Michael Smiley on Kill List

The Belfast-born actor talks about the film critics are calling the best British horror movie of its generation

The less you know about Kill List before seeing it, the better. So, if you are yet to experience this intense, original British horror movie, bookmark this article and come back to it later.

For those who have revelled in Kill List’s gory glory and want to learn more about the film critics are calling ‘pitch-perfect’ (Total Film), ‘top of the range’ (The Guardian) and ‘A-list’ (Empire), read on.

Most of you should know Michael Smiley from his recurring role as Tyres O’Flaherty in the Brit-com Spaced, or his cameo as a zombie version of the same character in Shaun of the Dead.

Something of a horror stalwart, Smiley has also appeared in period chiller Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Nazi-experiment flick Outpost and John Landis’s ill-fated Burke & Hare, but Kill List represents the Belfast-born actor’s strongest work in the genre.

The low-budget picture, directed by Ben Wheatley as a follow-up to the award-winning Down Terrace, concerns a pair of ex-British Army mates, Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Smiley), who now work as assassins for hire.

Their latest 'kill list' takes them into a hellish netherworld of torture, blackmail, child pornography and, ultimately, the supernatural. Yet Kill List is not always as it seems, mixing Grand Guignol horror with kitchen-sink drama, action motifs and buddy comedy.

Indeed, Smiley reckons that some of the domestic moments – including the grimmest dinner scene this side of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – are amongst the most disturbing in the film.

‘It’s because you can recognise it,’ he says. ‘You’re not going to see really good-looking vampires swooping down your street and biting you on the neck, but you are going to see the horror of a husband and a wife screaming at each other.’

While Kill List boasts its fair share of bloodshed (one scene in particular is bound to do for knees and hammers what Reservoir Dogs did for ears and straight razors), it is not purely of the Saw and Hostel ilk.

'Torture porn' was the default setting for horror cinema in the mid-to-late 2000s, but the last few years have seen a resurgence in more supernatural themes. Uniquely, Kill List marries the two.

‘A lot of things are happening to people that are outside their control now,’ comments Smiley. ‘People have worked hard; next minute they’re out of a job. They’ve saved up for their pensions; next minute their pension’s been wiped out – by these faceless people that are controlling their lives.

'These are real-world horrors, and if you give these things faces, like in the film when it gets into that last third, it creates a creeping feeling that their lives are in the control of someone else. That’s truly horrific.’

As an actor, the sheer scope of Kill List – from soap to Satan, essentially – wasn’t a problem for Smiley, once he had established the character of Gal.

He came up with a backstory (‘ex-sniper, spent a long time in a trench or up a tree, Northern Irish, a believer, getting older, lost both his parents, returning to his faith’), and had the luxury of knowing the role had been created especially for him (Wheatley previously directed Smiley in Down Terrace).

‘Once you realise the part was written for you, you relax, because you can’t make a wrong move, as long as you’re focused and do the best that you can,’ Smiley explains.

‘The main challenge was trying to make sure I didn’t let myself down with my co-stars, Neil Maskell and MyAnna Buring. Before I’d worked with them, I thought they were brilliant actors. I wanted to do work that I was proud of.’

Penned by Wheatley with newcomer Amy Jump, Kill List’s end credits note that the cast improvised some dialogue – but not much, admits a modest Smiley. ‘Ninety five per cent that’s on that screen is in the script,’ he says.

‘There are a few bits in there that are improvised, but I don’t want it being taken away from how good that script was. Some bits that look like improv aren’t, and that’s because we did a lot of improvisation that didn’t make the screen. That got us juiced up and confident.’

One memorable exchange, which sees Gal’s creepy girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) probe him about the Northern Ireland situation, was ‘a bit of both’, reveals Smiley.

‘It was shorter, and Emma and I kept it going. It was maybe a two-liner that Ben had put in the script, and then we worked round it. There was another little bit that I improvised that didn’t go in – that might end up on the DVD.’

The 48-year-old is thrilled to portray a Northern Irish character who isn’t a stereotype, and he believes the time is right for Ulster’s artistic community to exploit the post-Troubles landscape. ‘Pretty much everything I’ve done onscreen hasn’t related back to the fact that I’m Northern Irish,’ he says.

‘It’s heartening that we’re living in a multiracial culture. It’s okay to have a black face on television who isn’t a mugger, or an Asian face who isn’t a bomber, and the same for Northern Irish. I don’t have a monopoly on all the drunk parts, or all the tramp parts, or all the gunmen parts.’

Also a stand-up comedian, Smiley is just back from some expat gigs in Dubai when CultureNorthernIreland catches up with him. He’s playing Belfast in December, as part of the Grand Opera House’s Festive Funnies season, but first he’s heading to Queen’s Film Theatre this month to host a special screening of Kill List.

‘I come home a couple of times a year, and I love it,’ he says. ‘It’s great to top up on the madness that is my family, and I love seeing that Northern Ireland has come on in leaps and bounds. There’s loads of little comedy clubs, and the arts scene has really come on since I was there.’

As a horror nerd, I can’t resist asking – and this is a major spoiler alert – what the filmmakers used for Gal’s guts in his death scene. ‘It was a special sort of latex for the entrails, and then they used sausage skin over the top of it,’ chuckles Smiley.

‘It felt really real, too. It wasn’t pleasant to hold, and it was very cold and sticky. I’m really proud of that scene. It was all done in one take. That was my Goodfellas moment.’

With the likes of Eden Lake, Monsters and A Lonely Place to Die wowing audiences and critics alike over the past few years, British horror cinema would appear to be in its rudest health since the reign of Hammer, and Kill List is up there with the best of them.

This demented blend of Ken Loach, Quentin Tarantino and John Carpenter will give you nightmares, sure, but perhaps also a few laughs and tips on how to behave at dinner parties along the way.