The European Shooting Stars event at the Berlin Film Festival, which spotlights the Bright Young Things of tomorrow, is quite the prestigious shindig.
The platform has previously launched the careers of Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Daniel Bruhl, and Carey Mulligan. By the time you read these words, this fine constellation of thesps will have been joined by Irish actor Maurice “Moe” Dunford. Think of it as a special birthday present.
“I woke up on my birthday – the 11th of December – and got the call,” recalls Dunford.
"I get told: 'You are the Shooting Star' and I'm, like, 'Oh, deadly. What's that?' It was like Lord of the Rings. Great. But where are we going? Then I looked it up and saw Domhnall Gleeson and Mark O'Halloran. I couldn't believe it."
Today, the cheery young actor – all handshakes and smiles – has hatched a plan for his Berlin invasion: “My mam’s coming over with me,” he says. “So I’m going to spin her around the dancefloor.”
It has been quite a journey for the youngster from Dungarvan. A proud, self-proclaimed country boy, he moved to Cork “just down the road into enemy territory” during his youth and grew up in a pub, run by his father, who subsequently became a drugs- and alcohol-addiction counsellor. His mother was a “hugely respected” vice-principal at a local school.
Unsurprisingly, as a kid Dunford was obsessed with films: "My dad would cover over my eyes during the scarier bits of Terminator 2 and Indiana Jones. My favourite thing to do was to watch movies with my dad. And now my favourite thing to do is to watch movies with my son. We're Guardians of the Galaxy and Big Hero 6 all the way. Anything but Frozen."
His was a perfectly ordinary childhood and yet, he did feel repressed and occasionally depressed growing up.
"I felt a bit closed off when it came to expressing myself as a teenager," says Dunford. "So I wanted to do something different. I'd had enough of school by the time I was done. And when I was in third year I saw some mates in a production of Macbeth. I wasn't involved. I was just a sheep in the audience. And they got through it. And I remember thinking, Jesus, the balls on these guys. That really moved me."
The family have brushed against showbusiness before. Dunford's uncle is Liam De Staic, who played Austin Stack in Michael Collins and Michael Davitt in the 1991 TV mini-series, Parnell and the Englishwoman. Still, there was quite a bit of slagging to contend with when Dunford announced his plans to study at the Gaiety School of Acting in 2005.
“It wasn’t the done thing at all,” he says. “It was kind of like coming out. People said ‘Are you crazy? You think of the lads at home doing their business degrees and you’re running around pretending to be a chicken.’ I’d often think, if the lads could see me now. Maybe they were right. Maybe I am crazy.”
There were additional geographical complications. “I needed a map to get around Temple Bar for the first few weeks at college,” he grins. “Look, I was a culchie in Cork and now I was a culchie in Dublin. But once I found the school, once I started there, it did help me to settle into myself. To relax a bit.”
He would soon find work in the Irish acting community's answer to national service: Game of Thrones and The Tudors plus recurring roles in RTÉ's Raw and An Crisis for TG4, Romeo and Juliet at the Cork Opera House, and a turn as John Hinckley in Rough Magic Seed's theatre show Assassins.
Dunford's experiences with the well-documented psychological hardships that we have sadly come to associate with rural young men would, additionally, prove a solid training ground for the lead role in director Terry McMahon's impressive sophomore feature, Patrick's Day.
“I’m from the country. There’s a lot of depression. A lot of suicides. I was that way myself growing up. I thought there was something wrong with me. I felt ashamed. I couldn’t talk about it. Patrick spoke to me. I know Patrick very well.”
Even before the project came to pass, the actor admits to having "stalked" McMahon on social media. "I saw the slagging he got for making Charlie Casanova. And I admired the way he gave as good as he got. So when I heard he had a script about mental health coming up I was really interested. If this guy is so passionate about his work and how it speaks about Ireland and society, then I want to be involved. But I read it thinking: let's see where he messes up here. Because I know this world. And he didn't mess up at all. The script moved me beyond words. I never felt the need to get a role like I did with this one."
Patrick's Day concerns Patrick Fitzgerald (Dunford), a young man with mental-health issues who falls for Karen (Catherine Walker) a suicidal flight attendant. Unhappily, his overbearing mother (Kerry Fox) can't accept the relationship and enlists the help of a crooked cop (Philip Jackson) to help prise the lovers apart. Emotional pyrotechnics quickly ensue.
A guy who wants a chance
“Patrick has been told that he’s not able to love because of his condition,” says Dunford. “But he does not want to let his condition define who he is. He’s a guy who wants a chance. And when you watch the film and get to know him more, you kind of realise that he’s the most normal person in the story.”
Writer-director McMahon slyly draws parallels between Patrick’s fraught story and zombiefied contemporary Ireland. These ambitious themes belie the film’s comparatively small budget. “We had 16 days,” says Dunford. “So there were a lot of minor miracles like the sun coming out. We didn’t have time for actor-y bullshit. A lot of the shoot was problem-solving. How can we do this? But we were all committed. We knew this was a very special story. And we all just wanted to tell it.”
Dunford’s powerful, discombobulating performance has already seen him take home the award for best actor at the Hell’s Half Mile Film Festival in Michigan. Expect more gongs to follow, not to mention more emotional responses.
"When we were screening the film in America we had people stand up to talk about things they had never shared before," he says. "We're already experiencing the same kind of reactions here. People are suddenly talking about their experiences with mental health. Ireland is full of Patricks. So I think Patrick's Day is coming out at just the right time."
Of course, once promotional duties for Patrick's Day and that trip to Berlin are done, the day job beckons. By April, Dunford will be back on a horse to reprise his role as Aethelwulf in Vikings.
“It was supposed to be two days’ work,” he says laughing. “And now we’re on season four. I love the action stuff. If anything they have to pull me up and tell me to take it easy. And I can really ride a horse now. It’s not just a lie on my CV.”
[TKSQUARE]Patrick's Day is out now on limited release and is reviewed on page 12