“The crown is quite heavy. The cape is quite heavy. I do remember distinctly the first time I went out, not expecting how heavy those two things would be,” Brian d’Arcy James recalls to ET about wearing King George III’s lush costume in the Off-Broadway production of Hamilton. It’s an outfit he will soon don again when he returns to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit biopic musical about Alexander Hamilton on Friday, April 14. “I don’t want to say [it will] wreak havoc on you, but if you’re not prepared, it can give you an extra sense of anxiety that you didn’t have before."
While the crown has weighed down some, it’s not an issue for Spotlight actor, who is reprising a role he originated, even though he's playing it for the first time on the Broadway stage. "It's a full-circle moment for me," James exclaims over the phone as he eagerly awaits starting rehearsals for Hamilton just three days before he officially takes his first bow. "Every day it gets closer to [my opening night], the more I realize this is actually happening."
The Broadway veteran (Something Rotten!, Shrek, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and three-time Tony Award nominee who can also be seen on the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why played the royal when the musical first opened at the Public Theater in 2015. But even before the actor stepped on stage to perform in front of celebrities and politicians like Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, he had already negotiated his exit at the six-week mark -- whether the show was a success or not -- to play Nick Bottom opposite Christian Borle’s William Shakespeare in Something Rotten!
When it was announced later that year that Hamilton was transferring to the Richard Rodgers Theatre -- just down the street from where James was singing about omelets in the satirical Shakespearean musical -- Jonathan Groff had taken over the role. Looking back at his decision now that Hamilton is an international phenomenon, James says he wouldn't rewrite history. "I consider myself very lucky. I’m getting to do it now," he explains. "I always say that I feel very grateful that I got to have my cake and eat it too, [and to] Lin, Oskar Eustis and Jeffrey Seller for allowing me to be in the show for half the amount of time and then getting to go star in a really funny, excellent show that I wanted to do as well."
The first time James saw Hamilton on Broadway was only last week, as a refresher before he returns to the production. "I had such a distinct awareness of how every person in that theater was kind of squeezed through the eye of the needle to be there,” he says. “Their sense of excitement and almost ownership of this because it's such a phenomenon -- there's a different, palpable sense of what people are feeling even before the show starts."
It was quite a different energy from when James was part of the show two years prior. "People were starting to get a sense of what it was,” he says. “Now, it’s a deep groove that has been cut -- [in] the cultural psyche, if you will. That was really something to experience.” Changes were apparent onstage, too: "[It was] interesting to see how all these characters can flourish, be successful and potent with new brilliant actors in them. That’s a testament to the writing, of course.”
For the role of King George III, in particular, Andrew Rannells, Rory O’Malley and Taran Killam have all worn the crown, making James the fourth notable replacement on Broadway. His predecessor, Killam, recently welcomed the actor backstage, where he was shown the accoutrements that have amassed in the king’s dressing room since the show opened in 2015. “He wanted to let me know what was Rory’s, what was Groff's and what was his,” James explains. “That's good information to have so I can add to it."
In addition to his highly anticipated return to Hamilton, James can also be seen on 13 Reasons Why, Netflix’s adaptation of the popular YA novel about Hannah, a high school teen who commits suicide, and the revelations that follow her death. For James, who plays Hannah’s father opposite his onscreen wife Kate Walsh, it’s the first time he’s ever been on a platform like Netflix, which released the entire series on March 31. “When we were at the premiere, it was interesting to wrap my head around the fact that at midnight it wasn’t just network television. The whole world had access to all 13 episodes,” James says.
The show, which deals not only with teen suicide but also bullying and sexual assault, has quickly become a topic of discussion as people debate its portrayals of these issues. “It's important if only for the fact that it may cause a lot of room for conversation," James says of the show. "We need every opportunity we can to find ways to reach out and have the green light to reach out."
The story is one that the actor finds imperative to discuss with his 15-year-old daughter, Grace. "I don’t know that I would have had the starting-off point that I did had it not been for my participation with the show,” James explains. “It gave me courage to talk about things like sexual assault, rape and bullying.” It's a dialogue he hopes other adults find ease with as well. “I don’t feel like you have to be the parent of a child who has committed suicide to understand pain or despair. From my character, it's an important thing to represent that and hopefully get right because we all feel that way at one point or another.”
Of all his film and TV roles, James says playing Hannah's father is “unequivocally the most challenging thing I’ve had to do on film.”It certainly stands apart -- at least from Hamilton, which comes with its own distinct challenges.
The actor has little time to get accustomed to playing King George III before taking his bow alongside James Monroe Iglehart, Broadway's original Genie in Aladdin, who joins the cast in the dual role of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson -- but he’ll be ready nevertheless. “That’s going to be exciting, to kind of look at him and just check in to see if we’re doing OK. Check our heart rate the first night,” James says.