Brian d'Arcy James Has Achieved His College Goal | Playbill

How Did I Get Here Brian d'Arcy James Has Achieved His College Goal

The Broadway favorite recently picked up his fifth Tony nomination for his performance in Days of Wine and Roses.

Brian d'Arcy James Graphic by Vi Dang

Although he had already appeared on Broadway in Blood Brothers and the revival of Carousel, it was Brian d'Arcy James' performance in the original cast of the Tony-winning Best Musical Titanic that remains permanently etched in this writer's mind.

James and co-star Victoria Clark were the standouts in a superb company, with James offering a thrillingly sung and impassioned performance as Frederick Barrett, one of the Midland boys shoveling coal seven decks below the passengers. In fact, anyone who heard James' soaring tenor on "Barrett's Song" knew that this actor was about to embark upon a lengthy Broadway career.

Flash forward a few decades, and James recently picked up his fifth Tony nomination for his equally passionate, nuanced, and compelling performance as recovering alcoholic Joe Clay in the new musical Days of Wine and Roses, which played a brief Broadway engagement at Studio 54 earlier this season following an acclaimed Off-Broadway run at the Atlantic Theater Company. He starred opposite Kelli O'Hara, who also picked up a Tony nomination. 

Previously Tony-nominated for his performances as the good-natured Baker in the 2022 revival of Into the Woods, the lovable green ogre in Shrek The Musical, Shakespeare rival Nick Bottom in Something Rotten!, and desperate press agent Sidney in Sweet Smell of Success, James' Broadway credits also include Hamilton, The Ferryman, Time Stands Still, Macbeth, Next to Normal, The Apple Tree, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

The actor is equally busy on screen. In the past year, he appeared in HBO Max's Love & Death, Netflix's Pain Hustlers, and the romantic comedy She Came to Me, opposite Anne Hathaway and Marisa Tomei. Among his other film and TV appearances are Spotlight, The Cathedral, West Side Story, Let Me Go, The Kitchen, Molly's Game, Devil's Peak, Dear Edward, 13 Reasons Why, Smash, and The Big C.

In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—James discusses the high school teacher who inspired his pursuit of acting and how his latest role taught him even more about grace and courage.

Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara in Days of Wine And Roses Joan Marcus

Where did you train/study?
Brian d'Arcy JamesI studied theatre at Northwestern University. My road to getting a theatre degree was fairly accidental. I knew I wanted to take advantage of the incredible theatre program there, but I figured I would do so using the only template I knew: My high school experiences of doing the spring play/musical. During the first week for freshman orientation, there was a distinct announcement about committing to your focus within the School of Speech, to which I had been accepted. I'd been hanging around with the theatre kids most of that week, so I signed up for the theatre program. When I started the acting program my sophomore year, that's when I truly decided this would be a lifelong commitment.

Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor stand out?
A teacher who stands out for me is my high school French teacher Ms. Choate. More importantly (to me, anyway), she was the head of the Drama Department. Ms. Choate was the teacher who provided me (and other students, of course) with the opportunity to get involved. She suggested I play a part in the high school talent show right out of the gate in the fall of my freshman year doing a sketch pulled from the old Andy Hardy movie series starring Mickey Rooney. It was my first real attempt to play a character. Then throughout my high school years, Ms. Choate would direct the spring musicals, and that's what got me started. But what is also remarkable about Ms. Choate is that she would charter a bus every spring for students to go to the Stratford Festival, the world famous Shakespeare festival in Ontario, Canada, about a three-and-a-half hour drive from our hometown in Michigan. This was the first time I had ever seen any Shakespeare on stage, Henry IV to be exact. I'm forever grateful to her for what she gave me and so many others: education, experience, and exposure to the arts. Merci, Ms. Choate.

Brian d’Arcy James in the Off-Broadway production of Days of Wine and Roses Ahron R. Foster

Joe Clay was probably one of the most complex characters you've played on Broadway. What do you think you learned about yourself— personally and/or professionally—playing the part?
You're always learning about what it takes to do eight shows a week technically, so that's a constant education about your physical and mental well being to execute. Doing Wine and Roses was quite challenging in both those ways, so staying in shape, meditating, sleeping, and the typical monk-like life that goes along with doing a musical was required. Personally, there was a world to learn about addiction and substance abuse in general—but I suppose with doing this show, I learned a tremendous amount about grace and courage, both things ever present in the lives of Joe Clay and Kirsten Arnesen.

What did it mean to you to receive your fifth Tony nomination for this role?
I kind of can't believe it. I know how difficult it is to thread this needle. It's quite humbling and always very exciting. But this nomination stands out because I'm so proud of how long we've all worked to have Days of Wine and Roses come to life. I'm so proud of the partnership I had with Kelli in bringing Joe and Kirsten to life and have been trusted by Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas to give voice and dimension to these extraordinary characters.

How do you deal with the disappointment when a musical like Days of Wine and Roses ends its run earlier than expected?
Well, the good news is that if you've been around a while, you know that the show always, at some point, closes. Sometimes you get a long run, sometimes it's shorter than you would have wanted. Having run a few miles on this marathon, I think I'm better at accepting and appreciating that the thing happened at all. Focusing on that rather than any misgivings one might have is a better use of time.

Sara Bareilles and Brian d'Arcy James in Into The Woods Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made

Do you have a dream stage role that you've yet to play or any role that you'd like to revisit?
I never really had an answer to this question, or perhaps I'd avoid it, for whatever reason. But recently I've not been shy about putting out in the world that I'd really love to give George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a shot.

How did you get your first job in the theatre?
The old-fashioned way. I auditioned for a local semi-pro production of Cabaret. This was 1983. So I've been a professional actor for over 40 years.

What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
It's a marathon, so take your time, and don't forget to stretch. Also, a watched pot never boils. Don't fixate on something that didn't happen—take a walk, read a book, look the other way, and then get back to the pursuit.

What is your proudest achievement as an actor?
When I was in college, our professor asked us to write in a journal what we hoped to achieve as an actor. This answer shows the practical side of my nature because I wrote down that I hoped to have a professional actor career that would allow me to send my children to college. My daughter just graduated, with honors, from Pitzer College. That's my proudest achievement.

Photos: Kelli O'Hara and Brian d'Arcy James Star In Days Of Wine And Roses On Broadway

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