At 35, James Badge Dale has secured a special place for himself in the sprawling landscape of American television. Previously known for filling the hand grenade of a man prototype on such shows as CSI and 24—Keifer Sutherland memorably took an ax to his hand in the season three finale—Dale’s emotionally devastating portrayal of Private First Class Robert Leckie on HBO’s hit miniseries The Pacific confirmed the actor as a viable leading man. In 2012, Dale is set to cement his silver screen cachet with a string of roles in hotly anticipated films starring opposite the likes of Brad Pitt in World War Z and Denzel Washington in Flight.
On the day of our meeting in New York City, it’s the sea trapped in Dale’s eyes that we find most striking; blue eyes that harden, twinkle and melt as he recounts intimate stories. Unlike his onscreen ramrod personas, Dale, in person, carries an unimposing vibe. There’s no doubt that the actor’s adaptability and lack of self-awareness has much to do with his bohemian upbringing, having grown up in what he himself refers to as “a crazy, gypsy-like household of actors, dancers and loony Broadway people.” Boasting a successful career that spans over two decades, Dale is surprisingly free of any bullshit—that’s his undeniable charm.
Institute: I was eavesdropping on your conversation with the publicist earlier. You’ve been shedding a lot of weight for a role?
James: I’m about to do this movie called Flight where Denzel Washington plays an airline pilot. He plays this severe alcoholic and drug addict—he’s fucked up! [laughs] He does lines of cocaine before getting on a plane to fly people. There’s this great moment in the script where Denzel ends up in the hospital after a plane crash and a cancer patient talks to him about luck versus fate, God, being present in your life and taking things for granted. I was immediately attracted to this role, but they told me I wasn’t right for it. I told them I would read for the role they originally wanted me for if they give me a shot at the cancer patient role and they agreed. Robert Zemeckis is directing it and we shared long conversations about this part. He knows I have a long history of cancer in my family. I’ve watched people pass around me, including my own mother. It’s an important role to me because there are personal things that I wanted to work out for myself. Ultimately, Robert said the role is mine if I lose the weight, so here I am fifteen pounds lighter! I’m so miserable right now.
Institute: How did you go about losing all this weight?
James: I’m on an all-liquid diet this week. I’m drinking a lot of healthy juices. I was talking to a good friend of mine who went on 700 calories a day to lose weight for a role.
Institute: Is this Michael Fassbender?
James: Yes! I have no idea how he did that. I tried it, but noticed that my level was at about 1200 calories a day. If I run six miles every day, I burn 1200 calories and I’m at zero. I’ve been eating a lot of vegetables, chicken, fish, nuts and berries. I eat like a bird.
Institute: What was it like to work with Michael on Shame?
James: Michael is one of the most focused, consistent and present actors out there. He’s remarkable. It was an education for me to say the least. Actors that emerge from the English drama system have a different work ethic. They’re steady. It was a little daunting because I play the obnoxious guy to Michael’s quiet guy. You literally show up on set to shoot five pages and Steve McQueen doesn’t do any coverage. There was a lot of improvisation involved. For example, if we’re sitting here talking, he has a camera way over there by that van and comes up with this crazy angle—this is how the entire scene plays out. If you drop a line, there’s no safety net and you messed up big time! Steve will come up to you and say, ‘I don’t like the dialogue. Just make it up!’ and I’m sitting there freaking out. Some actors are really good at that, but I still struggle with it. I spent a lot of time trying to make Michael laugh during the shoot and I got him to laugh once. [laughs] It only took me four weeks…
Institute: Were you a big fan of Hunger prior to working with Steve and Michael?
James: I’ll be quite honest with you—I knew of Hunger, but hadn’t seen it. I received a phone call saying Steve made a movie called Hunger and that I needed to read the script for Shame immediately. I met with Steve the following day and got the job halfway through our meeting. I looked over at the casting director—Avy Kaufman has been a great friend and supporter of mine for the past ten years in New York—and she was shocked. I left immediately because I didn’t want to say something stupid. If he can make a decision that quickly, he can change his mind just as fast.
Institute: You seem to take on the darker films with heavy subject matter and testosterone-driven TV shows.
James: Am I drawn to it or is it drawn to me? I try to do the lighter stuff, but they won’t cast me. I did The Conspirator last year with James McAvoy and Robin Wright, which Robert Redford directed. Avy said there were two roles in mind for me, so I could read the script and choose the one I liked. There was a funny guy character and the darker guy, and I wanted to do the lighter guy. At that point, Robert told me I could just have the darker role and I wouldn’t even need to read for it. So as much as I try, I keep getting offered these kinds of roles.
Institute: How did you get your start as an actor? You were only 10 years old when they cast you in the Lord of the Flies remake.
James: come from a family of actors. My mother was an actress and a dancer on Broadway, and my father was a dancer and an actor on Broadway as well before going into choreography. I grew up in a crazy, gypsy-like household of actors, dancers and loony Broadway people. It was their way of life and I didn’t know anything else. For Lord of the Flies, I was sitting in my English class in elementary school one day and they pulled kids out to audition for a movie. It sounded exciting to me. Talk about a movie that draws you in! You’re getting sent off to an island for four months to run around a jungle. I literally ran around in my underwear climbing trees with a bunch of other kids acting like total lunatics. [laughs] It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. But I eventually noticed how it started to feel like work. When you’re 11 years old, you don’t want to show up to work. I stopped acting and played hockey after that. It wasn’t until I was 21 that I started coming back to acting. I saw Judith Light in the play Wit at the Union Square Theater in 1999 with my father after my mother passed from cancer. When I saw Judith—she had known my mother—playing this woman dying of cancer, I grieved properly for the first time. It touched me and that was the moment I decided to act for the rest of my life. I realized that acting isn’t something to play around with and you have to treat it with respect.
Institute: That marked a huge turning point.
James: It was monumental.
Institute: How did you end up doing so much TV work?
James: So much TV work! [laughs]
Institute: TV seems like a huge investment for any actor because they own you for however long.
James: You sign a contract and they really do own you, but I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve signed two long-term contracts in my life—“24” and “Rubicon”—and gotten out of both after one season. They were both good experiences in their own right. Television has come a long way and there are a lot of good roles out there, but you could be stuck playing the same character for a long time and maybe there’s no end to that story. The biggest regret I have about “Rubicon” is that we didn’t end it. Sometimes you do these shows and you don’t have the opportunity to get closure. Stories are supposed to have a beginning, middle and an end. A number of my friends are on successful TV shows that run year after year and we always have this conversation. It’s an odd thing that can happen to an actor on television. You get into that second year and it’s like, ‘I’m doing the same material over and over.’ Actors get lost because of that. They might be millionaires living up in the Hollywood Hills, but you know they’re going absolutely crazy.
Institute: Do you find it more difficult shedding the characters you play on TV once it’s over since you’re expected to explore that part for such a long time?
James: I’ve never really had that problem. “The Pacific” was tough because it was a 10-month commitment and we were shooting the entire time. We all had trouble coming down from that experience because it was so immersive. It enveloped all of us and we had trouble grasping what had just happened to us. I had never done a job like that before and probably never will again. In some strange way, it reminded me of the Lord of the Flies experience. They pick up twenty guys and drop them off in the middle of nowhere. “The Pacific” is obviously a darker story, but some of the circumstances were the same.
Institute: I don’t know if there’s any truth to this, but apparently you were picked on in school after Lord of the Flies came out?
James: Everyone asks me about that! I don’t know how that story started. I probably said something… Kids will tease you for just about anything. Of course kids teased me! I was running around in my underwear. It was the perfect setup. But I don’t want to speculate. I’ll just say that I didn’t enjoy the attention. What I found is that—this holds true today—people know you from your work and they have an immediate reaction, be it good or bad. What I found most uncomfortable was that people who I didn’t personally know somehow thought they knew me. It felt so wrong. It’s one of the big reasons why I shied away from acting when I was younger.
Institute: What can you reveal about World War Z?
James: It’s all about the zombies. I think they’re still shooting that one. They were moving the production to Hungary when I left. I was with them for a month.
Institute: Who do you play?
James: I play another military guy—the last military guy, I promise! [laughs] “The Pacific” beat it all out of me, but when World War Z came along, I had to do it. When else are you going to get a chance to do a zombie flick with Brad Pitt? It’s really unique and different. I play an Army Ranger in it. My guys have been hunkered down in the military prison fending off zombies—as you do—in a zombie apocalypse. We had so much fun and it was just fucking weird to be on that set.
Institute: How do you want to navigate your career from here on out?
James: I’ve always wanted to do a western and it looks like I’ll be doing The Lone Ranger this year. I’ll get to ride a horse. I hopefully won’t kill myself doing it. I enjoy stuff like that. The truth is, I’m still young and I’m not married. I don’t even have a girlfriend right now. It’s just my dog and me. Now is the time to travel around, live like a gypsy and be free to explore different roles that come my way. And it’s not so much about staying away from military roles, I’m happy to do it if it’s risky and different enough. My goal is to continue growing and expand as an actor by doing different types of things. Everything adds to your toolbox.