Jenny Cathcart talks to the Enniskillen actor about playing a cannibal and trying his luck in LA. Click Play Audio for a podcast interview
Enniskillen, Christmas Eve. Local acting hero, Ciaran McMenamin, who is home for Christmas, has agreed to give me an update on his burgeoning career. In the hotel foyer where we meet, children mill around in excited expectation of Santa’s arrival over the snow white wintry waterways of Lough Erne.
We talk first about the film The True Story of Alexander Pearce, soon to be screened on Channel 4. McMenamin describes it as a 'three pronged Enniskillen attack on a gruesome story, a realistic depiction of early Australian history'.
The writer/director and the two main actors are from Enniskillen. Director, Nial Fulton (sometime collaborator with Stephen Spielberg) is now based in Australia. McMenamin plays the title role as Alexander Pearce, whilst Adrian Dunbar is the émigré priest from Monaghan who hears his confounding confession.
Pearce was transported from the Newtownbutler area of Fermanagh to Van Dieman’s Land in the 1820s, having been convicted of stealing six pairs of shoes. Transferred to Sarah Island, he was driven half mad by the pain of 3000 lashes. He and four other prisoners escaped with four days’ supply of food and when at last they found nothing to eat in the bleak terrain of the island now called Tasmania, they killed and ate each other. Pearce, the sole survivor, made a written confession which became the basis for the film script.
'These horrific things happened,' comments McMenanmin. 'It’s a dark tale and there is no escaping what it is about - cannibalism. But we didn’t make it a gore fest. Filming the story exactly where it happened in the barren lands of an area 400 kilometres square where only 100 people live really helped us recreate the story.'
Adrian Dunbar, the Enniskillen actor who achieved early recognition, was McMenamin’s role model. Born in 1975, McMenamin stumbled upon his true vocation when his mother, Ann, encouraged him to join the Ardhowen Youth Theatre, which he found more absorbing than his ‘A’ level course. He left school early, working in restaurants in Belfast to earn enough money to attend the drama college of his choice - the Royal Scottish Academy in Glasgow. He describes the course, which consisted of voice, movement and acting classes as being 40% useful and 60% a means to an end.
'I found the voice work very helpful because I had a high pitched voice which was stuck in my chest. Physically I wasn’t very flexible or fit so I learned to take care of my body. You can either act or you can’t and if you can’t you soon get found out, but there are practical tips which can make you a better actor.'
In 1997, while still at college, McMenamin collected the Kenneth Branagh Renaissance award. He dismisses his graduation showpiece as 'something very loud with a Northern Ireland accent and a gun', but in truth it won him the college Gold Medal in 1999. Ten years on, only two of his class mates are still working as actors.
The McMenamin Do’s and Don’ts for being a successful actor are: 'Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you could not have done it better. That is when the ego takes over and you’re a nut job. More than likely Daniel Day Lewis, who is top of the tree, looks at My Left Foot and thinks he could improve on his performance.
'You need to have a thick skin and be able to take rejection and forget about it instantly. All the agent can do is put you in the room but for every job I do get, there are ten or 12 I don’t. The parts you really, really want seem to escape you. If you are too eager and tense up that half inch you most likely won’t be chosen. It is something we actors joke about. When you’re not that bothered about a certain role you may well get the part.'
In 1998, McMenamin’s first film role was as Dino in Titanic Town, in which he starred alongside Julie Walters. He went on to play Jez McAlister in The Young Person’s Guide to being a Rock Star, screened on Channel 4. Period drama David Copperfield was daunting because Copperfield is such a quintessentially English boy. 'They couldn’t find what they wanted in England and settled for me but I am not a toff and that had its own pressures. Maggie Smith took me under her wing and in the end it was a joyous time, a good laugh.'
Having worked with Kiefer Sutherland, Robbie Carlisle, Anna Friel, Daniel Craig and Paul Nichols, amongst others, McMenamin has come to realise that people skills help. 'Famous actors feel comfortable if you are at ease with them and they’re more likely to want to work with you again.'
Though he has been cast in several Northern Irish theatre plays including Christina Reid’s Joyriders and Martin Lynch’s Holding Hands at Pashandale, McMenamin has not felt any stigma attached to having a Northern Irish accent. 'Thanks to Mr Nesbitt the accent has become mainstream in Britain and the yanks tend to think you are Australian,' laughs McMenamin.
'I’m a totally different actor now than when I did David Copperfield. I’ve realized that camera and stage acting are totally different. I’ve come a long way to learning the techniques of film and I can usually tell when I have produced the best take in a given scene. Theatre is an actor’s first love but it doesn’t pay the bills.'
McMenamin admits to having a boy’s obsession with war and though he feels it is wrong and one is lucky to be out of it, he is fascinated by the way men are tested in such extreme situations. He has appeared in several war films including To End All Wars, The Trench and, most recently Laconia, a big budget period piece about the sinking of a British Cunard Star liner by a German U-boat off West Africa in 1942. Scripted by Alan Bleasdale and filmed in Capetown, it is due to be transmitted on BBC 2 at Easter.
Playing a scum bag Dubliner who claims neutrality when things get tough, McMenamin stars alongside Andy Buchan, Lyndsey Duncan, and Brian Cox in a German, British and Italian cast.
Also due for imminent release is One Hundred Mornings, a quirky art house film made in Wicklow by the Irish Independent film company, Blinder Films. Written and directed by Conor Horgan, it is described as an apocalyptic drama about two couples (Ciaran McMenamin, Alex Reid, Rory Keenan and Kelly Campbell) who hide away in a lakeside cabin hoping to survive a complete breakdown in society at large. Recently reviewed as 'lightly scripted, beautifully shot with outstanding performances from all the cast', the film will be screened at the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah in January.
Based in London, McMenamin still enjoys coming home to Fermanagh. 'I love home and I’m proud of it. I come here maybe five times a year. During May and June I’ll definitely be fly fishing on Lough Erne.' But he plans to spend the first three months of 2010 in Los Angeles during the so-called ‘pilot season’, when new TV shows are cast.
'I think the best shows and films are being made in America where there is more money,' concludes McMenamin. 'I expect to get some work, although my American manager, agent and lawyer will all get their cut before I pay my taxes! I feel like a change of scenery and waking up somewhere sunny is good for the disposition. It will be a whole new start for the New Year.'