James Badge Dale has appeared in everything from Iron Man 3 to The Departed to World War Z, but he’s never played anyone quite like Detective Ray Abruzzo on the Starz series Hightown. As a dogged cop working to build a case against drug dealer Frankie Cuevas, Ray is dogged and determined, but that doesn’t mean he always does the right thing or follows procedures to the letter.
The actor spoke with CBR about what attracted him to Hightown, why he was initially reluctant to bring Ray to life, and how he keeps acting fresh.
CBR: What interested you about being a part of Hightown?
James Badge Dale: Yeah, I just like to look for things that are challenging. I like to look for exciting material and good writers and good people. And, you know, what you got [with this] show with [creator] Rebecca Cutter came up with this idea, Rachel Morrison directed the first two episodes and set the lighting, the tone and the pacing of this, and [executive producer] Jerry Bruckheimer and Starz just kind of protected us and they were just really artist friendly…. I like taking risks, and so we tried to do that every day. Every day we showed up to work, the mantra is like, don’t play it safe man, take a risk, go big or go home.
What about Ray Abruzzo made you want to bring him specifically to life?
Well, you know, I didn’t want to bring Ray to life. That’s why I did it. I read this, I was like, “Ray’s an asshole, man. I don’t want to… Yeah but wait a minute I see this, and then I see this crack in him, and I see this crack, and how do you fill that? And wait a minute, no I can relate to this.” And then it starts this obsessive process where I’m not even working on the show and I’m already involved. And it was that fear of not wanting to be Ray that brought me to it.
So what was the process of building the character if you were resistant at first?
Well, you know, you start making personal connections, you start doing your research, you start reading your books. I’m a big fan of reading so I’ll go out, and I asked Rebecca Cutter, I was like, “Listen, what are the books that you read when you started writing the show? What should I read about the opioid crisis? What should I read about drug trafficking and drug addiction?” And then I spent time up in Cape Cod with the Narcotics Task Force up there. And you start to kind of put all these lines together.
But then there comes a moment we show up to set, and it’s just me and you, and it becomes: now we’re just people, and I’m listening to you and you’re listening to me. And as actors we like to surprise each other, and we just had a really good cast.
Hightown really delved into the different facets of the opioid crisis in a way I haven’t seen before, and it’s very gritty and very gripping because of it. So, what did you either research or observe with the Task Force that helped you understand that part of it?
I gotta be careful what I say, I don’t want to give too much away here. What was fascinating to me with the Task Force is that they have a very good understanding about drug addiction, what it is, what it does to their community, and the people who are a threat and the people who are not a threat, who are sick and they need help. And part of their job is getting people help. They’re not looking to arrest everyone and throw everyone in jail, you know what I mean? The best thing they can do is, if you’re on the street and you OD’ed, you’re using drugs or you’re involved in this world, is to get you off the street, get you help, get you sober.
What they are looking to do is to find the [people like Hightown’s drug dealer] Frankie Quavas…. They’re looking to find the predatory drug dealers who are not using the drugs themselves and are moving a massive amount of weight, so they’re causing all this collateral damage. And those are the guys they are really searching for. And they’re all obsessed with their job because what they’re doing is they’re slowly but surely putting together this kind of matrix. They’re trying to understand this underground that’s happening in their community and in your community and all of our communities, because it’s prevalent everywhere. My time with them was really eye-opening, and I’m grateful — they still call me.
Ray isn’t addicted to drugs but he is obsessed with getting Frankie and making sure it sticks. But he also ends up having inappropriate relationships and doesn’t always do the right thing. So, how did you approach that side of him, because even though there’s not an addiction, there’s definitely issues?
Definitely issues. Yeah. Ray’s issues aren’t as clearly defined as a heroin addiction. I’ll just say, I don’t want to put Ray in a box, but he’s a complicated individual who’s dealing with a lot of issues and probably been dealing with a lot of issues for a long time. And that’s the interesting thing about Ray is that Ray never OD’ed, Ray’s just on that slow painful decline that’s probably taken place since his divorce, you know what I mean? And way before the divorce. It probably caused that. He’s just been on that slow downhill, which I think in some ways can be a little more horrifying.
Were you given any additional backstory on Ray that we aren’t privy to in the show or did you create that?
Rebecca [Cutter] and I had a lot of conversations about where Ray was coming from. That being said, I always have my own things going on. Alright, you want to get actory, I’m gonna talk a little actory process, alright. So, when I was 21 years old, I’m in drama school and everyone’s talking about backstory. And you know you’re reading all these different books and you’re learning all these different approaches — Meisner, Strasberg, Stella Adler, Uta Hagen. You’re learning all this stuff, and I’m writing these backstories. I mean, I’m doing plays, and I’m writing these massive backstories, and then I’m going on stage and I can’t remember why I’m there because all I’m doing is I’m thinking about this backstory. This backstory that was all bullshit, it had nothing to do with me.
And then I was like, wait a minute this is antithetical to what we’re trying to do on stage. This is antithetical to what we’re doing. My job is to be present with you. So, in some ways, as an artist and as a writer, your job is — you hear about, like, write what you know — your job is to experience different things in life and then try to draw those connections, or at least find little things that you can relate to in some sort of way. So I stopped doing backstories years ago. And the weird thing is I look at all these characters that I’ve played over the years, I’ve always had to try to find some personal thing to relate to them, and their backstory is my backstory. I’ve lived a full life, and that’s my job. And so when I go to work, I just worry about being present, I don’t worry about the past.
Now, you’ve played a lot of cops and soldiers throughout your career. What do you do to keep each of those characters fresh?
You got to come at it as if they’re not a cop or a soldier. It’s not the occupation, it’s the human being.
What about just as an actor, what do you do to keep acting fresh for yourself?
That’s a good question. Yes. That is a constant struggle and that is the constant battle, you know. You don’t want to be repeating beats, you don’t want to be doing the same thing over and over again. And in the same way that your job as an actor is, if we’re talking about the backstory stuff, you need to be able to experience life to tell stories about life.
Well, I’m always growing as a person and changing. So if people watch the show and there’s an opportunity to do a second season of Hightown, it’s going to be a different Ray because I’ve changed since we shot [the first season]. It’s been a year, I’m a different human being, I’ve had a ton of different experiences since then. And so you just have to keep in touch with that and keep it alive and keep it new and keep it fresh, man…
That’s kind of why you don’t watch yourself as an actor. If you start watching yourself, two things can happen. The worst thing is, obviously, when you feel bad about yourself, it can be devastating… I’m my worst critic. I hate watching myself. The other trap is that you like it. Now you’re stuck in this subconscious loop, because you keep trying to do the same thing you were doing before because you thought it worked. But that’s all smoke and mirrors, man. Doesn’t exist.
Starring Monica Raymund, James Badge Dale, Shane Harper, Riley Voelkel, Amaury Nolasco, Atkins Estimond and Dohn Norwood, Hightown airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Starz.
James Badge Dale spoke to CBR about what attracted him to Hightown and why he was initially reluctant to play Ray Abruzzo.