Martin McCann gets a role worthy of his skills in The Survivalist
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.”
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
THE SURVIVALIST ★★★★
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.
“You learn how to look for trespassers, how to start a fire”
Call of the wild: Martin McCann in The Survivalist