Full disclosure: I am a little obsessed with James Badge Dale. (To the point I once wrote “50 Things We Love About James Badge Dale,” to which I find out below that many of James Badge Dale’s family members sent him that piece.) It started with Rubicon, in which James Badge Dale plays Will Travers, a mild-mannered genius who worked at a mysterious government think tank. Rubicon was moody, weird, deliberate and brilliant. It was the first AMC series not to be renewed for a second season, which was incredibly disappointing for the people who loved that show.
But then James Badge Dale started showing up in movies, and none of them were ever anything like Will Travers. Comparatively, he was unrecognizable in The Grey. He then had his heart cut out in The Lone Ranger (I witnessed first-hand many parents leading their children to the exits right after that scene). He’s become one of those actors who always makes a movie better, even though people probably don’t even realize it.
He can soon be seen playing Jesse Steed in Only the Brave, the true story of a group of firefighters, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who lost 19 members fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013. It’s a harrowing film to watch, knowing how it all turns out. But with wildfires raging across the western United States, it’s also a timely film that shows just how dangerous this situation really is.
Ahead, we take a deep dive with James Badge Dale who discusses Only the Brave, then tells us about a Rubicon ending we never got to see. And then he takes us back to The Departed, and what it was like to film one of the most shocking movie scenes of this century.
You’re playing this happy, fun-loving guy, but we also know how this true story turns out in the end. That has to be difficult.
Well, listen, in any story you drive towards the ending. But the truth is this is a celebration of these guys when they were alive. And Jesse James Steed was kind of a larger-than-life human being. And I’ll never forget, his wife would talk about how this man could go work 16 hours a day, how he was a large man and he’d give everyone a hug and he’d tell them, “I love you.” He had no fear about his own emotions and laughing and joking and smiling. And then he would come home and spend time with his wife and kids as if he hadn’t been at work at all. He lived life to the fullest in the best way. He gave everybody attention. He was present. And that’s why I tried to focus on.
Were everyone in their lives 100 percent on board with this movie?
You know, this story is still pretty fresh, and rightfully so. I think we can all understand the grieving process. Everyone has a different time period and a different take on it. But this movie, it really is a celebration of these guys and their lives and their families – and the family members of all these guys have been very supportive, and we’re taking a lot of care to do it the right away. That’s what this is about.
As a viewer, you really start to like everyone, but you also know what’s coming and that it’s going to be so crushing…
Yeah. I understand, I understand. But, you know, when this happened in 2013, I was in New York and I was riding the 6 train downtown. And I’m downtown, and The New York Times, Fernanda Santos did a big two-page story on these guys the week this happened. And what I was struck by – yes, you know what’s going on and you know what happened to these guys in the Yarnell Hill fire – how they all went together, to the very end, 19 of them. Not one of them ran away. Not one of them left the others’ side. But what I was struck with the most was the part of her article where it talked about how hard these guys worked, the effort that these guys put in to be the first hotshot crew to come out of a city. They weren’t state crew, they weren’t federal crew, they had to work harder than anybody else. No one told them they could do this. Everyone said this couldn’t be done and these guys did it. They willed it to happen through work ethic, you know? And that was the moment that, something happened, man. It hit me in my veins. It was like, I just want to be a part of telling this story, because I do think this is important. And I think we’re putting something good into the world right now.
I am fascinated by your career. A couple years ago I wrote “50 Reasons Why We Love James Badge Dale”…
Oh, that was you!
I made up a few things.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I think a number of my family members sent that to me.
Hey, no, that was good, man. I liked it. Thank you, man.
Well, I really am fascinated by your career. It kind of started with Rubicon, because I love Rubicon.
Well, that was a great show.
I’m convinced people still love it.
It’s one of my favorite things in the world because not many people did see it, but the people who watched it loved it and you’ll just run into these people every once in a while and they’ll just kind of pull me aside and they’ll be like, “Hey, I was a fan of Rubicon.” And the funny thing is, what I get the most is – because, you know, this show was a conspiracy show, and people have always been trying to figure out why we were canceled. And I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, “I know why you were canceled.” And I say, “Why?” And they say, “Because you were too close to the truth.” [Laughs.]
I want that theory to be true.
That’s the one I’m going with, man.
There should be a “make-a-Rubicon-season-two campaign.”
[Laughs.] Well, you’re a writer, brother. You’re in a position of power, man.
I have no power whatsoever.
“50 Reasons Why Rubicon Should Be Brought back.”
I should do that.
Yeah, there is a lost episode to Rubicon. Henry Bromell wrote a final episode that was like scorched earth. It was unbelievable. And we started to film and we were shut down. And AMC was like, “Wait a minute, we can’t do it this way.” And they made us do a different last episode that kind of left it open-ended, as if we were going to come back. And Henry Bromell, God rest his soul, there’s a safe somewhere in this world that has the real final episode of Rubicon.
Would it have killed everyone off, so it couldn’t have come back?
Well, I mean it wasn’t that there was no way it could come back, it was the idea being that we were going to complete the story. The idea being that the audience has been with us for so long and they deserve to have a sense of completion, and then we’ll start a different story in season two.
What I’ve always enjoyed about your performances is there are times you show up in movies and I don’t even realize it’s you at first. Like The Grey, it took me awhile…
No, I totally get it, man, because I wake up every morning and I look in the mirror, I’m like, “Who are you, man?”
And in The Lone Ranger. I’m like, “Oh, wait, that’s James Badge Dale.” Then you got your heart pulled out…
I would only do that for Gore Verbinski, man. I love that guy and I love that movie.
It’s a very weird movie.
Oh, yeah. It’s a misunderstood film, but 10 years from now it’s going to hold up.
I agree. People thought it was for kids. The scene I mentioned where your heart is pulled out is always used as an example that maybe this was marketed to the wrong audience.
You know, it’s a $200 million anti-corporate film, you know what I mean? Gore, that’s the movie he wanted to make. Like, that’s our movie! It is weird, it’s off-the-wall, it’s a little bit punk rock, man. And some people are going to get it and some people aren’t, but that movie was crafted with a lot of love and care.
You also shot Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in the head in The Departed.
That has to be a crazy scene to film, knowing what the reaction would be…
Obviously, it’s a very important scene in the film, and Scorsese sat us down – myself, Damon, DiCaprio, and Anthony Anderson – and he played us a clip from a Kurosawa film. And then he said, “The tone of this is what I’m looking for.” And then he starts to talk about it like a metronome. A metronome ticks back and forth and back and forth. And so we kind of played with that rhythm, you know? And I was young. I was a young man. I think that’s the one movie I’d do over again because just when you’re young, you kind of don’t see it for what it is or maybe you just feel like you’re not ready. But I learned a lot on that film.
What would you do over? Why would you do something different?
Well, because I was just too young. You know what I mean? Too young. Sometimes you’re just too young.
Would you do something different with the performance, or would you have just soaked it in more?
I think a little bit of both, little bit of both. I’m one for you leave it all out there and then you walk away, and then that’s what it is, you know what I mean? And I love that movie and I learned a lot on that film, but I was nervous. You’re hanging out with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon all day. You’re like, what am I doing here?
There are a lot of famous people in that movie.
[Laughs.] I know. I know, man.
But I like what you do in that movie because you don’t tip your hand early. If you overdo it at the beginning when you’re just having scenes with Matt Damon, people would be like, “Oh, watch out for him. He’s going to do something crazy at the end.” Does that make sense?
Yeah, it makes complete sense. And I want to be clear. It’s not that I would go back and change something. That movie was a big part of my learning process, as an actor and as a human being. And the truth is, I was young and you get nervous and you look around and you’re like, Man, who are these guys that I’m working with here? Matt Damon pulled me aside and he said, “Look, I’m nervous. I’m always nervous.” And the amazing thing about Matt Damon is Matt Damon is the type of guy who, they’ll say, “Rolling,” and he’ll look at you and go, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” And he just jumps into it.
We were talking about this just earlier with our film, like, what is bravery? Bravery is not the absence of fear. Bravery is the ability to handle your fear and move through it. It’s recognizing the truth, which is that this makes me feel uncomfortable, but I’m going to move through it. I’m going to move through it anyway, because that’s what we do. And you put out that effort. You put that out there in the world, man. And I learned a lot on that film: from watching these actors, from working with these actors, and they were very good to me and very kind to me. And it’s possible I wouldn’t even be here today if it wasn’t for having done that film and learning a different method of working.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.