As the Cheshire Cat in his second grade production of Alice in Wonderland, James Badge Dale killed. “It was a performance for the ages,” the 35 year-old actor willingly admitted during a recent chat. Three years later, he was in Jamaica running around in his underwear for his first professional film role—Simon in Lord of the Flies. Now in the midst of sit downs and interviews for his latest work, Dale is set to erase his most prominent “I know that face” credit as the guy who killed Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed. During the summer 2013 blockbuster season alone, Badge, as he prefers to be called, has roles in three $200 million behemoths. In Iron Man 3, he plays Guy Pearce’s henchman Savin, in World War Z, Captain Speke, a marine, and finally in The Lone Ranger, out just two weeks later, he plays Dan Reid, Armie Hammer’s older brother. During our conversation, Dale talked about those wild four months spent in the Jamaican jungle, the high standards he set when choosing his acting career, and the end of the world.
So do you think you’d survive the zombie apocalypse?
I’ve been telling people no. I’ve been telling people I’ve come to the conclusion, don’t fight it. I’ll just go out my front door and let my neighbors eat me. I don’t know what you really can do. I think they had the right idea in Shaun of the Dead, where people were pretty oblivious to the whole thing.
After making and seeing World War Z, do you understand people who have doomsday survival kits?
That’s a good question. How much of your life do you spend preparing for something that may or may not happen? What are you really getting out of it? If I build a bunker in my backyard and stockpile five years of canned soup, I don’t know if the quality of life is that great there, and I don’t know what you’re coming out of that bunker into.
It sounds like you’ve had an interesting two years—filming Lone Ranger and Iron Man 3 back to back. What was that like?
I mean, I went from standing on a moving train in the middle of the desert to literally a couple days later driving cross country and then I’m in a studio in North Carolina in front of a green screen stunting and wearing robot suits. It was a shock to my system. On my first day of Iron Man 3, Don Cheadle came up to me and he kind of talked me through it. It’s not like anything I’ve ever done before and he explained it wasn’t like anything he’d ever done before either. The idea was you’ve gotta play. You’ve gotta find your stimulation. You’ve gotta find all these things. When I was working on The Lone Ranger, I don’t want to say it was easier, but it’s there for you. If you’re standing on top of a moving train in the middle of the desert with the horses, and the dust, and the wind—it’s all right there for you. I’m looking around for your circumstances. If you’re working with green screen and you’re working with CGI, you really have to trust your imagination. In a way, it’s kind of freeing. Once you get over that initial shock, truth of the matter is, you can do whatever you want. There is no right or wrong.
If you could describe working on these big budget movies in one word, what would it be?
I think you said it, massive is the word. You see where they’re spending the money. It’s just big on every level. The food was a lot better too.
Obviously you’re in the midst of one of the biggest summers in your career. Why do you think its clicking now?
I try not to think about that. My mentality is I just go to work. I like what I do. Nobody planned it this way. I didn’t plan these three films to come out within three months of each other. You try to be careful with the roles you do and the characters you do and I was lucky enough to do three massive films, but they were very different. They’re three different films and I loved all three and I did them for different reasons, but they were all person reasons. I’m just trying to enjoy this moment and enjoy the people that I’ve worked with for over the last few years, and try to be proud of the work. And then you move on.
Let’s rewind to the beginning with your role in Lord of the Flies at age 10. Considering the tone and what happened your character—that experience sounds like a mind fuck.
I actually didn’t know how dark it was until I saw the film. Obviously I read the book, but a 10 year-old sees things in a different light. At 10 years old, you don’t have a sense of immortality. You don’t have a sense of the things you’re dealing with, and I think that’s the brilliance of the book. Here are these kids and the dark side of human nature is taking over them. And they don’t realize it. They’re not conscious about this. Quite honestly, I wasn’t quite conscious of it while we were filming. I enjoyed acting. Both my parents were in the theater, but I didn’t know it was a job. I fell into it. Literally a casting director came to our elementary school and just said, “We’re having an open call for this movie.” It never should have worked out like that, but it was one of those dumb luck things that did. I spent four months in Jamaica, running in underwear around the jungle with 20 dumb kids and no parents. We didn’t know what that was. It was quite an amazing experience, but I came back home after that and I thought that that was what I wanted to be doing. What I realized very quickly was that it’s work. It’s a job, and I didn’t want to do that. I came home at 10, 11 years old and I went on a few auditions and I came home and I was like, “What? This is crazy. I’m 10 years old. All I want to do is go down to the ice rink and play hockey with my best friends and skateboard a little bit.” I didn’t want to get up at 5 am and go to work.
But then you did eventually come back to acting. How did that happen?
In a funny way, hockey took me out of it when I was 10 years old and hockey brought me back to it when I was 21 or 22. I played hockey out in Utah for a few years and the only school that recruited me was in New York. I came back out to New York in ’99 and I got hurt. You know what? I conveniently got hurt. The truth of the matter was I wasn’t playing well either. All my energy went into theater. It was kind of a moment when I realized when I was on stage. I realized, “This is fun. I love this. I enjoy this and nobody’s punching me in the face. I think I could do this.”
You’ve got a pretty big movie coming out later this year. Tell me about your next project, Parkland.
It’s a film about the 48 hours between when JFK was assassinated and Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered. And it’s just a really different take on the circumstances. The film was written by a New York Times journalist, Peter Landesman, who also directed it. It’s very well researched and it’s very well executed and there’s an amazing DP and there’s a great cast. Tom Hanks produced it. I’m very proud of the film. It’s more of the human perspective. We’re not trying to make a political statement as far as conspiracies go. It’s about the people who were involved.
And you play Oswald’s older brother?
I play Robert Oswald. When I was looking at the script there were different roles and the one I really gravitated to was the story of Lee Harvey Oswald’s family—his mother and his older brother and how they were viewing this. I mean to wake up one day and to listen to the radio and to hear that your brother just shot the President of the United States or to have the mother who was driving in her car to listen to the radio and her son has shot the President of the United States. Then Jacki Weaver signed on to play the mother and it was a no brainer. I was like, “Jacki’s going to play Marguerite Oswald? I wanna hang out and be her son.”
World War Z is out June 21. For more on the film see the trailer below.