Martin McCann gives a great performance in the new Irish film 'Swansong - Story of Occi Byrne'. Directed by Conor McDermottroe, it follows the journey of Austin 'Occi' Byrne (McCann), a troubled youth railing against the locals' contempt in a small Irish town. The Belfast-born actor, whose other credits include Richard Attenborough's 'Closing the Ring' and the award-winning HBO series 'The Pacific', talks to Harry Guerin about his work.
Harry Guerin: How did you end up working on 'Swansong…'?
Martin McCann: I did a short film not long after 'Closing the Ring' for a Dublin director, Simon Fitzmaurice, called 'The Sound of People'. It was a brilliant film, brilliant director. The actor Alan Rickman, I think he was at Sundance [Film Festival] and he happened to see it. He was friends with Conor McDermottroe ['Swansong...' director] and I think Alan phoned Conor up and said, 'Look, I think I've seen a young Irish actor that you might want to consider putting in 'Swansong...'.
HG: So you met up.
MMC: So Conor McDermottroe discovered my name, searched for me and found my agent. We met up. He was in Sligo and I was in Belfast so we arranged to meet halfway in Enniskillen - he'd drive north and I'd drive south. We sat in a little coffee shop, had a coffee, had a chat and I gave him my ideas and opinions on who I thought the character was and so on and so forth. And the rest is history.
HG: With a character like Occi Byrne you can take him anywhere because of the range of emotions he goes through.
MMC: That was it. As an actor you always want to get some sort of character arc. Conor was really kind to me. He gave me a lot of free rein with this character. Conor's a fantastic director, very kind. He gave a brilliant atmosphere on set. He was never in a bad mood and always very positive and very passionate about this project, which was a one-man show that he toured with. So to write a one-man show and to take that one-man show from what was him on stage to making a feature film out of it with over 40 members in the cast... Not many people could do that and he really put a lot of blood and sweat and guts into the material.
HG: With Occi was there a moment when your idea of who the character was became crystal clear?
MMC: As a young man - obviously Occi's a similar age to myself -you have worries and problems and fears and anxieties that you have to conquer. Obviously my fears and anxieties wouldn't be as extreme as what Occi has had to overcome. I tried to put as many of my own problems into this character as I could and tried to make him as believable as I could. It's just a rollercoaster ride of emotions. The boy's really, really confused inside and really damaged and really hurt. I tried to bring as much of that across to the screen as I possibly could. Obviously it was important to try to make him likeable, because in the film he does so many horrible things. But I tried my best not to make him a dislikeable character.
HG: He's like a walking time bomb.
MMC: You can see that he has a good heart, but his impulses... His intentions are in the right place, but a man isn't judged by his intentions: he's judged by his actions. Unfortunately Occi's actions are all wrong but his intentions are all right.
HG: One thing that shines through in your performance is that you'd make a great villain.
MMC: [Laughs] Thank you very much. I've auditioned for a few. I played Alex in 'A Clockwork Orange' on stage. I enjoy playing a bad boy as well as a good guy. Pass the word to some directors out there!
HG: You worked with Richard Attenborough on 'Closing the Ring'. He was a phenomenal actor who could play the good guy and the very scary guy.
MMC: Richard brought a whole lot of complexity to anything he did. If you're the type of actor who can show the inner cogs working without saying too much, I think you can put your hand to the good guy or the bad guy. It's what people don't know or what people are trying to discover in a character that's interesting.
HG: When Attenborough played the serial killer in '10 Rillington Place' he was terrifying.
MMC: The 'beauty' of it is the fear of the everyday, the normal guy - it's just what's behind the eyes occasionally. It's like in 'Jaws': they very rarely show you the shark, so your mind imposes, 'This is a massive shark and it's everywhere'. But they very rarely show you the shark. With a bad guy or a villain or any sort of character what you try to do is try to make the audience decide what type of person you are without trying to say too much or give too much away. It's all in the mind, all in the inner cogs.
HG: You were a part of the biggest TV event of the year, starring in the World War II series 'The Pacific'. Now that it's all over how do you feel about it?
MMC: I feel just very proud to have been involved in it. I was really the only European actor in it. Looking back on it now I think, 'They could've picked any old sod and they picked me'. I feel lucky. Every day was very different. There were tough days, there were great days. I got to experience Australia and I got to work really hard on it. I learnt a lot from it and I still keep in touch with the guy who I played, RV Burgin [World War II veteran], who's 89 years of age. I'm going to Texas very soon to meet him.
It was fantastic meeting [producers] Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks and just great that those guys saw something in me or whatever and trusted me to come along onboard this huge project and learn a lot and experience a lot. While I was doing 'The Pacific' it was the be all and end all, but now looking back it was just another job.
HG: As a viewer I think an actor carries around a tool box from role to role and keeps adding tools to it.
MMC: With every job, with every performance that you do, you leave that job with the realisation that you actually didn't know that much before you started it. [Laughs] With that in mind and with that mentality, I think all you can do is develop yourself as an actor and grow. An actor will constantly develop and constantly grow. The day that they do a film and think, 'Ok, well that's perfect. I can't get any better than that' is the day they need to start worrying about their career.
HG: We'll see you in cinemas next year in 'Killing Bono', the new film about the very early days of U2 in which you play Bono. Was it great fun making it?
MMC: Brilliant fun. I got to work with Pete Postlethwaite, which was lovely. That was the third project I did with him and he's a very dear friend of mine. I love him greatly. I got to work with some fantastic talent. Nick Hamm is a great director and I think we really have a really, really good film on our hands.
HG: Are there particular actors or performances that have inspired you in your career?
MMC: What really taught me about screen acting, and I suppose the difference between screen acting and theatre acting, was Robert De Niro's performance in 'Once Upon a Time in America'. And like I say the words in a performance aren't that important - they're just to get the objective of the story across - but what really is important is what's going on inside the actor - the cogs turning. I think that Robert De Niro does that unbelievably in 'Once Upon a Time in America'. It was really watching his performance and the stillness - his ability to do nothing and yet do everything.
I remember watching it as a kid around one Christmastime in 1990 or 1991. It was a big, long film and I was very, very young and I remember thinking, 'My God, that's a proper actor. And maybe one day if I...' I wanted to be a pilot or an actor at that age. And I thought, 'If I ever give a performance like that I'd be a very, very happy man'.
I suppose that's what kind of drove me to get into screen acting and to want to learn what it was and discover it for myself and to better myself and to get to that point. I'll never get to the point of Robert De Niro, but I'll certainly try to get to the point that I can be at. I know what I want and I know what I want to do. I want to work with brilliant people and be a part of brilliant projects and be proud of what I've done. And the most important thing is to have a life experience while doing it.
'Swansong - Story of Occi Byrne' is in cinemas now.