SPIRIT OF AN IRISH REBEL
James Frecheville’s role in Black ’47 is a far cry from his Animal Kingdom days, writes Philippa Hawker
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 in Black ‘47; below, Frecheville and Laura Wheelwright in 2010’s