West Belfast actor Martin McCann is proving to be a hit on the big screen. He talks to Emma Blee about the tricky business of acting, working with Pete Postlethwaite and his plans for the future.
“I’m learning constantly, not just from famous people but also from other actors my age, my peers,” remarks Martin McCann.
Brought up in the Divis flats, he “always loved films and acting” and at the age of 11 spotted an advert for playing the role of the Artful Dodger at the Belfast Arts Theatre. “I auditioned for it and got it. I just kept acting because I liked it and my career basically went from there,” he comments.
After his debut his mother put him in a black taxi and sent him to the Rainbow Factory School of Performing Arts in Belfast, a cross-community project set up to bring young Catholic and Protestant children together through drama.
“I just did drama extra-curricular. I never really did drama classes at school or went to a drama school. Sometimes I wish I had done but I feel at 19 or 20 if I had went and done three years in a college somewhere, I probably wouldn’t be as far on as I am now,” says McCann.
While drama school can “make people become better actors for the rest of their lives”, it just wasn’t his “path”.
As a child McCann spent most of his spare time watching films or performing. “I loved movies. When I was watching a film I would look at the lead actor or character and I would try and become them for a week, imitating them and copying their voice. I must have been a very annoying child to say the least,” he quips.
A school trip to the theatre gave him the inspiration to take to the stage: “One of my first theatrical experiences was going with the school to watch a bit of theatre and I thought: ‘Wow, how fantastic is that? You can get up, perform and help to tell a story.’”
At the age of 28, McCann has already secured modest roles in ‘The Pacific’, the TV show ‘Pulling Moves’, the blockbuster ‘Clash of the Titans’ and has even played Irish music legend Bono in ‘Killing Bono’, which was in cinemas last month.
While he lives in London he enjoys visiting Belfast regularly: “I’m there because of my career and it’s the only place that I can properly audition for things but pretty soon I’ll probably be buying my first place in Ireland. I live like most actors, always travelling and living out of a suitcase.”
The business is “tricky” and it usually takes around 10 to 15 years to become an “overnight success”.
“I have no proper gauge of how well I’m doing or how well I’m not doing. I’m just doing what I love doing. Being an actor is difficult because at any one time just 2 or 3 per cent of us are working out of the 100 per cent that want to be doing it,” he explains.
McCann adds: “It’s not an easy profession. But if you ask any actor, it’s all they know really and it’s all they can do. I wouldn’t be particularly good at anything else so I’ll stick at it!”
All of the roles he has played to date have had their “different strengths” but his favourites include working with Irish screenwriter and director Terry George in ‘Whole Lotta Sole’, which was filmed in Belfast last month.
“I played a character called Jimbo. He’s a young man with a gambling addiction. He runs a fish shop and his life is falling apart. I like playing troubled characters; I don’t know what that says about myself,” jokes McCann.
Getting into character isn’t a problem but it often takes a lot of research: “If I’m auditioning I’ll try to get a little bit of information on the character. For example, for Bono I had to watch a lot of early Bono footage and get the essence of that.
“If it’s a character that isn’t real, the most important thing is to learn your lines and show up on time.”
One of his biggest influences was well- known actor Pete Postlethwaite, with whom he worked closely with during filming for ‘Killing Bono’. It was the star’s final film as he passed away in January after a lengthy illness.
He had previously described McCann as a “brilliant young actor with a great career ahead of him” and said he “wiped everyone else off the screen”.
“Pete Postlethwaite was a big influence on me; he taught me a lot. He was not only a great man on screen; he was also a great man off it. He held himself very well and he was just a really nice person to be around and to work with,” recalls McCann.
In February, the West Belfast actor scooped an IFTA award for his performance in ‘Swansong: Story of Occi Byrne’. He claimed the award ahead of household names such as Liam Neeson, Colm Meaney and Cillian Murphy.
“I really didn’t expect it,” confesses McCann. “I just took my mum down and I thought if we can get some free champagne and some free food and a night out, it’d be good fun. Then Kim Cattral called my name out and I’d worked with her before. It was just a really nice night and a great experience.”
With a hectic schedule of filming over the last few months, McCann is looking forward to a holiday but is also excited about filming for ‘Shadow Dancer’ in Dublin when he returns.
In the longer term he intends to “keep plodding along and we’ll see what happens and where it goes from there.”