Playing for the other team

Nico, whose mother comes from Donegal, has been playing former Northern Ireland footballer David Campbell in Shooting for Socrates which has been shooting in Belfast. Picture: Johan Persson

By David Hennessy

Last week former German international Thomas Hitzlsperger who has played for Aston Villa, West Ham and Everton revealed he is gay. This comes swiftly after Olympic diver Tom Daley revealed he is in a same sex relationship and these stories make The Pass, a new play by John Donnelly which started at The Royal Court Theatre this week, very current. The Pass tells the story of two footballers, Jason and Ade, by visiting them in three different hotel rooms at three different stages of their career. The play concentrates on the relationships between the two close friends, revealing there are deeper emotions that have never been acted on.

“They start off as friends in the academy and  then something happens in this hotel room which puts a thought in one of their heads and it spirals from there,” Nico Mirallegro, who plays a third character Harry, tells The Irish World.

Nico is well known from his roles in BBC’s The Village, Channel 4’s My Mad Fat Diary and the movie Spike Island. He is also no stranger to such subject matter as he played a schoolboy struggling with and being bullied for his sexuality in Jimmy McGovern’s Moving On.

Justin Fashanu, Britain’s first black £1million footballer, was the first professional footballer to come out as gay in 1990 when the football world was simply not ready for it. Justin endured a severe backlash with even his own brother John publicly disowning him. His career never reached the same heights again and he took his own life in 1998. It is perhaps his tragic story that makes other gay footballers still scared to come out.

Will we see openly gay players in the Premiership in years to come? “It’s fascinating that there isn’t (openly gay footballers), do you know what I mean? The Aston Villa player came out yesterday, didn’t he? But yet again, he’s another player that has retired and hopefully this play will sort of bring the light of it out and tell people, I mean not everyone in the world’s gonna see it but it’s one of them that hopefully can make a difference, make people understand that it’s completely fine and for the fans as well to try and understand that because obviously football is seen as such a man’s game or whatever. I don’t know, it’s a difficult one but hopefully the play brings such a light to it that it makes it possible in the future.”

Thomas Hitzsperger

Another theme central to The Pass is the expense that success comes at with in this case, self discovery taking a back seat to goals being achieved. This is something 22-year-old Nico can relate to as a successful actor: “Of course, you’ve got to make sacrifices. For instance, you don’t see your family for six, seven months of the year and you completely mix in with new people at every job that you do and you’ve got to try and adapt to all that so there are massive sacrifices that you have to make in the acting game, likewise with being a footballer, and that really comes into the play: How much someone will do to be the best or be a top flight footballer. They will sacrifice what is inside of them and the fact that he’s gay and can’t come out because of what he wants to do is be a footballer.”

Russell Tovey of Him & Her and Grabbers plays Jason and although the actor is openly gay himself, this will be his first time in a homosexual role, while Gary Carr, known for playing Jack Ross in the most recent series of Downton Abbey, is in the role of Ade.

The cast of My Mad Fat Diary

“Rehearsals are going great. It’s really insightful actually because I’ve never done any theatre before so it’s really interesting to see how certain lines unfold and I mean the dialogue is really brilliant, the script’s fantastic and John (Tiffany) the director is just amazing. Some of the ideas he throws out: You don’t even see it. It’s like: ‘Oh wow, I didn’t realise that…’ so it’s really interesting.

“Everyone is very open to ideas and what we want to do and it’s great. Russell- I’ve admired his work for years and Gary, he’s brilliant and phenomenal, both of them are and how they’ve brought the characters to life is extraordinary and lovely, it’s lovely to see. Everything’s an experience and I’m just really, really enjoying it.”

What can Nico tell us about his character, Harry? Is he a footballer also? “No, he’s not a footballer. Harry comes into it towards the end of the play and the two footballers are getting pissed in the hotel room and decide to throw the telly out the window so I come up with a screwdriver from the concierge to help them and then get dragged into the pissed up games that they want to play and it goes from there. It’s a lot of fun.”

The cast of The Pass: Gary Carr, Lisa McGrillis, Nico and Russell Tovey. Photo: Johan Persson

Nico worked closely with Charlie Murphy on BBC”s The Village with the pair even getting hot and steamy in one scene. These scenes are often described as awkward to film, was this the case here? “No, because we’re so in the moment and in the characters that it’s so real and natural, you don’t think about it. And Charlie Murphy’s so brilliant and amazing that neither of us would ever make it awkward or make each other feel weird. It was very, very natural and she’s brilliant, you know yourself, she’s done Love/Hate in Ireland and she’s a phenomenal actress and she’s gone from leap to leap, hasn’t she? It was quite pleasing actually, they were a lot of fun.”

Series one of Love/Hate has already aired on Channel 5 but fans of the show would know it is in series two and three that Charlie really gets a chance to shine with her contribution to series three landing her an IFTA award. Has Nico had the chance to see much of Love/Hate? “Yeah, I worked with the director on Upstairs Downstairs and I think he had just finished the second series at the time so he lent me the whole first and second series on a copied disc and I was like: ‘Wow, this needs, this was like three years ago, this needs to come to England. It’s so raw and real and there’s nothing like this in the UK at all’. I thought it was wonderful and I worked with Robert Sheehan last year on a film in Italy (Anita B is due for release later his year) and I got to say to him: ‘Mate, of all you’ve done, that has been my favourite’. It was just a brilliant, brilliant script and very, very real.”

Charlie Murphy of Love/Hate and also Nico’s co-star in The Village

With a name like Mirallegro, it should come as no surprise that Nico’s Irish roots come from his mother’s side of the family: “My mum’s originally from Donegal, Malin Head in Donegal, and she moved to Manchester when she was very, very young. My dad’s Sicilian so there’s certainly a fiery mix in there.”

And a recent project of Nico’s, again connected to football, has given him the opportunity to film in Ireland: “I’ve just finished doing a film on the Northern Ireland team during the ‘86 world cup so I was in Belfast for five weeks which was lovely but I didn’t get the chance to go back to Donegal. I went when I was young young but I’ve not been since I was like 4, 5 but everyone’s using it to film now it’s that beautiful and stunning. The scenery’s amazing so it’s certainly becoming a place to be. It was nice to visit Ireland for the five weeks  because you got to understand everything about the culture and stuff that my mum can’t really talk to me about, having 30 Irish lads around ya is certainly good craic. It’s brilliant.”

Maxine Peake, John Simm, Bill Jones and Nico: The Village’s Middleton family

Entitled Shooting for Socrates, the film tells the underdog story of a Northern Ireland team who kick off their world cup against football giants, Brazil. The game is a baptism of fire for Nico’s character, David Campbell, who makes his Northern Ireland debut in front of 50,000 people in the searing heat of Guadalajara, Mexico, the day before his 21st birthday.

“I play David Campbell who gets called up to the team when Jimmy Quinn gets injured. He’s playing for Nottingham Forest at the time and he’s sort of living in Ireland, on the border during ‘86 and he gets called and he can’t believe it and he joins the team in Mexico and it goes from there. He actually played his first game against Brazil which was quite amazing for a 20-year-old lad to play their game against Brazil. It’s a lovely story.

Is a part like this the next best thing to being a footballer? “Well that’s it, growing up in Manchester, supporting Man United, it has always been the dream to be a footballer and when I auditioned for that I was like: ‘Aww, just to play football on film would be the most amazing thing ever’. It’s just brilliant. I couldn’t believe it when I got the part. It was a lot of fun, a lot of fun.”

For the full interview, see the January 18 Irish World.

The Pass is at the Royal Court Theatre until March 1. For more information, go to:

Nico can also be seen in the second series of My Mad Fat Diary which airs on Channel 4 next month. 


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