There are many scenes that propel the movie “Spotlight” from your basic based-on-real-life drama to transcendent emotional gut punch, right through to the closing credits that list the breadth and depth of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal unearthed by the investigative reporting team at The Boston Globe.
During yet another rewatch of the film by this relatively new Globie, whose appreciation for the Spotlight team was awakened by the 2015 Best Picture winner at the Oscars, there is one understated moment that falls just in the middle of the movie whose resonance suddenly pops in a new, delightfully unexpected way.
In it, actor Brian d’Arcy James, portraying investigative reporter Matt Carroll, has just discovered that a house only blocks away from his own home in West Roxbury is actually one of the “treatment centers” the church is using to house relocated predatory priests. James is seen charging through the dimly-lit streets until he finds the location, and the subtle yet powerful mix of sadness, shock, and fear on his face as he stares at the house is perfectly capped when he simply says, “no frickin’ way.”
The moment is so well done — an interview with Carroll confirms both how it happened and how diligently James worked to get it right — and deserves to stand out for that reason alone. But now, with James heading to town to run the Boston Marathon, it pops even more, memorable not only for an actor whose skills are so varied he’s been nominated for three Tony awards and is a Broadway stalwart, but for an avid runner who is about to tackle a longer and much more challenging run through the Boston suburbs than the one we see in the movie.
“This will be my fourth marathon but my first Boston,” James said in a Friday afternoon phone call, his training regimen tapering down and his excitement building up. After qualifying for Boston from a race time in Chicago (which he’s run twice while taking on the New York marathon once), James was forced to hit the pause button along with the rest of the world because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A personal bout with the virus also knocked him out of commission for a while, but with gratitude for a relatively manageable case that ravaged so many of his Broadway colleagues, he returned to the road with newfound appreciation for the role running plays in his life.
“It’s a stupid revelation I had, and maybe I sound so dumb,” he said. “I think probably most marathon runners do think a lot about the actual run, but as corny as it sounds, maybe it’s a philosophy for life, the marathon is only one day of running. It’s obviously the day, but you can never discount the fact that you spent 18 weeks of your life doing this thing. You realize, I’ve already run the marathon. That’s the effort.
“For me, with COVID, with the state of the world, with wanting to have a literal kind of stepping out into the world, doing something that makes you feel like you can face a challenge and overcome it, it’s a metaphor appropriate for where we are in the world.”
In other words, just being there is going to feel like a win.
“I think the people that are there feel the same way,” he said. “There’s something about the part of the runner and the supporter that there’s respect on both sides, an acknowledgment of what’s happening. Both things are necessary. From my personal experience, every person that’s out there, ringing a cowbell, holding a sign, sharing a high-five, it really means a lot to the runners.”
Runners who will take every bit of help they can get to conquer Boston’s notorious hills. For James, that meant spending much of his training time at a home in Connecticut rather than his primary one in New York City, acclimating himself to the type of peaks and valleys that can’t wait to get Boston runners in their clutches. They didn’t have those in Central Park, or even back in his youth in Michigan, where team sports like basketball and baseball are what kept him occupied.
“Especially on long runs, I’ve done a lot of hill work and that’s very new to me,” James said. “I’m hoping that the work that I’ve done in that regard is going to pay off for those five miles in Newton. I feel also like being aware, really aware, and it’s the same for every marathon, to watch the pace at the beginning, don’t overextend, and not have gas at the end. I’m literally training myself to not get ahead of myself time-wise, to have some gas for that little incline.”
Heartbreak Hill, by any other name, is the course’s toughest test. But the challenge is part of the fun.
“My history with Boston goes back to growing up as a kid, my sister went to Boston College, and we took a trip out east when I was in eighth grade,” James said. “It was the first real big city I’d been to. Once you experience something that captures your imagination that way, it’s stamped in your head and heart. And then, of course, the ‘Spotlight’ experience was so huge for me as well. I’ve worked there, I’ve lived there, I just love that city. To run it in this auspicious event is beyond cool to me.”
Even cooler than the few blocks he traversed in that key Spotlight moment, one that in real life, saw Carroll discover it was the home of a specifically implicated priest, John Geoghan, that was in his neighborhood. “I told the writer that, and they said ‘no one is going to believe that Geoghan lived right around the corner from you,’ so they changed it to a treatment center,” Carroll said. “They actually de-sensationalized it.
“But that scene is absolutely true. I was still relatively new to the neighborhood, I saw the address, and I walked there. It was a little bit further than they showed in the movie, but not much, maybe two minutes rather than 30 seconds. And I put a picture of Geoghan on my fridge. I had four young kids at the time, and I wrote a sign saying ‘if you see this guy, run the other way.’”
As it happens, Carroll is a runner too, but as much as James got details right like the ubiquitous pair of glasses hanging around Carroll’s neck or the ever-present Dunkin’ cup by his side, the actor has taken running to greater heights.
“I am a very humble runner, my three miles in the morning three or four days a week, and I measure my time by a sundial,” Carroll laughed. “Tell Brian I’m going to be very disappointed if he doesn’t win.”