Q: I have to admit, I had no idea you were Irish. Being a solid pro... But I had no idea because the big break was 300 and it turns out you were faking the plummy accent.
A: Yeah, well I think, especially when you're doing period pieces of that nature, you know, the old Roman period, or the Spartan one in that case, what's good about the RP is that it's a neutral sort of accent that I think allows you to escape into that world a lot better than regional accents.
Q: As per the Alexander debacle.
A: I was just thinking of that. I appreciate the thinking behind it it's kind of like the Irish being the Macedonians, being the more savage element of the empire, but yeah... As you say, you've got to admire the choice but I find it's most effective when it's a neutral accent. I think it worked pretty good for 300.
Q: Six hundred million dollars worth of people would agree. It's like the twentieth highest grossing film of all time or something, right?
A: I don't know but it's mad. It's great when you do a film that makes that amount of money because it does allow you to get into rooms that you might not otherwise have been able to do before it.
Q: Before we go there, let's start with Hunger. I want to ask about Steve McQueen you have to be so physically committed to this role, how does he convince you to go along with it when, as a first time director, there's no guarantee he can pull it off?
A: I thought all of that when I read the script to begin with, you know? And I hadn't met Steve, but five minutes in a room with Steve and you realise that you're going to learn something from the guy, you know? So as soon as I met him, the first thing that struck me was that he's got this humanity about him. He's got a real human touch and he's very awake to, just, human struggle and basically he takes on board the responsibility that we have for each other. The last art exhibition that he was doing before we started filming Hunger was the Stamps. He had this art exhibition that was about all the dead soldiers in Iraq were on the Queen's stamp. So he was telling me about this in the first meeting that we had and I thought, 'Here's somebody who really takes it onboard the whole responsibility of a war and death and human struggle.' So as soon as I met him I was like, 'God, I'm going to learn something from this guy.' And you can ask any actor on Hunger, whether they did half a day or they were working for the full shoot, he's just, and I don't use this sort of word lightly, but I think the guy's a genius, you know? He just has a way of communicating; everything that he does, all his senses are involved he's smelling things, he's touching things, he's listening to things. He's a pretty exceptional person.
Q: Had he gone out there and taken the temperature in Ireland as to how Bobby Sands was seen?
A: Yeah, you know, he will take everything on board. The fact that we filmed there he wanted to film it there. And the fact that he was working on the project three years before I even met him. He'd been back and forth to the Maze prison. There is a huge respect... He has a huge respect for people and he doesn't do things half-heartedly. So I knew that it was going to be handled with the right sensitivity.
Q: What kind of regimen did you then put yourself through? Once you've come on board, what kind of process did you do to get ready?
A: Well the first thing is to get the accent together and also to work on the script: that 22/23-minute dialogue piece, I just worked on that over and over.
Q: When you say the accent, this is regional..?
A: Yeah if you're doing, like, a Belfast accent...
Q: What's your accent now?
A: Well I grew up in the South, right down the other end of the country. The first thing is that especially lots of films get made about Northern Ireland, and a lot of the times the accents are pretty bad. Again, you burst the bubble of illusion in the most sort of basic way. It's hard to get past that if it's really jarring. So, and again, for the people that live there you want to get that right. But you can't have a spot on, thick Belfast accent because maybe not everyone around the world is going to understand you. So getting it to the point where it's authentic but there's clarity there. And then the weight loss was a 10-week diet that I had structured out, which was basically a thousand calories a day, and then I got it down to about 600, 700 a day for the last four weeks.
Q: How did that make you feel, physically?
A: I felt very strong, actually. There was about two weeks of insomnia, I suppose about three weeks into it, which was probably the most uncomfortable couple of weeks. And then I felt really focussed, really centred, really strong hungry all the time, obviously. The worst is when... Because what I would do is just have some berries and some nuts during the day, but very little during the day and what I would try and do is push my dinner as far out as possible; maybe push it out to seven o' clock at night. But it would only be like a tin of sardines and a little salad. So the problem is when you eat those sardines and that salad, your hunger just wakes up. You want to sit down and eat a steak, but you've got to stop.
Q: I've been sick for two days and not been able to eat, and that's all I could think about. But that's in two days...!
A: I know. I mean, the thing is you go through phases and you definitely do. The problem is... I did it over in America, decided to get out of here, which was a really good idea because it was winter time so to have blue skies every day really helps a lot, and you're not cold so the hunger thing doesn't really kick in as badly as it would here.
Q: Was that a personal thing or did the film pay?
A: No, I said I'd go over there and do that. They gave me a certain amount of money towards that weight loss period, but yeah, I mean, the thing is with American TV, there's food on the... You realise how often food is on TV when you're not eating it, you know? But the really interesting this is when you get rid of all the excess. You know, we live in this society where nowadays if I want something I take it, I eat it it's so easy and readily available. So when you take all that away, you actually reach... You actually become more appreciative of things around you and it gives you much more... I have to say, I mean, I don't want to do it again, but there is a level where it humbles you in a good way.
Q: Is it dangerous?
A: It is but I had gone to a doctor and I had seen a nutritionist. I knew what the cut-off point was. I knew I could get down to 58 kilos, and then you enter into some dangerous territory regarding the kidneys and various other organs. I got down to 59, so I knew that it was safe within that range. And back in the day, people used to do these fasts, you know? Pilgrimages and what not. I always kept it safe.
Q: You had a CGI six-pack in 300 but they couldn't just..?
A: CGI? What're you talking about, man? That wasnt CGI.
Q: Are you claiming the whole thing was... Your six-pack was genuine?
A: They can't spend CGI on people, because that would cost a fortune. But what they did do was they shadowed with paint. But that's 10 weeks of sit-ups there, my man.
Q: Emotionally as well for Hunger, there's a parallel perhaps with Heath Ledger who was consumed emotionally, so we're told, by his role as the Joker. Was Bobby Sands the kind of role that you were wary of disappearing into? Are you worried about the blurring of boundaries?
A: Not really, to be honest. When I go into work I'm there for 12 hours or whatever it is, you know? I think I learned pretty early on that I don't like to go home and beat myself up after a day's work. I like to prepare myself well, and obviously there's things that you do and afterwards you think, 'Shit, I could have done that better or differently!' But, no. I leave work when I leave work because otherwise you just... I think that the danger of this business, especially acting, is that you can really start to self-obsess, and then you become disinteresting, as a person and as an artist or a performer or whatever you want to call it. The only thing was that I wanted to make sure I got it right. I knew we'd done really good work before I went off to diet, so I didn't want to let that last part of the film down.
Q: What kind of perceptions, or maybe prejudices, about Bobby Sands do you think you brought to the role?
A: Well in Ireland we all know the history. The history of the country is very important anyway when you're schooling. And then, of course, my mum's from the north and we'd be going up and down at regular intervals when I was younger to visit relatives and cousins. So it's always been part of my life, being Irish in that sense. But we weren't very political at home I knew the struggle, I knew about the blanket protests, I knew about the hunger strike but obviously when you start studying it, you start to look into all the details of it. I was worried, you know, I didn't want to spark any trouble. Obviously that's a worry when you do a film like this. But thankfully the majority of the people that have seen it seem to see it more as a human story than a political story, which is nice.
Q: What research did you do?
A: I met people that were in prison with him; I met people that were on the blanket protest, and somebody who was on the hunger strike itself. There was quite a few books on the topic that I read, and then you just kind of take all that information and then almost throw it away and go back to the script and just work on what's in the script.
Q: It's interesting that you met one of the other guys on the hunger strike. One of the big questions the film raises is whether Sands was a martyr, in it for his own ends. But then when it comes to the hunger strike, he's the only face we see. Is that the film's hypocrisy, or the film undermining Sands' own hypocrisy?
A: I don't really know. I mean, you'd have to ask Steve and Edna why they chose that, but I think it avoids confusion. The film is introduced in the first act, you see the conditions under the blanket protest. When the next phase comes in, which is the hunger strike, maybe it's clearer for the audience to see one man doing it. It's explained that other people are going to follow on the hunger strike afterwards. But it might have diluted this sort of human story because the idea is why one person would use their own body as a weapon against the system, and what the motivations of that would be. And the whole scene with the priest is the devil's advocate; both points are put across very well, so it's down to the audience to see. This film involves an audience you're not allowed to sit there with your popcorn and not get involved. What's interesting about that priest character is it gives the moral question about what he was doing is it suicide or is it murder? And you need somebody to be throwing something back at him in order to get a debate on the topic and for the audience to actually question and to say, 'That guy's got a point there. He's got a point here.' You have both areas because it leaves you with more of a grey area that you have to try and understand yourself.
Q: From an outsider's perspective, do you think the Brits are ready to hold up their hands and admit to the way we were treating Irish prisoners?
A: Look, you know, I don't think it's an Irish or a British thing. It's difficult because this happens all over the world, you know? All human beings treat each other... And whether one side is right or one side is wrong, nobody really knows how to deal with it. So it's not that blame should be apportioned to anybody, it's just that, it's basically that we're all responsible for each other, and to have a respect for humanity. You know, the orderly at the end, the character William who's played by Lalor Roddy, is a great character because it's a bridge. He's somebody who's from the other side of the fence, yet he wants to make Bobby's decline as comfortable as he can make it possible because he has a respect for this man, and feels for him. And I think that's an important character in the piece. It's just, you know, it's what's happening with people blowing themselves up suicide bombers. It's using your own body as a weapon against whatever system you're fighting, whether that's what's happening in Guantanamo Bay. We're all responsible.
Q: You were talking about Irish history, but I reckon in the UK, not that many people in the street, especially anybody under the age of 30, not many would know who Bobby Sands was. But more than that, the history of our relationship with Ireland isn't really told.
A: No, it's interesting, I've had this conversation with friends, English friends. And it's funny because I find London probably the most tolerant city in Europe, and I find English people very tolerant on the whole to be honest. It's funny that it' not taught in school because, you know, the one thing in Ireland, you have to learn about where you from. And the thing is basically England was a superpower, and any superpower is going to exploit minor countries, that just happens across the board everywhere. But I think knowledge is important, and I think people should learn because what happened was the IRA started bombing here in the '60s or '70s, and people were like, 'Who are these guys?' That's not to say what they were doing was right or wrong, but to know where they come from is important, and the history and what happened and the relations between England and Ireland because we are neighbours, you know? It's important to know your own country's history. And I don't think there should be embarrassment we've all done bad things. The Irish, we killed a lot of our great heroes in Ireland. Shane O'Neill was killed by a rival clan, and Michael Collins was killed by the IRA. So the thing in Ireland is, it's always been tribal.
Q: Looking at IMDb, it turns out you're in every single film coming out this year.
A: Am I? Okay!
Q: What keeps you busy?
A: Well, you know, I spent a lot of time out of work so now I'm trying to make hay while the sun is shining. It just so happens that all these films are getting released around the same time. You know, I did them at different times of the year.
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