Actor Brian d’Arcy James delivered a tour de force performance as dashing and tormented Quinn Carney in the Broadway play The Ferryman, winner of four 2019 Tony Awards including Best Play, Best Author (Jez Butterworth), and Best Director (Sam Mendes).
In the acclaimed three-act play, d’Arcy James led a magnificent tapestry of ensemble actors through a mid-twentieth century piece taking place in Northern Ireland during a time of conflict between England and Ireland, against a backdrop of a family’s celebration of the season’s annual harvest. Casualties of war and forbidden love come to a head among emotionally charged, generational relationships playing out on a multi-textured stage. For frequent and occasional theatre goers alike, The Ferryman was a can’t-miss Broadway experience.
This year, d’Arcy James can also be seen in films like The Kitchen starring Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish, a West Side Story reboot directed by Steven Spielberg, and Dark Phoenix starring Jennifer Lawrence and James McAvoy.
I sat down with Brian d’Arcy James to discuss his role in The Ferryman, being directed by the brilliant Sam Mendes, and having one foot on Broadway and the other in some of the coming year’s most anticipated films.
Your show, The Ferryman, is such a flawless piece of theatrical art; one of the most incredible theatre experiences I’ve ever had.
That makes me so happy to hear.
The play is three hours and fifteen-minutes with intermission, but I didn’t feel the time.
I hear that quite a bit. People go in acknowledging the time, but then they say that it was not a factor at all, which is such a testament to the storytelling.
In film, you can rest and re-generate between takes, but with theatre, and especially with such an intense play as this one, how do you sustain the life of your character on stage for three hours?
I would even take it a step further, by including the actual run of the show. Not only are you doing it nightly, for three hours a night, but you are having to keep that character alive for months at a time. Let me first give credit to the preceding cast who spent a lot more time in the shoes of these characters than we have. My hat’s off to them for that reason alone. It’s a tall order, and you have to leave the pilot light on at all times, with the burner set on a low burn. That emotional life — the complexity of the situation that my character, and all the characters for that matter, find themselves in — requires a connection to that emotional life continuously throughout the run of the show. You have to open up and let that flame burn higher when you are doing the show. In order to do that, you have to keep it on a low burn in your own life, so that you are not sitting by a fireside with two sticks rubbing them together, hoping you can spark a flame during each performance.
The Ferryman is about a family living in Northern Ireland and it takes place during their annual harvest. One thing I found compelling was that I learned a lot about the Irish people. I learned so much about Irish culture and customs, as well as some of Ireland’s past challenges in their once-ongoing conflict with England.
Yes, that’s what’s called The Troubles [also called the Northern Ireland Conflict/c. 1968-1998]. It goes back decades, and even centuries. The British Empire was claiming their space in the world and designating Northern Ireland as British territory. It’s the whole essence of the struggle for freedom and the oppression that is taking place in the north of Ireland at that time. That’s the larger context within the play. I’ve been in tune with that by virtue of my own family, and my own heritage [James is of Irish descent]. My great-great grandparents were from Ireland and they came over here. My grandparents were Irish American, but they were first generation, so I have always had a strong connection to my Irish heritage. Being an actor is the best sociological education you can get, by virtue of having to explore and understand whatever it is you’re working on. In my case, I’ve been able to work on many different Irish plays, some of them in Ireland. So, my awareness of the history and the culture was immediate.
Although this is a dramatic play, there are some priceless comedic moments that had me rolling in my chair. Some of the generational humour with the older characters was priceless, and those moments are sprinkled throughout.
The play is also filled with immense love, and all the intricate relationships that a big family brings. Often times when you have really funny, witty people going at each other and trying to up each other, basically doing their best to keep things lively — it is hilarious because these people are remarkable characters. There is a great deal of humour and levity in this play just by virtue of the love that these characters have for each other. The show’s writer, Jez Butterworth, has done this incredible balancing act of keeping people entertained and enthralled by the humour of these people, and then having their world collapse by virtue of the circumstances they find themselves in.
Let’s talk about the play’s director, Sam Mendes. Many people know of him from his work, directing Academy Award-winning films like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, starring his then-wife, Kate Winslet. Does a director who has worked in both film and theatre bring a wider perspective to your show?
Sam’s gift is his ability to take big ideas and create moments that serve the play and create a story where all of these themes can be heard and understood clearly. He is an expert at that. I do think that you are right in eluding to his skill as a director on film. I’m in rehearsals for West Side Story [a remake of the classic 1961 film], which Steven Spielberg is directing, and we were talking about The Ferryman. He was telling me that he saw a production of Guys and Dolls at the National Theater and that it looked like it was directed like a film. He was seeing the parallels of what is happening on stage in a cinematic sense. In mentioning the director, he said, “If this guy can direct a play like this, he’d be able to direct a film without even having to get out of bed.” In terms of my experience with Sam Mendes, he’s a brilliant mind. He has such a strong view of each moment of our play. It’s so great for any actor to receive that kind of direction, because it gives the actor confidence, and it gives the actor a lot of room to inflate to the best of their ability.
The Ferryman cast has multiple generations of actors, from a small baby to children, teenagers, young men and women, and much older characters. You guys have a baby on stage! The actors are holding him, changing him, walking up and down a flight of stairs with him in their arms. It shocked me that the baby was compliant and behaving throughout the show. For me, there was definitely this holding your breath aspect to it all, like “What’s going to happen here?” How do you direct a baby?
You don’t. You let them be, which is what makes it so powerful. It’s the best acting you could ever ask for. Obviously, the main concern is logistics; making sure the babies are there and having a couple of different babies there at all times in case one is cranky or can’t do it. Then they just have to be in someone’s arms or be on the stage, on the floor, you know, on the changing table. I’ve heard Jez [Butterworth, the show’s writer and creator] talk about this a few times in terms of the baby and the live animals that we have in this play. There is nothing more electric and exciting than knowing that something could go wrong. I believe he even said that was the first image he had, was of a baby on stage with the character of Aunt Maggie. That was the first image he had for the play; basically, the eldest and the youngest of a family. And then he filled in everything in between. It does add that element of, “What’s going to happen?” and, “How is this baby going to respond?” All bets are off with babies and animals.
You got a rave review from the New York Times, where they called The Ferryman “the production of the year.” What do you think makes The Ferryman such a jewel of a show?
The way the play is written, specifically Jez Butterworth’s imagination in creating this cogent, thrilling material, and to have each of these people onstage be so distinct, vibrant, and unique, and yet have that sense of familial history. Then of course there is the structure of the play and the drama of it. The obstacles these characters face and the despair. It’s a powerful combination of an imagination at work. [This play] can make you laugh and make you cry in two different lines that are back to back. It’s an absolute gift.
You’re going be in X-Men: Dark Phoenix, which is a real departure for you. What was it like for you to be on the set of X-Men?
In a strange way I have likened the two different experiences, because they’re all a form of art at its highest level. These are experts who know how to create these worlds filled with superheroes. For me, it was an eye-opening experience to be on the inside of how those things take place. You take the action sequences for granted when you see them on the screen, but seeing all the nuts and bolts of how it takes place is quite an education. Anytime you are working with people who are at the top of their game, that’s an extraordinarily special thing.
Since you’ve done a lot of great theatre as well as some film, what is your advice for popular film and television actors who might be nervous to try the rigours of doing Broadway? Or for television and film actors who are about to make their debut on Broadway?
For someone who has never done it, it’s baptism by fire. There is no way to know other than to just jump in. It’s important to know that it does require conditioning, and it’s a different tempo, in terms of doing a two-and-a-half-hour or three-hour play. It’s not fifteen second increments that are captured over a period of two months. It’s the awareness of the difference in terms of what the tempo is and what it is going to take to sustain that. It’s just a different animal. To use a sports analogy, it’s like training for a marathon, as opposed to training for short sprints. Both mediums have their merit, and both are important when you need to do them. But they require a different type of conditioning.