7 December 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Dark Lies The Island star Peter Coonan talks with IFTN
23 Oct 2019 : Nathan Griffin
Dark Lies The Island
IFTN caught up with Irish actor Peter Coonan to find out more about developing a shorthand with director Ian Fitzgibbon, the on-set dynamic of working with a seasoned Irish cast and upcoming projects Arracht and Cold Courage.

Dark Lies the Island is an Irish comedy about a family spinning out of control in a small rural town where two brothers (Moe Dunford and Peter Coonan) try to crawl out from the shadow of their domineering father (Pat Shortt) while his young wife (Charlie Murphy) is trapped in a whirlpool of sexual jealousy.

Written by Kevin Barry, Dark Lies the Island is the fifth film for director Ian FitzGibbon (Perrier's Bounty, Death of a Superhero), who has helmed hit TV shows such as Moone BoyRaised By Wolves and People of Earth.

Produced by Michael Garland (The Legend of Longwood, Death of a Superhero) for Grand Pictures, the black comedy's has an incredible ensemble cast including Pat Shortt (Garage, Queen & Country); Peter Coonan (PenanceThe Drummer and the Keeper); Moe Dunford (Handsome Devil, Patrick’s Day); Charlie Murphy (The ForeignerPhilomena); Tommy Tiernan (Derry Girls, Dave Allen at Peace) and Jana Mohieden.

Dark Lies the Island is currently on release in select Irish cinemas across Ireland.

IFTN: What was it that attracted you to the project in the first place?

Peter: What attracted me to the project? The fact that I got a part… That's always an attraction! The first time I read this for the audition, no point in denying you've got to audition for most things, I remember coming back and reading it with my better half and even she was saying this part is definitely suited to you. Part of me was thinking, ‘If I don't get this now, I might as well look elsewhere for a job or a future.” (laughs)

I got a call to say that I was the best choice and they were trying to work it all out. I was delighted to have gotten the part. Initially, it was the script that I liked, the characterisation of this brilliantly-crafted character. This juxtaposition of a very tortured soul struggling to deal with a tragedy that has befallen him, how many years ago? We don't really know in the film, but he's obviously had a tumultuous time of it in his childhood and into his teens. The way he created this completely flawed character who was dealing with the aftermath of a serious tragedy and a sequence of tragedies it seems, that's how I play it in my head, but then had the capability to keep a couple of businesses afloat from within his caravan and the subsequent agoraphobia that he is dealing with. He hasn't grown up from that situation, from an emotional maturity point of view, but still has the smarts and the wherewithal to keep these three businesses afloat just by using a mobile phone and being business savvy and smart. That's a brilliantly crafted character.”

“It's not one thing or another. Immediately, you see some characters and it's like this is what he is but with this it's not. There's so much more depth and layers to the character. I think initially there's always a moment of fear that's attached to any character that's worthwhile because you have that situation where you say to yourself ‘Can I do this?’. You don't want to go too far one way or the other because they all have to be believable and you have to try and play a steady line so (a) you're dealing with the language at a certain level and that it's believable, that this is how they speak, but also (b) that you're maintaining a controlled emotional level, I suppose, so that it's not too wild, or too down. So it was about trying to bridge those two characteristics.”

IFTN: The movie also sees you share the screen with a fantastic Irish cast. Can you tell me a little bit about working with the likes of Charlie Murphy, Moe Dunford, Pat Shortt, and Tommy Tiernan?

Peter: It was all a dream. Every day you're coming in and you're like working in front of all these brilliant characters and people. They're phenomenal to work alongside and the commitment from them is incredible.”

“To start with Charlie I hadn't worked much with her on Love/Hate. Obviously, we knew each other very well. We were a part of something quite special, but to do one-on-one scenes with her was a treat because I hadn't got to do it before. She's just such a pro and so sure of herself as an actress. That kind of gives you a good atmosphere to be working with someone that's so confident with herself and so forthcoming and generous as an actress. We had some lovely scenes together that are quite tender. It was nice to work them out and to have gone through the process with her.”

“Having Ian (Fitzgibbon) at the helm was also great, he is a really, really, really inspiring director to work for and he pushed me into areas I hadn’t been, to trust myself. Then Moe as well, I've been dying to work with Moe for a long time and we had some great scenes together as brothers. We talked about that a lot, to understand the relationships and the background, the family, and the father. That was lovely. Moe is another really thoughtful, considerate and sensitive actor.”

“Then Pat, I've worked with before. He is brilliant and such a character to have on set and such a positive energy. I hadn't worked with Tommy before. Obviously, he hasn't done that much acting but he did train as an actor before he got into comedy. His approach to the scenes and to the character was something everyone found hugely impressive because he's such a well-read and smart man. He approached it with the same kind of intensity that he would in any of the work that he does. When we were doing scenes that were maybe only half a page long, he'd put the same work into that as he would a scene with three pages. I think he was so sure of himself as to how he wanted to do it, and I think someone coming in from having done that most of the time, it must have been quite refreshing to see someone who was sure of how he wanted to play it. I think when you see it on the screen; it's a really vulnerable and touching performance.”

IFTN: You obviously touched on it briefly there about working with director Ian Fitzgibbon. Can you tell me a little bit more about that dynamic that you were talking about on set?

Peter: I think my point of view as an actor coming into something like this is, I knew that I was going to tap into something that was allowing myself to be more vulnerable as a performer, which kind of means trusting yourself and letting yourself go, but also I think it meant to not necessarily feel like you have to constantly act.”

“Look, you start off as an actor and you are hugely enthusiastic, hugely energetic. You have a lot to prove, you want to show people that you can act and I think whatever energy you are putting out in that regard, the roles you get match up if you are lucky enough. That kind of happened with me. Then as I’ve gotten older and obviously become a parent, you become more assured in yourself and you are not trying as hard to prove to people that you can act and you can start to find directors, people, and characters. In so doing, you have to let yourself trust yourself and go into these scenes and let the vulnerability come out. This brings a calm approach to acting as opposed to sometimes energetic along with the willfulness to bring a certain type of energy to a scene.

“With Ian, I think he was very much trying to make the language coming out of each character natural. The film has such a strong vernacular and visceral language. It is beautifully written. With Ian, I had to trust him to go to these places. For him sometimes to just tell me to trust myself and go with it. That is the perfect level to go with and it is a new kind of level to go with because more can come out in that regard when you are not trying to do too much.”

IFTN: Yes, I would say that it was particularly pertinent for you taking on the character of Doggy Mannion who is a pretty eccentric off-the-wall character. I’m sure it was great to have that sort of support behind it.

Peter: Yes, that is exactly it. You need that there to allow for the nuances to come out I suppose, not that I am saying that it was a nuanced performance, but for little bits to come out when you have done the work. When the preparation has been done, it can come out because sometimes I think, I for one, have fallen into the idea of trying to do too much.”

IFTN: Yes and I also wanted to quickly ask you about Cold Courage which you're set to feature in. That is being pegged as Finland's biggest ever international drama. How exactly did you get involved with that and what was your experience like doing a project like that?

Peter: I think it came on my doorstep because the story came to a mate of mine working for me outside of Ireland. I was eager to do more work internationally so she went searching for it and she came upon this story that was being put together. There was an Irish character, an Irish ex-cop. She kind of played it smartly and, lo and behold, they were over to do some recces and to look around. I invited them to come see me do a play in the Abbey, but they were too busy so I met them in a hotel in Dublin and we just had a chat and a drink. We spoke about the work and I said, "Well if you need to see any of my previous stuff, I can drop it down to you’, which I did, I cycled down on my bike to the Marker Hotel and dropped them a copy of the Love/Hate box set. So they had a reference to go on.

A showreel is one thing, but if you want to watch someone over a bit of time they can flick through and see if they like it. Then they came back and said that they would be delighted to have me on board. It got started, but then it got pushed. So you are in your head going, ‘is going to happen or not?’, but soon after that, they told us that we were starting in January this year. It was a great experience. I worked with some phenomenal actors both male and female from Finland, Sweden, Belgium, Ireland and England, all over. It was a wide-ranging international cast, which was brilliant.”

IFTN: Yes, it looks very interesting. A quite timely story as well.

Peter: Absolutely yes. The examination of the far-right movement, which you can see happening all over the world. That is a very interesting kind of storyline. That is very relevant to this day. I am excited to see how it goes. It is exciting when you kind of go over to kind of represent your country in a certain way; to fly the flag for Ireland with other international actors. I think the storyline is very interesting. The clandestine group of ex-cops. Different people in different paths that we do not touch on in the first season, but we know that they have different paths and then they are all brought together by this main character, Maria. They are trying to tackle this right-wing movement that is happening in specific cases around the world at the moment. Yes, it was a really interesting challenge again for a different character for an Irish ex-cop working as a metropolitan police officer, which I did research for. I went over and met a few lads in the police force. I did a few days in the back of a car and was going around with a bulletproof vest on and checking out how it goes.”

IFTN: That must have made for interesting research.

Peter: Yes, it is amazing to do something like that. You have to go out and do these things off your own bat, but it is imperative to the work.”

IFTN: Another project I am very interested to know about is Arracht; made as part of the Cine4 initiative. What can you tell me about it and the character that you are playing in that?

Peter: Yes, I read that script initially and I was completely blown away by it because I think the wonderful thing about feature films in the Irish language is that the people who write them are writing scripts to tell a story that is more often than not made for the Irish people. In this story it is particularly specific, a very important part of Irish history obviously. It is a very personal story where we are following one man's journey within this horrific time in history. The writing is for us. It is not like it has been written to try and sell abroad or anything else like that. It is just a very unique specifically Irish story told about Irish people, for Irish people.”

“When I read it ás Gaeilge, I found myself quite emotional because it spoke to me in a certain way. If you follow one man's journey through this emotional and unbelievably difficult time that you kind of feel, ‘God this is what people went through, this was the devastation. This is the tragedy that our ancestors went through.’ I think it really rang home for me and it was a really positive outcome of Cine4’s idea to put forward four Irish language films in a year. I think that's exactly the kind of film that they were looking for. Tom did a beautiful job in the script.”

“So then he came and asked me to play (laughs) an English character…”

“I suppose, I have fluent Irish but it's not my first language and it’s not as good as other people that were in it from the Gaeltacht. Dónal (Ó Héalaí) did incredible work, he looked amazing. He did some really, really Christian Bale-esque stuff to get into character, alongside Dara Devaney and a couple of these astonishing actors. My Irish wouldn't have been as up to their standard. I was happy to come in and do whatever because I was so impressed with the script.”

“I went down and played an Englishman hired by the crown to try and find this guy who is on the run for various reasons and comes up empty. It was a bit of fun playing an English character within an Irish setting. We'll wait and see how it goes down but I saw some of the clips and it looked beautiful.”

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