Discovering hidden depths

Michael describes Jude Law as a generous actor who handled the responsibility of being the first name on the call  sheet very well
Michael describes Jude Law as a generous actor who handled the responsibility of being the first name on the call sheet very well

David Hennessy talks to actor Michael Smiley about working with Jude Law on Black Sea, a role he dedicates to his father who was submariner

“My whole performance was a homage to my dad,” says Belfast actor Michael Smiley of his work in the new film Black Sea which stars Jude Law. In the film, Michael plays a submariner, a job his late father once did. “My dad was quite a cool character and a very funny man and a great storyteller and he was full of modern parables that would help you through life. It was a homage to Frankie Smiley.

“He was a submariner, I think from when he was about 17 until he was 24. Stationed in Simon’s Town in South Africa, I remember him talking about West Virginia a bit as well and a wee bit about Portsmouth and Plymouth but it was mostly out of South Africa. I remember he fell in love with the black population out there and he wanted to move to South Africa. My Mam was from the markets in Belfast and she was having none of it. She came from a big family in the markets and wanted to stay close to her mammy. My Dad loved it. He loved it because I think it was a proper adventure for him, ya know.”

Black Sea sees Jude Law playing a commercial submariner who had dedicated his life to the sea but when he is laid off abruptly, assembles a team of diverse sailors to set off in search of a sunken submarine full of Nazi gold.

Still coming out of recession, audiences should be able to relate to Law’s Robinson: “There’s the sad consequences of being an honourable man who has dedicated your life to one job and then to realise the people who now run that job don’t respect you as much as you feel you should be respected. That’s heartbreaking and there’s a lot of that out there. Think of nurses and people who have dedicated their lives to a proper vocation as opposed to a job. Those honourable jobs, they then get kicked to the kerb.

“Being a submariner becomes your life and you think you’ll always do it. You never think it’s going to be privatised or you’re going to end up working for some sort of hedge fund group or whatever and you’re just really a digit that needs to get moved along.

“It’s that thing of men who work with their hands, blue collar workers, who get kicked to the kerb by the white collar. It’s all that. There’s a bit of a class thing as well, working class men who are doing analogue jobs who are all of a sudden forgotten. Really, it’s heartbreaking.”

Director Kevin Macdonald has admitted that he didn’t think Jude Law was the right man to play his hard-bitten captain until he saw his transformation, bulking up and adopting a Scottish accent for the role: “The first thing I noticed was the accent, when we were doing the read through and he was doing a Scottish accent. I went: ‘Woah, okay’. And he’d shaved his head and he’d bulked up and he had got rid of the pretty boy look, he made himself look like a man who had been out to sea. But the accent held. I thought it was a brave choice and he held it. I’m watching the film and I believed him.”

Michael Smiley won a BIFA in 2011 for his work on Kill List
Michael Smiley won a BIFA in 2011 for his work on Kill List

Michael had worked with Law before on Breaking and Entering, a 2006 film in which the actors had one scene together: “He’s a great actor to work with. He is one of the lads but also his name is number one on the call sheet and that comes with its own responsibilities. It carries weight and it is how you deal with that. I like to watch men who have got responsibilities and how they carry their responsibilities. Do they carry it with dignity? Do they carry it with an even hand? Do they take it too far? There are plenty of things you can do with being number one on the call sheet, you have got a lot of influence. He was very even handed and he was very generous on set. If he was going to do a scene with you and he wasn’t going to be on camera until later on, he stayed for your camera bit and acted with you when he was off camera. He didn’t just trot the lines out or get someone else to read the lines out while he went and had a cigarette. He stayed with you.”

The interesting thing about any film set on a submarine is that there is no way out, the characters can’t slam a door and walk out. This ensures any conflicts come to the surface: “It’s a bit like space, isn’t it? I think that’s always going to be a big clincher in a film like that, that you know there is black cold death outside. That’s always there in the background, coming over the hill like a monster and somewhere down the line, it’s going to play its part in the story.”

Like Utopia, the successful Channel 4 drama that Michael has acted in, Black Sea is written by Dennis Kelly but it having the same writer was coincidental as it was director Kevin Macdonald who approached Michael about it: “How I got into the film was I won a BIFA (British Independent Film Award) a couple of years ago for Kill List and at the award ceremony Kevin introduced himself me and said, ‘I’m involved in a film and I want you to be part of it’. Obviously I knew him from The Last King of Scotland. Two years later, he calls. He says: ‘Do you remember I promised you a part in a film? This is it. It’s a submarine thing’

“And I was just thinking about my father that week because I had written a play about a father and son and after my father’s death, I was slowly but surely coming back to revisiting the play and doing rewrites of it. So my dad was in my mind and Kevin called in the middle of it so it was a beautiful synchronicity.

“Then for it to be a Dennis script, it was an honour. I think he’s a fantastic writer, Dennis. Utopia’s amazing. Black Sea’s a great script. He’s something else.”

The Irish World were there in November 2011 when Michael beat Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, Hollywood stars, to Best Supporting Actor for his work in Ben Wheatley’s Kill List: “That was okay but for me personally to be on the same list as Eddie Marsan was  big thing for me. My taste in actors is more realist. I’m a big fan of Eddie. I love Eddie Marsan and obviously it was a list of amazing actors, some careers have gone stellar. To be on any list, to be nominated was a big deal for me. I had never been nominated in my life, I had never won anything in my life.  That year I had four nominations and four wins. That was stunning.”

In Black Sea, Jude Law's hard-bitten sailor assembles a motley crew to go in search of Nazi gold
In Black Sea, Jude Law’s hard-bitten sailor assembles a motley crew to go in search of Nazi gold

Based in London for many years now, Michael has been travelling back to Ireland for various projects recently that include Lobster that also stars Colin Farrell and Glassland where he worked with Jack Reynor. Another project of his filmed in Ireland is My Name is Emily, the film written and directed by Simon Fitzmaurice who lives with motor neurone disease. This is the first film directed by someone with such a condition which of course has its own unique challenges.

“It’s a bit more patience. Between takes, you’ll have to wait. He’s got a co-director with him who will interpret what he wants because he’s got his retina recognition programme so he’ll be able to put up some notes and she’ll get that and she’ll say, ‘is that what you mean?’ And he’ll give a yes or a no through the blinks of the eye.

“The process just takes a little bit longer but his vision was great. The story’s such a beautiful story. The writing of it is just so poignant and beautiful and uplifting and funny.

“When I read the script, I knew nothing, I didn’t know who Simon Fitzmaurice was. I read the script and instantly wanted to do it and instantly wanted to meet them before they’d seen anyone else. Then I had to wait because it was a bank holiday weekend.

“I went back to the email and there was a second attachment which had his CV, his story, an interview with him and his wife. My jaw dropped because there’s no indication from the script. When I read the script, I just thought: ‘This is so gorgeous, I really want to be part of this’. Then I read that. I just couldn’t believe it. Double take: What?

“I met him and his wife and everybody who was working on making this film. The producers who were just so dedicated, worked really hard through things like Kickstarter and stuff to get this film made. People like Colin Farrell and Alan Rickman giving it their endorsements. I had worked with Colin on Lobster and we had become good pals. When he heard I had been cast as the father, he was straight onto me saying, ‘can’t think of a better man for the job. Really, really happy that you’re on board for it’. And I was, I was really happy. It’s one of the highlights of my acting career, was working on My Name is Emily.”

Does working on the vision of someone with Simon’s condition provide extra motivation? “Yeah, I’m not gonna pretend it doesn’t carry any weight because that would just be insincere of me. It makes you want to work harder for him. You think of the suffering or the frustrations that he may be going through. Your suffering’s nothing in comparison to his and it was frustrating at times, we’re only human.

“It is what it is but we weren’t to do a homage to Simon’s condition, we were there to try and get his words onto the screen and do it to the best of our ability. Of course, the fact that your writer/director has got motor neurone disease will make you want to do the best that you can for him but we’re professionals. I’m there to do the best that I can anyway.”

Having spent thirty years in London now, Michael arrived in what was a bad time to be Irish as the troubles were at their height: “I learned a cockney accent so I could order a drink in a bar without being stared at. I didn’t really go up to Kilburn or the Holloway road that much. I hung around with a lot of internationals, a lot of my friends were people who didn’t have a parochial attitude. The only people who would ever take offence to your being Irish were people who were narrow minded and parochial anyway, who felt threatened so I tended to stay away from people like that.”

Can Michael believe the progress that has been made to go from those days to the state visit that we saw this year? “Never mind that, I never thought I’d see the day Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley would be taking salsa classes together, do you know what I mean? A lot’s changed. Nothing surprises me. That’s one thing about living in a city: Nothing surprises you apart from a taxi when you’re looking left instead of looking right.”

Michael has avoided being typecast in paramilitary roles like other Northern Irish actors, never playing any paramilitary roles but next Spring, he will begin filming the next Ben Wheatley film Free Fire that sees Cillian Murphy and himself playing two IRA men who go to Boston to do an arms deal.

Is this a new departure for Wheatley, the director of Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England? “He’s got very catholic ideas, with a small c obviously. He’s got very widespread ideas. Journalists always look for a pattern. They say you’re that kind of film-maker. Ben Wheatley never said, ‘I’m that kind of film-maker’. Just like people would say to me: ‘Michael, you seem to play a lot of killers in your films, is that something you meant to do?’ And I go: ‘Yeah, when I was 16, I remember sitting around going, ‘I’m going to be a killer in the movies, mum’. ‘Will you go and get me a loaf before you head off and start killing people in the movies? Will you get me a loaf and your dad a newspaper and a rake of tea’. You just do the jobs. Everyone else decides there’s a pattern.”

Black Sea is in cinemas now.

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