Don’t bother trying to convince James Badge Dale that there’s a cabal of Badge-ers out there, admirers from his days on 24 and HBO’s The Pacific who are committed to finally making him a household name. The 35-year-old New Yorker may have had notable supporting turns in three big summer movies, but he’s not one to get worked up over such chatter. “People chirp in your ears a lot,” he says. “They tell you, ‘This [project] is going to do this for you, this is going to do that for you.’ I’ve had 10 years of that filtered into my head. It’s not true. I’m not in the results business. You know, you do this work for yourself.”
That’s a healthy and understandable outlook for any actor — especially for one who spent years juggling construction jobs so he could do guest spots on shows like CSI and later starred in Rubicon, AMC’s promising 2010 conspiracy series that failed to build a big enough audience to last more than one season. But Dale’s most recent performances have confirmed that he can hold the screen with Hollywood’s biggest stars. Good or evil, his characters convey an innate formidability that pops on-screen and indirectly serves to raise the profile of the movie’s hero. In Iron Man 3, he was the bald-headed super-badass who tangled with Robert Downey Jr.; in World War Z, he was the bearded Army Ranger who sacrificed his life to help Brad Pitt get out of zombiefied South Korea; and in The Lone Ranger, he was the rugged Texas Ranger who blazed the trail of justice for his younger brother, played by Armie Hammer.
But it’s in Parkland, the upcoming movie about the JFK assassination that recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, that his emotional depth and subtle craftsmanship shine brightest. In an ensemble film that revisits the 1963 shooting through the eyes of several people in Dallas — from the Parkland Hospital doctor (Zac Efron), to the President’s Secret Service chief (Billy Bob Thornton), to the man who captured it all on camera, Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) — Dale plays Robert Oswald, the stunned husband and father who realizes his world is crumbling when his younger brother, Lee, is arrested and suspected of killing the President. The audience can’t help but be in his head when he hears Lee’s name on the TV for the first time, as he absorbs hard stares and angry words that imply guilt by association, and when he tries to reason with his deranged mother (Jackie Weaver), who sees only opportunity in her family’s disgrace.
“Robert wasn’t an easy character to play,” says Dale. “Robert Oswald is still alive today and I need to be very careful and respectful of him. I debated contacting him and it was relayed to me that he did not want to be, but I read his book, which is completely out of print and not aimed to sell copies. It reads like someone getting rid of something.”
Parkland might not be a box-office slam-dunk, but it continues Dale’s current run of superbly calibrated performances. He points to Steve McQueen’s Shame, the 2011 movie in which he played the skeevy boss to Michael Fassbender’s sex addict, as a crucial artistic turning point. “Steve McQueen and Fassbender were the ones who gave me a lot of confidence in my own instincts,” says Dale. “Steve was like, ‘I didn’t hire you to be somebody else. I hired you to bring what you bring to it. You’re an artist. Take risks and fail. Don’t ever play it safe with me. That’s the way Fassbender works too. I learned a lot from them.”
It’s that appreciation for artistic risk-taking that drew Dale to The Lone Ranger, and that film’s critical lashing and box-office disappointment causes Dale to pause briefly before responding to a question about that experience. Hammer and Johnny Depp have blamed the critics for the film’s poor performance, and Dale agrees that the film was unfairly maligned. “I can’t tell anybody their opinion is wrong, but I will say that is a beautifully crafted film, that is a work of passion, that is a director’s film,” he says. “I never thought for a second it would be reviewed so negatively. Five years from now, people will look at this movie differently. But that’s what we do: we make something and we put it out there. I don’t know how people are going to respond. That’s not my job.”
Dale is currently filming A Relative Stranger, a dark Hatfield and McCoy style western in which he stars(!), and then, he’ll head to New York for a play called Small Engine Repair. Theater is in his blood — his father, Grover Dale, and his mother, the late Anita Morris, were both Tony-nominated performers — and even though he hasn’t been on the New York stage for six years, he’s applying the lessons from Shame to this next challenge. “It just dawned on me the other day,” he says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Oh sh-t, people are going to see this!’ But I love it. It’s always fun to go fail on stage in front of a lot of people. There’s no fear at all. I’m alright with the failure.”
Parkland, which also stars Marcia Gay Harden, Tom Welling, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston, and Colin Hanks, opens in theaters on Oct. 4.