Interview: Brian d’Arcy James on His Performance in ‘The Cathedral’

Ricky D’Ambrose made a big impression when The Cathedral premiered at the 2021 edition of the Venice Film Festival. As a semi auto-biographical film, The film follows the life of Jesse Damrosch from his birth in 1987 until his college acceptance at the age of twenty. Familial drama like the AIDS-related death of his uncle Joseph, and his tense relationship for his father occurs against the backdrop of historical events like the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City and the presidency of George W. Bush.

Awards Radar had the opportunity of speaking with Brian d’Arcy James, who stars in the film as Jesse’s father, Richard. D’Arcy James talked about his performance and how he was approached for the project, The actor has an extensive background in theater, after starring as the titular ogre in Shrek: The Musical and King George III in the Off-Broadway production of Hamilton. You can check out the whole interview with d’Arcy James below:

Awards Radar: First of all, congratulations on the film! My first question would be: Did you audition for this project? Or were you invited to it?

Brian d’Arcy James: I was thankfully invited to it. I did know Ricky D’Ambrose’s work and when I read the script I was fascinated by its uniqueness and how interestingly it was telling this sprawling epic story. It was around the time after COVID when everything was starting to open up and I was really eager to get back to work with a new sense of how I wanted to pursue new artistic projects.

And this one really fit the bill because it is very unique and Ricky’s voice is very singular. All of these things were wrapped together, so it was very easy for me to say yes and get on board.

AR: Why do you think Richard is compelling as a character?

BDJ: He’s flawed in the sense that he wants so much for his family and he loves them dearly, but he’s always coming up short. He has a lot of thoughts regarding who he should be. There’s this internal for him that wreaks havoc in the family because if you’re not happy with yourself, it’s hard to be happy with others. And I think that’s the root of the problem for Richard.

When it comes to his financial games or lack thereof, or how he’s able to be there for his son, his ability to communicate with his son and wife. When he falls short on these things, it’s a thorne on his side and it plays out in the family dynamic, but also in the larger societal dynamic. I think those are things that make him a compelling character.

Because, hopefully, at the heart of it, he’s someone that you root for. Because he has an impulse, capacity, and genuine love for his family. But, sometimes, he just can’t make it happen. You want him to succeed, but he falls short.

AR: You’re used to playing lighthearted roles. How did you feel about portraying this serious and grounded character?

BDJ: I’m always compelled by and attracted by this type of roles where I really get to dig in and find the heart of someone different than yourself. It was a very complicated character, I was playing a version of Ricky’s family. Not his father per se, but a version of him in his mind, to tell the story. I had a sort of roadmap to begin with, but Ricky was never concerned about me playing it very strictly.
Because of the complexity of how this character is living his life, coming up short in the things he wanted to achieve, I thought it was a very interesting path to pursue.

AR: How do you think Richard influenced Jesse as a character?

BDJ: That’s an interesting question. I think as you watch Jesse grow and evolve and you see this story being told through his eyes. Ricky shows you the world through Jesse’s eyes, whether those are scenes with his family, and with his father in particular or just still images of memories that he has. You’ve got a real window into Jesse’s imagination.

But in terms of the relationship with his father, you don’t see the effect it has on him until he is an adolescent. You see how this boy has grown into a young man and how that young man relates to his father. I go back to the idea of my hope for the audience to see that Richard does love his family. He loves his son very much, but there’s this chasm that comes between them. It doesn’t allow them to have a happy relationship. That’s fairly common, families are tricky. I think that’s how he affects Jesse and I think you see it more when he’s a young adult.

AR: What was it like working with director Ricky D’Ambrose?

BDJ: It was great. For my first meeting with him, to shooting the film, he was always extremely collaborative, very inventive, and with a particular style. What I was really happy about is how I saw a marriage between my style and the other actors’ styles. We brought all of that together with Ricky’s aesthetic in terms of what he was doing visually. He was always open to figuring out how to expand his vocabulary.

We were always challenged with understanding his aesthetic and playing within that. Our job is to serve what the director wants to do. But it was never a one-way street. Ricky was always really interested with out input. That kind of relationship always helps.

AR: In this movie, we can appreciate plenty of long, lingering shots. Do you think your background in theater help you explore that a little bit more?

BDJ: Perhaps! I think that because of the nature of the storytelling and knowing what Ricky was after, and getting a sense of it as we started filming, you can sense the guidelines of what is to be expected when shooting a scene. I think that by virtue of being in his world you got a sense of how he was shooting and how long he would let the camera roll.

His desire for minimalism and not having to overreach. Those were the type of things that were most informative. As far as my theater background is concerned, ultimately, any kind of work in the theater is going to allow you to be open to the long gesture. When you do a play, you start at A and end at Z with no stopping in.between to edit. You are used to having to be there and be alive for a couple of hours. In a sense, subconsciously, that was very helpful to have in my back pocket.

AR: Is there any sequence that stands out to you which was difficult to perform?

BDJ: I remember wanting to be very mindful of the scene where Richard is trying to euologize his mother in the church and he is incapable of doing so, as it is written. I had my own experience with that losing my father at quite a young age. The emotional life of this man was not too distant from me in terms of figuring out what those kinds of events felt like.

I remember feeling like I wanted to get that right. I also really enjoyed working with Monica, who played my wife, and agreeing on a lot of things with her. We talked about how our characters worked as a couple and how they would enter Ricky’s world. That was always gratifying becuase there was a sort of kindred team spirit with out approach together. That was always really enjoyable.

AR: Do you think your character is a product of his time? Or do you think his choices led him to where he is?

BDJ: That’s a big question. I think both. I think we can’t escape the choice that we make. No matter what time, or era we’re leaving in. But having said that, I do think that this story set in the 80’s where greed and the desire to have financial status, with the “greed is good” mentality represented by Wall Street with Michael Douglas. That kind of represented the 80’s.

That plays a big part in Richard’s ideology. That is being a product of that era. Also, politically speaking, Ricky brings in the AIDS crisis and how it hits directly home for them with Richard losing his brother in the beginning of the film. And Richard isn’t able to acknowledge that that was an epidemic that was happening.

I also think that was a microscopic view of the political world of the time where there was no indication or recognition that there was a rampaging epidemic that was killing many people. That also informs the storytelling. He is sort of a product of his era, but it’s a combination of both things. You can’t deny the choices that you make and the consequences that exist because of them.

AR: What are you working on next?

We’re working on lots of different things. I’m in an Apple TV+ show called Dear Edward. I’ll also be in a show called Love and Death on HBO Max with Elizabeth Olsen. I have a couple of movies that are coming out which are really exciting. She Came to Me, starring Anne Hathaway, Peter Dinklage and Marisa Tomei, written and directed by Rebecca Miller. And Pain Hustlers, directed by David Yates. I’m really excited about that one, with Chris Evans and Emily Blunt. That comes out in the fall. There’s all kinds of things happening on that front. It was also recently announced that I’ll be in an Off-Broadway musical written by the brilliant composer Adam Guettel, based on the movie Days of Wine and Roses.

This interview was edited for lenght and clarity purposes.


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