By Michael Gray
Alan Parker knew from the outset the actors he wanted to use for the main adult roles in "Angela’s Ashes."
Emily Watson was his first and only choice to play Angela, and when they met to discuss the part, the two Londoners formed an instant bond based on their mutual admiration for Arsenal soccer club. Robert Carlyle, an actor used to playing sympathetic rogues and complex villains, was the director’s choice for the role of Frank’s dad, Malachy Sr., despite rumors that Parker wanted Liam Neeson to play that part.
The roles of young Frankie and Malachy proved harder to fill, and Parker and his casting director Ross Hubbard cast wide their net in Limerick and beyond to find six actors to play the parts of the two boys at 7, 11, and mid-teens. (Hubbard commented that "those Limerick lanes must have been very crowded, because everyone we met in Limerick seemed to have lived next door to the McCourts.") Ireland is developing a track record of fine young actors for juvenile roles, from "My Left Foot" and "Into The West" to "The Butcher Boy." "Angela’s Ashes" proved no exception. The lengthy auditions yielded three promising youngsters in the form of Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens and Michael Legge, all of whom accompanied their director to New York recently to promote the film.
Joe Breen, a perky 9-year-old from a farm in Wexford — Parker says "he spent the morning helping his father milk the cows before traveling to Dublin for his audition" — played the youngest Frankie. He enjoyed the experience despite the fact that the cast spent most of their time struggling with the flu on the rain-drenched set.
"I loved the rain! I was always jumping around in the puddles," he said, his mouth ringed with orange from the soft drinks he guzzled continuously during the interview.
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The best part for him in making the film was the scene where the kids go to the Lyric Cinema in Limerick to see Jimmy Cagney in "Angels With Dirty Faces."
"It was great! We were all hyper from sweets and lemonade, banging our feet on the floor and shouting," the excitable boy said.
Scene-stealer Joe can spin a tall tale too, and when asked if his school is much different from the grim Leamy’s national school depicted in the film, he claimed that his teacher puts manners on the boys with a Swiss army knife rather than a stick.
Joe’s parents might have trouble keeping him down on the farm after he’s seen New York. When apprised of the whereabouts of the famous FAO Schwartz toy store, he wanted to abandon his lemonade and interview immediately and head over there to buy up the place.
His co-stars Ciaran Owens and Michael Legge behaved more like seasoned pros by comparison. Thirteen-year-old Ciaran, from Killeshandra, Co. Cavan, has been acting since he was 9, and is a brother of "The Butcher Boy" star Eamonn Owens (Eamonn plays a small role in "Angela’s Ashes," as Quasimodo). Ciaran recently appeared in "Agnes Browne" with Anjelica Huston, and though he hadn’t read "Angela’s Ashes" before his involvement in the project, he said, "I had heard of it, and my agent said to go for it."
When he got the part, he was initially in awe of Parker and Carlyle, but soon got over it. "Alan was great, he’d always ask my opinion on the way he thought a scene should be acted," Ciaran said. Carlyle
proved a likable co-star too. "When the shoot was over, he bought soccer jerseys for all the kids in the film," Ciaran said.
Unlike Watson and Parker, Joe and Ciaran are Liverpool fans.
Twenty-year-old Michael Legge, who played Frank McCourt as a teenager, has been acting since he was 11. He got his first professional role at 16. He too was in awe of his co-stars, describing Carlyle as being like " someone from a far-off galaxy" until he got to know him. Legge’s toughest challenge as Frank in "Angela’s Ashes" was the scene with Emily Watson in which he confronts her with her infidelity to his father, and slaps her across the face.
"Yeah, it was a real slap," he said. "We had to shoot the scene twice, and each time Emily said, ‘Do it.’ "
Michael is currently working on a film with Stephen Fry and Tom Courtney, and Ciaran is keen to continue working as an actor. As for Joe, as long as he gets "lots of sweets for Christmas," he’ll be happy.