When Brian d’Arcy James was in rehearsals for the 2010 Broadway drama “Time Stands Still,” the actor’s instinct was to brush off with a laugh an emotionally wounding situation for his character. The director, Daniel Sullivan, called him on it. “Brian, don’t hide behind your Irish.”
By which he meant, recalls the actor, that he couldn’t just disarm the hurt with a laugh and pretend that it didn’t happen. “Dan may have been onto something about Irish people and definitely this Irish person,” James said. “Temperamentally, I’m pretty good at bobbing and weaving and not talking about the things that may have the most significance in one’s life.”
James’s “Irish” is being called upon quite a lot as he assays what he describes as a pinnacle in his eclectic career: Quinn Carney, the head of three generations of an Irish family on a farm in Northern Ireland caught in the vise of sectarian violence. In Jez Butterworth’s acclaimed drama “The Ferryman,” set in 1981, Quinn’s subterfuge of unspoken feelings lays landmines of both a domestic and political nature: the secret love he has for Caitlin, the wife of his brother, Seamus, who may be the victim of Irish Republican retribution, and his own abandonment of the Irish Republican Army in order to protect his extended family from the sickening cycle of violence.
The Carney family’s buoyant harvest rituals are upended when Seamus’s body is unearthed from a bog after 10 years. The discovery sets in motion events that call to mind Greek tragedy as familial love is tested against the buried secrets of the past and the inescapable pull of history. James says that these themes deeply resonated when he saw the play in London, where it won numerous awards. So he jumped at the chance to replace Paddy Considine as Quinn when the original cast finished its run. “As an actor, you look at a particular mountain and you say, ‘That’s the one I have to climb.’” The play, which was directed by Sam Mendes, is currently on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
While the protean and prolific actor’s three Tony nominations have come in musicals (“Sweet Smell of Success,” “Shrek,” “Something Rotten”), he’s proved equally adept in classic dramas and modern comedies, including roles in the films “First Man” and the Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” as well as the television series “13 Reasons Why,” and upcoming stints in the mobster flick “The Kitchen,” opposite Melissa McCarthy, and “X-Men: Dark Phoenix.” But, in a recent conversation with ALL ARTS, it was the “beating heart” of the Carney clan that was on the actor’s mind.
What drew you to Quinn Carney?
Even before I saw “The Ferryman,” I was smitten with Jez’s play “Jerusalem,” which I saw both in London and New York. Its layered depths were a seminal experience that literally changed my life and how I saw myself as an actor. “The Ferryman” has all that. I’ve done father roles before but with Quinn, you get to explore this fascinating history and his struggle to rein in his baser instincts. That was extremely appealing.
How familiar were you with the Irish sectarian violence in 1981 and the martyrdom of hunger strikers like Bobby Sands?
I’m of Irish heritage so I was aware of it, though I didn’t quite understand the implications of it geopolitically. When I was 18, I chose to write about “the Troubles” for my first English class in college. But I think it was easy then to be swept up in the romance of Irish history when you’re so far removed from it. It’s what appeals to a lot of [Americans] who gave their support to the IRA not fully understanding that cause was essentially promoting violence.
Were you close to the Irish immigrant experience growing up?
It was a very potent one in the sense that my relatives came from Ireland to Michigan and worked in the copper mines. I was aware of how my grandparents’ families got here and what life was like at the outset of their lives in America. It wasn’t necessarily a theme that was drummed in but it was part of our family history and an important one.
What of your ties to the mother country?
I’ve had some extraordinary experiences there. I was in “Public Enemy,” written by Kenneth Branagh, at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1995, and “The Good Thief” by Conor McPherson at the Red Kettle Theatre in Waterford. The director of “Public Enemy” was Nye Heron, who’s related to James Connolly, one of the historical figures of the Easter Rising in 1916 and who was executed at the [Kilmainham] jail. So I had the very powerful experience of touring that jail with him and seeing where his [great-grandfather] had died for Irish freedom. When you have that kind of connection, it makes it more of a reality than a myth.
The ghosts of those freedom fighters as well as Bobby Sands haunt “The Ferryman.”
Does Quinn think he can escape that?
There is a lot hiding in him. This new world he’s creating is the one that matters most to him, not what he’s left behind. But he cannot escape his past. There is this Irish idea of “not talking about things.” But that’s not just the emotional quotient. It’s also the historical quotient. Speaking about things can get you in trouble. So there is this culture of secrecy and shame, particular to the Northern Irish experience, that comes from participating in things that are not noble or have ill effects.
Were you more intrigued by Quinn’s tortured relationship to his brother’s wife or to his moral quandary as a former foot soldier?
I was intoxicated by the combination of that classic story of unrequited love with this man’s past with the IRA. It was unmatchable.
Sign up for our newsletter
Why does Quinn refuse to lie when it can save all that he holds dear? Is it because in Jez Butterworth’s view, Charon, the mythological “ferryman” of Hades, cannot transport liars so they are doomed to be restless souls for eternity?
I don’t know if it’s as distinct as that. I think more that every character in the play has a relationship with someone else which has gone unfulfilled. I think that, in a general sense, these are people who are lost on shores, lost in the in-between world of their past and their present, of their longings and their desires, their urges and their reality. This family is kind of stuck on the shores, if you will, and reaching out their hands, trying to figure out, “How do we get across?”
Is there an answer, if only in the rituals of family and harvest?
That is the beating heart of the play. It is very much alive even though all the things that we’ve been talking about rest uneasily over the play. The Carneys are essentially a very vital, combustible family that is bursting at the seams with humor, life and, ironically, connection. Because that is the opposite of what is driving the main characters apart. Quinn Carney knows, feels, that the most important thing is to give his family a place to thrive, to be happy, to be healthy and to grow. And all the things that are encroaching upon it — past actions, relationships that have gone wrong — keep seeping in and threatening what he has built. That’s what’s so heartbreaking.
And is that the lifeblood of your own family?
Yes. I can relate in a very literal sense. The family cottage my grandfather [Harry Kelly, a governor of Michigan] bought a long time ago, in the ’30s, in Northern Michigan, has been a great place for large Kelly reunions. Every summer we still go there and it’s where our family gathers to celebrate who we were, who we still are and our connections to each other. I feel very lucky to have that. And that’s a kind of little parallel to the Carneys.
Do ritual, toasts and poetry play a role in those reunions?
No, nothing like that. [Laughs] We had the Irish flag hanging on the wall next to the Notre Dame banner. Those were the Irish badges in our cottage. Not the gorgeous verbal expertise that a lot of Irish people can bring to the table.
How is it to act with children and animals?
My Uncle Brian, who acted in [the TV series] “Flipper,” once told me, “Never act with a fish.” So I feel like I’m still doing him a solid. The children in this play, with a median age of 12, are extraordinary. I’m blown away by them! They’re so alive, so capable that it’s actually a little intimidating. “What’s your line, pal? I haven’t got all day!” [Laughs] I love the heightened awareness they bring.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Top Image: Brian d'Arcy James (center) and the full cast of Jez Butterworth's "The Ferryman." Photo courtesy Joan Marcus.