A David-and-Goliath Story

By Retta Blaney

Like many people, actor Brian d’Arcy James was aware of news coverage of sexual abuse by clergy in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston 15 years ago, but he did not follow it closely. He had no way of knowing that coverage would one day be part of his life.

“It was on my radar,” he said. “I received information wholesale and processed it as best I could.”

It was not until he read the script for Spotlight, the new film based on The Boston Globe’s four-member investigative team that pursued and broke the story, that he understood its magnitude. “For me it was an education in terms of the size and scope, and the ramifications of the reporting.”

He saw the coverage as “a beacon of sorts,” coming as it did from a mainstream news source. “People who perhaps had not been heard or believed prior to that could say, This is my story.”

James, 47, discussed the film in his dressing room at Broadway’s St. James Theatre, where he is starring in the hit musical Something Rotten! James, a churchgoing Catholic, said that portraying Globe reporter Matt Carroll helped him see the cover-up as “an institutional problem with significant and widespread consequences,” but he still finds spiritual comfort in Catholicism.

“It’s not something to make me leave the church,” he said. “I lost a lot of faith in the institution. I’m still baffled by it, but it didn’t stop me altogether. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t slow me down.

“My impulse is still to attend church and experience the ritual of the Mass.”

The movie’s goal is not to make the church look bad, he said. “It’s the responsibility of anyone in power to do the right thing. When they don’t, they have to be held accountable.”

It’s happenstance, he said, that the film is being released soon after Pope Francis’s American tour, which was largely a boost for the church’s image because of the pope’s popularity. James does not think the film will dim that glow.

“It’s a great thing, because the pope made comments about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. He said, ‘God weeps.’ He said he will hold people accountable and I hope he does. I wish he had spent more time on that subject matter, but he started a conversation. That creates a space where dialogue can occur. It all comes back to accountability.

“Catholics can see this film without defensiveness.”

During his childhood in Saginaw, Michigan, James attended St. Stephen School. “The teachers taught us to value education in the way they taught us to think. It was a great benefit. My education taught me to till the soil of a subject.”

He was influenced by how his parents drew “a great deal of strength and solace” from their faith.

“It allowed them to live lives fulfilling for them. It taught them and me to live a life of thoughtfulness, generosity, and respect for others, the Golden Rule.

“My identity has been shaped and formed by my evolution as a Catholic. It’s something I’m proud of.”

He attends Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Sherman, Connecticut, with his wife, actress Jennifer Prescott, and their 14-year-old daughter, Grace. Lately, though, he’s “been porous in [his] attendance.”

The cast performs eight shows per week in Something Rotten! James plays Nick Bottom, a struggling Renaissance playwright who hears from a soothsayer that hit plays will someday involve singing and dancing as well as acting. Bottom sets out to create the world’s first musical. James is onstage for 100 of the show’s 125 minutes. His efforts earned him a Tony Award nomination for best actor. The show received a total of 10 nominations, including one for best new musical.

Besides being a regular on New York stages, James has appeared in several TV shows, including Smash and Game Change, as well as many films, including Sisters with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, which premieres Dec. 18. In mid-December he will be featured in the New York Pops holiday concerts at Carnegie Hall.

While James followed his heart into the theatre, with his background he could easily have moved into politics. His maternal grandfather was governor of Michigan and his father, a lawyer, served on the city council and was involved with Republican fundraising. James heard stories of political life and considered following in the family trade “for a few seconds” before heading to Northwestern University to major in theatre.

In preparing for his role in Spotlight, which also stars Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams, James read Globe coverage and spent time with Carroll to understand who he was and how he worked. Carroll’s work and research became James’s map into the role. People who had suffered abuse told him their stories because of his role in the film.

“It allowed people to speak, to say ‘Let me tell you my story.’ The movie has the potential to do that.”

It’s also a “good, old-fashioned movie,” he says.

“People love a David and Goliath story, especially when it comes to justice. It’s a very compelling thing to watch. Add to that the fact that it’s true, and it’s stunning.”

Image: Brian d’Arcy James, right, stars in Spotlight with Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and John Slattery.

Retta Blaney is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, which includes interviews with Kristin Chenoweth, Edward Herrmann, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad and Vanessa Williams.

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