Category: Archive

Stepping into the spotlight

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The 47-year-old actor’s screen credits include “Into the West,” “First Knight,” “Jude,” “The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” “Breakfast on Pluto” and “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.”
He can now be seen playing Bobby Sands’s priest in “Hunger,” a historical drama film about the Irish Republican hunger strike in Long Kesh Prison near Belfast in 1981.
“I suppose because of the ripples that ‘Hunger’ caused, there’s a bit more interest simply because it was a wonderful acting exercise,” the married father of three told The Irish Echo in a recent phone interview. The “acting exercise” he refers to is a poignant 17-minute-long scene, in which his character attempts to persuade Michael Fassbender’s Bobby Sands to abandon his self-destructive crusade to secure more rights for prisoners.
“My agent tells me there is a hell of a lot more interest since (the movie’s) come out, which is wonderful. You will not hear me complaining,” Cunningham said. “It’s really good. It’s been a fantastic year.”
Aside from the memorable role it offered him, the actor said he also saw “Hunger” as a piece of “incredibly bright, intelligent storytelling” and a “magnificent examination of an incredibly difficult subject.”
“It was a wonderful opportunity,” he recalled. “Obviously, the story was the first thing that grabbed me — and working with somebody like (director and co-writer) Steve McQueen who’s an incredible talent. He’s an artist.”
Cunningham can also now be seen in “The Escapist,” a big-screen thriller in which he plays a prisoner trying to break out of jail with a group of fellow inmates, most of whom don’t know or like each other, but share a common goal. The movie was written by Rupert Wyatt and Daniel Hardy, and directed by Wyatt. It co-stars Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper and Seu George.
So, how does Cunningham feel about promoting two critically acclaimed movies back to back?
“It doesn’t happen often enough,” Cunningham laughed. “It’s really good. Two different tales, two different kinds of movies. It’s fantastic. (And they’re made by) two first-time directors and I like working with first-time directors, as well. I just like their enthusiasm. They’re up for it. I really like that.”
The actor said he also generally likes working with writer-directors, as he did on both “Hunger” and “The Escapist,” because they can knowledgably answer their actors’ questions and because they are frequently more willing to make changes to their scripts if something doesn’t work or someone else comes up with a better idea, because they are not beholden to an outside scribe.
“If they’re fantastic writers like Rupert is, then you can hit the set and throw around some ideas, obviously keeping to the spirit of the script and the spirit of the storytelling,” said Cunningham. “A guy who knows what he is doing, generally speaking, doesn’t marry himself too much to the script. Something on the page that may read well or may even jump off the page, when you actually put it in front of the camera . . . [but] sometimes it needs a little tweaking or some extra lines or some lines you can take out because you can play it instead of saying it. So, the flexibility of working with somebody who isn’t precious about their words, but may be — and should be — precious about their ideas can be fantastic.”
He acknowledged, however, that one can occasionally find himself collaborating with a filmmaker who wants every word said in a certain way and that can cause problems unless the actor completely agrees with the filmmaker’s vision.
“I generally try to avoid those guys,” Cunningham admitted. “I’m not there as a marionette.”
Working on “The Escapist” afforded Cunningham the chance to work with Scottish actor Brian Cox, a 62-year-old veteran of more than 50 films.
“His reputation precedes him,” the younger actor said. “He’s a wonderful, intelligent, fantastic actor and also a teacher of acting. He’s one of those people, if you’re in the acting game long enough, you think it would be fantastic to end up with a career similar to his. He’s done magnificent work. He’s able to flit between theater and good television and Hollywood movies — the whole lot. He’s not held back by any genre. He excels in all of them.”
Much of “The Escapist” was shot in Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol, where the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were jailed and executed, and where scenes from the movies “In the Name of the Father” and the original “The Italian Job” were filmed.
Asked what the experience of making a movie in the historic building was like, Cunningham exclaimed, “It was cold!”
“It was miserable; it was unglamorous and it was some of the best fun I’ve ever had filming,” he added. “It’s difficult to get hold of an empty prison because they are all full to overflowing, so the place where we filmed is actually a museum now because it was a big part of the Irish Republican struggle . . . But it was a difficult shoot; a cold, cold place. Lot of ghosts. A lot of misery was in that particular building and you can sort of sense it coming out of the walls. It’s an added character in the movie.”
Spending time in that locale also helped Cunningham get into the head of his character Brodie — a guy trying to escape from prison, he said.
“It’s the real deal . . . You did get a sense of claustrophobia, a sense of incarceration, which helps [in playing] a character enormously,” the actor noted.
Cunningham is currently working on another film with Fassbender called “Centurion,” after which he will be heading off to co-star in the big-budget remake of “Clash of the Titans” with Sam Worthington and Liam Neeson. He has already finished the films “The Tournament” and “Blood: The Last Vampire” and is awaiting their releases.
“Hunger” and “The Escapist” are in theaters now.

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