I lived in Hollywood for a long time. It’s a peculiar place that town. You can become your own worst enemy, especially if you’re bullet-proofing in your twenties.
Lance Daly’s not-spaghetti-but-potato, quasi-Western Black ’47 is the highest grossing Irish film of 2018 and marks the widest release ever for an Irish film in Ireland. It’s also a daunting enterprise.
Black ’47 is set against the backdrop of the darkest hours of Ireland’s history: the Great Famine. Also referred to as the Irish Potato Famine, the devastation—a million deaths by starvation and another million forced to emigrate during the years between 1845 and 1849–is almost impossible to dramatize. The film unfolds as a classic revenge cycle in which Feeney (James Frecheville), an Irish Ranger who left his country to fight for the British, receives word of the widespread famine back home and abandons his post to reunite with his family. Despite being hardened on the battlefield, he’s shocked to discover the horrors on his ravaged homeland. Feeney finds his mother starved to the brink of death, his brother already hanged by British soldiers, and the countryside as he knew it in apocalyptic shambles. With nothing left to lose and little else to live for, our protagonist embarks on a campaign of retribution against the authorities and the ascendancy. Black ’47 has been a long time coming—170 years all told. Maybe it’s the Great Famine’s confronting, unimaginable reality—and its very significance—that has kept it off cinema screens for so long.
Frecheville, an Australian actor who enjoyed a breakout year in 2008 with David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, sat down with Anthem for the latest edition of This Course. The goal of this ongoing series of food and talk is to keep things as transparent as possible. It’s essentially an open dialogue, in this instance over coffee at Kaffe 1886 in Tribeca, where we discuss a myriad of things, including the discordant nature of confronting cinema that finds its audience, the intricacies of preparation, and the many curiosities that continue to propel him forward on his acting journey.
Black ’47 opens in NYC on September 28th and L.A. on October 5th.
In Black ’47, we parachute onto the bleak landscape of the Great Famine—essentially, a defining moment in Ireland’s history. Its effects are still felt today, not least because Ireland is the only place in the world that has a lower population now than it did back in 1847.
Yeah, it’s half the population today as it was in 1847.
It’s also difficult to find new, compelling stories to tell in cinema. Why do you think the Great Famine was never before dramatized in this way? Is it too confronting a topic?
It’s just a really horrible part of history. It’s hard to finance so it’s framed in a Western archetype and things like that. There were a lot of stuff that they weren’t able to fit into the narrative about the truths of what happened back then. But yeah, it’s pretty heartbreaking.
If you look at the comments online, the film engenders discussions about actual famine versus possible genocide by the Brits.
It was complete calamity. It was famine, but at the same time, just because of the way things were, most of the food was exported. There was enough food to go around tenfold, but they weren’t in any position to have access to it. I guess it began the troubles between Protestants and Catholics because they’d say, “If you want to give up your name and speak English, we’ll give you a bit more land.” So I guess what ended up happening was that everyone had such small plots of land that the only thing they could grow was potato and then the crop failed. It was a disaster.
There was a fairly recent film called Sweet Country that deals with racial tensions set in the late-20s Australian Outback—a part of history that, according to its makers, Australians are not entirely comfortable engaging with. When there’s impassioned dialogue in the public forum about a film that you made, does that change your perception of the work?
I learned quite quickly, especially from Animal Kingdom because I came in so green, about the things that you should put importance on while you’re doing it and while you’re not. So I’m not ever doing my job for want of exposure or celebration or things like that. It’s too faraway to even think about. Most films have the best-laid plans of mice and men so to try and think about what effect it’s going to have on your career before you start doing it is just stupid in my opinion. I just knew that I had a lot of work to do. Initially, I had a Skype session with Lance [Daly] and at the end of the meeting he said, “I think you’re my guy.” Then it was about two months later that I was officially signed off and it was all set in place. I went out of pocket to start learning how to ride horses because I thought, “Should I wait until I get the official phone call or would I be too far behind on the work?” So I just made that a priority and started growing my beard, keeping away other auditions and opportunities. I was in a weird state of hyper focus on this one—maybe more so than I had ever been before. I had adequate time to prepare for it, whereas in my career there’s been some films that have been quite mercenary and on short notice.
Skype “auditions” are pretty standard nowadays, is it not?
It wasn’t so much an audition. It was very much a conversation. It’s a funny thing now because if you were to do a self-tape and send it over, unfortunately, the reality might be that someone’s watching it in a café on their iPhone. So if you don’t capture people’s attention or imagination quickly, they’ve sort of made the decision before you’ve even opened your mouth. I was quite fortunate to have the opportunity to talk about it with him. I took Lance’s word as being, “Alright, cool, this is happening,” but it wasn’t an official confirmation by any means. I just had to commit to the preparation to try and not leave them the option of casting someone else from underneath me because stranger things have happened. Nothing’s ever real until you’re on set doing it.
If you can meet someone face-to-face, they can see how you carry yourself or really have a grasp on the way you think, or how serious you may be or may not be. It’s all extra stuff to add to why they should give you the job. Ultimately, it’s show business, not show show. You’ve gotta be viable for them financially, as far as markets are concerned. They took a risk with me—I’m fairly certain of it. I’m not on social media publicly because I don’t quite agree with that aesthetic of letting people in on what’s going on, mostly because I’m still in an apprenticeship, I think. I’ve been doing it for nearly ten years, but I think if people had a sense of me, then maybe they wouldn’t believe in the characters so much. So to come in with an edge of mystery—but not in this fully-formed, “I’m a serious person” way because I don’t think that I am—you can be a blank slate for people to impress upon. And maybe that was a good thing for me to play this part and not another Irish person because the audience might’ve recognized them as opposed to just seeing a guy that they’ve never quite seen before. I’m an Aussie, but I’m not an Aussie that catches a tan very easily and my beard’s sort of about as red as beards get.
The individual actor certainly makes that choice. If you do have social media, you open doors to the possibility that people will start thinking, “That’s James in character.”
That’s something that happens, too: People earn the right to play themselves because actors will inhabit archetypes for the audience to click in with quite easily. It is that way because producers don’t want the audience to think too hard about picking their film as far as, “I know him, I like him, I’ll go see this movie,” over one of the other 20 movies that’s on that weekend at the cinema. This is an independent film, too, so it’s a lot of word of mouth. Not to say that I’ll never have social media, but I don’t ever feel too comfortable fronting what I think is insincere. I want to be authentic. It’s not exactly a comfortable thing for me, even red carpets or smiling in photos. I’d rather just focus on only the work and see what life takes from there. Maybe from a protected sort of viewpoint as well, I’ve had my twenties to be a screw-up and be messy and not be accountable and not have that scrutiny of it that comes with fame and celebrity. It can be a really brutal industry, especially with having a lot of velocity and opportunity come your way. It really chews people up and it’s heartbreaking to see, but that’s the reality of it. So if you’re not ready for that sort of attention and focus on you, you might not come out safe. Since I’ve started, I’ve just been trying to figure out who I am as a person outside of this thing I’m doing now, which I had been doing for ten years before Animal Kingdom in youth theater. So I always wanted to be an actor, but then it happened so fast. I don’t quite know how that affected me, but I feel pretty blessed to have spent time, slowly step-by-step, figuring out how it should work and how I should work within it.
I want to get your perception on something that Bryan Cranston brought up at the Tribeca TV Festival yesterday. He was talking about an actor’s “war chest”: basically, harnessing life experiences that inevitably inform your craft. How much are you aware of that on set, in addition to what you learn specifically for a job like Black ’47 such as learning Irish, riding horseback, and combat choreography?
I think it’s hugely important. I remember asking David Michôd [director of Animal Kingdom] many years ago: “What should I be doing to try to add some skills to my kit?” He said to me, “Just go and do shit. Go and chop wood. Go hunt stuff and kill things.” Collectively, if you’ve got more things and experience to draw from, that’s great. Whether your process is to engage in your own emotional core or your own trauma or joy, or whether you just got a strength of imagination to pretend, or whether it’s a combination of everything to whatever degree—it doesn’t really need much explaining to anyone because that’s not your job to tell people how you’re thinking or justify whatever it is you’re doing. Acting is very technical. It’s understanding how to be moving at just the right velocity for the focus puller to make sure he’s good on you. Technically, you need skills. Then it’s also the strength of concentration and the play aspect of it or being able to relearn in your head to say, “We haven’t been shooting this for half the day,” to try to make it come out fresh and interesting. What Bryan Cranston was saying is completely true. You need to have stuff to draw from because that just makes you an interesting person before anything else. Experience makes you mature and it makes you compassionate and it makes you troubled. I’d say to anyone who’s looking to get into it to do as much as you can, in as broad a scope as possible. Read a lot of books and spend less time on Instagram. Think lateral and things like that.
I watched an interview with your co-star Stephen Rea and Lance—they actually interviewed each other—and Lance joked that, despite the unbearable cold, he would’ve loved to have starved his actors to get at the authenticity. This is a severe example, but you sometimes hear about directors doing so many takes with the aim of getting actors to a point of exhaustion so they will no longer be acting. Is that ethical? Where do you draw the line?
Everybody’s different. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is between action and cut, and however you need to get there is on the people who ensured you to be there. If you’re a bit diabolical and hard to wrangle, then you better be worth it. I really enjoy the process and working with all the technicians, and having a laugh as well, but there’s a time and a place, too. If it’s a serious day or you have some dark headspace you have to inhabit, you sort of behave in kind, like maybe you don’t talk to anyone much. For me, there’s no set rules about how you have to be behaving on set other than being a professional: knowing your lines and being on time. That’s the bottom line. I think it’s Woody Allen who said, “80 percent of life is showing up.” I haven’t been in that experience where I worked with a director who’s pulling forty takes just to get to that level where something different comes out. But it’s not your responsibility to think about if it’s coming out differently or not. Some directors do two takes.
Looking back at Animal Kingdom now, was that an overwhelming time in your life?
I guess it was. I was thinking about this the other day: it’s the Dunning-Kruger effect. I thought I had a roadmap of how it was gonna be. I think I matured a lot. I came in pretty green and pretty cocky. With ten years of youth theater, I’ve been acting for 20 years, which is a bit crazy to think about. Maybe I had an idea about how it was gonna go in America. I lived in Hollywood for a long time. It’s a peculiar place that town. You can become your own worst enemy, especially if you’re bullet-proofing in your twenties. I just grew up.
Where are you living currently?
London. I just wanted to live somewhere else to find more dimensions in myself, I guess.
Having gone through it now, is your understanding of the craft and the industry within the context of Hollywood different from what you had imagined prior to all of this coming true?
Not necessarily. Maybe there are elements of the social aspect of things that I didn’t play so well, like getting a bit too drunk at a couple of parties where people see you. They’ll go, “Oh, okay. You’re a wreckhead.” But I don’t view myself as a wreckhead. That’s just young hubris where you think, “Sweet—drinks are free,” and then you meet someone and say something stupid and it’s a studio head. You just never know. It just took me awhile to come back around to that idea of when it’s work and when it’s party because that line can be a bit blurry. Obviously, there’s a fantastic array of different people in this industry—really dynamic and fascinating and witty people. I can’t especially recall what expectations I had before it, but there are things that are sort of important that I maybe didn’t fit inference on, out of what I was saying before about not wanting to front or to be seen as being superficial. If you’re fit and healthy, it’s not so much that you need to be taking your top off in auditions, but physically, you carry yourself differently if you’re feeling good about yourself. Exercise is the best anti-depressant there is. There was one time in L.A. where I went a bit hamburger crazy. I went all around town where I’d be doing, I don’t know, two or three burgers a day some days of the week because I just got so obsessed with hamburgers and trying to figure out where the best one was. I was just carrying a bit more weight and you don’t look great, and maybe I felt averse to that idea of looking after myself because I didn’t want to be fronting as a quee, pretty thing. I had a sort of resentment about inhabiting that space, but I just got a bit older and realized that’s bullshit. I should look after myself.
Being in that kind of headspace just goes to show how acting can permeate all areas of your life even when you’re not working.
Also, Los Angeles can be a bit Ground Hog Day because the weather is always constant and you’ve got a very set routine. Maybe you do a couple of auditions a week and that’s the extent of your workload, and if you view that and going to the gym as the extent of your workload and think, “That’s a pretty productive week,” it’s complete nonsense. That’s anti-workload. That’s fundamental stuff people should be doing anyway. I’m really making an effort at the moment to read a lot more and to spend less time on distractions to keep that in check. It’s so easy these days to get carried away with what’s right in front of you. Unfortunately, it’s that dimension of five-and-a-half inches in your hands. I don’t want to be taking anything for granted anymore. I’m just really grateful that I had my twenties relatively to myself and not on mass to everybody to laugh at me if I fell over because it’s brutal. You see people have real issues with it. Maybe I developed a neurosis about red carpets and representing because it’s not a comfortable environment, especially if you’re not feeling secure in yourself to be like, “I’m here and the film is cool so come and see it,” which is really all it should be. I just never really figured out how to move about it. But I’m getting there.
You also have Pedro Vaerla’s The Seven Sorrows of Mary coming up. What genre is that?
That was a nasty genre. It’s an abduction movie and it was really dark.
That’s in the can?
We finished that up last month. It was a very fast shoot, and it was harrowing. I played a character that’s complete opposite to Feeney, which is great. I’m just trying to show people that I’ve got dimensions and can do whatever you throw at me. That’s the challenge. That’s the fun in it.
When you do something “nasty” as you say, how do you then rid yourself of the darkness?
I shaved my head after that job and that’s the cathartic thing I decided to do. It was great because, instantly, I felt like myself again. But that’s also on you to look after yourself. The very first job I did was before Animal Kingdom—a student film shot for $20,000. It was a dystopian high school movie. My co-star was playing a character who flips out and I remember finding him on set crying and cradling the gun and rocking back and forwards inhabiting that space. I thought, “That’s not smart,” because, at the end of the day, you gotta be safe and understand what the objective is in all of that. The objective is that you come out of it safe, mentally and physically. That’s an important thing because it’s all incurred risk. You have to decompress in a healthy way. Have a bath every day at the end of work. Read some books when you’re not working. Again, it’s whatever works for you. It doesn’t matter. I don’t think the process particularly matters because it doesn’t even need to be talked about. It just needs to be done so that other people see it. That’s the exchange.