James Madio is a veteran actor from the Bronx. His long career includes roles alongside Robin Williams in the Steven Spielberg classic Hook, as Pedro in Basketball Diaries and as Sergeant Frank J. Perconte in HBO’s seminal miniseries Band of Brothers.
What made you want to become an actor?
When we were younger, my father used to bust out the video camera and make us do these little funny skits with me and my sisters. He’d make me imitate Elvis or Michael Jackson and we would just have a good time. For family time, instead of watching TV, we’d just pull out the video camera. When I was thirteen, my father [knew of a] manager who represented kids. He said, “Hey, I’d like to bring my son down see what she thinks.” I went in and she had me read a Smucker’s commercial, who are always like, “Hey, I like Smucker’s jam and jelly because it makes me happy!” You’ve got to smile and look like a happy kid. I went in and did it totally like Bronx, New York style. I remember her telling me and my father, “Well, he’s very specific, I’m not so sure that he’s going to work as much as you’d like.” Then, about a month later, we got a call from her saying that I had an audition for a film called Hook that’s a Spielberg film. That was my first audition and I booked it. I just remember meeting Steven and that was it. That was my intro into the business: a lot of luck.
I don’t think any of the kids, or at least the Lost Boys, knew what we were getting into until you got to the set and saw how big it was. Never Never Land and the pirate ship. I just remember a lot of big A-list actors showing up with their kids just to see the set, like it was a theme park. It was pretty cool. It felt like you were at a theme park every day at work. You go get makeup, grab some cool little equipment, go skateboarding, play basketball, shoot darts and water guns and food fights. It was a lot of fun.
I also remember Hoffman talking to my father and saying, “Hey, do you mind if I introduce James to somebody?” My father said, “Yeah, sure, of course.” Hoffman introduced me to these two producers, Laura Ziskin and Joe Caracciolo. He told them, “Hey, I’d like this kid to play my son in my next movie.” And that was it. I went right to my second studio film. No audition. I got a nice intro into this industry.
What’s been your biggest fear?
My family and the future of my family. That’s my recent fear. I just got married three years ago and my baby’s two, so that’s the most recent fear. But before, to be honest, I really didn’t have any fear. I always looked ahead, I always had faith and I always thought that something would come my way and more breaks would happen. If I just kept my nose clean, kept my contacts and was very friendly with people, I’d continue to work. I’d like to tell you that my fear would be never to work again or failure, but I never was really afraid of that. Now with my wife and kid, the stakes are higher because I have to provide for family. To do that, I have to find longevity and stability within this career.
What was your lowest point?
After Basketball Diaries, I did very well in the indie market. That’s when festivals were first starting to come on to the scene. We were at Sundance for Basketball Diaries. After that, I started to take acting a little more seriously. I wanted to work more. This is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I made that decision at nineteen and with it came a lot of rejection. I thought I was going to work a lot more and I thought my career was going to take this shift, and it didn’t. It actually went the other way. I just remember not having representation shortly after that movie and not auditioning. Just hanging out with friends, drinking in the park and doing an odd job. It was one of the first and pretty much only “regular” job that I’ve ever taken. I did plumbing with my brother-in-law and I just remember just working a lot of hours, being dirty and sweating. Which is fine. Some people are built for that and I wouldn’t knock that. I have a lot of friends and family that work very hard. But for me, that was probably the most difficult time. For about a year, I didn’t work and I had to just find jobs and ways to make ends meet. It was just a low time in my career. That’s happened a few times throughout my career. There’s been these lows that were very difficult. Even after Band of Brothers. I came out swinging and went right to a show called Queens Supreme with Oliver Platt and Robert Loggia. But after that, I didn’t work for a year and a half. I lived in Manhattan and I had really high expenses. Then, I had to learn how to budget and manage. That comes with the territory if you want to do this for a long time. It is a marathon. It’s not a race. You’re not trying to win this in a year or two.
What kept you from walking away?
The one thing that I have always known, what I’ve always hung my hat on, is that I believe that I’m good at what I do. As long as I just keep reinventing myself, from being a kid to a teenager to an adult who can now be a math teacher, a father, a policeman – all while staying sharp and focused and loving what I do. That’s what motivates me to keep going. There have been many times throughout the twenty-five years where, although I haven’t thought about quitting and following another path, I’ve slightly second guessed myself and thought, “How I’m going to survive?” But I always just hang my hat on that one hook and go, “Well, you’re good at what you’re doing, so just keep on going.”
Who was your closest ally?
I’ve had a few close allies. I’ll give you two. The one that’s always been there in this business for me, always checked in and given me great ideas and insight, and has driven me, is my father. My father’s always been behind me and pushed me to do more. Another one of my allies is AJ Buckley. We definitely push each other to do better and be better. To focus on the work. The only way you’re going to succeed for a long time is to be good at what you do. You’ve got to practice and continue to work on material, read scripts and collaborate with people who are hungry and putting out good material. AJ is one of them. We definitely push each other.
Outside of those two, the whole Band of Brothers family are tremendous allies to me. We’re still friends. We have our Bands of Brothers reunion once a year and we check up on each other and check each other. We make sure that everyone’s focused and taking care of each other and being there for each other’s family.
What were you doing before an audition that changed your life?
Before Hook, I was this thirteen-year-old kid on the street just playing some handball and cutting up in school, probably chasing girls. Before Diaries, it was pretty much the same thing. I was hanging out in the park and not focusing and not worrying about my studies. Before Band of Brothers, that’s when I was probably the most focused. I was taking the time to really read the book, work out, get educated on the history of it all. I wanted to physically and mentally just be there for that audition. And for Band of Brothers, I actually had made the decision to move out here [to Los Angeles], so I was actually out here auditioning. I was in the grind, in the mix around actors, working on stage on some stuff and in acting school. I was ready to go out swinging. I took it very seriously.
What were the words that kept you going?
Something Robin said to the Lost Boys one time. He said to me on set, “Make sure that you spend less time in your dressing room and more time on the set learning the craft and learning the trade. Spend more time listening.” Those are words I’ve always remembered. Spend more time listening. And that’s what I did. I didn’t spend much time in my dressing room. I listened to what Robin said, which is basically “just pay attention.” That’s the honest truth. I’m not saying that because he’s not with us today. I say that because that’s the truth.
How do you think you have changed?
I’ve become more patient and more understanding with the process. I take rejection much better than I ever have. I understand it. I don’t wish any bad luck to anybody if someone wins the job over me. When you’re first starting out, it’s competitive. And it should always be competitive: that’s what’s going to make you better at what you do. I’ll always enjoy that part of it, but I’m definitely more understanding, more respectful and the rejection doesn’t get to me anymore at all.
What words do you have to inspire others?
In this business, you’ve got to be hungry. You’ve got to want to do this. Rely heavily on your instincts because they are going to be your best friend. If you struggle with false moments, and you don’t know how to rely on your instincts, it’s going to be a little bit of a ride for you. And I’m not sure that this business is for you.