James Badge Dale provides the wounded heart of “Parkland,” a film about the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination that unfolds with a documentary-like procession.
Zac Efron, Jacki Weaver, Paul Giamatti and others may have their names above the title in the film’s posters, but it is the largely unknown Dale who has earned the strongest reviews for his portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother, Robert Oswald.
“Parkland,” opening Friday, also gives the perspective of the doctors who operated on the president and Abraham Zapruder, the man who famously photographed the killing.
The role is a showcase for Dale’s gifts, and a change of pace after a summer in which the actor made a series of memorable supporting turns in big-budget productions like “The Lone Ranger,” “Iron Man 3” and “World War Z.”
TheWrap spoke with Dale while he was on a break from his role in the Off-Broadway production of “Small Engine Repair,” probing what drew him to “Parkland” and why he thinks the timing is right to re-examine one of the most traumatic events in American history.
Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Beyond that calendar event, why do you think this is an opportune time to make a film like this?
It’s important to revisit history at all costs, at any time. I suppose it’s convenient because of the 50th anniversary, but we always need to look back in order to learn from the past. So we don’t forget what’s happened and how it has impacted us culturally and how it impacted people personally.
It’s one of the few days that everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when it happened, and you only get a few of those in life.
Is it difficult to play not only a real person, but a person like Robert Oswald, who is still alive?
That adds another layer to it certainly. In our case, Robert decided that he did not want to be contacted and I respected that. Fortunately, there have been a lot of books written about the circumstances around that day, and Robert himself wrote a book based on a diary he kept during that time and that book became my totem.
Why do you think Robert Oswald decided to stay in Dallas after the assassination? That couldn’t have been an easy decision.
I don’t want to put words in his mouth. I respect the man and I just want to treat his story with empathy, and I approached the role with love for him and his family. My job was that 48 hour period of time, beyond that, I have nothing to add.
Were you partly motivated to take the role to convey what it must be like to be the brother or the mother or the child or the spouse of a person who commits a heinous act like Lee Harvey Oswald did?
That’s a dangerous world to get into. It’s putting the cart in front of the horse to say what you’re trying to convey, but that was the part that attracted me the most about the role. It was a role I just gravitated to, because of his relationship with his mother and his brother. It was a fascinating set of circumstances and circumstances that no one should have to be in.
“The Lone Ranger” got a brutal response from critics and audiences. Do you think the negative reaction was fair?
I feel like people misunderstood the film. That film was beautiful and it was the one we wanted to make. I think it may look different in five or ten years from now. I will say that in time, I think it will be hard to argue that it was not well-crafted.
Everyone has their own opinions, and I can’t tell any one that they were wrong, but I do know that it was one job that was very special and I worked with some lovely people.
You’ve been very busy on screen lately: Why are you returning to the stage?
I’m still green to it, I’m still new to it. I’ve done a lot more films than stage work, so I’m not as comfortable in that world. I’m still rough around edges. But it’s important to change things up. I grew up around theater actors and they swore by the theater. They’d tell me, “if you’re not doing one play a year you’re wasting away. Your tool kit will get rusty and will get dull.”
I feel really fortunate to be here and to be doing this show, which is a very dark and intense and funny one act of a play. It’s a bowling ball that’s rolling down hill and it’s going to break some things.
A recent Entertainment Weekly profile noted that you have a tendency to play characters who die. Why do you think you have such a low survival rate on screen?
I made it through “Parkland,” so I guess I’m doing better.