EXCLUSIVE: In Spotlight, three Boston Globe reporters and their editor work doggedly to expose a terrible injustice: The widespread rape and sexual abuse of children by priests in the Boston archdiocese, while Cardinal Bernard Law and his functionaries did everything within their considerable power to deflect the blame and to cover up the crimes. Already declared a front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar, the Thomas McCarthy film has reopened a national conversation about the role of the Church in the scandal — and the impact of journalism at its best (the Globe was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service as a result of the investigation, which led to Law’s resignation). It’s also a great tale, in the tradition of journalists-as-heroes films like All The President’s Men, instead of as goats (Nightcrawler, anyone?).
Most of the leading roles are played by established stars: Michael Keaton as Walter “Robby” Robinson, the Spotlight team leader; Liev Schreiber as Martin Baron, the new editor in town; John Slattery as his deputy, Ben Bradlee Jr.; and, as the reporters Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendez; Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer; and Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll.
This is where you say, “Brian who?” Unless, that is, you’re a New York theater freak, in which case you might have seen d’Arcy James fat, green and with ears like demented daffodils as the title character in the musical version of Shrek. Or as flop-sweaty flack Sidney Falco opposite John Lithgow’s J.J. Hunsecker (not a model journalist) in the musical adaptation of Sweet Smell Of Success. Or as he is these days, in Elizabethan garb, surfing waves of laughter and applause in the mock-Shakespearean musical Something Rotten!, the biggest hit yet for this actor’s actor, a veteran of 12 Broadway shows and many more outside the narrow confines of the Theatre District.
Movies and TV police procedurals are full of scraps thrown to stage actors, which makes d’Arcy James’ appearance in Spotlight even more noteworthy. Along with the rest of the cast, he spent time hanging out with the folks they were playing. In the case of Carroll — the self-described nerd of the quartet, happy to dive into spreadsheets — d’Arcy James plays the most reticent of the four. Carroll (who left the Globe last year) hasn’t been a big part of the promotional campaign for the film. D’Arcy James is similarly reticent, going to work eight times a week as though there weren’t a thing at all going on in the rest of his life.
DEADLINE: So your agent sends you the script.
d’ARCY JAMES: Yeah, I just went in and did my two scenes and left. You train yourself not to really expect anything. A few days later I was at a Crate & Barrel with my wife wondering, “Will she get a new couch?” and I got the call. I said, “We’re getting the couch.”
DEADLINE: Did you know which part you were reading for?
d’ARCY JAMES: I knew I was reading for Matt Carroll. I don’t think I knew that Mike Keaton and Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams were attached to it. I found out on the phone call when I got the job that that’s the quartet that I’d be a part of, which blew my mind. It wasn’t just me being a blip. It was a real concerted effort to represent what these four reporters did as a team, which I think is kind of remarkable in the writing. Really getting a sense of this thing moving as one unit.
“The relationship between a journalist and an actor is kind of the same, in the sense that you’re looking for the truth. You want to get it right. You want to make sure that you have all the weapons at your disposal to unleash the truth.”
DEADLINE: How about you? As an actor, you’ve been in the spotlight all your professional life. How do you feel about us?
d’ARCY JAMES: I respect journalism. I was always very aware of journalism from a very broad point of view, but I’d say my baptism by fire was doing the Donald Margulies play Time Stands Still. That for me was a real education because I spent a lot of time with some incredible journalists, war reporters particularly — Bob Woodruff, Dexter Filkins — people who were very helpful in painting the picture for me and reading the accounts of people and what they experienced, a lot of PTSD. Just what that particular brand of journalism needs. And in terms of a byline, it really made me consider it’s not just a name above an article. It’s a life that is led.
DEADLINE: Tell me as specifically as you can about Matt Carroll.
d’ARCY JAMES: Well Matt Carroll is a family guy. He’s born and bred in Massachusetts. He’s a very thoughtful person. I was intrigued by how he would really make sure he knew what the question was before he answered it. I’m sure that’s just a way a journalist thinks — getting the right words in the right order. It wasn’t haphazard, it wasn’t just a story he was telling. He was going to give you the exact answer to the question that you asked. I asked him a lot about how it affected him personally and 9/11 was in the midst of the investigation. It was such a traumatic experience, one on top of the other. His takeaway was that he just hopes it allows for people to get the help that they need. It’s a very generous view of the whole story.
DEADLINE: What did he make of you?
d’ARCY JAMES: You know, I could tell that he was just as intrigued about what I was doing. “Why are you asking me that?” I would say, “I just want to get a sense of, do you use a notebook, do you write with your right hand or your left hand?” He was kind of amused by it all. The relationship between a journalist and an actor is kind of the same, in the sense that you’re looking for the truth. You want to get it right. You want to make sure that you have all the weapons at your disposal to unleash the truth.
DEADLINE: What was Matt’s role on the team?
d’ARCY JAMES: Each person had their own particular bell to ring. Matt’s ability to crunch numbers and see patterns in numbers or events and use spreadsheets and know what URL means in 2000, that was his domain and that was something that he was incredibly helpful bringing to the table.
DEADLINE: How are you riding this wave for the movie while you’re doing this show.
d’ARCY JAMES: It’s a remarkable time for me. I’m having the time of my life doing this fun, joyous romp of a musical. And then just being in the boat with Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams is kind of for me a win and everything else is gravy.
DEADLINE: Have you ever had a role of this size?
d’ARCY JAMES: No. I’ve had little roles in a handful of movies. I feel like I won the lottery in a lot of ways. I’ve been around for 25 years. I’ve been knocking on this door. It’s not like I haven’t been saying, “I’m ready to do this, movie, people!”
DEADLINE: Before you began in Something Rotten!, you played King George in the original production of Hamilton at the Public Theater. It was a monster hit even before it opened. Did you have second thoughts about leaving to do this untested musical?
d’ARCY JAMES: I had to make a decision based on a what-if scenario about the rumor of Something Rotten! coming in. So I had to tell [the Hamilton team] that this is a possible thing and if it happens I think I’d like to do it. Just so everyone could get their ducks in a row. They had their chance to cut ties with me then and thank God they didn’t. So I got to do Hamilton for six weeks.
DEADLINE: Has this convergence of events made you want more control? To produce or direct?
d’ARCY JAMES: I’ve always had that inclination actually. My uncle, Brian Kelly, played the father on the television show Flipper and ended up executive producing Blade Runner. So I had kind of an eye on him as a kid, seeing a person who was making things, making movies in particular. When you become an actor, you’re usually waiting for someone to tell you what you can and can’t do.
DEADLINE: Has your phone been ringing off the hook? Are you set for the next couple of years?
d’ARCY JAMES: No. I don’t think that answer will ever be yes. I’m old enough to know that I should never expect anything, but I’m also aware of how special this is. Maybe Spotlight will change people’s minds and say, “Well, he can walk and talk at the same time in a film.”
But my theater experiences working with people like John Lithgow and Laura Linney — what you inevitably learn every time is that they’re just like you. They have to show up every day at 10 o’clock and sign in for rehearsal and try to figure out what the hell to do. That has been a valuable lesson in terms of applying my own sense of belonging when all of a sudden I’m doing a scene with Michael Keaton. I know that my knees are knocking because I so adore this guy — but I also know that he’s also just a guy trying to get it right, trying to get a good scene done and do it well. How do you do that? You actually show up. You have to go to work every single day.