Good Luck 'Boogaloo and Graham' at the Oscars!

Star Martin McCann on being part of a 'special Belfast film' and why screenwriter and school teacher Ronan Blaney is 'one of the best writers in Ireland today'

Martin McCann is an actor with his feet on the ground. He talks to Culture Northern Ireland from his brother's house in west Belfast while 'farting about on the Internet', his thick Belfast accent undiluted after years spent in the cinema spotlight, his chat routinely peppered with allusions to how 'lucky' and 'fortunate' he has been throughout a career that has seen him work with the likes of Richard Attenborough on Closing the Ring and Steven Spielberg on the HBO Second World War series The Pacific.

So when McCann reveals that he believes screenwriter Ronan Blaney – who works as an English teacher at Brownlow Integrated College in Craigavon – is 'one of the best writers in Ireland today', it is not an overblown statement delivered for the sake of a soundbite. He truly believes it. He is not the only one.

After all, Boogaloo and Graham, Blaney's heartwarming tale of domestic upheavel set in 1970s Belfast, scooped the award for Best British Short Film at the 2015 BAFTAs and is one of five films nominated in the Best Live Action Short category at the 2015 Academy Awards, the biggest, glitziest, most influential awards ceremony on the global cinema calender.

McCann knows Blaney's work intimately, having taken on the role of the titular Father in Boogalgoo and Graham, which was shot over four days in east Belfast in 2014. The film sees two brothers, Jamesy (Riley Hamilton) and Malachy (Aaron Lynch), facing the prospect of having to give up their pet chicks when their Mother (Charlene McKenna) falls pregnant.

Boogaloo and Graham is now very much in contention for an Oscar come February 22. McCann won't be in attendance when Lennox and Blaney join Hollywood's galaxy of stars on the red carpet, but his heart and hopes will firmly be with his former colleagues as the clock ticks down to showtime.

'It's nice to be a part of a special Belfast film that's been recognised as quality around the world,' adds McCann. 'I'm very happy for Michael Lennox. He deserves the praise, and Ronan Blaney, a fantastic writer. I would go so far as to say he's one of the best writers in Ireland today. His script for Boogaloo and Graham is just magical, funny and poignant. I thank both of them for taking me on and allowing me to be a part of it. Good luck to them.'

The Oscars will be made all the more exciting and emotional for McCann given the fact that Sally Hawkins, his co-star in the forthcoming British movie X+Y, features in another of the nominated short films, The Phone Call. 'I love Sally Hawkins,' McCann declares. 'She's a special actress and now we're going toe-to-toe. She'll be gutted if our little film wins and hers doesn't!'

McCann will enjoy his own red carpet experience when X+Y has its Irish premiere at Queen's Film Theatre on February 20, the opening film of the 2015 Takeover Film Festival.

Based on the award-winning 2007 documentary, Beautiful Young Minds – which followed a team of young people, many of whom were classified autistic, as they competed in the 2006 International Mathematical Olympiad –  X+Y is directed by Morgan Matthews and also stars Rafe Spall and Asa Butterfield (Hugo) as Nathan Ellis, a precocious prodigy who struggles with human interaction but excels at mathematics.

'I'm very much looking forward to the premiere,' says McCann. 'I haven't seen a final cut of the film yet, though Sally has and she really enjoyed it. I approached the role like any other. I tried to find my place in the script in a way that benefits the story. I tried to convey a young father who can relate to his son out of love and care.

'To show how pronounced Nathan's condition is – the stark contradiction between a gifted, unique child and his very normal parents – they wanted to show a familiar mother and father dynamic, a mother, played by Sally, who is out of her depth and a father who is a kind of everyman, an ordinary guy, because that is the way it is in real life.

'I don't have any experience of autism in my family,' McCann continues, 'but I have been in close contact with autistic people before. I have a friend who is autistic. Obviously people who live with the condition, and the rest of us, have to learn how to deal and cope with it, and there can be lots of difficulties that arise from it. But personally, I don't like to see it as a disability. I think it's more of a gift that people can embrace.'

McCann is pleased to be playing a part in the Takeover Film Festival, a celebration of cinema designed, programmed and run by young people and facilitated by Queen's Film Theatre. He has previously appeared at several screenings and masterclasses at the Cinemagic Film and Television Festival for Young People, and sees those types of arts organisations and events as 'a great asset' for Northern Irish kids interested in forging careers in film.

'We're very, very lucky to have organisations like Cinemagic and Queen's Film Theatre, fostering interest in film and pointing young kids in the right direction,' McCann argues. 'Otherwise, where do you start? Who do you contact? Not everyone has family who work in the film industry. Not everyone will be lucky enough to rock up to a film set and find work. Queen's Film Theatre and other bodies like it really do give kids the information that they need to succeed in their chosen field.'

When awards season has died down, and X+Y opened in cinemas around the UK and Ireland, it will be back to work for McCann. 2015 is set to be a busy year for the 31-year-old, with three films currently in post-production – The Survivalist, My Name is Emily and the zombie movie Generation Z – while McCann may also continue his work as producer and director following 2014's Fishbowl.

It is, as they say, business as usual for one of Belfast's most successful young actors, even if his experience of auditioning for roles has changed in recent years. 'It's true,' McCann confirms. 'I do find myself playing more father and husband roles recently.

'Actually, it's very weird saying that. I don't feel myself getting older. I have been told that I look a little bit younger than I am, actually, but you go where the work is. We'll see how things pan out. I still see myself playing characters in their 20s, but I'm still only 31. Sure I'm only a cub yet.'

Boogaloo and Graham will be screened on BBC One Northern Ireland at 10.30pm, before the Oscars ceremony. Takeover Film Festival runs in Queen's Film Theatre from February 20 – 22.