Rising 23-year-old Irish actor Conor MacNeill is set to make a splash this Bank Holiday Monday in IFTA award-winning director Maurice Sweeney’s much-anticipated Titanic film ‘Saving The Titanic’.
The 90-minute drama-documentary focuses on the engineers in the boiler room of the doomed ship. MacNeill stars in the supporting role of Frank Bell, son to Joseph Bell, who is played by David Wilmot.
Belfast-born actor MacNeill began acting on the stage at the age of 14 and first appeared on the big screen alongside Jim Sturgess and Ben Kingsley in director Kari Skogland’s ‘50 Dead Men Walking’. That was followed by an appearance in Oliver Hirschbeigel’s ‘Five Minutes of Heaven’ opposite James Nesbitt and Liam Neeson.
After ‘Saving The Titanic’, he will next be seen in Oscar-winner Terry George’s ‘A Whole Lotta Sole’ alongside Brendan Frazer, David O’Hara and Martin McCann. Before ‘Saving The Titanic’ airs on RTÉ One this Bank Holiday Monday (April 9) at 9pm, IFTN caught up with Conor…
Tell us about your role in Saving The Titanic?
I play Frank Bell, son to chief engineer of the ship Joseph Bell. He is a complete Titanic obsessive and is desperate for a job on the ship; luckily his father had other ideas for him.
What was the shoot like?
You know, it was one of the most pleasant and enjoyable shoots I have ever been on. Maurice created a completely stress free environment and a lot of us had worked together before, so there was a great sense of camaraderie among all the lads. The sets were incredible too, especially the steam engines that we shot in London.
How did you land the part?
Louise Kiely had cast me a few times before so she got me in to read for Maurice and that was that really. I also think both David (Wilmot) and I being part of the ginger army helped things along (laughs).
How did you first become interested in becoming an actor?
It was a complete fluke; I had never really planned on it. I played the trad flute when I was younger and it just so happened that a family member was working for a theatre company who needed a young lad who could play the flute for a show they were doing. I auditioned, landed the part and that was that... I got the bug I suppose.
Working alongside experienced actors like David Wilmot, what kind of things do you pick up about your craft?
It’s funny; I have worked with a lot of hugely successful people before. But I was by far the most intimidated about meeting David. He is such a solid actor. He’s someone I grew up watching and has a career I massively admire. He is a very generous actor to work with. The most valuable thing I picked up from him was not to panic about a scene, simply to “be calm” and just let it happen.
In your opinion, what makes for a good actor?
I wish I knew the answer to this one! I think the best actors are always very brave and bold in their choices even if sometimes it isn’t right for the role. I find actors who work on instinct and gut feeling are always the most exciting to watch.
Can you remember what or whom it was that first inspired you to become an actor…
Completely! Zeal Theatre Company had this amazing two-hander for young people called ‘The Stones’. I saw it at Feile An Phobail in Belfast when I was about 16. The two actors chopped and changed characters like they were changing pieces of clothing. I was spellbound. Also seeing Cillian Murphy in the film version of ‘Disco Pigs’, I remember thinking “I want to do that”. It completely solidified for me that acting was the way forward.
The hardest thing about my profession is…. waiting on the phone to ring. It’s the most excruciating thing when you know you have nailed a meeting or really want the part and then you have to wait for the call to tell you if you got it or not.
Have you completed any training courses in Ireland?
No. Drama school is something that passed me by. I have been incredibly lucky, and have worked fairly solidly since leaving school, so I’ve had to learn on the job. I did the Corn Exchange improv workshops at The Abbey last year, led by Annie Ryan. They were excellent, one of the most terrifying but completely enjoyable experiences I have had.
How much work in Ireland is there for an actor?
I think the work is there, albeit it likes to hide from us from time to time. There are some huge English and American productions filming in Dublin and Belfast at the minute. And our own filmmakers are producing some really brave and exciting work. Also, the Irish theatre community is so supportive and strong. We are very lucky that we have that. When I’m not working I write. I believe that if the work isn’t there don’t sit about moaning, go out and make it for your self.
In your career, you’ve done a lot of theatre work. What is the biggest difference between acting on stage and for the screen?
Generally they are the same so far as approaching character and finding the truth of a scene. The only real difference is technical things regarding your voice and blocking. Theatre is like a bit of a marathon, you have to see it right through to the end, there is something magical about that.
Do you prefer one over the other?
Honestly I love both. Good script and character are all that really matter to me. If the work is good you will enjoy the job regardless of what medium it is in.
What was your first paid job having left school?
As soon as I left school, I went straight into rehearsals for ‘Scenes From The Big Picture’ with Primecut theatre company. It was directed by Conall Morrison and I was simultaneously filming ‘Peacefire’, directed by Macdara Vallely. Gerard Jordan was in both shows with me. I remember we started filming at 5am, left set at 5pm, drove straight to the theatre, did the show, then got up the next morning and did it all again. (laughs). I have never enjoyed being exhausted so much.
What’s the most ‘Hollywood’ thing that’s ever happened to you?
Getting nominated for the Nymph d’Or at Monte Carlo was surreal. Jeremy Piven, Peter Capaldi and Steve Carell were all in my category. Pretty Hollywood (laughs).
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
I honestly can’t complain. I feel very privileged to be able to do the job that I love. Not everyone gets to do that in life.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career?
Not to worry or think about other people’s careers or what work they are doing that you aren’t. Concentrate on your own. Every career path is different. I think that was very important for me to hear that when I was starting out. I wanted to do everything, play every part. Jealousy and dejection are both horrible things.
What changes would you like to see in the Irish Film / Television industry? What works and what doesn’t work in your opinion?
So far as the work is concerned, I think Ireland is at a really exciting point. This year we have ‘Good Vibrations’, ‘A Whole Lotta Sole’, ‘Dollhouse’, ‘Grabbers’, ‘Citadel’ and the third series of ‘Love/Hate’ - all massively different in their style and content. It’s a properly exciting time for the Irish industry! And look, you will always find problems, but that comes down to institutions and money, and people who don’t have a clue being given jobs that gives them permission to make decisions on “art”. But I think we have enough exciting and intelligent people working here, who will ensure that the quality work will always shine through.
What is your motto?
In life, as in acting, “keep calm and carry on”
What projects have you got currently in the works/ next on the cards?
I am very excited for Terry George’s ‘A Whole Lotta Sole’ to come out. I am in that along side Martin McCann, Brendan Frazer and David O’Hara. I had such a good time filming it; I just want people to see it now. It is premiering this month at the Tribeca Film Festival and then hitting Irish shores not so long after.
I have also just finished filming in Co Down on ‘Privates’, a new series for the BBC, it was directed by Bryn Higgins and follows the story of eight lads all conscribed to British national service in 1961. It is set to air in the UK later in the year.
Viewers should tune into ‘Saving The Titanic’ on RTÉ One on Monday (April 9) because…. It is based on real men who worked in the engine rooms, who in their last hours tried their hardest to keep the ship afloat. There is no glamour or romance or outlandish costumes. The cast are all brilliant. But most importantly it is honest to the people who lost their lives. I think it is very important that we remember them.