Martin McCann Comes Home

Having relocated to London, and starred in Hollywood blockbusters, the Belfast boy returns to the stage at the Grand Opera House

He first came to the attention of Northern Ireland audiences as the radiant, irrepressibly optimistic Wilbur the Pig in the Lyric Theatre’s Christmas 2004 production of Charlotte’s Web, a musical adaptation by Richard Croxford and Conor Mitchell of EB White’s enchanting book for children.

Up to that point, his professional acting experience had amounted to ten months of touring with the Kilkenny-based company Barnstorm, but for ten years prior to that, Martin McCann had notched up a string of credits in youth and community theatre as a long-time member of Belfast’s Rainbow Factory and Ulster Youth Theatre.

'I was in Rainbow Factory from 11-years-old,' recalls McCann. 'I never took drama at school, I got all my acting experience there. There’s no better form of play than a group of kids getting together to put on something that is way beyond their intellectual power – but having the nerve to have a go at it.'

In the intervening years, McCann has shot into the dizzy heights of film and television on both sides of the Atlantic, but this month sees the return of this unaffected, eminently likeable young man to the place where it all began.

He has been cast in a rare revival of James McClure’s Pvt. Wars – described as a cross between One Flew Over the Cockoo’s Nest and Good Morning Vietnam – a hard-hitting black comedy set in a war veteran's hospital in America in the 1970s.

It will run on the Baby Grand stage of the Belfast Grand Opera House from October 17-20, and is produced by Pintsized Productions, whose artistic director, Gerard McCabe, had little trouble in persuading McCann back to his roots.

'Gerard invited me back to do this beautiful little piece for his company,' says McCann. 'The two of us go back 15 years, maybe longer, to Rainbow Factory days. I’m joining up with him and another good friend, Chris Robinson, on this small-scale play, which has just the three of us in the cast.

'It’s all worked out very well. I’m not doing any films at the moment. November is a quiet time. The show isn’t a massive commitment, a four-day run and a short rehearsal period. But best of all, it means I’ll be home for the birth of my sister’s baby next month. My first little nephew. This little boy will bring a whole new dimension to our family. It’s a really exciting time for all of us.'

In these highly competitive times, McCann is an increasingly rare creature: a successful film, stage and television actor, who received no formal training. He did not even study drama at school – St Patrick’s Bearnaghea in north Belfast, whose then principal, PJ O’Grady, has been one of the major influences on his life and career.

From an outside perspective, it appears as though McCann had a meteoric rise, that he burned brightly and briefly. After Charlotte’s Web, there were appearances in Rawlife’s Psycho Beach Party and Tim Loane’s political satire, To Be Sure for the Lyric.

But it was a memorably edgy performance in the lead role of the sociopathic delinquent Alex in Rawlife’s production of A Clockwork Orange that brought McCann to the attention of the producer of Closing the Ring, a romantic film drama directed by the legendary Richard Attenborough.

In spite of the presence on screen of Holywood stars like Shirley McLaine and Christopher Plummer, it was McCann who stole the movie with a sweet, beautifully underplayed portrayal of an innocent Belfast lad, whose discovery of a ring in the wreck of a Second World War plane ignites an unsolved mystery dating back 50 years.

His performance impressed Attenborough’s friend Steven Spielberg and before he knew it, McCann was on a flight bound for Los Angeles and a meeting with man himself. 'I was doing To Be Sure at the Lyric when I was invited over. I had one day off. I flew to LA, met Steven Spielberg, flew back home and was on stage the next night.'

The result of his trans-Atlantic dash was a significant role in Pacific, Spielberg’s acclaimed follow-up to Band of Brothers and a dramatic change of lifestyle for the inexperienced young actor. 'Put that way, it all sounds very fast,' he laughs. 'But, believe me, none of it has come easily. The reality is that things happened a lot more slowly than might appear.

'I moved to London after Closing the Ring and was signed by an agent, who got me bigger auditions on major projects. It’s all very well getting the auditions, of course, but you have to win them. At that stage, I was young enough and hungry enough and stupid enough to think I could get them. You win as many as you lose, but I have been very lucky in securing about half the roles I’ve been up for so far.

'After Pacific, I did My Boy Jack, Killing Bono, Clash of the Titans – little bits here and there in massive shows. And I’ve just come from Seville, where I was filming an episode of Falcon, a new detective series with Hayley Atwell for Sky Atlantic, which begins screening this month.'

Add to that an Irish Film and Television Award for best actor in a lead role in 2011 for his central performance in Swansong: Story of Occi Byrne, and you have a career very much on the up. For now, though, McCann is just happy to be back home in Belfast, and on the stage, where he made his name all those years ago.

'I’m really enjoying being back, doing this show and making what is my first appearance at the Opera House. It feels comfortable working with Gerard and Chris, who are such talented actors. It’s an ensemble piece, there’s no starring role, which is just the way I would want it. I mean, doing a great play with your mates, being home, having a laugh. You can’t be bad to that, can you?'

Pvt. Wars runs at the Baby Grand at the Grand Opera House from October 17-20.