But don't get the wrong idea: James' extraordinary versatility as an actor, his gorgeous singing voice, and his black-Irish good looks have allowed him to be supremely effective in all types of parts. He was wonderful, for example, as the brave stoker Barrett in the Broadway musical Titanic. Other stage credits include everything from Ancestral Voices to Floyd Collins to Blood Brothers. In person and on the phone, James is sweet, friendly, and polite to a fault; when our interview had to be rescheduled on short notice, he was sincerely but needlessly apologetic.
TM: Hi, Brian. Is this a good time to talk?
BRIAN: Yes. Thanks for your flexibility. I had a voiceover audition for a national Wendy's spot--and you can't miss those, now can you?
TM: How'd it go?
BRIAN: Who knows? I didn't stumble on any words, which is good! I've only done one commercial before; I have no luck with them. At the auditions, I don't feel comfortable.
TM: I saw you recently in that incredible, one-night-only performance of Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens.
BRIAN: That turned out to be a great night. I wasn't familiar with the piece. You rehearse these things for about a minute and then, all of a sudden, you're performing. But it packed a wallop.
TM: The Good Thief is a powerful piece in its own right. How familiar were you with Conor McPherson's work before you came to do the show?
BRIAN: Fairly familiar. I saw The Weir on Broadway, and I saw This Lime Tree Bower at Primary Stages. I fell completely in love with his writing. Then I saw The Good Thief in Scotland at the Edinburgh Festival on the same bill with another of his monologues, Rum and Vodka. I saw it with my wife, and it just knocked me for a loop. When I read that The Good Thief was going to be done here, I started salivating at the thought of being involved.
TM: How was your preparation affected by the fact that this is an hour-long monologue?
BRIAN: The director, Carl Forsman, and I spent a lot of time getting to know the terrain of the whole piece, the ebb and flow of it. We talked a lot about the character: what he was saying, what he wasn't saying, what he wanted and needed to reveal. I give Carl complete credit for the construction of the performance--the way the various moments are connected. He orchestrated it so beautifully. Some people have actually asked why a director is necessary for a play with one actor, but there are a lot of nuances that can be deceiving. So I'd just like to trumpet Carl's ability and my gratitude for being able to work with him.
TM: Did you make more of an effort than usual in terms of fleshing out the character's bio, his history?
BRIAN: Yes, that was my homework. I definitely have an idea of the guy and where he came from. I had an interesting point of reference, because I did a play in Dublin a while ago called Public Enemy. It was set in Northern Ireland. We did it at the Dublin Theatre Festival, and we actually performed it in a jail there. The guy who was playing the lead role, a terrific actor named Paul Ronan, was from Dublin originally. After the show, the inmates were filing back to their cells, and one of them recognized Paul; it was a buddy of his, a childhood friend. They had this fleeting chat before he was whisked off. That encounter has been a kind of a bedrock for me in doing The Good Thief, as far as the reality of a person's fate is concerned. This isn't just a story about a guy in jail; it happens all the time.
TM: How do you envision your character's surroundings as he tells his story?
BRIAN: It's not really spelled out in the script. The idea is to keep it in the present moment--to have the actor, or the character, present in the theater and talking to the audience, rather than setting up the conceit of this happening in an interrogation room or what not.
TM: How about the sheer memorization of the piece. Was that very difficult?
BRIAN: Well, I never had to do something like this before, so I approached it in kind of a three-act sense. I separated it into three chunks and then tried to get them down. The play is structured so impeccably that it was kind of easy to do that. It was basically rote memorization; you just tip away at it.
TM: I was wondering if you had taped it.
BRIAN: You know, it's funny you should say that...I did tape it, but not until the end of the process. I had two-thirds of it down, and then I listened to myself doing the last section of it on a tape recorder. That was helpful as an overview of the piece, a way of looking at it as if from a helicopter and getting the whole thrust of it rather than the specifics.
TM: Are you 100% Irish?
BRIAN: Almost! I come from Kellys, O'Briens, and Collatons, but the James name is Welsh. This is the first time I've done a Dublin accent; I worked on a Northern Irish accent before, but that's extremely different. For The Good Thief, it helped that I worked with Dublin actors in Public Enemy. I'm basically parroting them.
TM: I don't remember where your character in Titanic was supposed to be from.
BRIAN: He was English. Barrett was from the midlands in Nottingham, the coalmine area. That accent is very brusque and clipped, and I don't claim to have done it perfectly. It may have sounded Irish!
TM: Right up until it opened, a lot of people thought Titanic was going to be a disaster; but then it turned into something of a hit and won several major Tony awards.
BRIAN: It was definitely a test of will. I credit the Dodgers, Peter Stone, and Maury Yeston for the success of the show. I remember that, after the reviews came out, we all had a meeting in the basement of the theater and received this passionate, uncompromising support. It was sort of like the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V--you know, "We shall overcome!" Some of the reviews were good, but a few of the major ones were less than stellar, and the previews were a very trying period. It all could have crumbled, but everyone really held firm. We just wanted to give people a chance to see the show, which is always the most important thing. That was such a strange time, too, because the Titanic was becoming a phenomenon in terms of people being interested in it again.
TM: The Wild Party wasn't around as long as some people would have hoped. What are your memories of that show?
BRIAN: It was a great group of people in unique circumstances; there was a definite awareness of the Broadway production. My personal experience was very rewarding, because the part of Burrs was so physically and vocally challenging in terms of how the guy communicated. Getting to sing so much wonderful music was a thrill. I can't say enough about Andrew Lippa and how I responded to his whole concept behind the score. It was kind of brilliant.
TM: Did you see the Broadway version?
BRIAN: A number of people in our show did, but I didn't. My wife, Jennifer Prescott, was working in a show in Minneapolis; when our show closed, I just got on a plane and went through detox. The Wild Party was a grueling production in a lot of ways. I don't know how long I could have done it.
TM: Now you're involved with The Sweet Smell of Success. What's the status of that project?
BRIAN: I'm finishing up negotiations now. I feel very confident that I'm doing it. There won't be any more workshops; we start rehearsals in November, go to Chicago in December, then come to New York at the end of January 2002 and open on Broadway in February. I worked with [director] Nick Hytner in Carousel and I can't wait to work with him again. John Lithgow is doing the show and, I think, Jack Noseworthy. I play Sidney Falco, the Tony Curtis role in the movie. He's a young, up-and-coming press agent who'll basically do anything to get ahead. He's befriended by a Walter Winchell-type character, the kingpin of knowledge and power in New York; that's the John Lithgow role. It's a kind of Mephistophelean tale of selling one's soul to the devil. Sidney eventually gets all the power he wanted, and he suffers the consequences.
TM: Well, now that The Good Thief has moved, you have something to keep you busy through the end of May.
BRIAN: Yes. Thank you for doing this interview. I hope we can get everybody to see the show.
TM: It deserves to be seen. It would be a shame for anyone to miss it, but--just like every spring--there's so much theater going on in the city right now that no human being could get to everything.
BRIAN: I know! But this will help, so I appreciate it.