As the years and decades and centuries roll by, we'll look back to this time as a very primitive state of mind. I think we're in the spiritual dark ages.
Stephen Fingleton’s The Survivalist opens with beautiful concision: an animated line graph depicts “peak oil” theory, contending that our fragile reliance on fossil fuels will amount to humanity’s catastrophic downfall. In Fingleton’s post-event film—a catch-all phrase for post-societal collapse, post-environmental calamity, post-invasion—depleted mankind has reverted to a subsistence-level existence. It is a bleak parable about the price of food, sex, and shelter in a post-civilized world.
Martin McCann plays a nameless survivalist eking out a solitary existence in a forest cabin. Improvised traps prove useful: His meager plot is littered with the composted bodies of past intruders. The long years haven’t been kind to our malnourished antihero. Then, out of the woods come Kathryn (Olwen Fouéré) and Milja (Mia Goth), mother and daughter scavengers, offering seeds, then sex—bargaining chips all the same—for room and board. Living together in an uneasy arrangement, the distrusting trio huddle around the unstable core of a misshapen nuclear family.
It’s been two years since The Survivalist world premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival—two same years since Anthem reached out to McCann to discuss meeting up for an interview. Now the 33-year-old Irish actor, whose first break came with a leading role in Richard Attenborough’s Closing the Ring (2007), makes good on his promise with a candid Q&A about playing the titular singer in Killing Bono (2011), Woody Harrelson’s insane “live movie,” and Fingleton’s situation thriller.
The Survivalist hits select theaters and VOD on May 19th via IFC Midnight.
Could you paint me a picture of where you are, Martin? I heard you’re shooting right now.
I’m at home in Northern Ireland by the ocean in a quiet little town. It’s on what’s called the Ards Peninsula. I’m working on a television series called The Frankenstein Chronicles at the moment that stars Sean Bean. I’ll be in six episodes of that. We’re shooting on location all around Northern Ireland, which has become quite a hub at the minute. There are a lot of high-end productions being shot here. Game of Thrones is shot here. I think the new Transformers movie shot scenes here.
That sounds great for Northern Ireland.
Especially because Northern Ireland comes from a controversial and troubled past. Now it has really flipped and turned a real 180. It’s a hustling and bustling, thriving, and beautiful place—and quite unspoiled still. It’s great for crews and the production side of things. Not so much for actors because they generally tend to cast that very wide in the movies, especially for these larger roles. But it has given the Northern Ireland film infrastructure a real chance to blossom and grow.
It must feel like such a long time ago now that you shot The Survivalist. Is it weird to be promoting a film several years down the line like this? It’s like films have multiple lives.
You know—one of my first sort of larger gigs was The Pacific for HBO. I first went to Australia to be a part of that in 2007, but it wasn’t fully released until 2010. So here was this thing that I had done so many years ago—in my mind, three years is a long time, especially in the mind of a young actor—and it was almost like there were two different parts to the project. There was the project that I had done and then the project that came out many years later that I had kind of almost forgotten about. A new sort of life came along with it. So this is sort of normal… But usually, you’re talking a year. It’s usually a year from the shoot to the PR machine starting to roll.
Tell me the first things that pop into your head when you look back to The Survivalist shoot.
I remember the cabin. I remember meeting Stephen [Fingleton]. I remember he had a very clear vision of what he wanted. I remember the script—the great script. I remember the crew. I remember the costume. I remember the diet that I had to go on. I remember the survival course that I went on, just to get used to the lay of the land. Questions: “How would I survive if I was in this situation? Could I survive out in the forest with nothing but myself and a pen-knife?”
What kind of diet did you go on?
Well—I’ve never really been an overweight guy anyway. I’m a smaller man, so it’s kind of harder for me to lose any sort of massive amount of weight. But I tended to stick to a high-protein diet. I cut out the sugar and any sort of carbs. I was given great advice by the dietician they got me. She put it quite simply: “If you eat less, you get smaller.” [Laughs] I tried to stick by that rule. There are certain things that can help you in accomplishing eating less: you can control your sugar specs and stuff like that. And [losing the weight] was justified in the sense that, here’s this guy who’s living off, basically, vegetation—crops on his front yard. So it was justified that I couldn’t just look like a person who was quite comfortable. I couldn’t look like a person who could eat when he wanted and have three square meals a day. This was a man who was just about surviving, and surviving sufficiently for one [person], which obviously ties into the divine nature of the film. The farm was really only big enough to sustain one individual, let alone three—or four, for that matter.
We don’t see the typically arid world of post-apocalyptic movies. Civilization fell apart, but nature has thrived. The film hinges on visual cues that allow viewers to approximate what we think might’ve happened, as opposed to being told what did. What did the script look like?
Very little dialogue. Very descriptive. Very emotive. Well-paced. Very clever. Structurally, very sound. It was just a really great and accomplished script. It’s a really great story, actually. There’s obviously the idea and the concept about this man who’s living in a post-apocalyptic world. But more true to how it would possibly be, as opposed to science fiction wastelands and decrepit buildings, here’s a man living on a small farm in the middle of a forest. He has the chance to grow vegetation and survive by himself. Just because man stops, it doesn’t mean that trees and bushes and plants and flowers are going to stop. It’s not a nuclear apocalypse. Food isn’t able to get delivered because there’s no oil to put it onto trucks, and so on. It obviously has far-reaching consequences. Society has, I’m assuming, broke down, and war has broke out. It’s a kill or be killed world. I think it’s a true representation of how it would possibly pan out for a lot of people.
Truth resonates. When you look at something like that, somewhere deep in your mind, you say, “Oh yeah… That is kind of true.” And it makes one feel, or the human race feel, slightly insignificant in terms of the turning of the globe. It’s humbling. It also feeds into the idea that we’re not as special as we think we are, and the world will keep turning without us. So why not do what we can now to preserve our time on this very fragile and beautiful planet? Maybe this is heaven. [Laughs] Maybe this is heaven already. We don’t really stop to think about that sometimes.
How often do you think about that yourself?
Not often, but more so now that we really are staring down the barrel of a gun. The climate is changing. Donald Trump doesn’t think so, obviously, but he’s a politician. He’s not a scientist. I’d rather rely on what 100 or 200 or 500 scientists are telling me, as opposed to politicians that maybe have some financial and political motives for not wanting to listen to these scientists. It doesn’t take a judge in a court of law to weigh up the truth of the matter. The world is a small place, but I wouldn’t like to paint it all. It’s small, but it’s big enough. I think we think the world is bigger than it is. We’re all interconnected. We’re completely connected, not just on an economical level, but also on a digital level and an emotional level and a spiritual level. Everything is connected.
The world’s oil will run out and that’s inevitable. That’s not heresy or plucking something from the ether. It’s a finite resource. I think what’s making me look at that more so today is the likes of Elon Musk with his company Tesla and individuals like that really trying to approach this subject and put their hard-earned money—I don’t know what’s hard-earned, but it’s certainly earned in massive amounts—into sustainable energy and a sustainable future. There’s not a lot of money in a very, very small population, but that’s what we will become if we don’t turn things around now. I think it’s in everybody’s interest, even large corporations, to keep the population as is, or risk selling products to a handful of people in another 200 years. If they’re still there, that is. [Laughs]
Was Closing the Ring your first movie? That was your big break, wasn’t it?
It was. It was my first experience on a feature film set, and with a veteran such as Richard Attenborough. I got to meet Pete Postlethwaite. I got to meet all these wonderful stars like Shirley MacLaine and Brenda Fricker. It was a very lucky and blessed experience in the industry.
You never age, do you?
[Laughs] I’ve always got that sort of baby face. It’s difficult when you’re trying to get into nightclubs with your friends, but other than that, it serves me well.
That movie was ten years ago now.
Does it feel like that?
Yes and no. [Laughs] I would say that: yes and no.
Did you ever end up meeting Bono, maybe as a result of portraying him in Killing Bono?
I never met Bono in person, but funnily enough, a few weeks ago, I spoke to him on the phone. I play Paddy in a film called Lost in London, which is Woody Harrelson’s directorial debut. In that film, I have a five-minute phone conversation with Bono himself. We shot that live. It’s basically the first-ever live broadcast feature film streamed directly into cinemas. I obviously had to rehearse that phone call with him, and I got to explain to him that I played him in Killing Bono. He told me that he’d watched it and liked it and all that. So I never met him in the flesh, but I’ve talked to the man on the phone. He was a wonderful guy. He’s very down to earth, and witty and funny.
That’s so cool you had the opportunity to follow up. If I was in your position, I think I would’ve been endlessly curious to find out if he had watched the film and if he had liked it.
[Laughs] It’s weird. Bono and I seem to be connected in some weird way.
Lost in London is an insane undertaking. It must take so much stamina and preparation. There are so many uncontrolled variables. This had to look like a nutty proposition…
Fairly insane. But Woody Harrelson had it together. He had an unbelievable mountain to climb and he climbed it with such grace. He’s such a great filmmaker. A true actor at heart. He treated the rehearsal period like he would a theater play. He did it as good as any director I’ve ever worked with. I think he’s one of the world’s greatest actors—certainly at the minute. It’s quite inspiring to be around that company of actors. It’s quite confidence-building. If it had been anybody else other than Woody, I think our nerves would’ve been a lot higher. I think his leadership and his temperament as a man and his kindness and his patience and his talent saw us through what could’ve been a very turbulent and nerve-racking experience. Don’t get me wrong, there were moments of turbulence and moments of nerves being racked. But overall, it was a great experience and quite a feat. It was quite a technical feat. For the first time, talking to you now, I’m actually reminiscing on it. For the first time, I’m really realizing what it was they actually achieved. It’s quite remarkable. I was so lucky to be a small part of it. I feel really blessed.
What do you feel optimistic about, looking to the future in these uncertain times?
As human beings, I think it’s in our nature to be slightly reckless and to take risks. They’re hugely calculated risks and some of them fall flat on our faces. But I think what we do is evolve. We evolve spiritually and mentally and consciously together, whether we like to or not. As the years and decades and centuries roll by, we’ll look back to this time as a very primitive state of mind. I think we’re in the spiritual dark ages. I really do believe that, in 100 or 200 or 300 years time, kids will be born to futuristic libraries and reading about your Donald Trumps and Vladimir Putins and Saudi oil and how that impacted the globe, and so on and so forth. I hope and pray that little kids will say, “Wow, they really didn’t know as much as they thought they did.” But I can’t see us blowing each other up because we’re so interconnected.
If things get dicey and you become like the character you play, I can come live on your farm?
Of course you can.
I have board games.
[Laughs] That would stave off the mental illness that would kick in eventually. That’s interesting and definitely a subplot in The Survivalist. How does one keep mental health during such an ordeal? How does one strive to stay, not only physically fit, but mentally fit? I think that would be the hardest task of all: to find comfort within yourself in such a dire situation. It’s such a lonely situation, especially having lost your loved ones. He lost his brother. He’s obviously lost his family. He’s lost any partner that he’s had and any girlfriend that he’s had. He lost a lot. In fact, the only thing he hasn’t lost is his will to live. But sometimes, simply having the will to live doesn’t mean you’re going to live a worthy life. Living a worthy life is having all the things that he lost.