NBC chairman recently said that we haven’t seen the last of Smash. Would you at all be interested in returning for a revival, whether it’s a third season, or on stage as he suggested it might be?
James: Oh yeah! I think it’s a great show. It just proves that if there’s still interest we did something right. So that’s always thrilling to hear that the work that you’re doing is resonating, even after it’s gone. That would be amazing.
Pick up a DVD/Blu-ray of Molly’s Game for yourself on Tuesday, April 10th! Also, be sure to check out some interview clips of Sorkin speaking about his film below…
MOLLY’S GAME is based on the true story of Molly Bloom, an Olympic-class skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game for a decade before being arrested in the middle of the night by 17 FBI agents wielding automatic weapons. Her players included Hollywood royalty, sports stars, business titans and finally, unbeknownst to her, the Russian mob. Her only ally was her criminal defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey, who learned that there was much more to Molly than the tabloids led us to believe.