Brian James was born into a family with a golden touch and the tenacity for good genes. James is one of the 'good guys' who still believe in the ethics of hard work. He developed his craft and was mindful of how one's strength can become an Achilles heel. He is able to sit still and relish a quiet moment, despite his urge to climb the next mountain, especially if it is incredibly steep.
There is this hunger that pushes him forward to the next gig; the next big chance. James tends to grab the hardest to that which is there and tangible; as opposed to that which is not there and illusory. He shrugs it off as the life of a working actor.
He attended Northwestern University, the alma mater of Charlton Heston. James even sang a song for him during his induction at the 1997 Kennedy Center Honors Awards Show presided by President Clinton. The song, More I Cannot Wish You was Heston's wedding song, and as the camera scanned the audience it rested briefly on his face, tears streaming down his cheeks. A magic moment filled with love and humanity for this aging star.
James now resides in New York, close to the action, though he still pilgrimages home to Mecca…back to his hometown of Saginaw, a violent, misunderstood receptacle for all the misdeeds of its forefathers. It seems fitting that a wild and woolly outpost for humanity like Saginaw could nurture the talents of great musicians, actors, singers and poets such as Brian D'Arcy James. I can hear his eyes rolling now…
Review: When did you first realize you enjoyed music and dance and acting?
Brian: My grandmother was always interested in music and dance. She was a tap dancer growing up. She would always encourage me to look at things. She saw things on television and if they were watching Singin' In the Rain or Lawrence Welk she would always say, “Hey, look at that guy dancing” or “Look at them singing.” I think she noticed something in me because I was a bit of a ham growing up, so I think that was the first seeds of it. My uncle Brian Kelly went on to be an actor in Hollywood. He was in the television show “Flipper.”
Review: I heard about that.
Brian: Yeah, he played the dad. So I had an uncle who was a legitimate television star and that was another familial connection to acting and the arts in general. I guess then the most immediate influence was my older sister, who started getting involved in theater in high school. I was a couple of years behind her, but I would watch her do her thing…she became so passionate about it. She just fell in love with being in shows at school. I did, too. My parents were always exposing us to the theater. They'd take us down to the Fisher Theater in Detroit and we would see traveling shows, national tours of Broadway shows. My first memory is seeing “Annie” down at the Fisher Theater. It probably opened a couple of years before. I knew that score very well, because we listened to it in the car all the time and my parents would always play one of their eight-track cassettes, so I was always surrounded by show business through my family, whether they were stories of my grandmother or watching television with my uncle, or I was watching my sister doing theater. It was there to be explored, if one had an inkling to explore it, and I certainly did. I studied acting at Northwestern University and that's when I really fell in love with the idea of being an artist, being an actor, and pursuing it as a career.
Review: I have read about you performing at Pit & Balcony when you were still a teenager. First of all, how did you pass the audition, second how did the audience receive you, and what did you do? Did you dance in the show, too?
Brian: It was a local production of Annie with Jim Gaertner as the director, and he cast me in it. I was young, 16. Yeah, I had to sing and dance, and you know to be totally honest, I didn't think too much about it. I knew that I wanted to give it a shot, and I knew that I felt comfortable doing it. I didn't really think about getting it, and so when I did get it, it was like, “Oh, okay… careful what you wish for - now you gotta do this thing.”
It really was a tremendous experience because not only was I doing a show, but I was doing a show with people from the community, as opposed to students from my school. So I met a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds - professional people who loved the theater who are also doing community theater. All of a sudden I was afforded this chance to kind of have a whole new community of people to be with who were sharing the same goal. As for how people reacted, I have no idea. The show didn't close on my account, so I think I must have been doing something right.
Review: You also did at an early age Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Midland Theater.
Brian: I was a junior in high school. This is another great and defining experience. I owe this to my father. I remember seeing an article that had been lying on my bed one night when I got home, and it was a Saginaw News article about this production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat that was going to be in Midland, and it was going to be directed by this guy named Jean Bertolotto who was a Broadway dancer and had a connection to the Midland Center for the Arts.
My father tore it out and put it on my bed and said, “You should check this out. You should audition for it.” That's the kind of great parents I had. They were aware of my interests, and they had their eyes open for me, as well as encouraging me, so I'm very grateful for that. The second thing that was also remarkable and potent for the experience was the director, after having done the show, did a follow-up article in the Saginaw News. I remember reading this quote, which really had a severe impact on me. The question was posed, “What do you think about this guy who's playing Joseph? Does he show any promise? Does he have any talent?” He said, “Yeah, this kid, Brian James, does show talent. If he wanted to, he could have a career in this business.” It was the first time that anybody who was a dyed-in-the wool professional made a comment like that on record. It was a very strong moment for me to have this guy's stamp of approval. It gave me confidence to consider continuing to move down the road, so that was another great experience.
Review: You mentioned Brian Kelly from Flipper. Did he ever show you the ropes or teach you a little about Hollywood and movies?
Brian: We were always in contact. I would see my uncle practically every summer. We had a cottage up in Gaylord and the family would always get together there, and my uncles and aunts would come together and we would spend the summer there. As for showing me the ropes, it wasn't necessarily first-hand knowledge, but I do remember getting some very sage advice from him about, you know, pursuing this business. His wisdom was, “Don't do it” (Laughter). He communicated that to me clearly pretty early on.
Now mind you, he was working with a fish at the time, so I think that had something to do with it. What's the old quote? “Never work with children or animals.” And I think he was doing both at the same time. Anyway after that, his experience was as a producer. He produced “Blade Runner,” and “Cities of the Wild.” I always wanted to hear the stories of how things were going and what was happening. Even after I started my professional career I'd end up in Los Angeles and I'd always see him there. It was always great to see him on his own turf, you know, in his own backyard where he lived. It was his world there and the life that he was living in California. It takes the mystique away, and that's another great thing about having somebody who's in the business, because they can de-mystify it for you. You can see that it's plain old-fashioned hard work and just getting up every day and doing your job. That's important to realize, to see…nobody's going to hand it to you. You've got to work.
Review: I read about an experience you had at Northwestern University. You starred in a production of Hair.
Brian: Yes I did a production of “Hair” at Northwestern and this was my sophomore year at college. The director of that show, Dominic Missimi, was a wonderful director and a great man and on the faculty of the Theater School of Northwestern. He was asked to take the production that we did in college and remount it as a special production for the 20th anniversary of the production of “Hair.” Essentially that show that I did in college, the commercial producer who owned the rights to “Hair,” a guy by the name of Michael Butler, who lived in Oak Brook, Illinois and still does. He heard about this Northwestern production. He saw it, and he loved it. He said, “This is what I want to do for the 20th anniversary production in Chicago, so those were the blueprints for the professional production. Now that didn't necessarily mean that I was a shoe-in to do it. I had to audition just like everybody else. Thankfully it was a big break for me and I was cast in the professional production of that show my junior year of college. That was a great connection of my education at Northwestern giving me the opportunity to pursue something professionally.
Review: Does it annoy you when you're not working?
Brian: Yeah, I get annoyed. It depends on how long the stretch is. It's a nice thing to be able to kind of cleanse the pallet and not do something for a while. You know, I will say that I'm a little more selective in what I do now. At least I feel that I've earned the right. Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm wrong about that, but I'm taking a little bit more of a judicious approach to the things that I do. Sure, there are stretches of time when I'm not doing something consistently. It does become a little bit annoying, but what you should try to do in those moments is a) enjoy it because, you know, hopefully it's not going to last too long, and I'll be pining for the next time I have a few minutes. Then b) I try to be productive in that time as well to do other things. Like, you know I'm working on a couple of screen plays, and I'm pursuing the rights to produce a piece as a Broadway musical, so I'm trying to stretch to different areas that don't necessarily rely on my acting skills exclusively. That's kind of how I try to bide my time when I'm not working.
Review: It must have been difficult to do Shrek.
Brian: It was challenging for sure because in a physical manner, it was a way that I've never been challenged before because of the makeup and the costume. I had to be ready for it, so I like a challenge like that. I enjoy that aspect of it. That's right, after a year you think, “Okay, let me be practical about this.” I would have loved doing it as long as the run lasted, but it really did take it out of me, and I just thought if I had another opportunity to do a really fantastic play the timing was just right enough for me to say, “this might be my time to bow out.”
Review: Did your athleticism help you with the Shrek dance and all that other stuff?
Brian: Yeah, you do have to be ready to do anything, and you do have to stay in shape. Your body is your instrument, so you kind of have to think that way. There are times when I'm more aware of that than at other times, just in terms of my ability to stay in shape, you know, like everybody else and just try to do the right thing. Of course, I'm getting older, so like, “All right. It's not a bad idea to try to stay in shape.” You know most actors are pretty aware of the fact that they have to be in tune with themselves.
Review: You had a lot of Broadway experience; “Blood Brothers,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “Giant,” “Titanic.” Each of them big, big-ticket items. Was there a particular show that you liked more than the others?
Brian: Every show is different, has a different character. I have a sense of it in my memory in terms of how I felt about each one. You mentioned “Blood Brothers.” That was a big one because it was my first Broadway show. I remember the first night. The show was already up and running, so I was coming into the show as a replacement in the cast of one of the guys who left to go do another show, which is very common. So I was inserted into this machine of a Broadway show.
I remember getting ready to make my first entrance for the opening number and wondering to myself, “What is this going to be like?” I was nervous and my adrenalin was pumping. I was ready to do it. I was excited to do it, but the thing that immediately struck me when I stepped out and started doing what I had to do for the first number, is that it was no different than any other kind of theatrical experience that I had before in terms of all the training that I had - all of the experiences I had stepping on a stage from Pit and Balcony to Midland to Northwestern to Chicago to regional theater, it's all the same equation.
Now obviously it's different because it's Broadway, and there's a different expectation and there are probably different ticket prices, but the job was exactly the same. I found great comfort in knowing that, “Wow, I've been doing this for 15 years already.” It was a great sense of comfort. It made me feel like, “Wow, I'm where I should be. This is where I belong.” In your mind, you think, “Wow, Broadway, there's something different about it.” Don't get me wrong. There is something in that it represents a kind of pinnacle of what you can expect from a theatrical experience. But on the other hand, it requires the same thing, putting on a costume, stepping out on the stage, and knowing your lines and knowing where to stand.
Review: Speaking about what you've learned through the years, and I know you've learned a lot for sure, are there maybe some principles that you hold dear, that you really learned from, such as “Less Is More?”
Brian: Um-hm. Yeah, that's true. You know, it's a constant lesson that I'm learning. It's one thing to hear it and think that you understand it, and then occasionally you'll have moments when you can employ it and feel like, “Oh, I understand now what that means and the doing of it,” but that's the experience of things. If you get those experiences, when you can actually experiment with ideas like that, that's what I think makes you a better actor. I think “Less is More” is a great thing, especially when you are making the transition from stage work, which was predominantly my career, and then moving into television and film work. You have to learn how to kind of really pull back and use yourself in a different way.
Overall on a larger scale what I'm constantly learning is that you have to be true to who you are in each particular day that you're living, because this week you're different than last week, and this month is different from last month, and this year is different from last year. I guess what I mean by that is your ideas change, your life changes, your perspective changes, and maybe even your interests' change. How you spend your time and how you feel about how you spend your time changes. I think it's important to check in on that and be honest with what you're getting out of what you do.
I'm speaking obviously about what I do for a living, but I think it's probably true for everybody. You know, you can do something for a long time and then you can wake up and say, “Why am I doing this?” I think those moments are good because it's kind of like a tune-up for a car. You have to kind of get everything back in line and say, “Okay, what am I connecting to now? What makes me passionate? What do I care about? What do I want to say as an artist?”
I'm in a place like that right now. I'm trying to be honest with who I am and what I'm doing and why I'm doing it, and I'm trying to keep myself in line with how I'm going to best communicate those things as an artist.
Review: You've worked with a lot of actors. You must feel the same way sometimes when the director is a bully or a creep in some way, or the production is bad, and then you can join together and talk about it. Does it ever happen that in times of trouble on the set, or on the stage, that you help each other out?
Brian: Yeah, I think it's more in just conversing with other actors and you know, you've mentioned some really tremendous people. I've had the real luxury of working with really quite great actors who I look up to and have had these incredible careers and a wealth of experience. What I'm always struck by is that actors are actors. No matter how successful they are, if they're going to go out and do a job, they have to act. It's not like they do anything differently. They just have been doing it for a longer period of time and might be more celebrated.
It doesn't take away from the fact that you have to collaborate with people. Inevitably even the greats have bad experiences where they just can't believe how poorly they are being treated or how uninteresting a production can be. What I do say is that I take comfort in knowing that everybody just wants to do a good job. When things get thwarted in that pursuit, I think it's just as shocking and as jarring and as disappointing to anybody who cares about what they do. So yeah, I take great comfort in knowing that the greats that I've known have expressed frustrations and everybody's got their hard-knocks stories.
Review: How do you handle that hurry up and wait kind of problem?
Brian: Well, that's definitely part and parcel of television and film. It doesn't happen too much in the theater. The theater is kind of a constant flow. It's a low, intense burn that just continues, which is really a wonderful thing. You start working on something and you have a continuum that pushes you forward. Television and film are much different in that you have little spurts of activity and then, as you say, a lot of downtime where you just hurry up to wait.
A great lesson that I learned just doing “Smash” and watching Debra Messing work is that there is a lot of pressure, especially when you're starting something off, particularly with a pilot, because everybody wants to get it right, everybody wants to control the amount of money that's being spent, which means they have to control the amount of time that they're spending on a particular shoot, and so there's a lot of people working furiously and feverishly to kind of, what's called the set-up of the shot. It takes a lot of people. It's an incredible amount of work from the crew to set up every single shot, angles, lights, wires, set pieces, set decorations, costumes, all those things.
In between each take, you've got a lot of people working really, really hard. My point is that once it becomes time for the actor to do his job, it's easy to carry all of that chaos, all of that frenetic energy and have it infest you at the time when everything stops. Everything stops and it's your job to pretend like nothing has been happening, yet you're in this vacuum where you continue your scene or you continue to do your job as an actor.
What I saw Debra doing, which I loved witnessing, was just her ability to separate herself and create this moat between all of that noise and hubbub and give herself a few minutes to breath a bit, and then create this whole new space, this vacuum in which she could do her job easily and not carry all of that stuff with 150 people mulling around. I don't know if that makes sense to you. I'm trying to describe what it is. That was a great lesson, especially in the high-speed world of network television. There was this seasoned professional just taking control of her job and doing it in a really graceful way. It's separating from the din and letting you be productive within a space that is peaceful.
Review: You've done all kinds of things from drama, TV, film, and theater. What's your preference? Do you prefer one medium to the other?
Brian: Well, I think my favorite will always be the thing that I spent the most time doing, which is the theater. It's what I studied; it's what got me interested in acting. It's what I know best. It's what I know best in terms of how to employ my skills. However I've been doing it for quite a while, and it's been great these last couple of years to start the ball rolling down to television and film because it's a different way of working. I think it's great to be in a business where you can all of a sudden, after 20 years of doing something, get a chance to kind of find a different flavor at the ice cream store and try that for a while. You're doing the same thing. You're just using different muscles. I'm really interested in exploring what it takes to be a good film actor, to be a good television actor. It's a combination. Then again the third part is that I would love to be able to see something come to fruition that I've created, not relying on the words that someone's written for me, but kind of creating the thing that I want to say. I've done a few things like that that no one has ever seen. It's always a great and enormous pleasure and pride in kind of creating my own things.
Review: I understand we are both fans of Todd Rundgren.
Brian: Yeah, he's pretty great. He wrote a Broadway show that was performed at the Public Theater in New York. It doesn't surprise me because he has such a wide array of talents and interests musically. I'm sure you probably know this as well. He's quite an accomplished producer. So he's able to talk, communicate, interpret and help create. He's just kind of wildly talented, and I've always loved his music.
Review: Let's talk about the concert at Field Neurosciences Institute in Saginaw. What set list did you use and what songs will you use for your debut?
Brian: Well, I did a lot of songs that I love - Pop songs from the '70s and the '80s, Steve Winwood, Squeeze, Billy Joel, other artists like Harry Connick, Jr, Rufus Wainwright and things like that, so when I was talking to the folks at FNI about this upcoming concert, they had a really great idea, which is follow up with this FNI show using the same premise for my concert in New York - to just sing songs that I like.
They thought it would be a good idea, and I totally agree with just pushing the parameters out a little bit and use “Under The Influence” as the title of the concert. It would be songs that everybody loves, that everybody grew up listening to that are in the pop medium. I'm exploring all kinds of options in terms of what the set list will be for the FNI concert. I think that I'll use some of the songs that I did for my 54 Below Concert in New York and then I'll add other songs from the '60s and even the '50s. So it will open up the door to pop sounds from the late '70s and '80s. I think it was wise for them to think of changing that same idea and just kind of opening up the door a little bit to a wider array of possibilities.
Review: How can your strength also be an Achilles' heel?
Brian: That's a good question. Um, I think it goes back to what I was talking about a little bit before in terms of, oh I don't know, maybe just being too narrow-minded about things and our focus is of the utmost importance, and focus is necessary. I do think, however, that I'm lucky because I have a family, and it's great to be able to look away. I mean, to quote my grandmother, “a watched pot never boils.” It's good to be able to kind of have other things to do. I think when you're so dedicated to something and you really spend a lot of time trying to achieve your goals, sometimes it can be at the risk of, you know, putting other things aside that would perhaps be just as helpful to you, like living a life or having a hobby or, you know, taking a walk in the woods. It's kind of a general answer, but I think maybe that's what pops up in my head when you ask how your strengths can be perhaps a weakness.
Review: You've performed for Field Neurosciences for years and you have chosen it as a charity of yours, Fields of Hope. Is Alzheimer's disease a particular focus for your charitable work, or is it just neurosciences generally?
Brian: Well, it's not so much Alzheimer's per se. I think what they're doing in just terms of general education and their exploration of neurosciences in general and head injury and recovery. It's more of a general sense of what we can do with the brain and how we deal with the brain. I think it's a fascinating thing, and the fact that it's happening in Saginaw with Dr. Malcolm Field being such a renowned leader in that field is such a feather in the cap of our community.
So I'm really happy to associate myself with that aspect of it, but you know I have a family tie to it again. My grandfather, Dr. John W. James, my dad's dad, he was on the board of St. Mary's. He was an OB/GYN there, and he knew Dr. Field, so there's a family history that is also connected to it. I know it's different from St. Mary's, but at least in the medical field there are a lot of people who work at FNI who had relationships with my grandfather, professional relationships, so that is another source of pride for me. I feel like they have adopted me. I can't say that this is something that I have sought and found a home. I feel like they've been kind to really adopt me and by virtue of me doing these concerts for FNI, I've learned a lot. So I feel as long as they will invite me, I will come because I get a great feel of satisfaction coming home and acknowledging that this is where I came from and this is where my home is and where my heart is and also being able to do something that is positive for the community, hopefully, and being a part of that. It's a no-brainer.
To be totally honest, I feel like I don't want to wear out my welcome. (Laughter) If they ask, I'll keep coming back. If they feel like, “Do you still want to come?” Then I'll be there.