Black looks: Dylan Moran ’s bleakly comic worldview
For his role in ‘Calvary’, Dylan Moran, best known as a brilliantly grumpy stand-up, gets into the mind – and suit – of a dodgy property developer
‘I don’t care to speculate about myself,” says Dylan Moran, as he reaches for a biscuit. “It doesn’t help you produce anything.”
Hmm. He may be holding all the biscuits but I’m not so sure. Isn’t rumination part and parcel of observational comedy? Doesn’t the man Le Monde calls “the greatest comedian, living or dead” perform his endearingly ramshackle sets before a slideshow of his own rough-hewn doodles? That’s what we hear.
“Well. Yes. The drawing does help me figure out what I’m thinking. I’ll draw something and think: ‘What is this?’ It’s like getting a note under the door, from your sub-conscious. Addressed to you.”
Relatively smartly dressed, happily ensconced in the cellar bar of Dublin’s Merrion Hotel to discuss his role in John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary , Moran rarely replies to a question with anything like a standardised answer. Instead he ponders. He rambles. He resists both sound bites and analysis.
Growing up in Meath, during the pre-Tiger era, he and his family were part of that small Irish minority who didn’t attend church. Did that help turn him into an outsider or hone his observational skills?
Oops. That question invites, it seems, far too much self-reflection.
“We were part of maybe four or five percent, I think, according to Roy Foster’s book,” he says. “The church had an extraordinary reach. All the hubris. The grandeur. The self-love. The revelling. Other religions are about states and zones. They’re abstractions. Catholicism is about disappearances and reappearances. It’s a very camp religion. I’m sure that’s all true. But these are questions from outside and above. I’m used to thinking from the inside and below. I don’t walk around with an area map of myself. And who cares anyway? I had no qualifications and I needed to make a living. I couldn’t play guitar. But in comedy you don’t need a guitar.”
A literary-minded chap who cites Don DeLillo, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and SJ Perelman among his influences, Moran was educated at St Patrick’s Classical School, alongside fellow comics Tommy Tiernan and Hector Ó hEochagáin. He left aged 16 and embarked on four years of drinking, writing bad poetry and cartooning. “I was hoping to make a living from cartooning,” he recalls. “But it turned out I was not as good as I first thought.”
Inspired by an Ardal O’Hanlon appearance at Dublin’s Comedy Cellar, Moran instead found his niche: words, words, words.
“Comedy is born a lot of the time from boredom and frustration,” says Moran. “And living in Ireland in the middle of a recession helps. What are you going to do? You don’t need to think about it for that long. We were desperate. We weren’t just asking the question: ‘Is this it?’ We were also following it up with: ‘You’ve got to be fucking joking.’ We were young and questioning and energetic and looking around in the rain. What are we supposed to do? Milk cows? But I do wonder if things could happen again in that way. I don’t think so.”
“Because there’s no vacuum sucking you in. Instead of desperation there’s an awareness of fame we never had. Looking at social media. Knowing that fame is a kind of currency. Constantly comparing themselves to others. It’s a different recession. It’s a different time.”
In 1993, a year after he first wielded a mike in earnest, Moran won the So You Think You’re Funny? award at the Edinburgh Festival. Three years later, he became the youngest-ever recipient of the Perrier Award, bursting onto a comedy scene that was randomly and variously hailed as the “new black” or (wait for it) the “new rock ’n’ roll”.
“But that wasn’t a moment,” he says. “It took years. And you don’t really notice when you’re touring up and down the UK.”
To date, he has brought multiple sold-out Moran word jamborees across the US and Europe. He knows no borders. In 2012 he became the first English-speaking comic to tour Russia and Estonia. Did that require a radical overhaul of the material, I wonder?
“It’s an odd thing,” he says. “You have to have a skeletal old war horse that’s able to go anywhere. But you put new drapery on it to make it familiar to people. There’s a lot of thought in that you have to speak to people where they are. You make a show. It feels more like a made thing than a written thing. Because some stuff just happens. And you absorb what’s there. You talk to people. You learn idioms. Idioms are a micro-form of folk tales. You have to have some humility. What do I know about what they’re thinking in Belgrade? Or Atlanta?”
Away from stand-up, Moran has forged an impressive onscreen career. His debut TV role, in the 1998 BBC2 sitcom How Do You Want Me?, was swiftly followed by three seasons of the cult hit Black Books . Crossing over into the picturehouse, he appeared in Shaun of the Dead , Run Fatboy Run , Notting Hill and Irish projects A Film with Me in It and Good Vibrations .
“It wasn’t something I had planned for. And it’s odd. It wasn’t a target. Originally it was a chance to make money. Any money.”
In chronological or emotional terms, Moran is no longer the angry young man who won the Perrier Award in 1996 or the sourpuss twentysomething who manned the till in the BAFTA-winning Black Books . Now 42, he lives in Edinburgh with his wife, Elaine, and two children, between rapturously received international stand-up tours. Yet he retains much of the dissatisfaction that defined his youth, a querulous quality that expresses itself as downbeat deadpan.
“Irish current affairs is really dominated by only one question: ‘Is this the bottom?’” he says. “And all sorts of people claim to have the authority to say, ‘Yes. This is the bottom. Things can’t get any worse.’ Ah, but . . .”
Irish current affairs form the spine of Calvary , McDonagh’s mournful state-of-the-nation address. An unlikely sophomore companion for the livelier hit comedy, The Guard , Calvary is mostly forged from a series of monologues and dialogues between a righteous priest (Brendan Gleeson), his suicidal daughter (Kelly Reilly), a local butcher (Chris O’Dowd) and various unhappy locals, including Dylan Moran’s disgraced property developer.
“It was my first time seeing it last night,” says Moran. “It’s a very unusual film. It feels really vast. Sligo looks amazing. Not in an obvious creamy American way where everything looks like an album cover. The landscape is a character. It’s messy, but it knows exactly what’s it’s doing. It’s dynamic. It’s not just hitting all the beats. Structure is so fucking boring.”
You can see why Moran is perfect casting for writer-director John Michael McDonagh, who together with his playwright brother Martin, has done much to rhapsodise the Irish idiom.
“That’s right,” says Moran. “The McDonaghs have a fantastic use of idioms. Because they’re outsiders. People don’t really hear themselves. We can’t hear what arrests everybody else about our language, why other people respond to how we sound.”
In other ways the fit is not immediately obvious for an actor accustomed to playing boozy, disgruntled losers. He’s playing a posh property developer who enjoys riding to hounds. Huh?
“Oh I’m still a loser. I just happen to be in a pressed suit. Spiritually I’m very hard up. In some ways it was a departure. But really, it’s like playing a fireman without a fireman’s hat.”
Calvary opens on April 11th