Sur­vival in­stincts

Martin McCann gets a role wor­thy of his skills in The Sur­vival­ist

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE - TARA BRADY

If we’re known for any­thing at all, Ul­ster folk are known for keep­ing our feet firmly on the ground. You won’t find us get­ting ideas above our sta­tion.

Martin McCann, an ar­tic­u­late, end­lessly friendly West-Belfast man, has plenty to crow about. Plucked from am­a­teur dra­mat­ics, he took the lead role in Richard At­ten­bor­ough’s Clos­ing the Ring and went on to se­cure a re­cur­ring role in Steven Spiel­berg’s TV epic The Pa­cific. He played the tit­u­lar singer in Killing Bono. His ex­haust­ing, im­mer­sive role in Stephen Fin­gle­ton’s ex­cel­lent The Sur­vival­ist has just se­cured the ac­tor a big agent. Does he crow? Away and boil your head.

“Af­ter I did Clos­ing the Ring I flew to LA and met Steven Spiel­berg,” he says. “But look. There are only a few like Michael Fass­ben­der and Colin Far­rell. They’re movie stars. If you start act­ing hop­ing to be Colin Far­rell or Michael Fass­ben­der, then those ideas soon leave you. All you care about is get­ting the next job. When you start think­ing like that, it’s a sign of ma­tu­rity.”

Al­though made on a lim­ited bud­get inand around his­toric Bal­ly­money, The Sur­vival­ist is the sort of film that at­tracts at­ten­tion. McCann plays one of the few hu­man sur­vivors of an eco­log­i­cal melt­down. Slimmed down to a wor­ry­ingly gaunt frame, he bat­tles in­trud­ers, tends his crops and man­ages an in­creas­ingly frac­tured psy­che. He is in vir­tu­ally ev­ery shot.

“It’s a dif­fi­cult watch and it’s not a laugh-a-minute,” he says. “I was sent on this sur­vival­ist course and what you see is pretty ac­cu­rate. You learn how to look for tres­passers, how to start a fire. If you had a small crop in such cir­cum­stances, peo­ple may well try and take it.”

So could he now sur­vive in the wilds if aban­doned?

“For a few hours. If my car broke down on the mo­tor­way I could now sur­vive for two or three hours un­til help ar­rived. Ha ha.”

McCann has re­ally com­mit­ted to The Sur­vival­ist. He al­lows him­self to be seen in the rough­est form of un­dress. In one un­set­tling scene the hero, erm, plea­sures him­self into a tray of seedlings (there’s nu­tri­ents in that stuff). Never a heavy fel­low, he also man­aged to lose some weight for the film.

“That was tough. When you’ve had a 12-hour day all you want to do is eat a pack of choco­late bis­cuits. It was 12 weeks of sal­ads and fish. When you haven’t got that much to lose, your body just doesn’t want to go any­where. The en­ergy drain is very chal­leng­ing.”

Pos­i­tive ap­proach

McCann ra­di­ates pos­i­tiv­ity. You need that sort of at­ti­tude to keep head above wa­ter in the act­ing busi­ness. Raised in the Divis Flats, he at­tended the Rain­bow Fac­tory, a theatre pro­ject for young peo­ple, and soon found him­self se­cur­ing the flashier lead roles. This was the late-1990s. Times were chang­ing.

“I was very young dur­ing the worst days, but if you were born in the Divis Flats you still saw the af­ter ef­fects,” he says. “The rea­son my mum got me in­volved in act­ing was not that she thought I’d join the paramil­i­taries and be­come a crim­i­nal if I didn’t. It wasn’t that far-fetched. She just felt there wasn’t a lot go­ing on in that part of Belfast for my gen­er­a­tion. I tried box­ing, but Iwas a bet­ter ac­tor than I was a boxer.”

Did he think about be­com­ing a pro­fes­sional ac­tor at that stage? Was this even on the radar?

“No­body in my area did that,” he says. “I didn’t even know you could get paid for it. It just seemed like a hobby.”

Ap­pear­ing re­cently in Rip­per Street, ‘71 and Shadow Dancer, McCann now di­vides his time be­tween Lon­don, Belfast and wher­ever else the work lies. His home city must have changed a lot since he was a lad.

“I’ve seen Divis Flats knocked down,” he says. “I’ve seen col­leges be­ing built. I’ve seen young teenagers do­ing well from both sides of ‘ the di­vide’. But not enough is be­ing done to put those old griev­ances aside. There are peo­ple I could name who aren’t do­ing enough but I won’t, be­cause then it would be­come my prob­lem. We have too many opin­ions up here. Ha ha.”

Win­ner of a prize at the re­cent Bri­tish In­de­pen­dent Film Awards, The Sur­vival­ist is pick­ing up great re­views wher­ever it trav­els. The per­for­mance se­cured him rep­re­sen­ta­tion with the hugely pow­er­ful WME agency. Is there no chance he’ll now al­low him­self to dream of be­com­ing a movie star?

“That idea gets beaten out of you,” he laughs. “If it ever does come then it will come as a sur­prise. Af­ter 10 years of au­di­tions and a few years of do­ing jobs you can’t bear to watch, you get over all that. And that’s for your own good.”

When you haven’t got that much to lose, your body just doesn’t want to go any­where. The en­ergy drain is very chal­leng­ing


Di­rected by Stephen Fin­gle­ton. Star­ring Martin McCann, Mia Goth, Ol­wen Fouéré. Cert 18, gen­eral re­lease, 118mins

At last. Some­body has read our minds and put Martin McCann ex­actly where he be­longs: un­der a clas­sic mul­let as the hero of a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic thriller.

As Stephen Fin­gle­ton’s ex­cel­lent drama be­gins, the hith­erto un­der-utilised Ir­ish ac­tor is holed up in a small wooden cabin that may be si­t­u­ated, we sus­pect, not too far from Conor Hor­gan’s sim­i­larly-themed One Hun­dred


Open­ing scenes that are al­most as pre­cise as our hero es­tab­lish ruth­less self­suf­fi­ciency and the some­times un­ortho­dox care he takes of his small crop. We know, too, that he will not flinch from pro­tect­ing his homestead.

Inevitably, oth­ers come. A middle-aged mother who in­tro­duces her­self as Kathryn (Ol­wen Fouéré) and her younger daugh­ter, Milja ( Nympho­ma­niac Vol 2’ s Mia Goth) ar­rive seek­ing shel­ter. When seeds won’t per­suade the re­luc­tant host, Milja is of­fered in­stead. The reclusive farmer agrees and the women make them­selves, un­easily, at home. An al­liance forms, plots are hatched, al­le­giances shift: a Mex­i­can stand-off based on needs and for­aged mush­rooms en­sues. Try­ing, im­pos­si­ble days make way for dan­ger­ous nights. A se­ries of nervewreck­ing set-pieces re­mind us that what­ever dan­gers lurk in­doors are prefer­able to the law­less­ness with­out.

Mad Max: Fury Road re­quired $200 mil­lion dol­lars and heaps of CG bells and whis­tles to re­alise what The

Sur­vival­ist con­veys with sal­vaged ev­ery­day ob­jects, bod­ily flu­ids, vi­o­lence and car­nal­ity. An al­ready earthy film, off­set with an­i­mal­is­tic im­pulses, is punc­tu­ated by Damien El­liot’s stealthy track­ing shots through ver­dant wilder­ness. The sto­ry­telling is piti­lessly and com­mend­ably eco­nomic.

A tri­umvi­rate of splen­did ac­tors ar­tic­u­late the grim cir­cum­stances of their char­ac­ters: oc­ca­sional glim­mers of hu­man­ity do not over­shadow their hard­ened, prac­ti­cal, and base sen­si­bil­i­ties.

This is Stephen Fin­gle­ton’s first fea­ture: we can’t wait to see where he goes from here.

Martin McCann

“You learn how to look for tres­passers, how to start a fire”

Call of the wild: Martin McCann in The Sur­vival­ist

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