Broadway interview

Brian d’Arcy James on Broadway, booze, Tonys, and ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

The Daily Beast

March 4, 2024

Brian d’Arcy James talks “Days of Wine and Roses,” Tony nominations, depression, Broadway’s future, and why he and Kelli O’Hara might soon tackle ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

The drinks trolley in front of us with glasses and a posh-looking bottle of whisky is not his, Brian d’Arcy James is quick to say with a hearty laugh. Still, it stands gracefully, if incongruously, in his large dressing room at Broadway theater Studio 54 where James, a four-time Tony Award nominee, and fellow stage megastar Kelli O’Hara are performing Days of Wine and Roses (booking to April 28). The musical—directed by Michael Greif, with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, and book by Craig Lucas—is based on the 1962 movie starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick about an attractive couple, Joe Clay and Kirsten Arnesen, who destroy their marriage and themselves through alcohol addiction.

“The drinks trolley came with the room, I didn’t bring it in,” James said. “That bottle of whisky has remained unopened.” He smiled. “I’m very skittish about asking if people want a drink.”

The ugliness of Joe and Kirsten’s descent is in counterintuitive contrast to the initial charisma and attractiveness of them as fictional characters and the twinned magnetism of James and O’Hara as their portrayers in the musical. The role is a striking left turn for James, whose last Broadway role was as the Baker—with Sara Bareilles as the Baker’s Wife—in the critically hailed, audience-beloved City Center Encores revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, for which the actor scored his fourth Tony nomination (for Best Actor in a Musical).

Yet Joe and Kirsten may just be the nursery slopes to playing one of fiction’s grandest booze-drenched, dysfunctional couples. James reveals to The Daily Beast that he and O’Hara are discussing—nothing officially confirmed, or set in stone yet—playing George and Martha if any appetite existed to mount a revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

This spacious dressing room has been “strange to return to”; it feels “the same but different” for James who occupied it first in 2006 when performing in Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s The Apple Tree. It has a neon sign outside proclaiming it the original site of Club Cumming, Alan Cumming’s now famous venue, which began life here as a post-performance party spot after Wednesday night performances of Cabaret, in which Cumming played the Emcee.

On the wall is a picture of Brian Kelly, James’ uncle, who featured in the TV series Flipper, and who was a producer of the movie Blade Runner. “He demystified acting for me, and taught me to be tenacious,” James said. “I loved being with him, he was loud, opinionated, and funny, with a great, absurd sense of humor. I remember him telling me to watch and educate myself about Montgomery Clift.” On a shelf is a Toby mug of a lawyer—his dad, a lawyer, collected the mugs, and this one is an opening night gift from his mom lifted from the family’s Michigan basement.

Audiences are mostly, notably quiet, broken occasionally by audible gasps of shock and upset, watching Joe and Kirsten’s relationship in graphic, boozy freefall. The stage at Studio 54, so much bigger than at the Atlantic Theater downtown where the show began life last year, allows both characters and story to breathe more, James notes, without losing any of the intimacy that makes the show—both its numbers and drama—hit so hard.

James meditates and performs “a pretty stringent physical warm-up” before each show. “There’s so much you have to give yourself over to in 95 minutes, I want to be completely unimpeded in that way,” he said. “What I’ve learned is that you can really do yourself in by looking at the show in its totality. I treat it moment to moment, which is a good allegory for what the program (AA) teaches: one day at time, you can’t go further than you can go. Whatever the day brings, the day brings.”

In the show, we see Joe go from a loquacious drinker to railing, snarling drunk to recovering alcoholic riddled with a pervasive guilt borne of introducing Kirsten to booze. One scene sees James scaling perilously up and down the walls to smash up a greenhouse in the name of finding booze, which emphasizes, his portrayer said, “how high the stakes are, how high he is, and how completely insanely he is behaving to achieve his goal of getting drunk.”

Smashing up the shed engenders “a sense of abandon I have never experienced on stage,” said James. “It’s controlled fury—you have to be in control of it—but there are nights when the momentum of emotion I am experiencing does take over. It’s kind of thrilling not to be beholden to rules. Michael, Craig, and Adam have given us the license to surprise ourselves and hopefully the audience.”

It has been “a constant exploration” how to play these scenes of easy, then destructive drunken abandon, helping James locate Joe’s many inner layers. It is part of a brilliantly executed feel-bad musical.

“I’d also say that we hope the audience feels elation and hope in the strides the characters take to succeed, and the goodness in them,” said James. “You lean forward because you want them to be OK. When you watch them at first they are falling in love, figuratively intoxicated with each other. Watching what happens next is sad and troubling. I would argue that, yes, there is immense sadness in how Joe and Kirsten try to navigate their addictions, and there are great moments which elevate the mood or moment for the audience.”

One night—as he played a moment when Joe, bowed down with guilt for introducing Kirsten to alcohol, apologizes to her for doing so—James found himself unable to say the words. “The feeling of responsibility, the feeling of horror of what Joe has done—there was some strange kind of alchemy of me, Brian, not being able to say those words because of the immensity of it. I feel that is constantly happening with this show—maybe not to that degree all the time, but it’s always speaking to me. As someone who is trying to figure out what it truly means to suffer from an addiction and trying to overcome that, I feel those feelings of gratitude when you feel you are making progress, and feelings of shame when you take steps back. I am not impervious to that in my own life. Joe is obviously on a different road, but those things speak to me and constantly inform me.”

James says he “thankfully” doesn’t suffer from any addictions personally—”other than sugar and Pop-Tarts,” he added, chuckling.

“I know anecdotally in my family, there has been alcoholism—I’m not a stranger to addiction. It’s safe to say it’s not very hard for any one person to have some kind of personal knowledge about what addiction is, and how it can wreak havoc on an individual.” James declines to discuss who in his own family he is referring to, although he “wasn’t so much in the line of fire of that behavior. But I know the relatives had to deal with it, which I can draw from.”

He also read literature around alcoholism “to have a working knowledge of the vocabulary the character would have had in the 1960s, and as we know it today.” The musical never lapses into the knowledge and language of today. It is “very mindful” of its time, when alcohol abuse awareness was so much less, and when alcoholism meant being “a bum” who had too much to drink, as Kirsten says—meaning middle-class professionals like her and Joe do not recognize the signs and symptoms of their own addictions.

It takes James a while to shrug Joe off after every performance, although over the years he has become “better” at learning the line between real life and the characters he plays. That doesn’t mean the ideas and emotions he expresses as Joe “just go away” night after night—“just that I recognize the line better. I would be lying if I said after every show I was ready for chipper conversation. It stays with you, for sure, and that can be a good thing. The character is so beautifully drawn, his life source informs me.”


“I like to play ugly, it’s more interesting”

James is very aware of audiences’ reactions, such as when his sponsor Jim (David Jennings) rips him an eloquent new one after he makes an awful decision to drink again at a key moment. “People applaud at that moment, as if to say to my character, ‘Get your act together, just like Jim told you, you idiot.’ It’s always an instructive moment for me—not only in terms of what the piece is doing to people but their attitudes and feelings, and ability or inability, to accept what this disease is.”

In another key, destructive moment for Joe and Kirsten, James has heard people in the audience say, ‘No, don’t do that.’ That’s very moving to me. It’s fantastic, because it signals people are leaning into these characters, really invested. It’s very powerful.” Another moment, when Joe determinedly embraces sobriety for the sake of daughter Lila (Tabitha Lawing), earns more applause. “If I’m feeling any shame in that moment, that’s also wildly affecting.”

Also powerful, James said, was how, outside the theater after the show, some people have shared their own stories of addiction and recovery and thanked the cast for their performances.

“Others have told me they can’t come, that they’re not ready to see such a story, which I totally understand,” he said. “I have learned a lot about addiction, performing this show. I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I’m very aware that I’m play-acting. There are people whose lives have been destroyed, and/or torn up horrifically, by addiction. People have died. I can’t begin to understand it, but I feel that sense of pain. I can only try to honor what those people are going through, or have gone through. I hope this attempt at storytelling is graceful, in a way helpful, and not oversimplistic. I don’t think it is, though I am very aware this thing happening on stage is conceived, pre-meditated, and executed—and then there is real life.”

James loves playing such a complex character—very different from charmers such as the Baker. “That is something you don’t always get. Sometimes you get pushed into a place of what, or who, people expect you to play. I have tried throughout my career to find bells that can ring a different note. You try and have different senses of yourself on display, and explore different aspects of your own character and being. This show does all those things—Joe goes from charming and good-natured to the complete dissolution of those things, to petty and mean. I like to play ugly, it’s more interesting to gussy something up and give it a sheen, so you can properly expose a character and surprise the audience.”

His four Tony nominations to date have been for Sweet Smell of Success, Shrek the Musical, Something Rotten!, and Into the Woods. Of the possibility of a fifth Tony for playing Joe, and of awards more generally, James said: “Generally speaking, I’d be lying if I said I was not aware of them, and I’m tickled and excited when it happens to me. But one benefit of getting older, and having experience, is that I have actual empirical proof that if you don’t win a Tony it doesn’t mean you don’t continue to work!”

He laughed. “Look, if I get a nomination, that’s great, fantastic, for me and great for the show. But I’ve had this conversation with myself. ‘Do I want a little trinket?’ ‘Yeah, it would be fun.’ ‘Is it necessary?’ ‘Absolutely not.’ Taking that off of one’s menu of options is helpful. I understand that awards are a component of the industry—it is a celebration for sure, and it’s an exciting honor to be nominated and all that, but it is also one aspect of the industry that can be unhelpful. You realize that, ultimately, producers are not so concerned about if you won an Oscar or Tony. If you want me to be part of your thing, employ me because of this show, or the 800 things I’ve done previously.”


“I wasn’t shy about saying, ‘Look at me, look at me’”

Growing up in Saginaw, Michigan, James was always involved in theater, “but I wouldn’t say I was hell-bent on doing it.” He was inspired first at high school to pursue acting, and still today, by his sister, Anne James-Noonan, a performer and teacher. “Every week a former student of hers will come up to me and say, ‘She is or was my teacher, she’s the best. As a kid, I loved all the fun she had with people doing theater. It was such an eclectic group. Some were football players, some were arty people, some were bookworm people. It was a weird hybrid of a community.”

A great fan of sports, James was “too small” for football, but found his strong singing voice “really gave me a sense of autonomy and of self-worth. I felt, ‘I can do this.’ It made me feel I had an identity, at an age where so many are struggling with ‘Who am I, and where do I fit in this world?’”

His first stage role in ninth grade was as Randolph MacAfee in a school production of Bye Bye Birdie. “It was really fun. I wasn’t shy about saying, ‘Look at me, look at me.’ I was always looking at my older sister. We sang all the time as kids.”

At Northwestern University, James became a theater major, “really” deciding to become an actor when he took an acting class in his sophomore year. “I realized it wasn’t instinct, and really got the idea of breaking things down and understanding what technique was and applying rules and thought, methods, giving life to characters—the craftsmanship of it.”

His parents were supportive of all these endeavors. “It wasn’t till I got to college I realized not every kid had a really great family life, and a supportive family like mine.” His father was a lawyer, who died young, at 50, in 1990 during James’ senior year of college. “That was terrible. Now that I’m 55, I think, ‘How is it possible that I have lived longer than the only role model I ever had?’ 50 was a tough year for me—going past that threshold. He was a fantastic guy, he was a great, great man. My mother is still alive, and awesome and fantastic.”

How did his father’s death affect him? “I was 21, and it did in a positive way in the sense that I had a bit of carpe diem I think,” James said. “It catapulted me to move to New York City sooner than had that not have happened. Chicago is such a great theater town, and I had started my professional life during school. I got my Equity card at college. I had an awareness of the industry and people had an awareness of me. You can make a living and have a great life in Chicago as a great actor. But I was filled with a sense of ‘What does New York mean as a place?’”

Most of James’ classmates went west to LA, the land of TV and film. He chose theater because it was “the most familiar thing to me. I knew the rules, and what was expected. It wasn’t as mysterious to me as TV—not to say that I didn’t have the desire to do film and TV, but I was exercising that particular hand [to do theater] that was dealt to me.”

However, James also felt that being known as a musicals-only actor was limiting, and to “combat” any typecasting and casting preconceptions he would audition for—and try to do—as many plays as possible. “I think I always had a chip on my shoulder about making clear I didn’t have to sing to act. It was a strange ambition—of wanting to create the space for myself that I can do this-and-also-that. I think I’m ambitious to a degree that I want to feel like the work I do has impact.”

His first role on Broadway was in the chorus of Blood Brothers; he played Tony-nominated Con O’Neill’s lead role for two weeks (with the “incredibly generous” O’Neill giving him his copy of the original script). Since then, James has, on paper, worked pretty consistently—with the four Tony nominations emblemizing a stellar Broadway career and standing.

“I can’t complain, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing,” he said. “So much goes into finding a rhythm, and finding the chances to get those opportunities to be in something people see, let alone talk about. Every actor has so many untold experiences, flops, and bloodletting that go unnoticed—and I have definitely had my fair share of that. Having said that, I have been very lucky to be able to keep my momentum going.”

James laughed. His daughter Grace will graduate from college in May, he says. Back in his acting class as a student, one of the questions he and his classmates were asked in their journals was what they hoped to achieve as an actor. “I remember writing down at 18 something to the effect of, ‘I want to have an acting career so I can pay for my kids’ college education.’ Well, I just made the last payment for her four years of tuition. I thought, ‘Alright, I did it, and I’m not living in a tent.’”

James recalled that when Maury Yeston, who wrote the music and lyrics of Titanic, the 1997 musical, was asked about the best and worst things about winning a Tony, “he said something like, it’s a dream come true but what do you do next? You have to find another dream. If you achieve one goal, you’ve got to find something else to put out there to work towards—instead of saying, ‘Look at what I did—this thing—10, 20, 30 years ago.’ That’s always stayed with me.” He laughed. “So, my personal achievement was paying for my kid’s education. Now I have to find the new thing.”

James is most proud of three roles he has played—Joe in Days of Wine and Roses, “not just because it’s right in front of me. This piece is so extraordinary and unique and challenging. I do think it is moving the parameters of what we expect musicals to be.”

The other two roles are Irish-set plays. The first, The Good Thief by Conor McPherson, was a roughly hour-long monologue James relished the challenge of mastering (and for which he won an Obie Award in 2001). His role in Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman is “a point of pride” he shares with the other American actors who eventually replaced the original cast. “We tried our best to be Irish actors, and hope we acquitted ourselves very well. That was one of the best plays I have ever read and seen. All elements of Jez Butterworth’s writing excites me.”

James was also inspired by Mark Rylance when he saw him in Butterworth’s Jerusalem in London. “I likened it to being in a room, where you know where the floors, wall, and ceiling are. But in that performance it was like there was no ceiling. That guy took away every wall, every part of the room, and redefined it. I get shivers thinking about that performance. It reignited something in me. It inspired me to be as good as what I saw.”

As for performing Shakespeare, James played Banquo in Macbeth, co-starring Ethan Hawke at Lincoln Center in 2013, where he “basically shat myself” speaking his “six lines” to Richard Easton every night. He has “toyed” with the idea of workshopping some of the Bard’s great characters. When it comes to musical theater—as Days of Wine and Roses shows—while not dismissing classic roles, he finds it more “exciting and rewarding” to originate new ones—such as playing the original King George III in the off-Broadway premiere of Hamilton before Jonathan Groff took on the role.

Playing Shrek in the Broadway musical of the same name was “pure bliss” in terms of playing opposite co-stars like Sutton Foster and Christopher Sieber, and the creative team of Jeanine Tesori (music) and David Lindsay-Abaire (book and lyrics). But the process of getting into the make-up and costume of the character took its toll.

“On two-show days I had to stay in the big green head,” James recalled. “My daughter was 6 at the time and freaked out by it. I remember the director Jason Moore in the early stages saying there were three ways of doing it—the first that Shrek would be a theatrical suggestion, the second a more middle-of-the-road option, and the third the real literal Latex thing, and obviously”—he smiled—“they went for the third, most taxing option. Look, I wasn’t Jim Carrey spending hours in the chair becoming the Grinch, but it was something I did for a long period of time. But to be clear, it was also a lot of fun to do!”

He also loved appearing in the Broadway-themed TV drama Smash (as Frank, husband of Julia Houston, played by Debra Messing), even if his character didn’t sing. “I know I said I wanted to act as well as sing, but I do recall being at a table read for the sixth or seventh episode, and, as we got to the bit of the read featuring the musical number, thinking, ‘Everyone else is singing, I want to sing too.’” He has also appeared in 13 Reasons Why (as Andy Baker), and played reporter Matt Carroll in Spotlight.

Steven Spielberg was an executive producer on Smash; James next met him when he played Officer Krupke in Spielberg’s 2021 big-screen adaptation of West Side Story. “I left that experience feeling part of his success, apart from his obvious genius for storytelling and passion for making movies, is being a great leader with a generosity of spirit and confidence who invites everyone to come with him,” James said. “He’s so capable and inviting, he makes you want to do your best because he’s working really hard to do his best. He’s invested, and you want to do what the captain does. That’s a real gift.”

James was also starstruck a little more recently. “The other night Dan Aykroyd came to see the show. Sometimes we’re told so-and-so’s backstage to say hi, and that’s lovely. Well, I ran down the stairs to meet Dan Aykroyd. I think he’s a genius—as a comedic mind, as a writer, as an actor. Things exist in our cultural fabric he has a lot to do with. He was so nice, self-effacing, and present.”

He and his wife Jennifer recently saw Leslie Odom Jr. in the recent Broadway revival of Ossie Davis’ racism-based satire Purlie Victorious. “It was great with a capital G. I said to Jennifer I had the same feeling leaving that show that I had watching Liam Neeson in The Crucible. I remember I couldn’t speak afterwards. We’re not hanging out every day, but I know Leslie and consider him a friend, and seeing him perform was so inspiring to me. He’s such a great artist and beautiful person, I was blown away by the whole thing. What a great piece of writing by Ossie Davis, everything about it was extremely moving.”

Asked about dream roles, James gives me a mischievous smile and opens the bureau drawer in front of him. “Make it clear to your readers I am actually acting this out,” he said, laughing. A beautiful red book cover revealed itself, and in his hands James held a copy of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

“I love this play, there’s so much to unpack with it,” James said. “I’ve always been drawn to it. I saw the Mike Nichols film (starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) in high school and didn’t understand any of it but was mesmerized, thinking, ‘What in God’s name is happening here?’ Even now I won’t pretend to know what Albee is doing, though I have a better idea having lived a few days. It’s one of those plays where there’s always something to discover and discuss.”

Inevitably, James would love to play George. “And the play gets revived every two years or so, so I have a good shot,” he said, laughing. “I got the book because Kelli and I have been talking about it quite a lot actually. She has the same kind of attraction to the play—we’d like to do it together, it would be super cool.” He laughed again. “The road map has been paved with us playing Joe and Kirsten. They are weirdly foundational for George and Martha.”

So, Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara could be the next George and Martha on Broadway? James smiled. “It’s not like we have a blood pact to make this happen. If she doesn’t do it with me and does it with someone else, that’s fine, but it would be great to do it with her. It’s just a conversation right now.”


“Little bouts of depression”

James met Jennifer while they were both performing in a Lincoln Center production of Carousel in 1993. He was already in the show, she was a replacement, with “the unfortunate task of being a trained dancer paired up to dance with me. I was not a trained dancer. We were doing “June is bustin’ out all over,” and she said to me, ‘Do we go this way on 6 or 7?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. When I see the bush I take a right, and when I see that guy go to the side I go upstage.’ She thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m dancing with an idiot,’ but we managed.” Today, Jennifer is a small business owner and also produces films.

Daughter Grace is “an amazing singer” who has done a music history degree—although she “quietly does her thing,” James has seen a video of her singing a Rufus Wainwright song at an open mic event in Ireland, “and she’s amazing. I think she’ll be involved in music in some way. ‘Follow your bliss,’ as Joseph Campbell said.”

In the last five years, James said he had experienced having “little bouts of depression.” “I’ve talked about it with my wife. I have never had any counsel for it. People say anxiety and depression go hand in hand, and there have been moments in my life that have definitely taken me by surprise in the last five years.”

His father’s death at 50, and passing that marker himself, has been a reminder of mortality, “an understanding you’re in a different part of the story. It’s a mixture of my father’s death, me moving past that marker of 50, my daughter moving away and starting her own life, and where that leg of the tripod has gone. And then there’s me as an artist trying to figure out, ‘Am I using my voice in the right way, and getting the chances to do what I want to do?’ All those things can sneak up and latch on. For me, I would just describe it as a heaviness and weight.”

Some amelioration of these feelings has been achieved through James meditating over the last three years. “It has been extraordinarily helpful for me. I could never speak articulately as to why. It’s a little bit like the air nuzzle on a balloon. Whatever air goes out—because of meditation—gives me more room and space in my spirit and head to face whatever it is I am dealing with—like having a mental floss.”

To relax during the show’s run, James watches Detroit Lions games, and this (very good) season has been to two games, “which is two more than I’ve been to in the last 30 years. My wife is like, ‘Who are you? Where has this come from?’ Well, I was waiting for something to cheer for. On my days off doing the show, I do nothing—and I’ve become really good at not being apologetic about doing absolutely nothing.”

He is starting to “think about and accept” aging. “It’s an odd thing. The markers are work-related. I’m not the kid in the cast anymore. I’m actually the oldest person. I feel like I should be the kid, but I’m not… all that, and what it takes to do eight performances a week. That makes it clear where you are in life—understanding where one is in relationship to the climb. Some days it’s easy to accept, some days it’s not. I’m just starting to understand and realize where I am in my life. That can be super-exciting, super-liberating, and, some days, super-scary.”

As for Broadway itself, James is “excited and hopeful” over Broadway’s ongoing efforts to ensure equal opportunities for people of color on and off stage. He wishes the financial imperatives for Broadway shows were not as harsh, so more had a stronger chance to survive. “I myself have been dissuaded by seeing some shows because of the cost of tickets,” he said. “I’m counting the pennies like everyone else. I can’t afford it.”

James paused and looked around the dressing room. “All of that makes me appreciate that we’re here in this particular show on Broadway that is challenging, unexpected, and not typical. I see hope in that, and what it says about what can work on Broadway. What this story asks is very bold and courageous. I’m incredibly proud to be doing it.”