Even before we sat down with the talented James Badge Dale of the STARZ series Hightown, we had the impression that he would be the kind of person that you would be able to sit down and have a beer with, and not simply because of the many cop roles that he’s been playing. Boy, were we ever right about this and then some. His character, Detective Ray Abruzzo, a Provincetown police officer investigating a murder, commands the screen as much as his counterpart, Jackie Quinones, as played by Monica Raymund, but in the first two episodes at least, they do not interact at all. Instead, there is a growing intensity within Abruzzo and you can see why James Badge Dale, or “Badge”, as we called him, waited 10 years to come back to television to participate in this really special series from Rebecca Cutter and director Rachel Morrison.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our friendly phone conversation with the magnetic James Badge Dale of Hightown.
Brief Take: This series looks amazing. How much did you enjoy shooting on location in Provincetown?
James Badge Dale: I had a great time up in Provincetown. When I was doing research for the show, it was about March and so I went up there and I was hanging out with the narcotics unit up in Hyannis, and then I went up to Provincetown to spend some time up there and it was cold. And it was quiet. I live in a small fishing town here in New York and it really reminded me of where I live. And then to come back and shoot in the summer, when it had come alive and there were so many people out and there was so much energy and it’s like the art community and the fisherman community had come together. There you have this blue-collar, generational work ethic, which has been passed down from family to family and all of these artists who have been there at the same time, and it’s just a really special place.
BT: You very much have your own story and Monica her own story, will you at any point get to converge a little?
JBD: Oh yeah, Monica and I may or may not be on a collision course. [laughs]
BT: This is very much a mystery and yet there is much more to the show as well. How did you create the suspense and find the right beats?
JBD: Well, it’s interesting, because you start off with this murder of this young girl. And you see who pulls the trigger, you know right away who pulls the trigger. But what the story becomes is: “Why did that girl die?” and “How many people did that girl’s life affect?”. And it’s kind of the domino effect from this one inciting incident, of somebody’s life being taken away, how that affects Jackie’s life, how that affects Ray’s life, how does that affect Frankie (Amaury Nolasco), Renee (Riley Voelkel), it kind of has this ripple effect through the community. Rebecca Cutter is just a really masterful writer and we just, like you said, it’s a really beautiful location and Cape Cod is kind of another character. And there’s a certain visual tone and feel that (director) Rachel Morrison really wanted to go out and to capture that and I think that leads to and adds to the tension.
BT: How did you build the character? He’s a little bit ragged, he’s a little weathered and he’s certainly got some demons, although we don’t yet know what they are. How did you tap into the essence of Ray Abruzzo?
JBD: Yeah, Ray’s kind of burning. Ray’s kind of on fire internally. So a lot of the demons and a lot of his issues, you don’t see on the outside, you know? It’s always interesting to me, people who can hide out at work. People who can hide out and seem like they’re doing fine, because they show up to work 12 hours a day. And in some ways, I think actors, and I think that everyone who works in the film industry relates to that. We work long hours and everyone on that film crew puts in 60 hours a week. You don’t have time for your own personal demons. But that doesn’t mean they go away, they’re still there. So, yes, Ray is burning, he’s haggard, and for me, it was keeping that electricity going, that fire burning inside him that in one way helps him get through the day, but at the same time, it’s eating him alive inside.
BT: What did you like best about working with Rachel Morrison?
JBD: I love Rachel so much. Rachel and I got along very well from the beginning and just on a personal level, we relate to each other. You brought up that Ray sees things from this certain side and there’s kind of this masculine side of Ray and myself, and maybe my thinking as an actor. But what I’ve found with Rachel is that she can come to me and she can come to it a different way and I feel like she made Ray fuller. Like Rachel made Ray a fuller human being through her direction and through our interactions.
You know, the really fun thing about Rachel is that she’s an Academy Award-nominated Director of Photography, man! And she’ll be standing there one day and she’ll be like: “You know what, that’s just me and you”, and she’ll go: “Cut!” and she’ll take the camera, and she’ll go handheld herself. And then her and I will kind of look at each other, and then we go: “Let’s go! You wanna go? Let’s go! Action!”. And it’s this amazing thing which happens on film, when your director is actually holding the camera. And it becomes this other kind of psychic communication that’s going on [laughs] when the camera is rolling. I just love her to death and I had such a good time working with her.
BT: You were in three totally different, but in a way interconnected, movies at #TIFF18 with Donnybrook, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek and Hold the Dark. Other than the cop element, how did you go back and forth between each one?
JBD: You know, it’s so funny you said that because look man, you kind of go off as an actor and do the work as it comes to you. You never imagine that three films would end up at the same film festival. So we’re in Toronto, and it was Donnybrook, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek and Hold the Dark. And you’re right, I was playing a good cop in Hold the Dark, a dirty cop in Donnybrook, and then a former cop [laughs] in The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, but then all three of those movies were very different, very different films in tone and I had a great time on all of them. And you’re talking about Hightown – I’m not looking to play another cop. I wasn’t looking to do that, but what came my way was Ray wasn’t just a cop, what Rebecca (Cutter) has written wasn’t just about the cops and robbers, she’s written something fully fleshed out and I don’t look at Ray as just a cop.
BT: You seem to mainly appear in projects which you believe in and that the material has to speak to you. Considering that you played so many cop role, what was it about Hightown that said: “I have to do this one”?
JBD: Man, I’m so happy that you brought that up. I’m really humbled that I’ve been kind of able to make my way for 20 years as an actor doing jobs that I love. I’m better at it when I care. And I look for things that I care about, I look for things that I can really dip into and get under the skin and which I can get excited about, and that’s what matters to me. There was this moment in which I was sitting here, with the scripts for Hightown, and it was almost like I was looking for reasons not to do it, you know what I mean? And I fear commitment, or I won’t sign a long-term contract, and “what is this? what is that?”, but the material kept pulling me back in. It was like I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I would read it and I would go: “Uhhh, I don’t know if I want to play a cop on tv”. And then I would go to bed at night and I would just be thinking about him. I would be thinking about him all night. I would be thinking about the story, I would be thinking about the world that Rebecca Cutter had created. And that was it for me. Once my imagination starts going and I start becoming obsessed, I have to go in that direction, and that’s what happened, man.
BT: I hope that you’ve had a chance to watch your series, it’s phenomenal. What was the biggest difference for you in terms of how it looks and feels as opposed to filming it and how it came to life in ways you didn’t imagine?
JBD: That’s a really good question. I’ve seen the first two episodes and it’s always strange for me to watch things afterward because we have certain experience as actors and crew members, that what we do on the day is always so different from what is edited and put out to the audience. But I couldn’t be happier with what I’m seeing, I think that it looks beautiful, the story is clear and it’s filled with tension and I love that they’re taking their time to tell it. They’re not hitting the audience over the head, they’re not trying to use a lot of bells and whistles to distract people, and it’s a really heartfelt, beautiful story with some amazing actors. I’m so impressed by the work that Monica (Raymund), Riley (Voelkel), Shane (Harper), Amaury (Nolasco), Atkins (Estimond) and Dohn Norwood, I just…I love this crew, I love this film crew and I loved showing up to work every day, and maybe we get to do it again.
BT: As in The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, I feel tension during the action sequences but also in the sense of suspense as well. Can you feel that as well, on a sense of tension within your work?
JBD: You know, I’m glad you feel that because you should feel that in the audience. I can’t wait until you see more because this thing really is a train going downhill with no brakes. It starts off slowly, and before you know it, you realize that you’re on something that can’t be stopped. So I’m looking forward to when you get to see episodes three, four, five, six, seven, and eight, man.
BT: With so many of your projects, (Mickey and the Bear, The Kitchen), but especially in this one, how deep do you like to go into the work?
JBD: Unfortunately, I go pretty deep. I wish I didn’t go so deep. I have friends and actors, man, they leave it on set and they go home. [laughs] And I’m always working against that, I have to work harder in order to stay sane sometimes, but I like putting a lot of myself into my work. I like finding those weird, dark corners. You talk about Mickey and the Bear, there’s a certain exposure level there. Hightown, it’s a different thing. And hey, thanks for bringing up The Kitchen, man, I loved that movie! We had such a good time shooting that movie, we had such a good time.
BT: With many of your roles, you look like a professional cop, and here you’re a little bit sloppy and the way that you wear your badge around your neck seems off. For what were you going in terms of presentation?
JBD: Yeah, [laughs] Ray doesn’t have much time for presentation, you know? He doesn’t care about the small things, and the idea with the badge for me was that there’s an element, like when I was hanging out with these narcotics cops in Massachusetts, they really blur that line between a uniform officer and undercover. And there’s different levels. The ability to not be recognizable as a police officer is very important. And so that’s where part of it comes for Ray. You know, Ray takes that badge around his neck, tucks it in his shirt and he’s standing there in like his track suit, you would never know that this guy is a cop. Or at least that’s what he’s going for.
BT: Even though Ray isn’t really much for presentation, there is something that is clearly driving him. Are you aware of this sense of drive in the way of presenting clues as to where the story may be going?
JBD: Yeah, I’m always conscious of that. For me, Ray’s internal narrative is always moving. We talked about this with Rebecca, that Ray, when Ray opens his mouth, he opens his mouth for a reason. And it’s to push a narrative, to push a dialogue, to push an objective, you know? But then you get into this world of television, in which you don’t know what is the last story, it’s an ongoing story. You’re not presented with a beginning, a middle and an end, you’re presented with a beginning and kind of this middle that keeps going. So you have to trust the people with whom you work. And I trust Rebecca Cutter and Rachel Morrison and everyone we work with over there to the nth degree and they also handed me the trust. That was the beautiful thing about this set is that we had a lot of artistic freedom. And we had a lot of people who cared, who were there for the right reasons. Everyone shows up ultra prepared and then we just kind of throw it all away and then we just run with it. And that helps keep that sort of experimental moment alive. Because what you want when you’re doing things on camera is the idea that Rachel Morrison and Rebecca Cutter can film something that it’s so special and only happened once. The audience should be sitting there and going: “That’s not rehearsed, that there is an element of realism to it and that dynamic” and we tried to stay on that kind of plane and play with that kind of tension between us.
BT: You haven’t done a series in a long time. What was it about this one and this really powerful creative team that brought you back?
JBD: Man, I did ten years away from tv consciously! [laughs] The last tv show that I did was a show called Rubicon on AMC and I made a choice. I was like: “Look, I want to go play different characters and I want to travel”, and basically I had a couple of pit bulls, I threw them in the pickup truck and we travelled all over, for 10 years, acting for money [chuckles] doing different weird things. Hanging out with Jeremy Saulnier up in Alaska, you know what I mean? Going back to television, which I always knew that I would, and I felt like I was late coming back to the game because they’ve been doing such good work on television, there’s such good writing on television. And you talk about that creative team, you look at Jerry Bruckheimer and Gary Lennon and what STARZ has been doing, and this is a character-driven show. This isn’t a police procedural, you know what I mean? And Bruckheimer knows what he’s doing and he knows how to put really smart, artistic people together. Man, it’s a really good team to work with.
BT: How much did you feel Hold the Dark? Was that the coldest you’ve ever been?
JBD: Man, there was a day, and I think it was my first day working outside, and we’re shooting in the mountains kind of just west of Calgary, Alberta. And it was February…and I’m from New York. And they had all these clothes set up in my trailer and all these layers to put on underneath and I was like: “Man! I’m from New York. I’m not cold. I could do this. I could do 12 hours out here no problem, with just the jeans and the jacket, no problem”. And I was on set for about 10 minutes before I went to the wardrobe department and I was like: “Hey, I’m sorry, remember all that stuff you gave me and you left in my trailer? [laughs] I’m going to need that. Can we go back and get that and change?”. Because it was deep, deep cold. It’s interesting, it changes the way you breathe when you’re working out in that type of cold. When we talk about that, I did a movie with Frank Grillo, a Joe Carnahan movie called The Grey, up in Canada and we were in about two feet of snow. And how you conserve your energy, because you’re there 12 hours and when you’re sitting outside, you’re just sitting there and you’re breathing the cold air and you’re just kinda…when the camera’s not rolling, you want your heart rate to drop a little bit. You just save it and you save it [taps on a table] and when Jeremy Saulnier or Joe Carnahan tells you to go to work, it’s like this energy comes back alive.
BT: And for 13 Hours, you have to feel a sense of absolute trust with these guys or you’re not able to command the unit in the same way.
JBD: That was a film, we all got very close on that film: (John) Krasinski, myself, Max Martini, Pablo (Schreiber), David (Denman), Dominic Fumusa, we bonded and trusted each other. And also, in a circumstance like that, and this is the beautiful thing about Michael Bay—Michael Bay is not CGi’ing all that stuff. His stunt crew, all the guys on his explosives crew, the weapons guys with whom he works, man, all that stuff is the real deal, we’re doing it old school, we’re doing it the right way, we’re doing it with safety in mind but it’s dangerous stuff. And so literally, I’m running down the streets here and John Krasinski and Max Martini, we’re fully loaded, man. Those are full load blanks and you make a mistake, you can hurt someone, or hurt yourself. And so the trust factor really comes into play in a different way. And also that set, man, that was electric, because Michael Bay, it’s what works for him. He subscribes to a chaos theory and so it’s this constant movement and constant action and things can change in a moment’s notice. And it makes it exciting and because of that and because Michael would sit there and be on set and literally, the lighting would change, and he would be like: “Nope, we’re not going to do this. We’re going to do this scene, which was supposed to be two weeks from now”, and he’s like: “You’d better be ready and you go right now”, and then Michael would grab the camera, just like Rachel Morrison, and he’ll be like: “I’m going to go handheld right now, we’re going”. So you better be prepared to do any scene in that movie on Day 1. That’s kind of cool, that everyone who you’re surrounded with – every actor and every member of the film crew, has done that type of preparation, and also has that type of flexibility inside them. It makes for a really cool, kinetic filmmaking experience.
BT: What does this time feel like for someone like you who is committed to the work and the memory of going so deep into this series?
JBD: You know, I had taken some time off work, I had worked up to Thanksgiving of last year, and I took a few months off for the winter to kind of get my head straight. And I was actually just about to go do another movie with Jeremy Saulnier. We were going to go do a film in New Orleans with an April 1st start date. Obviously, our production got shut down. It’s been a really interesting time because I’m ready to go back to work. I was chomping at the bit to dive into this and dive into this really cool kind of script that Jeremy wrote, he’s one of my favourite filmmakers and I love working with this guy and I’ll work with him if I can every day of the week. And it was a passion project for him and that got taken. And it’s gone. And obviously a lot of people’s work around the work has been pulled from us and like you said, now I’m sitting here and waiting and I have to really reevaluate who I am. Imagine Ray Abruzzo, after what you’ve seen, if someone took that job away from him, what is Ray left with? And I think that this is a really important time for everyone, if everyone can take the time to sit back and do a little self-reflection, I think that we can all come out of this a little better.
BT: This was sort of the first thing that got cancelled, because you were going to be premiering at SXSW.
JBD: Yeah, we were premiering at South By, and man, I was ready to go, I had a little cabin rented in Austin, it’s one of my favourite towns and the dog and I were going to drive down. Dude, I hope that people tune in and I hope that they fall in love with the characters and the story.
BT: Movies and tv shows with these small moments that bring large rewards, that’s a great thing to put across.
JBD: Thank you. Thank you. I’m a big fan of independent film and I can’t stress enough for these filmmakers to have the opportunity to get out there and to make movies like Mickey and the Bear and movies like Standoff at Sparrow Creek, you know? Those are special, special movies and I think independent film is…even with the volatility of the film industry, that independent film is going strong, still.
BT: You’re putting everything out there and that’s really important.
JBD: You know it’s funny, man. John Slattery lives out near me here, in this little fishing town. We both surf and we’re in the water a lot and we talk about it, and we were talking about it the other day and we were like: “What do you miss?” and we both kind of sat there and said: “We miss the crew. We miss the film crew, we miss filmmaking”. We shut down an entire industry in which everyone’s out of work, every department in the film crew is out of work. That’s what I miss the most. I don’t know if I miss acting as much as I miss being a part of this collective group. This band of this kind of obsessed, weird Gypsies who travel the world making stuff. [laughs] Cannot wait until we get a chance to do that again.
Hightown premieres tonight at 8pm ET on STARZ