By David Hennessy
There are many questions that come to mind before speaking to Steph Green, the Oscar-nominated director of Run & Jump. Was she always sure Maxine Peake from Bolton could get the Irish accent right? Did she consider casting Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte in a straight role a gamble?
But that’s not where we start. The Irish World is wondering how exactly she got Edward MacLiam from Mallow, Cork into a Kerry jersey? “Good question,” the director laughs. “All in the name of art which Ed is very respectful of and I think when Ed let Conor into his heart, he let his sports loyalty in also. Ed was amazing to work with, it was a really difficult role and an actor had to be very brave, do his homework and let it all go. I think Ed was very much in character when he had that jersey on.”
Edward MacLiam who is well known for playing Doctor Douglas in Holby City took on the role of Conor for Steph’s first feature film. Suffering from brain trauma following a stroke, Conor struggles to readjust after his hospital release while the family also have difficulties with their “new” husband and father.
It is at his father’s funeral that we see Conor wearing the Kerry jersey and the director explains this is, like his outbursts and erratic behaviour, a symptom of his condition: “One of the things we studied about post brain injury behaviour is that there’s often a primal instinct that is very much at the fore which I think is very beautiful. In this instance wearing the jersey represents a closeness to his father and the things they used to do together. You imagine, or at least I did, that his father is a major fan and if he could choose, he would be wearing his Kerry jersey in the coffin even perhaps. Conor is, in a way, more appropriately dressed than the other mourners. He is wearing the essence of the closeness and the relationship on his back which is a beautiful detail and Ailbhe Keogan is skilled as a writer with nuances like that.”
Also during the funeral scene, Edward’s Conor puts a caring arm around his mother when she needs it: “From what we found and Ailbhe’s own experience, her father suffered a brain trauma, there are some primal instincts that are very loving that can kick in when things are at their deepest or their darkest. Conor is very attuned to what his mother needs at that moment, it doesn’t mean he’s getting better, it doesn’t mean he’s going to act like this all the time but in that moment, in that circumstance, he’s almost paternal to his mother,. He’s caring for her which is really lovely.”
Shocking for the audience is Conor’s contrasting behaviour, his cruel and confusing treatment of his son Lenny who he calls ‘Penny’ and ‘Friend of Dorothy‘: “We wanted to portray a very real situation where sometimes there is anger and there is resentment or bullying that we don’t understand, we don’t know it’s source. We don’t know why someone is treating another person like this and particularly their own child. We’ll never understand where this is coming from and neither will the family so in a way it was just grounding you further with the family’s point of view and their frustration in that there was no understanding where this was coming from and we as an audience have to suffer that with them as opposed to finding empathy or feeling we know why he’s doing that. We, like the family, were frustrated and confused and angry at Conor’s outbursts. I wanted the audience to feel that with the family.
“As important as Conor’s role is, this is the story really of the loved ones and particularly the wife and mother figure (Peake) and how she has to cope with holding a family together under these circumstances so I wanted to keep you grounded in her perspective and the outsider perspective as opposed to Conor’s.”
Celluloid history is littered with bad Irish accents. Casting an English actress in the lead female role, was Steph determined not to add to that list? “I think both Maxine and I were aware of the pitfalls of getting it wrong which is why we made sure to work with coaches. It’s subtle but in the film, she has two different lines that speak about her being from Lancashire but having lived in Ireland a really long time and I think what we were inspired by was while we were in Kerry, we met people with these really interesting hybrid accents who were maybe born in Scotland but grew up in Kerry or born in Russia but grew up in Kerry. That was very empowering for Maxine to find her hybrid along the way that would sometimes feel more Kerry and sometimes feel more Lancashire. We were aware and Maxine is an intelligent enough actress to be extremely conscientious of that kind of representation but so far so good, I don’t think accent distracts from the revelation she is in this film and it’s been really wonderful to read particularly in the US, where she would be less known, just the waves she’s made with this movie critically. The Village Voice’s ‘headline was: ‘Maxine Peake is a revelation in Run & Jump’, and that’s a huge New York publication.”
Steph was nominated for an Oscar in 2009 for her work on the short film, New Boy. Does an Oscar nod heap pressure on the director? “I think I put more pressure on myself than the Oscar even would, just to do my best work. When you’re nominated for an Oscar, people are watching a little more and I guess you have a fear that with so many people watching, you might let them down but at the same time you’re so grateful that they care that you wouldn’t trade it. I wouldn’t trade the pressure, I welcome the pressure because it means I have an interested audience out there.”
New Boy came from Roddy Doyle’s short story about that nightmare of being the new kid in the class but with a stark cultural difference for the protagonist to deal with after moving from Africa to Ireland: “The story was just so clearly to me fitting for a short film. I knew this would be a fun short film. I didn’t know it would have such a resonance and travel so much throughout the world.
“Roddy was extremely gracious, he gave me the option to the short story for €10 and then we were able to give him a bit more when we got some funding but he was so gracious, he was really encouraging and he helped me and encouraged the adaptation .”
Roddy Doyle, famous for books like The Commitments, The Van and The Snapper that have all been made into films, has more recently released his Jimmy Rabbitte tale The Guts and Brilliant. Would Steph like to adapt the author’s work again? “If I got the chance, absolutely. I know he’s writing a lot of stuff now and I’d love to direct some of it. If he’d have me, absolutely.”
For the full interview, see the May 24 Irish World.
Run & Jump is in cinemas from May 23.