Dress Rehearsal

 

Liam Cunningham cares more about the disadvantaged than about fame. Now, with a lead role in Ken Loach's award-winning The Wind that Shakes the Barley he may find celebrity hard to avoid. He talks to Róisín Ingle.

'There is nothing an hour in the Dáil with me and a machete wouldn't sort out," Liam Cunningham says with a bleak smile. It's towards the end of our lunch, and the actor is taking a break from his linguine and scallops to deliver an anti-establishment rant worthy of his character in The Wind that Shakes the Barley, the Ken Loach film that has just won the Palm d'Or at Cannes. We have been talking about the Celtic Tiger, socialism and the kind of worker's revolution envisioned by opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, in 1922. I've just asked what he thinks of the Government.

"Ah, for Jaysus's sake," he says, as if it's obvious what he thinks. By now it is, but I want to hear it anyway. "I think they are incompetent and incapable," he says. "The health system is a joke. A national embarrassment. I find it disgusting. We have less nurses now than we did when Charlie Haughey was around telling us to tighten our belts." He considers himself a pragmatist rather than a left-winger, and despite his socialist leanings his ire is reserved not for the rich generally but for politicians who made millions from being in power.

"I have no problem with people who are millionaires, as long as they haven't knocked on my door, saying 'Please vote for me,' and then lined their pockets after I put an X on a piece of paper. They are supposed to be democratically representing me when in fact they are just raping the place. It's disgusting. They should have been locked up for life. Beaten up." He takes another forkful of linguine. Rant over. For now.

Like Dan, his character in The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Cunningham's working-class credentials are impeccable. His father was a docker, and he grew up in St Laurence's Mansions, on Sheriff Street in central Dublin, at a time, he says, when a certain section of society looked down on families such as his. "Now they have the Polish and the Ukrainians to look down on, but back then it was us," he says. "I never minded, actually, because people were afraid of their life of you. Nobody had jobs, but it was fabulous growing up there, a real community."

Cunningham, a former ESB electrician, turned no heads when he walked into this Dublin restaurant, just over the river from Sheriff Street - a different place since the docklands were developed. "Just a bit different," he says. Although he is a respected actor, he has always enjoyed a more subtle kind of fame, the kind that hovers just below celebrity. The taxi driver who brought him to the restaurant from his home, in north Dublin, asked for an autograph - "for my wife; she loves you" - and let the actor off the fare, but that's unusual, and mostly, he says, the recognition factor is low. It's more "Hey, you're that bloke off Fair City" (he isn't) or "You're the fella off The Clinic" (he has starred in and directed some episodes of RTÉ's medical drama). "And that's just the way I like it," he said before ordering the linguine and saying no to wine, because he had been out "on the lash" the night before. "What would you do with that kind of fame?" he muses. "It's not like you can cash it in."

That said, Cunningham's movie career is likely to step up a level after the Palme d'Or. The Wind that Shakes the Barley, which cost just €6.5 million - "the equivalent of four Batmobiles" - is an account of two Cork brothers and their comrades who take part in the fight for Irish freedom after 1916.

Cunningham's character, Dan, is a train driver whom we first encounter when he is beaten up for refusing to allow British soldiers on a train. The squaddies don't take kindly to Dan's explanation that his union has barred trains from carrying either soldiers or weapons. A committed socialist and follower of Larkin, Dan later joins an IRA flying column in Cork, where he hooks up with Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Padraic Delaney), brothers who take opposing sides when the Treaty is signed. It is an unflinching and brutal account of both the suffering of Irish people at the hands of the British and the way families were divided after the occupying forces left.

He has nothing but praise for Loach, whom he first met when he auditioned for the director's Land and Freedom, in 1994. He was cast but couldn't take the role, as he was working on Alfonso Cuarón's A Little Princess at the time.

When Loach came calling again, Cunningham didn't have to be asked twice. "His style is totally unique," says Cunningham. "It's all about whether you are free enough in your mind to take on a scenario and find yourself immersed in the situation. You have to be a child about it. There is no acting involved, which is brilliant. You find out what you are doing when you turn up on set each day. Loach doesn't say 'Action' or 'Cut' or any of that shite. He just says 'Off you go' and turns away when the scene starts, because he just wants to hear the sound, the truth, and because he trusts his cameraman completely."

Cunningham laughs as he remembers that the cast received the script only a month after the final scenes were shot in Cork. "A total maverick," he says. "He's brilliant."

Cunningham joined the ESB almost by accident, after he went with two friends who wanted application forms. He was given one, too, and after finding it in his schoolbag his mother made him fill it in. "I got an interview and became an electrician," he says. He ended up at the Poolbeg generating station, in Ringsend. Then, when Cunningham was 22, he went to Africa for three years. In 1984, four years after it became an independent republic, Zimbabwe began to recruit Irish electricians, as the country's whites - "the racists," Cunningham clarifies - were leaving. Zimbabwe's electrical network was falling apart, and it needed skilled workers to get it up and running again and train locals. "In the space of three weeks I got married, emigrated and started a job in Africa," he says. "I took my wife with me. It was a three-year honeymoon . . . I went from living in my parents' house to having my own house and jeep in the wilds of Africa. It was the most incredible time. I had to drill bore holes for the elephants during the droughts." The only downside, he says, was being ostracised by the whites for socialising with black people. "The blacks were just more fun. We used to go on the piss with them. The whites had their heads up their arses. Colonial bullshit, you know?"

He came back to Dublin a changed man. "I'd been white-water rafting on the Zambezi river, parachuting around Victoria Falls and working around elephants, and I come back and they put me back in my little yellow van in the lashings of rain. I said no way, I'm not doing this," he says, laughing. "The only thing I could think was that I loved motor racing. I couldn't afford to do that, but my other love was drama. I was a real movie fan." His wife pointed out an advertisement in the back of The Irish Times for an acting school. "I didn't know any plays, but my favourite movie was and probably still is Apocalypse Now, so I got the movie out on video and learned off one of Marlon Brando's speeches."

Cunningham remembers the audition room being filled with "gorgeous-looking people wearing black polo necks and talking about Ibsen". "At first I thought it was a mistake, but then I got in and started working, and in the space of five or six weeks I fell head over heels in love with acting. The course was only supposed to take place at weekends, but I used to drive around, picking people up so that we could work on pieces."

A couple of years later he gave up his ESB job to concentrate on acting - and doing electrical repairs and lighting in theatres around Dublin.

When the lead actor dropped out of a Dermot Bolger play, The Lament for Arthur Cleary, he got his break in theatre. "It was about a bloke who had been away for years and who comes back to Dublin a working-class boy, a motorbiker," he says, acknowledging he couldn't have been more suited to the role. The play toured Ireland and travelled to Boston. It was followed by an audition for Paul Mercier, who offered him parts in two plays, Studs and Wasters.

When he finished Studs he was offered the lead in Jeananne Crowley's play Goodnight Siobhán, in London. ... "My ... third ... gig, ... six ... or ... seven ... months after I'd jacked in my job, was a two-hander on the main stage at the Royal Court. It was the first time I had ever set foot in an English theatre, never mind on a London stage," he says.

Public Toilet, his first film, from 1992, was followed by Into the West. His big movie break? "Big break my hole," he says, laughing, before explaining that his role as a policeman was cut to almost nothing after he overstretched himself. "I was doing a play [at the Abbey] and a movie at the same time. I thought I was marvellous," he says. "I ended up only doing one day on set, and another actor's laugh was dubbed over my voice. It could only go up from there."

And go up it did. Over the past 15 years Cunningham has built a solid body of work, in theatre, in films such as War of the Buttons and Breakfast on Pluto and on television, including in Showbands and Hotel Babylon. He even, he says proudly, did a werewolf movie, Dog Soldiers, which is hugely popular in the British army.

This last job was special, though, he says. He relished every line in The Wind that Shakes the Barley, getting into the mindset of people who, like Dan, were unwilling to accept the Treaty. It was a history lesson as much as it was an acting job. "In school we learned that 1916 happened and we slipped gently into independence. And wasn't it all marvellous? And then some b******s shot Michael Collins."

He was fascinated to learn that the period was marred by "some bestial things carried out by the Irish, which were as bad as anything the British did, and despite what you read in the English editions of the Sun and the Daily Mail those things are dealt with in the film." He did copious research - "the BBC website was very helpful," he says - and has statistics at his fingertips to describe the Ireland of 1916. "Around 40 per cent of people living in Dublin at the time were living in slums, 25 per cent of families were in one room and we had the highest infant-mortality rate in Europe. This is visceral stuff. To play the character you had to believe in him. The lines at the end where I say 'All we are doing is changing the accents of our rich and the colour of the flag' were mine."

In Cannes he set journalists straight when they put it to the cast that Ireland is so much better now. "I said: 'Well, if you look at the top 15 EU countries at the minute, Ireland has the highest child-poverty rate of all of them, and we have a health system that's on its arse," he says. "Just because the registration plates aren't hanging off the back of our cars any more, just because we have a Luas system, doesn't make us a better country. You judge a nation on how you look after the disenfranchised and disadvantaged, not on how many black-tie balls you go to."

It's as if, the linguine and scallops notwithstanding, he is a modern-day Dan. "We are a classic example of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer," he says. "Ireland holds the torch for that. The democratic programme that came in during 1919 was on the back of a worker's revolution. That's what people like Dan were pulling the triggers for, not just to compromise all those ideals."

He is enjoying the success of The Wind that Shakes the Barley and looking forward to the response of Irish audiences when the film opens here, next week - but he says has no expectations about how his career will develop. "When I started acting it wasn't about getting paid. I'd have been happy trying to read Shakespeare to the wall in my back garden . . . I want to work with people I can learn from and have fun with. I've been lucky enough to do that. Whatever happens in the future, happens." .

The Wind that Shakes the Barley is released on Friday