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>Was it freezing cold when you filmed the swimming scene in The Tiger’s Tail?
It was 6am. But it was not that bad. We did that around September/ October and John insisted that was when the water was at its warmest after the summer. I really enjoyed it. Maybe I didn’t enjoy getting in the first or second time but it was really invigorating. John goes swimming in a river ever day, so he had no sympathy.
Your brother Frank was your double in the film.
We had a blast but he kind of horsed me around in that fight scene on the beach is younger and stronger than me and that is really hard to take. I was a bit worried about asking him to do it because some people might resent being asked to be your double knowing that you’d never see their face. But he was so up for it.
It becomes a beautiful scene.
That’s John. It is so difficult to pull that sort of thing off. It is one thing to see it written but it’s something else to make it happen. I found it quite moving the first time I saw it.
What about getting the subtle differences in the twins?
It was a tough one that. But they were beautifully written and distinct. I had to make sure I did not have two vastly different people…even though they look the same. That was the challenge. I tried to make them not so different with similar instinct as though they were similar souls that had gone in different directions. An actor would die for that kind of opportunity.
The film courageously discusses what is wrong with Ireland today. That might not have been well received in Ireland though?
Some people were very defensive. We wanted to throw the cards up in the air and we got them thrown back in our faces. I wondered whether we might have over-egged it – but that’s why I am fascinated to see what the reaction will be in Britain. I was slightly disillusioned by the reaction at home because I had thought that surely people would realise that these are questions that need to be asked.
The film makes the point that Ireland has partied and now the hangover has to kick in.
Everybody has eaten too much cake. We have stuffed ourselves at the party and now we have cake sickness. It is good for people to party and have a good time, that’s why life is about. But I think that the baby has been thrown out with the bath water. The sense of community has gone. So people need to ask questions. Like a lot of what John does, he gets it very early. I think it was too early for some people. But we had a general election recently and top of the agenda was health. I think John deserves fantastic credit. He has always been brave and iconoclastic and an unearther of unsavoury truths and he hit it right.
Your son plays your screen son in The Tiger’s Tail. What was that like?
He didn’t take much persuading. The only thing was that the film shoved back for a while and we ended up doing it right when he was doing his leaving certificate. I tried not to daddy him too much but he told me to relax, he’s very laid-back. He is a natural. I have total faith in him. But you just worry that the slings and arrows don’t take too much of a toll on him when they happen. He is great but John put him through the mill before he gave him the job. The character he plays is not a million miles away from him, in the sense he would think about world issues. But I am not sure if that is what most young people worry about. A lot of his generation want the shiny things. A lot of them are going along for the ride.
Why did you decide to do the Harry Potter series?
I only did one to begin with. Then they came back. I had such a good time and I thought it had integrity because of the way they treat their audience. I did not feel under pressure because they allowed me to sign up just for one. Also I don’t have a lot to do in his film or the next one – it was really about the first one that I did. I have no idea what is going to happen in the last book, but if it is really cool then I’d love to do it! But if it doesn’t happen for me I don’t mind.
What about doing Beowulf?
I love myth and legend but what hooked me was meeting Robert Zemeckis and hearing about the extraordinary process of making this film. They talked about Black Box Theatre – basically what they meant was that we dress up in these hideously embarrassing leotards with dots on your face and the cameras pick up all the details. These fantastic actors – Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone, John Malkovich – do the scene twice or three times in these leotards and that’s it. The only other real addition apart from actors was horses…everything else was chicken wire that they can turn into anything. It was like doing a play except that it was on camera and it was film acting. So for me it was less about making Beowulf but more about doing this process.
You are about to play Churchill which, as an Irishman, must feel strange?
He was going to wipe us out. [Referring to the time of Michael Collins] I was in the TV film The Treaty so I knew what it was like to be on the other side of the table from Churchill. I had to think about it a lot before doing this. After the first bad blitz when it’s asked if they would agree to a treaty to ban blanket bombing and he said the people of London would say no…do your worst and we ill do our best. He was the only person who could have stopped Hitler at that time and he achieved greatness in his resistance of him. This is the start of a journey for me. From the Irish point of you I have to confront my own bits of baggage. I am terrified that I might not get it right. I learned when I did The General with John that mimicry is not enough. I was obsessed with the sound and look of Martin Cahill and John said that was very good mimicry, but we had to go deeper.
But it is a big responsibility to do this and I want to do it right. He was more than a man he was the voice of a nation and he almost groomed the nation in how to respond. So there is that powerhouse of a presence and very real humanity. It is a fantastic acting challenge but really scary.