James McDaniel Emerges As a Versatile Talent

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

HIS foot is chained to a stone wall, and his range of movement is a 7-foot radius. For actor James McDaniel, that is the greatest challenge in playing a hostage in the Frank McGuinness play "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me" on Broadway.

"It was the verbal nature of this play, being chained there, that doesn't give us many options. The variety comes in your face and upper body," he explains, relaxing in a flannel shirt and jeans in his dressing room at the Booth Theatre here. He is the American in a trio of hostages that includes an Irishman (Stephen Rea) and a Brit (Alex McCowen), who are imprisoned in a basement in the Middle East.

"There's a great deal of interplay and telepathy that goes on between us," he adds, explaining that the three use humor, confession, and limited physical activity to keep themselves going.

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Although there is no particular plot reason for it, the character was specifically written by Irish playwright McGuinness as a black man. "I was very released by the fact that [the character is] an American and kept looking for the `whammy' - the Irish version of what a black American is supposed to be." McDaniel notes how black actors are attuned to this process, looking for race-specific characters to be selling drugs or toting large boom-box radios.

"If you're writing, and you don't know specifically what a black American is, write the human being, and I'll take care of him being black."

McDaniel has been savvy enough to choose diverse roles during the last 10 years. Now in his early 30s, the Washington, D.C., native began doing small stage roles in New York and moved into television and film work about seven years ago, picking up credits on several shows including "L.A. Law," "Cop Rock," "Hill Street Blues," "Kate & Allie," and "Gabriel's Fire." He admits, "my career choices have been so scattered, totally unpremeditated. I feel, though, that I haven't been put in a pigeonhole."

The actor also has the rare distinction of having worked with Woody Allen and Spike Lee. As the staunch Brother Earl in Lee's film "Malcolm X," McDaniel exhibits the full range of his skills in a part that keeps him onscreen during the latter half of the three-hour picture.

In contrast, he appears in only one scene of Allen's "Alice," but the experience was no less memorable. "To tell you the truth, when I first got the call to do it, I was surprised. You don't see many black people in a Woody Allen film," McDaniel says.

The director chose him for a party sequence and had no real script for the scene. McDaniel invented some action involving a business card that drove him to the front of the ensemble, a bit that got Allen laughing and led to the part being expanded.

Preparation for the Brother Earl part required extensive research into the history of Malcolm X, the Muslim faith, and the United States during those years. "I am a bit of a research fanatic," he confesses. In both instances, it was his personal initiative that helped distinguish him from other actors.

McDaniel recalls that "there were a lot of similarities" in working with two of this country's most outstanding writer-director-actors. Both expected their actors to be fully prepared and ready to improvise when required. Like Allen, Lee told McDaniel to invent a small patch of dialogue to introduce a scripted section. "That's where having all your homework ready makes a difference," he says.

His observations of overseas television programs while traveling have led him to conclude that "American television is so commercial. It should be allowed to experiment...." McDaniel points to the much-criticized "Cop Rock," in which he was a featured player, as an example. The show, no longer on the air, combined police drama with musical numbers.

"We were trying to cut a record and do an hour television show for each episode, which had never been done before," he says of the Stephen Bochco-produced series. "I feel like we weren't given a chance, because the budget numbers were so big. The project was so ambitious. The audience was really into the story. It would still be on now if it had been a straight dramatic story." He dodges discussion about rumors that he's been tapped to appear in Bochco's revamped "Hill Street Blues."

He will confirm, however, an interest in directing and producing; he points with pride to his work as a director on New York City's Fifty-Second Street Project, which introduces theater to audiences who do not ordinarily attend live theater.

For his current gig, McDaniel maintains his physical stamina through a strict warm-up routine before each performance of "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me," partly because the script calls for his character to do 150 push-ups every night.

"I find that it's very necessary to keep myself in good physical condition. I never know when I could be asked, while shooting a movie, to run two miles. You don't want to be thinking about running that two miles while you're trying to act."

He says he was pleased to learn that former hostage Terry Anderson had been to see the previous night's performance. Anderson told the producers that the play captured many of the actual experiences of being confined. Then McDaniel readies himself again for a round of push-ups, to prepare for the performance ahead.

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