James D'Arcy is one of those wonderful, all-purpose actors who you've probably mistaken for other, more famous actors. When he wears his hair a certain way, you might think he was Ralph Fiennes; his phone voice is something of a dead ringer for Benedict Cumberbach. In fact, it was his chameleon-like abilities that made him an ideal choice as one of the leads in Andy and Lana Wachowski's adaptation of CLOUD ATLAS, in which D'Arcy plays four characters, including the memorable Nurse James and the young and old Rufus Sixsmith.
But long before that film, D'Arcy spent the first seven or eight years of his career bouncing around from one British television series to another before landing a choice role of 1st Lt. Tom Pullings in Peter Weir's MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD, opposite Russell Crowe. After that, he showed up in all manner of movies, including EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING; AN AMERICAN HAUNTING; RISE: BLOOD HUNTER; SCREWED; and the Madonna-directed W.E. They weren't all winners, but D'Arcy was always quite good.
And then came more acclaimed work in such films as IN THEIR SKIN, in which he played a creepy-as-hell home invader; and perhaps most memorably, he did a spot-on version of a young Anthony Perkins in HITCHCOCK. And D'Arcy has quite a 2014 lined up as well. In March, look for him in the A&E series "Those Who Kill," (starring Chloe Sevigny) based on a celebrated serial killer series from Denmark; the Wachowski's next film, JUPITER ASCENDING; and playing the bad guy in the cop comedy LET'S BE COPS, co-starring Jake Johnson, Rob Riggle, Keegan-Michael Key, and many others.
Our reason for speaking recently was his latest film, writer-director John Huddles' AFTER THE DARK, in which he plays a philosophy teacher, working abroad in Jakarta at an international school with a group of seniors, who are in his final class of the year. He sets up a series of end-of-the-world scenarios, and his students much work their way through the logic and ethics of choosing only 10 or the 20 students to enter an underground shelter to survive, based on a set of parameters set by D'Arcy's character. It's a sick and twisted little game that his man is putting these kids through, and with each scenario, the rules and his disposition change, and we actually get to see the scenario play out. It's a fascinating puzzle of a film, with D'Arcy playing the nasty puppetmaster.
I spoke to him via phone from the set of his current film, the James McTeigue-directed SURVIVOR, with a stellar cast that includes Milla Jovovich, Emma Thompson, Pierce Brosnan, Angela Bassett and Dylan McDermott. D'Arcy was a real treat to talk with, even though he was afraid he wasn't in the best shape to be doing an interview. Please enjoy James D'Arcy…
James D’Arcy: Hi there. How are you, Steve?
Capone: Good, James. How are you?
JD: Good, thank you. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a bit slow. I’ve come off a few days in a row of night shoots, and I’m kind of upside down. So, bear with me if you would. I’ll do my best.
Capone: Of course. Where are you calling from exactly?
JD: I’m in London at the moment.
Capone: Okay. The only reason I ask is because I actually saw the pilot of your TV series "Those Who Kill," and that’s shot in Pittsburgh. Are you done shooting that already?
JD: Yeah, yeah. We’ve done the first season. We finished it before Christmas. How’s the pilot? I haven't seen it.
Capone: Oh, the pilot’s terrific. I just watched it last night, and I won't lie, it freaked me out a bit.
JD: Go on, tell me, tell me. I’m intrigued.
Capone: I’m such a Chloe Sevigny fan, and the intensity with which she's approaching this character is so different than a lot of these procedurals do it. I’m really intrigued where it goes from there, because the first episode feels like a short film, and of course what you’re doing is a little nerve rattling as well. That moment where you lock her in the box is great.
JD: Right, well the pilot is a lift from the Danish show. I’ve never actually seen the Danish version, but I seem to remember when we shot it that it is actually an episode that they shot in Denmark. So that’s why it feels like a self-contained film, because all their episodes were 90-minute, self-contained TV movies. We deviate pretty quickly off of the pilot.
Capone: I’m looking forward to it. With AFTER THE DARK, I was describing the film to somebody as the most daunting philosophy final exam that you could have, plus it’s set in the apocalypse. What was it about this particular story that you found most appealing, other than you get to play God?
JD: [laughs] Well, there was that. I love the idea of being this Machiavellian puppeteer who was toying with these kids; lives. I liked that he was morally in a grey area, I guess, in terms of the way he was approaching things, and what he kept was saying was absolutely for real. I liked that complexity of it I suppose. I thought it was smart as well. It’s not often you read those kind of films and they have any kind of aspiration at all. And I thought that was really commendable and something that I wanted to investigate.
Another part of it was, they sent me a bunch of photographs of where we were going to go shoot in Indonesia, and it was very difficult to get away from that because it just looked so spectacular. I’m not sure that the Prambanan Temple has ever been in a film before. We stood on the side of Mount Bromo and shot there for; I think we were there for three or four days, and that’s extraordinary. That’s like filming on Mars, and it would be great when the sun came up. We'd get there at four in the morning, so we could get like the very first bit of light, and we could be shooting right away. At around about 11 o’clock, there’d be a light dust, like a light wind would come. Nothing, no big deal, but because all the volcanic dust is so fine there, a light dust is equal to a sand storm. So between 11am and 3pm, it was very difficult to film. It was extremely uncomfortable filming that sequence. And then at the end of the day, it would die down a little bit and it was great.
I did not know that it was an active volcano until we got there. I was under the impression that the last time that thing had blown was 300 years ago, and then when we got there, I think it was the production manager that said, “Oh no. There was an eruption last year.” And I said to him, “Seriously? Wow. But I mean everyone was safe, right?” He said, “No, no, 22 people died.” And I went, “Okay, so tell me what happens if the volcano does actually erupt?” He said, “We die.” And I went, “We don't get in fast cars and drive away?” And he said, “There’s no chance. You wouldn’t be able to do it.” So that added a bit of tension, which was kind of fun.
And the reward for getting through those four days was then we went to the Belitung Islands. I couldn’t believe that such a place existed on earth, because there are no tourists. There’s just no one. No one was there. There are thousands of those islands like the one that we shot on. I guess that was a little bigger than most. And the one that we shot on had been very slightly built on, and by "very slightly," I mean like two extremely modest structures, but there’s no water, and I think that's maybe why right now you can own one of those islands relatively inexpensively actually, but you can’t do much with it. I say "relatively inexpensively," I mean, you and me couldn't afford it. But if you had money and you wanted to own an island, it’s actually not that difficult to pick one of those up. But what you would do with it once you had it, I don't really know. But it was extraordinary because it was like filming in paradise.
Capone: Working with all these younger actors, did it make you feel not just older but slightly separate from the rest of the cast, which would be appropriate for this character.
JD: Yeah, I felt slightly separate from the rest, as you say, because I was at the front of the class, and I was looking at them. I was never part of their group. I wasn’t sitting next to anybody. There was always that separation in the script, and actually they were all extremely nice, and I hung out with them. We had a really good time, but there were a few moments when I certainly went, “Oh wow, I am definitely older than you guys.” Because they would be talking about things, and I had no idea what they were talking about. Belitung They’d be talking about like some pop star or something, and I would not know, and they would all look at me incredulously that I wouldn’t have heard of so and so. At the time that we shot it, I remember everyone on the set was playing Fruit Ninja, the app game. I'd never heard of it. They were all like, “What? That can’t be right.” So it was fun because I got to be 22 again. They brought me right back into the fold as it were.
Capone: Over the years, you've built up the reputation of being this perfect chameleon actor to the point where some people might not even realize it’s all the same person in all of these roles. And you also never repeat yourself in terms of the types of roles you take. Is that a deliberate thing, or is that just good fortune at this point?
JD: It’s a little bit of both. The truth is I am definitely attracted to something that I haven't done or something that scares me, something I feel I can’t do. That definitely is a motivational force, and then there is another part of that, which is, early in your career, you don’t have a huge number of choices, you just have to do what they offer you. There was a time in truth in my 20s when I did a huge number of period dramas in Britain, and I got to the point where I couldn’t really get anymore period dramas, because I had been in all of them. So I was just one of those faces to the people who were casting them that they were bored of seeing in those dramas. But then nobody in Britain would consider me for anything else.
That's actually why I first went to the States, because I was struggling to get work. And within six weeks of being there, I was cast in a pilot playing a gun-toting, he was an alien in truth, but with an American accent. An American-speaking, gun-toting, action figure--within weeks of getting there I was in a pilot, which I really enjoyed, but sadly they never picked it up. And then somehow--I don’t even know how it happened--something changed, and I guess I got a little lucky. And then at some point, it’s a little bit easier to say no to things that you feel like you’ve really been there before.
I do enjoy variety. It is really good fun. I think I would struggle with playing the same role for years and years and years. I don’t know that I would be a great fit for that kind of thing. I love the challenge of it. I did this one very small film, which very few people saw, called SCREWED, and I did it right after the Madonna film. Within four days, I went from being the King of England to being an East London prison officer. And it’s really the most frightened I’ve ever been, because all the people that were making the movie were from East London, the real thing. In fact, the guy who wrote it, it was essentially his autobiography. And, I remember getting on the set and going, “I can’t believe that less than a week ago I was playing the king, and now here I am playing someone who is actually employed by my 'niece'.” If you think about it, as a prison officer, you are employed by the Queen in Great Britain. So, I think I’ve been a bit lucky in that regard.
Capone: I could have spent this entire interview just talking about what you all did in CLOUD ATLAS, and I’m excited to see that you’re in Wachowski’s next film, JUPITER ASCENDING. I’m from Chicago and I know they shot a great deal here; did you actually get to shoot anything in Chicago?
JD: No, I hate to tell you, my contribution to JUPITER is relatively small. I am a part of it, but you’ll see when you see the film. I’m not a big part of it.
Capone: Can you just go ahead and tell me the whole story?
JD: [laughs] I am not going to tell you the whole thing. Man, they kept that script so under wraps. They didn’t give me the script; I had to go somewhere to read it. I guess that’s the way with all these big films now. I understand. If you’re going to spend all of that money making a big spectacle like JUPITER--you can tell it's going to be huge just based on seeing the trailer--you want the audience to have the surprise.
Capone: The Wachowski's were like that even before. They were always so secretive, which is great. What is different about the way the Wachowskis work with actors, and just work in general?
JD: I’ve often wondered about this question about directors. It’s so difficult to put your finger on it, because when it goes right--like it does with Andy and Lana, and it does with Peter Weir, and it does with Tom Tykwer and a number of other directors I’ve worked with--you can’t think how it could not go right. It’s just easy. They say three words to you, and you just know what they’re talking about. It somehow just works. And when it goes wrong when you’re with a director, and you just aren't connecting well, you can’t think what it was like when you were with a director where it worked. It’s so interesting. You’re on the set, and they’re talking to you and they give you the note, and you just don’t get it. I don’t know quite why that is.
Some people just have a great way of getting into an actor’s head and communicating with them really well, and Andy and Lana absolutely have that. And they’re also very playful on the set. They’re not precious about stuff. You don’t wanna change their words anyway, but in terms of the way that one might perform any given scene or line, they don’t have a preconceived idea of what that’s going to look like. They’re very playful, which I think is lovely, to go to work and have that freedom. You feel very safe with them. If you fail, they’re not going to put it in the film. You really do feel very protected by them in that regard.
Capone: I noticed also this summer you’ve got a comedy coming out. I assume it’s a comedy based on the cast that’s surrounding you.
JD: It’s a comedy, yeah.
Capone: Do you approach comedy any different than any other type of acting?
JD: I am not very funny in this film. [laughs] It is a broad comedy. I am not the funny part of it. I am the real threat in the film.
Capone: I was going to say, it sounds like you’re the villain.
JD: Yes, I’m the villain. I have done comedy though. Comedy is completely different than doing drama. With drama, they call cut, and I don't ever think about it ever again. I go have a nice meal, I go to bed, I sleep great. Comedy, you wake up at 3am in a complete sweat thinking, “Oh my god, if I had just moved an inch to the left, it would have been funny.” Comedy is horrendous to do. Drama, I can do that all day and all month and all year, but comedy is really draining. My hat is off to Will Farrell and people like that who are just so gifted in that area. It is a gift. It’s extraordinary, and I guess if I did more of it, I would learn more. I was just working with Dylan McDermott, and we were talking about THE CAMPAIGN, and he said that Will Farrell would just go off on a 17-minute take, and he had to spend 17 minutes in the shot trying not to fall over laughing.
Capone: So what are you shooting right now?
JD: It’s called SURVIVOR at the minute, with Mila Jovovich and Pierce Brosnan and Dylan. I don't know that it is going to end up being called SURVIVOR. I’m not sure. That is the working title.
Capone: Who’s directing?
JD: James McTeigue [the first assistant director on all three MATRIX films and second unit director on SPEED RACER].
Capone: Another Wachowski connection.
JD: Yeah, he’s great. He’s really wonderful.
Capone: Yeah, he’s really awesome. James, thank you so much for talking.