‘Only the Brave’ Interview Series Part 2: James Badge Dale

As a part of the experience of pre-viewing Only the Brave, arts editors Austin and Stephanie also had the chance to sit down with several of the actors in the movie to ask them about their experiences and takeaways. The duo participated in roundtable interviews with other publications with Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly and James Badge Dale. In part two of the series, the duo talked to James Badge Dale.

James Badge Dale is known for his role as Tyrone Woods in 13 Hours (2016). He has also acted in The Departed (2006) and World War Z (2013). In Only the Brave he plays Jesse Steed, dedicated husband, father and captain of the Granite Mountain Division.

Interviewer: A lot of Hollywood films that memorialize events like this can dramatize things or take things too far, we felt like that didn’t happen with this movie.

James: Good. Thank you.

Interviewer: In what ways did you carry out your performance to keep it grounded and human? Did you interact with the character’s family at all? When you worked on 13 Hoursyou said how important it was to have that family there on set with you to get that influence. Did that have any influence here?

James: Yes. On [13 Hours] we had five former team guys who knew Tyrone Woods, so every day there was someone telling me what the wrong way and the right way to do things in a very supporting and loving Navy Seal way.

On this film we had five former Granite Mountain hotshots come in and train us. What they imparted on us was that these are our best friends. And they made fun of us. They were like, “you guys aren’t firefighters. This is ridiculous.” I got so much joy watching the smile on Pat McCarty’s face during training camp. He’s like, “Ah what are these guys doing – I’ve never seen anything like this.” He told us that we’re not firefighters, we’re actors playing their best friends and we trust you to do that so please give everything to it. And that attitude, starting at the beginning, came from Pat McCarty, Brendan McDonough, Josh, who care so deeply about this story. We ran with that the whole time.

This has been a special experience for me. I love these guys, I love the story, I love the people I work with. As an actor, the greatest gift that you can have is to be able to give yourself to a story that means something.

Interviewer: What was it about Jesse that really resonated with you? And how did you connect with him in a way that you could authentically play him?

James: Everyone wants to talk about how hard bootcamp was, but it’s not that hard. The hardest part for me was connecting with Jesse because he was a larger-than-life guy. He was a lot of things I’m not. He was a former marine. He was 6’ 4’’ and I’m 5’ 11’’. He weighed 220 pounds. He had a great sense of humor and I’m dry. The scariest thing to me – the thing that put that little voice on my shoulder saying “I don’t know if you can do this,” was how much he gave and how positive he was.

I talked to his wife. She told me he would work 16 hours on the line and come home and be present with her and their two children as if he hadn’t just spent those 16 hours. The amount of love he gave his family, the amount of love he gave his brothers – this guy was a big man who had the strength and fortitude to look at people and pick them up  and be like “I love you man.” That scared me. How do I find that within myself?

When you play these real characters there is that responsibility and Jesse never gave up. He was a man who had that spirit. All these guys – all the real firefighters I’ve met, have that spirit. It’s not an outward thing, it’s an inward thing. It’s a strange thing. There were some days when I would be like, “Jesse help me out man,” and in a weird way, I’ve never met this man, but I know him and I hope to be a better person because he’s taught me something.

Interviewer: Going off of that, what did you take from this experience of being in this film and what do you hope the audience takes away?

James: [I] never want to put words in an audience’s mouth. I can’t tell you what to take away from it. That’s your right. What I will say is that you’re going to walk out with something you didn’t have when you walked in.

I’m a New York City guy. I couldn’t be further from Arizona. I was riding the 6 Train downtown in 2013 the week of the Yarnell Hill Fire and The New York Times had written a 2-page article about these guys. About how hard they worked. What it means to be a Tier 2 crew. What it means to become a Tier 1 hotshot crew. The second part of the article was about how these guys never left [each other’s] side ‘til the end and the technical aspect of what happened and how they stayed together.

I was struck in that subway. This story is special. It’s important to me, it’s important to these guys and their families. But more importantly, there’s something that people can relate to because we’re putting something positive out there in the world in a time when we need it. This is a celebration of life, a celebration of love. There are common threads people can relate to.

Interviewer: In the vein of timeliness, there are fires going on right now.

James: Glad you brought that up – let’s talk about that. As we’re sitting here doing press for a film there are guys out there right now on the line. The last count was at 2,000 structures lost in northern California, in the fires in Anaheim.

Wild thing is, I’m sitting there with Pat McCarty yesterday and he’s like, “man we just sent a few engines up there” because he’s still working. He’s on the structure side now. He was there. He was so dedicated to telling this story and getting the story right and he would get pages for wildfires and you could see him *inhales and reaches for phone,* but he was like, “I’ve got to be here.” That’s how much they love their job. That’s how much they love getting that call. That’s something to admire and that’s something we can all take into our jobs. I love going to work every day. I want to approach it with more of that attitude.

Interviewer: Following up on the notion of loving the job, in the movie, a great aspect of the core human part was how much brotherhood there was. That felt so real and that these guys are real, they’re driven, they’re passionate. From your experience, what was something that you did to get that feeling of brotherhood?

James: It never stopped with us. Brolin, man, would text us on Saturday night, “hey man group workout at my house Sunday morning.” And I was like, “No! No! What are you doing?” It was going all day about how special things are. Maybe it just doesn’t sound right.

I’m going to go back to the firefighters. Pat McCarty was like, “you guys are playing our brothers.”

I just want to point out there is so much talk about brotherhood, but there are so many women on hotshot crews. It’s a team. A team effort. We’re all here together. And man, we had fun.

We joke around we have fun with each other. You can’t do a job like this if you’re too serious. And Brolin. He’s a hard guy to work with. He’s never smiling. Man, he would show up, pull up in his pick up truck, with a big cup of coffee and he’d be like, “OK guys let’s go, let’s get it!” And we’re like, “Wait. Calm down, it’s 6:30 in the morning!” Love him, love him. He gave from day one to the last day, and he’s still here. A lot of respect and love for that guy.

Interviewer: Do any of you have plans to work together again?

James: Never. *laughs* The film business is strange. We’re like a traveling band of carnival gypsies. I’ve been doing this professionally since – my last day of construction was in 2003. You come on these jobs, and these jobs have a beginning, middle and an end. You come in and you have this one period of time together. We came in, and we had guys on this film who it was their first film. We talked about at the beginning that this job was special. You don’t get a second chance at it. And we had four months together. That was it. So you come in and you be present every day, you give everything to it, and when you go back home at night and lay your head on the pillow, don’t ever feel like you’ve played it safe. You go to work, you take risks, and you give and they are going to film that. And then they’ll decide what to do with it later – that’s not your job.

We came in, and we had guys on this film who it was their first film. We talked about at the beginning that this job was special. You don’t get a second chance at it. And we had four months together. That was it. So you come in and you be present every day, you give everything to it, and when you go back home at night and lay your head on the pillow, don’t ever feel like you’ve played it safe. You go to work, you take risks, and you give and they are going to film that. And then they’ll decide what to do with it later – that’s not your job.

It’s a strange thing in this business. You never know if you’re going to work together again. You get that one moment in time. Then maybe five, ten years down the line you see each other on a different job. And everyone else on that job goes, “Why do they have such a great relationship? Because that time period never goes away. We can pick up right where we left off.

Interviewer: It sounds like you guys are staying connected right now.

James: We are so connected, it’s driving me nuts. It’s a special job and a special group of guys. We’re all very proud of the film and all very proud of the work everyone has put into it. I can’t say that enough.

Interviewer: To talk more about characters. In this movie, as you’ve talked about, you’re representing someone real, heroic, who represents this amazing piece of America, which sometimes doesn’t get shown in film as much. What is the difference for you in playing a fictional character who was created for the purpose of a film, versus someone who’s based in real life?

James: Yeah. There was a moment in boot camp when I turned to Brolin and I was like, “man, fictional characters from now on.” Because there’s pressure and responsibility. It either breaks you or you run with it. And we ran with it. Talking about that moment, that was my moment of weakness, where you go, “I don’t know how to do this.” Sometimes you have to get that out. Brolin goes, “I understand and I’m right here with you.” And then we move forward. It’s a different beast.

That fictional character, I can run with it any way I please, but idea is to tell a story. I’m very much a believer in a character’s cause. The overall circumstances matter. It’s not about me. It’s not about my character. How does this character serve the story? How do we all serve the story together? Because if we’re all telling the same story, we all look pretty good. If you’re telling a different story, you’re going to stick out. And then A) that’s not right and B) It’s not good on you either.

Crazy thing is, I keep talking about wanting to do some funny stuff. Can I do some light-hearted stuff? Some fictional stuff? Every time they send me a real story and I go, “I love this.” And maybe I’m supposed to do this.

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