23 April 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
Five Minutes with ‘The Survivalist’ lead actor Martin McCann
14 Jul 2015 : Seán Brosnan
McCann’s powerful, internalized performance gaining plaudits after screenings at Tribeca, Belfast and now Galway
IFTN were at the Galway Film Fleadh last week where they caught up with ‘The Survivalist’ lead actor Martin McCann.

With ‘X+Y’, ‘71’ and Oscar nominated short film ‘Boogaloo and Graham’, it has been a fruitful 12 months for the Northern Irish actor. Previously working with writer/director Stephen Fingleton on his short film ‘Magpie’ (a pre-cursor to ‘The Survivalist’), McCann again took the lead in Fingleton’s debut feature film and has been garnering plaudits for his powerful and internalized performance.

IFTN: When Stephen Fingleton came to you with this idea – an idea he admitted himself was a hard sell to producers and financiers – what sold you on it?

Martin McCann:‘Well, funnily enough, myself and Stephen met this time three years ago at the Fleadh. I watched his short film ‘SLR’ which was just an absolutely phenomenal film with the amazing Liam Cunningham in the leading role and the fantastic Richard Dormer and Ryan McParland in it too. So, I met him at that and I could see Stephen just kind of walking around me, you know, kind of studying me and just being Stephen [laughs]. And he mentioned this short film ‘Magpie’ which was designed as a pre-cursor to convince the BFI that ‘The Survivalist’ could be made and should be made. So, I said I would love to do it, especially after watching ‘SLR’ – I thought it was an opportunity I definitely could not turn down.’

‘I did ‘Magpie’ without any notions that I would even be in ‘The Survivalist’ – I thought they would give that out to a big star or somebody famous. I really did not think they would hand it out to a lowly actor such as myself but they did. The fools! [laughs]’.

Would something like this be harrowing and nerve-wracking for an actor to go into – I mean the film begins with an extended period without dialogue and it was just you and the screen…

‘I always think the less dialogue the better because you have less of an opportunity to eff things up! I suppose it was a little bit strange but I did my homework. I went on a survival course and did a week of living out in the forest. I know it’s not much but I did things like building my own hut and hunting rabbits. I didn’t kill any rabbits now – I didn’t have the balls to do that but I did skin one. All those little details give you an extra layer of confidence going into a film like this. I mean, if you are going into a film about someone living off the land and you have never even spent a day or two living off the land – I think you may be able to act it but actually doing it certainly gives you an extra layer – because I had grabbed a rabbit and skinned it before, I was able to do it no problem on camera. Small things help – certainly doesn’t make the acting any better but those details can work for the camera a lot.’

A very strong script like this where so much is alluded to without actually being said or shown on screen – what sort of notes did Stephen give you here before the shoot – did he have a whole back story planned for the main character that gave you another extra layer when shooting?

‘Stephen is one of the most gifted people I have ever worked with and he is one of the sharpest people I have ever worked with and he is certainly one of the funniest people I have ever worked with! His notes are always technically brilliant - he has a real eye for aesthetics and has a great knack for storytelling – obviously as this script had topped the Brit List. He understands restraint and understands not mollycoddling the story. Every element of this story was truthful – painfully truthful at times. If it was more of a Hollywood film, everyone would be a little happier but this is a bleak story as its’ depicting bleak times and I think Stephen was mercilessly truthful to that.’

The fulcrum of this film is obviously the survivalist’s relationship with his two new lodgers (played by fantastic actresses Olwen Fouere and Mia Goth as a starving mother and daughter) in what is a very tense, claustrophobic and ultimately untenable living arrangement – how were shooting those scenes with Olwen and Mia?

‘We had a great relationship and respected each other’s crafts. To carry that sort of tension over to when the cameras aren’t rolling would be unhealthy so we would just go back to our hotels and relax and eat whatever high protein meals we were on at the time! But, they are the backbone of the film and without them the film would not be as strong as it is. You are only as good as the actor you are facing and they were actors who were all about the story and very selfless. They knew when to command a scene and when to not command a scene – like all good actors they were servants to the script.’

This is the third screening of ‘The Survivalist’ after Tribeca and Belfast and it has been a hat-trick of positive responses for the film – it must feel good after all the work and prep to have festival audiences take to it the way they did?

‘It feels great to do something like this and have it received so well. Sometimes you can put all the hard work and energy into something and it just doesn’t hit the mark. In theory this is a film that shouldn’t really hit the mark because of the subject that it’s about but Stephen made a really good film. People aren’t silly. They see art – they see it when it’s there in front of them and I think people have been very kind to Stephen and the film and I am just happy to be a part of it.’

It has been a busy year for you – you have starred in the Oscar nominated short ‘Boogaloo and Graham’, Yann Demange’s ‘71’ and you’re currently filming Kurt Sutter’s 13th century drama series ‘The Bastard Executioner’ – have you gotten any time off at all in the past few years?

‘Well, like any actor I will tell you that I have too much time off! [laughs]. Ah no, I have been very lucky over the past couple of years to be working as much as I have and I just want to keep at it.’

You have worked with Michael Lennox and Stephen Fingleton on a number of different projects now – two directors at the forefront of filmmaking in Northern Ireland and about to break out internationally too…is it exciting as an actor to be collaborating closely with those guys and I am sure you will work with them again…

‘The future of Irish cinema is in very good hands with Michael and Stephen. These are two very serious directors and two very good friends of mine. I can’t wait to see what Michael Lennox does – I think ‘A Patch of Fog’ is going to be fantastic – and I can’t wait to see what Stephen Fingleton does next either because you know it’s going to be good!’

You also had a small role in the Fleadh’s opening film this year – Simon Fitzmaurice’s coming of age ‘My Name is Emily’…

‘I just jumped at the opportunity to work with Simon as I had worked with him before in his short film ‘The Sound of People’. I got a call saying Simon was doing this and I said “look let me in I don’t care what the role is” so I came in and did a few days on the film and absolutely loved it. I think ‘My Name is Emily’ is one of the best Irish films I have seen in a while. Simon’s a true artist – a very visually and emotionally driven artist.’

What can you tell us then about ‘The Bastard Executioner’ – the US drama series conceived by ‘Sons of Anarchy’ creator Kurt Sutter?

‘Yeah we just shot that in Cardiff. That was a bit of craic! It was for Fox Television and was a very big-budget American project. Yeah, it’s medieval and eh, very American! I’ll say no more [laughs].’

Can you tell us about anything else you are working on at the minute?

‘Well, I just signed with WME (William Morris Endeavour) so let’s see what happens. All I want to do is keep working - and keep working with great people and learn from people who are a lot more talented than me! [laughs]. I mean that! That’s the only way you get better!’

Check out our interview with 'The Survivalist' writer/director Stephen Fingleton here.

2024 IFTA Award winners announced
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