‘I’m always wearing my character shoes’: On set with Cillian Murphy

On the set of ‘The Delinquent Season’, director and writer Mark O’Rowe talks about working with Murphy, Andrew Scott and Catherine Walker on his debut feature

Trailer for Irish film 'The Delinquent Season'


Film sets are funny places. In a cold redbrick terraced house on Westfield Road in Harold’s Cross, Dublin, I’m walking around with blue plastic bags on my feet, looking at pictures of the family who really own this house, while actors Eva Birthistle and Catherine Walker are wandering around joking about their onscreen hair styles. “It’s all about volume,” Birthistle is saying. “All about the volume.”

It’s the set of The Delinquent Season, a low-budget domestic drama set in a series of middle-class homes, not a space ship, submarine or underground lair, and it’s Mark O’Rowe’s film directorial debut. “I’d directed theatre but not film,” says the award-winning writer of Howie the Rookie, Intermission and Boy A. “It’s quite tough to write a script and then give it to a director and have them put their own authorial stamp on it, and I got tired of that. Not that I was ever disappointed in what anyone did, but it’s quite hard to hand something over. So with this one I thought I’d take it all the way from its origin to putting it out in the world.”

Today’s scene takes place at an uncomfortably realistic dinner party in which Andrew Scott’s character overreacts to a small criticism and squabbles with his wife, played by Catherine Walker, to the discomfort of everyone else. Scott’s character, as it turns out, has an upsetting secret but his brusqueness leads to some drama-spurring consequences before this is ever revealed. Anyway, before you know it you’ve got a melodrama about ordinary people dealing with infidelity and illness and love.

I watch the action in the kitchen via a monitor while various anoraked crew members are making tea and eating sandwiches. Then I watch the same scene several times in the dining room, behind the fourth wall where O’Rowe and the camera crew live. The actors slip in and out of character effortlessly because, well, they’re professional actors. At one point, Birthistle realises her unsophisticated fluffly slippers might be in shot. “I’m not wearing my character shoes!” she says.

“You’re not wearing your character shoes,” says Scott in mock horror. “Personally, I can’t get into the role without my character shoes.”

“I’m always wearing my character shoes,” says Cillian Murphy, the fourth member of the core quartet.

And then they’re all in character again for another take, character shoes or not. “It’s easy for them, I think,” says O’Rowe with some wonder. “They’re brilliant actors.”

‘A brilliant writer’

The admiration is mutual. “He’s just a brilliant writer,” says Murphy. “I don’t want to embarrass him now, but I’ve done a few of his films and I’ve always loved the dialogue and what the films are trying to say. What I love about this film is that it’s a drama, a pure out-and-out drama for grown-ups. And these are really few and far between now in the climate we have in cinema the world over. To see a film about middle-class couples in Dublin, a very intense, very compelling drama . . . it’s a small story but its ramifications are massive for these people. It’s the sort of work you want to be involved in.”

“I think the chief attribute of this script is how unjudgemental it is,” says Scott. “So much bad drama is about something we feel safe in making a very quick judgement about. What’s beautiful and ultimately very moving about this story is that we all do things in our life that we don’t necessarily have a full consciousness about. It doesn’t make you a bad person or a good person, just a person.”

As a younger actor I was into getting as far the f**k away from myself as possible

What was the origin of the script? “I wanted to do a love affair story within which there were no easy answers or moral outs for the audience,” says O’Rowe. “We didn’t make one of the partners a horrible person [and]we didn’t make it about the psychological malaise of living in suburbia. I wanted to have a story in which the four principle characters were morally quite strong. It’s kind of easier to make the characters horrible people and see how they tear each other apart. But I thought, what would happen if something like this happened to four people who were inherently good? Lots of marriages break up, lots of affairs happen, lots of marriages become destroyed and then new relationships are born out of those . . . I wanted the characters to be making decisions based on what an inherently good person would do.”

Do they keep in character over lunch or do they do anything to recharge?

“We don’t get lunch,” deadpans Scott. He’s joking. The budget is low but there is lunch.

“I think in some ways it’s, I’m reluctant to use the word easy, but when you can relate to it and it’s based on reality, there’s a real normality to the performance and delivery and writing,” says Birthistle. “Then again [my character]is much more straightforward. She’s very clear-thinking and makes decisions better or more clearly than others.”

She’s the one who’s in the right? She laughs. “I’m the best of this gang.”

‘Opposite of escapism’

“This type of film is kind of the opposite of escapism,” says Murphy. “I think when people go and see this film they’ll go, ‘God, I could be them, what would I do?’ Because they’re all such normal characters. . . Certainly as a younger actor I was into getting as far the f**k away from myself as possible, to physically change my voice, my hair, everything. This is really delicate. It’s a slight adjustment to who you are as a person because we all know the milieu in which these characters move and we’re of a certain age where we have kids or know people with kids. It’s all very close to home.”

Is it hard to get funding for a film like this? “Well you know the length of our shoot [three weeks] so yes,” says O’Rowe. “For me, if I write something I feel strongly about and am desperate to make, it’s worth the battles you have to fight to make it happen. It’s a low-budget drama. If it was a thriller or horror movie I’m not sure it would have the same obstacles or budget. A nice thing about a story like this is that it’s quite self-contained. It doesn’t have a huge number of locations and it’s a story that’s very much carried by the actors.”

“We all agreed at the read-through we had to come really prepared,” says Birthistle. “There’s no time for faffing around not knowing your lines, so we make a point of running lines with each other between scenes.”

Tell me about today’s scene? Scott laughs. “This scene isn’t particularly intense,” he says. “Sorry to disappoint you.”

“The point of this scene is its banality, really,” says O’Rowe.

“Banality is hard to do,” says Murphy. “We’ve all been at these sorts of dinner parties [but] it requires a huge amount of concentration. It’s kind of anti-drama. The temperature [in the scene] just changes.”

“What actors do astonishes me,” says O’Rowe shaking his head. “I find sometimes when the scene is very, very emotional I feel scared for them and think, ‘Oh God, I have to make them do it again’, but they’re like, ‘Ah grand, fine’.”

“Because it’s exhilarating for us,” says Birthistle.

“Last week I was thinking ‘They’re really going through it now,’” says O’Rowe. “And I was talking to Catherine in a scene and she was going ‘Smoke and mirrors, smoke and mirrors’ as the tears were running down her face.”

The Delinquent Season’s high-profile cast

Cillian Murphy: He has played an Irish revolutionary in The Wind that Shook the Barley, a zombie-apocalypse survivor in 28 Days Later, a supervillain in the Batman films and he is the lead in BBC’s ongoing period crime drama Peaky Blinders.

Eva Birthistle: She has been in films like Brooklyn, UK drama series The State Within, The Last Enemy and Waking the Dead and she currently stars in the BBC’s Bernard Cornwell adaptation The Last Kingdom.

Andrew Scott: The Dubliner is best known for playing Sherlock Holmes’s arch-nemesis Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock and has appeared in films including The Stag, Handsome Devil and Pride and Spectre.

Catherine Walker: She has starred in the Irish horror film A Dark Song, UK dramas Strike Back and Critical and she currently features in the French-Canadian period drama Versailles.

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