SPIRIT OF AN IR­ISH REBEL

James Frecheville’s role in Black ’47 is a far cry from his An­i­mal King­dom days, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Black ’47

James Frecheville has his beard to thank for his lead role in Black ’47. It ren­ders him al­most un­recog­nis­able — you’d never know him from eight years ago as the teenager at the cen­tre of An­i­mal King­dom, in­ducted into a crime fam­ily and its chill­ing ways.

He has made only one film in Aus­tralia since An­i­mal King­dom: the drama Adore, based on a Doris Less­ing story about two women who have af­fairs with each other’s sons. He has worked over­seas: he has been ev­ery­thing from a small­time thief in The Drop to a cy­ber­stalker mak­ing Pierce Bros­nan’s life hell in I.T. to Cece’s Aussie love in­ter­est in a cou­ple of episodes of New Girl. And now in a much-ac­claimed per­for­mance, bearded like Ned Kelly, he’s Feeney, a for­mer sol­dier on a mis­sion of re­venge.

Black ’47 is a story of rage and ret­ri­bu­tion set in Ire­land in the 1840s. Feeney has been away for years, fight­ing for the British Army in places such as In­dia and Afghanistan. He goes AWOL to re­turn home, only to find his coun­try, his com­mu­nity and his fam­ily dev­as­tated. As an ex­sol­dier, he re­sponds in the only way he knows: by force. Hugo Weav­ing plays a for­mer com­rade, now a po­lice of­fi­cer, whose task is to hunt him down.

Frecheville was on a short­list for an­other char­ac­ter in the film but the pro­duc­ers saw a pic­ture of him on­line sport­ing a beard. “My fa­cial hair grows through very red,” he says. “They saw that and thought maybe I’d be a bet­ter fit for Feeney.” So he had an on­line meet­ing with the di­rec­tor and co-writer Lance Daly. “And after that he said, ‘I think you’re the guy for it.’ Then we had about two months to try to con­vince all the rest of the pow­ers that be that I was the right choice.”

Dur­ing that time he let his beard grow and stayed away from au­di­tions that came his way, de­ter­mined to make the most of this po­ten­tial op­por­tu­nity. He also threw him­self into more con­crete prepa­ra­tion, learn­ing to ride and prac­tis­ing with a weapon even be­fore he was cast.

“The greater part of find­ing my char­ac­ter was find­ing the phys­i­cal­ity of some­one who looked like they’d been sol­dier­ing for 13 years,” he says. “And I re­ally love films when there’s a con­ti­nu­ity of en­ergy and move­ment not di­min­ished by a cut” — he cites the fa­mous desert scene in Lawrence of Ara­bia, in which Omar Sharif ar­rives from afar. He wanted to be as ready as pos­si­ble to play this role, to make sure that he could bring ev­ery­thing to it.

Black ’47 is a bleak take on a cru­cial pe­riod of Ir­ish his­tory that barely has been the stuff of cin­ema be­fore. It takes place dur­ing what was known the Great Hunger, a four-year pe­riod of famine that re­duced the pop­u­la­tion of Ire­land by as much as 25 per cent. Dis­place­ment and mi­gra­tion trans­formed the coun­try, un­der­scored by the bru­tal be­hav­iour of land­lords and British troops.

The film pulls no punches in its de­pic­tion of those in power. Jim Broad­bent is the ap­palling Lord Kilmichael, the ab­sen­tee land­lord. Barry Keoghan, the re­mark­able young Ir­ish ac­tor who has made a strong im­pres­sion in films such as The Killing of a Sa­cred Deer, plays an English pri­vate who grad­u­ally comes to re­alise what his army is en­forc­ing. Stephen Rea is an enig­matic fig­ure, an op­por­tunis­tic lo­cal who of­fers to be a trans­la­tor and guide in the search for Feeney. And Fred­die Fox takes the role that Frecheville was orig­i­nally con­sid­ered for: an ar­ro­gant, smooth-cheeked English of­fi­cer.

In pre­par­ing for the role, it wasn’t just a mat­ter of learn­ing to ride: Frecheville also needed to be con­fi­dent han­dling weapons and speak­ing the Ir­ish lan­guage. He is full of en­thu­si­asm for those tasks and the peo­ple who helped him tackle them. For lan­guage train­ing as well as the singing of an Ir­ish song, his teacher was ac­tor and coach Peadar Cox. “He was a fan­tas­tic teacher. And he played a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent roles in the film too. I think he ap­pears three times in all, he’s like an Easter egg.”

Frecheville felt up to the chal­lenge of tak­ing on an Ir­ish char­ac­ter and speak­ing the lan­guage in sev­eral scenes. “I’ve got Ir­ish on my mother’s side, Welsh and Scot­tish on my fa­ther’s side,” he says, adding that he has been told that he has man­aged to come across as a fairly con­vinc­ing fig­ure for Ir­ish view­ers.

And he thinks there’s value in be­ing an un­fa­mil­iar pres­ence. “If peo­ple knew me as an Ir­ish ac­tor, they’d be think­ing about that — but maybe one of the things that works is that no one can place me.”

When it came to weapons train­ing, he re­calls, “We had a re­ally fan­tas­tic ar­mourer called Boyd Rankin who was orig­i­nally a chemist. He was a weapons re-en­act­ment hob­by­ist do­ing me­dieval role-play­ing and stuff like that, and he be­came the black­smith for Game of Thrones.” Rankin forged all the weapons for the main cast of the se­ries, and made Frecheville a kukri, a Nepalese curved sword, and found him a rare ri­fle — an ele­phant-shoot­ing gun.

Frecheville’s other re­search was less about spe­cific his­tor­i­cal de­tails and more about imag­in­ing the life of his char­ac­ter and his re­sponses to cri­sis and trauma. Daly, as the di­rec­tor, An­i­mal King­dom presided over the big pic­ture, he says. As the ac­tor play­ing Feeney, he says, “A good deal of the char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion and man­ner­isms and phys­i­cal­ity and choices were mine and I just felt re­ally grat­i­fied that I had the time to do it.”

He rev­elled in the op­por­tu­nity to pre­pare for Black ’47. In his ca­reer so far, it seems he of­ten has been cast with lit­tle time to re­flect or pre­pare be­fore pro­duc­tion be­gins.

“What I’m most chas­ing is a role with prepa­ra­tion, so I can build it rather than jump­ing on at short no­tice.” He re­cently fin­ished mak­ing Seven Sor­rows of Mary, a movie that ex­em­pli­fies this: he had a meet­ing on Wed­nes­day, was of­fered the role on Fri­day, and was shoot­ing in Brazil the fol­low­ing Wed­nes­day.

Yet you can have good ex­pe­ri­ences that come about at the last minute, he adds. “You need to be dex­ter­ous and flex­i­ble as a young ac­tor, and have clar­ity, so you can do a job at short no­tice if it pops up.”

We talk about two ex­am­ples: a fea­ture, The Stan­ford Prison Ex­per­i­ment, and a TV se­ries, Re­quiem, both of which came at the last minute. The Stan­ford Prison Ex­per­i­ment — a drama­ti­sa­tion that faith­fully fol­lowed the tran­scripts of a fa­mous 1971 psy­cho­log­i­cal study of the ex­er­cise of per­ceived power — was a won­der­ful en­sem­ble ex­pe­ri­ence, he says, which in­volved work­ing along­side a host of up-and-com­ing young ac­tors. Straight after Black he shaved off his beard and went to work on the su­per­nat­u­ral thriller Re­quiem, a TV se­ries shot in Wales for di­rec­tor Ma­halia Belo, “who was re­ally great”.

His char­ac­ter, he says, “was kind of a mon­ey­grub­ber” — his task was to find the truth and hu­man­ity in the char­ac­ter. It’s al­ways that way. “You can go for a role with all the bells and whis­tles, it’s got all the things that ap­pease the ego, but at the end of the day it’s about try­ing to make some­thing true and real. Peo­ple are com­pli­cated and mul­ti­fac­eted,” he says, and the ac­tor’s per­for­mance needs to re­flect that.

“I love the process, and I’ve been re­ally for­tu­nate to have started in the way that I started. I did youth the­atre for about 10 years be­fore An­i­mal King­dom, and then hav­ing that hap­pen as it hap­pened was a com­plete rar­ity. And since then I’ve sort of used my ca­reer as an ap­pren­tice­ship, try­ing to just ripen up and not be as green as I was when I started.”

He is not sure why he hasn’t worked in Aus­tralia for a while. “I don’t know if that’s be­cause I’ve been try­ing to be picky and come back with a bet­ter skill set to add more and not be type­cast — I don’t know, I’m com­pletely open to work­ing ev­ery­where. At the mo­ment I’m based in Lon­don. I was in LA for a long time, and I wanted to have a change. I have as­pi­ra­tions to get on stage, but I want to take it step by step.”

What­ever comes next, he’d like a job with more prepa­ra­tion time, and he wouldn’t mind a bit of com­edy for a change — he has played a lot of dark roles. “Per­haps a mu­si­cal,” he says. “My mum would be happy with that.” opens on Thurs­day.

WHAT I’M MOST CHAS­ING IS A ROLE WITH PREPA­RA­TION, SO I CAN BUILD IT

JAMES FRECHEVILLE

James Frecheville in Black ‘47; be­low, Frecheville and Laura Wheel­wright in 2010’s

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