Actors Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, and Jim Norton pop off the screen in Ken Loach’s fictionalized account of the life of social activist Jimmy Gralton, the only Irishman to be deported from his own country as an “illegal alien,” without trial, in August 1933. Gralton’s crime: running a social hall where Irish men, women, and children studied Irish literature, painting, dance, and Gaelic, to the growing horror of Church and State. A highlight of the Tribeca Film Festival 2015. •Availability: Opens nationwide July 3. Check local listings for a theater near you. A Sony Pictures Classics release. •Thanks to Julie Chappell, Falco Ink and the Tribeca Film Festival for arranging this interview.•
DT: Ken Loach is known for not giving his actors the script in advance but rather giving out each scene the day before it’s shot. How did that work for you as actors?
BW: It’s very conducive to good, strong, natural performances. I’m all for it.
SK: You don’t get to overthink it, and you don’t worry about it. You don’t come in with this load of knowing where it’s going. You can only play what you know, so there’s a lightness about it.
JN: I once said to Ken, It would be nice to know more about where this character is going, but he said, In life you don’t know where you’re going.
DT: But in life you know who you are.
BW: No, you don’t. That’s an illusion.
JN: You know who you think you are.
SK: Before we started filming, we spent a couple of weeks researching and going around Ireland. Barry and I got to see our characters’ houses, and we all did a lot of research into the politics of the time, so we knew where the country was at, and then we had to make decisions about where our character’s heads were at. So you come having made a few choices, then, when you get your scene for the following day, you make choices as you go along.
JN: Often the way you play a scene decides what the next page of the script will be. Ken and Paul are watching and seeing what the actor’s offering up and in what direction you’re intuitively taking the character on his journey. Then they’ll say, Let’s go this way. It’s a very interesting way to work.
SK: He casts very carefully as well. It’s a really thorough casting process, where he takes on people who he thinks have a natural affiliation with the characters they’re playing, or a leaning toward the character they’re playing. For Jimmy’s Hall, he cast people who were real community players. Nobody was a diva.
JN: No time for that.
SK: He casts people who are quite like-minded, I think.
DT: Jim, let’s go back to something you said. I interviewed Paul Laverty [screenwriter, Jimmy’s Hall] for The Angel’s Share, and he said that the script is actually quite tight and there’s not a lot of improvisation—that it’s about 90 percent scripted.
JN: That’s partly true. It is scripted, but from my own experience, when I get to the end of a scene, Ken is standing behind the camera. Your third eye is watching him, and he’s going, “And…. and….” [indicating you’re to continue]. Often what you then add at the end of the scene is what he uses. I did a film with him years ago, called Hidden Agenda, and I played the head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Belfast. This man was going to a funeral, because some of his people had been murdered. He was wearing his whistle and the kind of special uniform he wore for these occasions, and I said to Ken, “Can you get me an expert and tell me how to do this properly so it looks like I know what I’m doing?” Ken said, “Yeah, he’s coming tomorrow.” This went on for four or five days. I finally said, “I’ve got to get this guy—I don’t know how to button this, and where does the whistle go, and what hat do I wear, and how do I hold the baton?” Ken simply said, “Let’s shoot it.” So they shot it. I was really upset because I didn’t know how to do it properly, but afterwards Ken said to me, “The man is going to a funeral. He’s lost five of his men. He wouldn’t remember what his name was.” So that’s the kind of genius that he brings: using the actor’s terror to let him present something really truthful.
KN: Or seeing where the wee flaws are and making them work, because that’s interesting. We watched him cut the film together.
JN: He had that old-fashioned cutting machine…a Steenbeck.
SK: They ran out of sound tape. Nobody makes it anymore, so Pixar sent them reels and reels. I went in about three or four times, and one day they were cutting the scene where Jimmy was in the hall, then comes out and sees everybody standing outside. Ken had about four takes and that was it. I thought that each take got more polished and looked better and better. Ken said to me, “Which do you prefer?” I said probably the third or fourth, and he said, “The first.” He said the later takes were too polished; it was too like actors by the time you got to the fourth take. He said, “In the first one, Barry [Ward] can’t quite get the door open. He has to push a little bit.” And I had thought it was so raw, where everybody’s making little mistakes and backing into each other.
JN: Mistakes are good. He loved Barry’s hesitation.
DT: It’s much more like his earlier films, like My Name Is Joe or Looking for Eric. Ken [Loach, director] and Paul [Laverty, screenwriter] and Rebecca O’Brien [producer] have worked together for a very long time. How was it working for a well-established team? You guys were sort of walking into a preestablished method.
BW: I thought it was confidence-inducing, and his method of depriving us of the script was less terrifying owing to the fact that this team has made such brilliant movies using these methods. I felt totally confident and in safe hands from day one, going on the movies that they’d made. I mean, there’s no bad performances in any of their movies.
SK: But they’re also the friendliest, most open sort of family. It’s not like there’s this little clique in the corner of people who know each other really well and you’re outside it. It doesn’t feel like that at all. They’re really open. They have great fun. Paul and Ken take the piss out of each other all the time. It’s really fun to watch.
JN: A huge generosity of spirit, and you’re included. I’ve just done a movie where after each take there were three producers on the floor as well as the director, and they would cover their mouths with their hands and whisper, and you think, They don’t like me. That would never happen with Ken and Rebecca and Paul because they’re just open. They’re wonderful. There’s no sense of being excluded from their coven of brilliance.
SK: And they’re really crazy about each other.
DT: How did Ken’s direction differ from other directors you’ve worked for?
JN: He gives the actors so much freedom. Even though the script is tight, he encourages you to stretch it and play with it. In the end, he’s the sole arbiter; he will decide what he wants, but he gives you great freedom to, as he says, “offer things up.” Of course we all trust him and we all love him, so it’s a lovely experience.
SK: He also shoots everything in sequence, which is such a gift. I asked him at one point if it was really hard to do because you need to shoot everything in one venue at one time, and he said it’s not hard at all—there are just a few little things you have to work out, but it’s really not that difficult, and if people tried it more often, they’d find that they could do it. For example, there’s a scene in the hall where Jimmy’s being asked to speak on behalf of one of the local families, and my character can’t really speak because she doesn’t want him to do it and she’s too emotional. The night before that, we’d shot the dance scene in the hall, so we were doing the scene where the day before we had spent eight hours dancing with each other. It’s so much easier as an actor to do that. You don’t have to “play” a scene… I just did a TV show where we shot the fourth episode while the second and third were being written, so we didn’t even know our own history. With Ken, it’s completely different. Ken teaches you your past.
SK: …but you never know your future.
BW: The script for Jimmy’s Hall is structured quite conventionally. It’s dramatic realism, it’s social realism, but when I’m watching Ken’s movies I’m just never, ever aware for a minute that I’m watching a movie. They’re seamless and very realistic and very powerful for that, and I was curious how he would accomplish that, because each scene as Laverty writes it is conventionally structured and written. They have beats and climaxes and dips, and it became apparent quite early on that Ken doesn’t go in for emphasizing these beats or these dramatic moments. For instance, in the script there’s a scene when Jimmy first goes back into the old hall and it’s all dusty. He’s blowing the dust off, and in the script there’s this big moment of decision making. He flips open all the windows and it’s a grand statement and the light pours in, and Jimmy comes out and says, “We’re going to reopen the hall!” I did it as it was on the page, then Ken said, “No, just go over there and maybe have a look out that window.” It just became much more real.
JN: He’s a great believer in the old adage “Less is more.” He doesn’t give you any direction if he’s happy with what you’re doing, so I once said to him, “Just give me a direction—if you wanted to give me a note, what would it be?” And he said, so gently, “I’d do a lot less.”
BW: Other directors are always emphasizing moments—“Hit these beats!”—and I find that the more low-brow a project, the more oomph and dramatic they try to make it. It goes against every grain in my body.
DT: Barry, you do a lot of theater. I imagine that theater acting is much bigger than film acting. Was it hard dialing down for you?
BW: No, the opposite. It’s hard for me to drum it up for theater.
SK: Irish theater is not as big as Broadway, or even London West End, where things are very skilled looking and technical, like when actors get to the point of doing their big cry. Irish theater is actually a bit more subtle than that.
JN: Plus the theaters are smaller, which helps. More intimate.
SK: You don’t have thousands of people every night to play to.
JN: But there is a difference. Richard Burton once said film acting is the maximum possible effect with the minimum apparent effort, which sums it up.
DT: As I understand acting, you have to become someone else in an honest way, which strikes me as an oxymoron.
JN: Acting is the great emotional leap you have to make in order to become somebody else. That’s really what it is.
BW: It’s almost like a leap of faith.
JN: So we spend our lives leaping. At least some of us do; there are actors who play off their own personalities, stars who would never do anything but play themselves, but then there are actors who love taking on the persona of another person. Sometimes they’re more powerful doing that than they are in their own lives. Alec Guinness you wouldn’t notice in the street.
BW: Or Peter Sellers.
SK: It’s about finding your own empathy with somebody else’s story and trying to really, really understand and empathize—no matter who the character is—with what they’re going through; to try and tell other people from inside their skin what they’re going through. It teaches you empathy. If you see somebody behaving badly, you look at them and ask, where are they coming from? Why are they behaving like that? You try to question it and study human behavior and understand why people are doing and saying the things they’re doing—especially for a character like Jim’s [Father Sheridan, an archconservative priest], who he wouldn’t agree with at all.
JN: He’s someone I’m diametrically opposed to in every possible way, but you have to try to find a way to believe in him.
SK: Find where he’s coming from.
JN: I justified it by saying he was doing the best he could from what he knew. Sadly, what he knew wasn’t very much.
BW: It’s amazing what you find yourself being able to justify—even with the most heinous crimes, you kind of say, I understand why somebody might do that.
SK: But for Father Sheridan, I imagine he absolutely believes he’s doing the right thing.
JN: There’s a wonderful book by the psychologist Scott Peck called People of the Lie, which I read when I had to play a very bad person. It was fascinating, because he said people who are truly evil don’t believe they’re evil.
BW: No, of course not.
JN: His conclusion was that if someone like that comes into your life, get out of the way, because you’re not going to change them. It’s terrifying.
SK: To play a character that’s greedy and cowardly, you find those little flaws within yourself. Then you blow it up a little to play somebody whose go-to place is to be really greedy or really cowardly.
JM: But in the end it’s just pretend. We’re just pretending.
DT: How did you prepare for the roles? Do research, watch Ken’s previous films, read Donal O’Kelly’s play about Jimmy Gralton?
BW: I’m a big fan of reading around subjects. Some actors use music to get into the mood of scenes; I read. I read a lot of fiction set in Manhattan in the ’20s to get an idea of where Jimmy Gralton was coming from at the beginning of the movie. We all read some Irish history books and books about the politics of the time. Not knowing a great deal about Jimmy Gralton, because not a great deal of biography exists, I found a lot of similarities between him and James Connolly, so I read loads of James Connolly’s writings and biographies.
SK: Ken recommended books, and my grandparents and parents grew up on farms in the west of Ireland, so I could ask them questions. When we were in Sligo a couple of weeks before we started filming, I met my on-screen husband and kids, and we got to do some improvisations with each other about when he asks me to marry him. We also did some family improvs, where we took the kids out to lunch. Ken and the children’s father sat at another table in the café, while the four of us—the “family”—sat at another and I picked cheese out of the kids’ sandwiches, just getting the vibe of this family. And Barry and I learned to dance for a few months together, so we got to build a relationship with each other as well. The preparation on every level is quite good. Everything you want is available to you.
JN: They provide a huge amount of information. I would get sheafs of sermons given by priests at that time, which were the most terrifying things I’d ever read—far more terrifying than what Father Sheridan does in the film. A lot of that information was fed daily into my computer, so by the time you arrive you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you want. Ken is very meticulous in the information that he gives his actors, but he still leaves that space for something, hopefully magically, to happen.
DT: While you’re acting, do you consider the historical context? For instance, when the two of you were dancing alone in the hall, were you just dancing and being in love, or were you dancing and thinking, OK, it’s 1932 and…
BW: It’s information you have. When you do the research, the information is there. You don’t necessarily use it in a scene, but it’s good to have it there. For instance, you’re sitting here now and asking questions. You’re not thinking of where you learned to interview people or what you studied in college, but it’s all there, so it’s all feeding and informing how you go about doing anything.
SK: During the first couple of days of filming, Ken would have a word in someone’s ear and they’d start improvising. The very first day, when we were building the hall and Michael Murphy was up the ladder and starts cursing at the journalist, I started laughing. I thought it was really funny, then I sort of quickly realized, I don’t think Oonagh would laugh—she cares too much about the hall. I sort of realized pretty quickly that I had to be on top of it…but it was never hard to do either, because Ken never puts you in a scenario where you’re battling against yourself, thinking, I’m doing this but I’m supposed to be in 1930s Ireland. There was a scene at the end of the film where I come to see Jimmy in the barn. I had to go to the top of a rocky hill and cycle the whole way down even though they never used it in the film. Ken wants you to start from your starting point. You don’t just say Action and then start talking. Everything he does helps you as an actor to not have to act too much. To just go from your gut and your instinct.
JN: So when you arrive at the door you’ve made the journey. You know where you’ve been and why you’re there. The man is a genius. He creates wonderful situations.
DT: Rather than use a set, they actually built a hall on a crossroads in Ireland. Ken said that the actual size of the hall imposed a discipline that you can sense as an audience. Did the actual size and the fact that it was in Ireland make a difference to you as actors?
BW: Just as you were saying, it’s all there. It’s all salutory. You have to pretend less, use less imagination and just be present. It all amounts to people simply being on camera rather than people trying to act and force things. I think it’s all conducive to very natural performances.
SK: You’re not sitting in a corner of a massive studio with loads of lights…it was the natural light coming in the windows. We loved that hall. We had some great nights dancing there.
BW: And as a film crew, his methods are so unobtrusive. Ken usually uses long lenses, and he’s on a tripod, out of the way. There’s no boom ops in sight, there’s no lighting guys in sight. You’re doing the scene with a gang of people dancing for real, with real musicians.
DT: Where was the crew? They had to be there.
BW: In the corners, so quiet you can’t see them. If there’s an outdoor shot, they’re miles away.
SK: With those big dance numbers, you actually had to look around. There are all these people and we’re all dancing, and you’re kind of looking and you see someone on a ladder in the corner with the camera. They’re so far back.
JN: I’ve never heard anybody on a Ken Loach film say, Where is this shot? Am I in it? You wouldn’t dream of asking. You trust him totally. He’d be very surprised if you said, Are you here on me? You don’t talk about those technical things.
SK: He would say, Why would you want to know that?
DT: You’re all so charismatic on screen. In fact, that was one of the things I loved most about the film—how you just popped from the screen. How does that work?
BW: Maybe because they were very forceful characters, quite simply. Each of the characters we’re playing is very principled and forthright.
SK: It’s easier to be charismatic when you’re someone else.
BW: I’m not that strongly opinionated, whereas Jimmy Gralton had an agenda, and he had a way of life and a generosity of spirit that I simply don’t have.
SK: We all loved the story so much as well.
JN: I think what you’re describing is absolutely the genius of Ken: To catch. We just do it, and he, being a master of film, catches the moments. When he’s in the cutting room, he selects those moments, and that’s the magic. We’re not consciously aware of trying to pop or trying to affect anybody or trying to play the truth. He takes what we do and makes it into this beautiful tapestry.
SK: And Ken, as Jim was saying before, is so quietly spoken when he comes over…. Barry and I were playing a scene together, and Ken came over and very quietly sort of whispered, “You know, this is a very dangerous relationship,” and then snuck off. So we sort of brought everything right down as well and ended up playing something really, really intimate. Ken then shows it this size [stretches her arms wide], so that’s probably where some of that energy comes from as well.
JN: And also he listens so intently to you. He rarely gives instruction, but when he does, you want to listen. We did a scene where my character [Father Sheridan] is having a drink with his young assistant. We did a few rehearsals, and Ken said, “How much do you think he’s had?” I wanted to play it drunk, because I wanted to show this priest in all his terribleness, so I said, “Maybe he’s had four or five glasses of whiskey,” and Ken merely said, “I think that’s maybe two too many.” In other words, don’t go with the easy choice.
Copyright © Director Talk 2015