27 January 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Five Mins with… Joe Mullins, Actor in ‘Pilgrim Hill’
13 Jun 2013 : By Kevin Cronin
Joe Mullins, represented by Karl Hayden of The Agency.
Theatre veteran Joe Mullins, lead actor in ‘Pilgrim Hill’, has attracted worldwide attention over the past year as Gerard Barrett’s directorial feature debut garners critical acclaim.

‘Pilgrim Hill’ garnered significant public awareness when it’s young director Gerard Barrett won the IFTA Rising Star Award at the annual IFTA Awards Ceremony in February this year and was watched by 1.24 Million viewers.

It had by that time screened in a number of international festivals like Telluride in Colorado and Tribeca in New York, having firstly been screened at the Galway Film Fleadh, winning the Bingham Ray New Talent Award there and garnering widespread praise for its young director and Mullin’s star-making performance.

Following his recent signing with Karl Hayden of The Agency, Mr Mullins has a number of upcoming roles in the pipeline including an appearance in the highly anticipated fourth season of ‘Love/Hate’.

Taking the time to chat to IFTN this week, M Mullins reflected on his experiences making ‘Pilgrim Hill’, why it has connected so powerfully with audiences worldwide, and his background as a stage actor before he was spotted by Gerard Barrett sitting in the audience on one fateful night.

Mr Mullins, can you tell us how you first got the part of Jimmy Walsh in ‘Pilgrim Hill’?
I’d been touring around Munster, doing a series of short plays by John Millington Synge, in celebration of his centenary, when Gerard Barrett came to see it. He was taken with what I had done anyway, and after the performance he came backstage and asked if I would be interested in reading a screenplay he had finished. So I took it home, read it, and really connected with the main character. The next morning, I rang him back and we met up and had a long discussion about it. He screen-tested me and liked what I had done and signed me onboard.

How difficult was it taking on such a challenging role as Jimmy, who carries the whole film on his shoulders, and delivers so much emotion directly into the camera?
Over the years I had done a lot of theatre and very little in front of the camera so it was, in a sense, a baptism of fire. I had to get used to a different style of acting, which required having to pull back instead of push a performance. I was lucky with Ger because he had very strong ideas for what he wanted but he was always open to suggestions. He’d give you his ideas and you’d go home that night and learn the monologues and we’d work on them the next day. When we filmed it, there was only Ger, myself and our very good cinematographer from Cork, Ian D. Murphy.

The monologues to camera seem to take on almost a confessional tone. Was that intentional?
They do and I don’t know if Ger had intended it that way but it worked very well. Both Ger and I had grown up on farms in the country, so we knew the background and unfortunately you’d see Jimmy Walshes in the countryside a lot too. I had an uncle who would have been a bachelor farmer all his life, and so had Ger. From studying him, I started wondering what it was like to live like that. In that situation you don’t even have anybody to pass the farm onto.

How did you find Gerard Barrett as a director?
He’s very focused in what he wants. For any actor, it was really a dream to work with Ger. He wasn’t set in stone with anything. You could discuss things, try different ways of doing a scene and he was open to new ideas. He put together a lovely script. The character just jumped out of the page when I read it.

How did you tackle the relationship dynamic between Jimmy and his father who is never shown on screen?
The idea behind not seeing the father is that people hopefully will bring their own image of somebody that they know to it and they may connect with the part more. From talking to people at questions & answers, it seems to have worked very much. Those scenes help to explain where Jimmy is coming from and why he’s still on the farm and has such loyalty to his father, whose bitterness is a result of what happened to his wife, who committed suicide. That’s why he takes it out on his son.

Have you been surprised by the reaction to the film at home and abroad or did you have any idea of the success it would be?
We were delighted we got into the Galway Film Fleadh and there were agents from other festivals around the world there. I can remember being in Telluride and thinking people wouldn’t get it. I remember going up to the cinema one night and there were 600 people at it and a queue going down the street, and I said to Ger ‘oh God, this is going to die a death’. But I was sitting in the back of the cinema and saw everyone connecting with it. It is a universal story dealing with loneliness. Everybody has had to deal with loneliness at some time in their lives - whether they’ve lost somebody in the family or their relationship has broken up or they’ve had to move away. So everyone connected with the film on some level.

Do you have a favourite scene from an acting point of view that you’re most proud of?
There’s one scene in particular that a lot of people have picked up on. It was filmed at dusk, where Jimmy realises his cattle are going to be taken away from him. He’s walking amongst them and laying his hands on them, which felt like a nice thing to do at the time. That scene meant a lot to anyone who has grown up in the country. I remember that happening to my family too when I was young. My father would have been a tough man. He was from a generation in the 20’s and 30’s, and I remember there were tears in his eyes when the cattle were taken away. That memory was something I could draw from as well.

At the end of the film, do you see any light at the end of the tunnel for Jimmy? Or has he lost his spirit and accepted his fate?
Throughout the film he’s talking to somebody, so we left it up to the audience to decide. Some people seem to think that maybe he’s looking for help and that’s a good start for Jimmy. Some people who live on their own on farms, they do get out and mix, but there are others who don’t. We could have ended the film on a happy note but sometimes there is no third act for these people.

Pilgrim Hill is now available on DVD and Volta, video on demand streaming, by clicking here.

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