From Graphic Artist to Actor: A Conversation with Ned Dennehy
Gordon (Richard Lumsden – Sightseers, TV’s The Catherine Tate Show) is determined that he and best friend Keith (Karl Theobald – TV’s 2012, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa) will conquer Wainright’s Coast to Coast Walk from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire.
He also believes that having his film student son document the adventure is the perfect way to commemorate their achievement, but when a stray conversation determines that old school friends Steve (Jeremy Swift – Jupiter Ascending, TV’s Downton Abbey) and Julian (Ned Dennehy – Tyrannosaur, TV’s Luther) join them on the trip, best laid plans lead straight to multiple mid-life crises.
Combining keenly observed situational comedy; some of Britain’s finest comedy talent and a breathtaking journey through some of the best of British countryside, DOWNHILL is a comedy of errors, a testament to the tragically incompatible and a blow-by-blow account of the highs and lows of decades-long friendships.
Britain’s version of the road movie Downhill walks its way into UK homes on Monday and The Fan Carpet‘s Paul Risker recently took a second stroll with one quarter of the film’s adventurous ensemble; Ned Dennehy, to discuss his recent filmic adventure, whilst taking an occasional detour to discuss his career and thoughts on film and television in the modern age.
Why a career as an actor? Was there that one inspirational moment?
I used to be an architect, so let’s start with that. I was actually a graphic artist as well as an architect, and then it came about that I started to do some theatre, some plays. But there wasn’t necessarily one moment where I thought let’s embrace poverty and the theatre.
Theatre was as far as I was thinking at that time because we were only a small production touring around Ireland. But somebody wrote some nice things about me, and so presumably I thought that was the thing to do. So then I decided I would embrace poverty and live the life of a waster actor on tour. But funnily enough the poverty didn’t follow, because I immediately landed a part in a TV series. It was a Disney American TV series set in Ireland called Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog. I seemed to be making a lot of money for not very much effort, and so that was me gone from the architecture scene.
When you first read the script for Downhill, what was it that piqued your interest in the project?
On the page Julian was a brilliant character, and he had some great speeches. The project was an interesting one, although I do remember thinking at the start oh God, its low budget. But then I looked up James [Rouse] and Benji [Howell], the guys who were making it, and I saw that they had done some very slick ads. I knew how awful it would be to be stood on a side of the mountain freezing with a crew who didn’t know what they were doing. But I could see straightaway that these guys had plenty of experience and so they would be technically proficient, and they would be able to do something. In the end I suppose they did. But I would have said yes straightaway if only for the fact I didn’t want to be standing on the side of the mountain with student filmmakers.
Are there ever those scripts where the main point of interest is primarily the story over the character or are you looking for a combination of both?
The character would be the very first thing I’d be looking at, because everything else is someone else’s concern. But you are obviously hoping the story is good. I did a film called Tyrannosaur and you couldn’t read the script. There seemed to be a story running through it, but when you read the script you were thinking what is this about; what’s going on here because it is hard to decipher. But my particular character was interesting, and so you just went along with it. You have to place a certain amount of trust in other people, and trust that they know what they are doing with the story.
Film is one of the great collaborative art forms. With the nature of the production and story which is an assemble piece, do you look back on Downhill as a particularly collaborative experience?
In the case of Downhill it is a very small group. You could describe it as guerrilla filmmaking – a bunch of people travelling across the country in a van with the equipment and so on. It was not normal filmmaking in the sense that they setup a base with a camp and trailers where there were hundreds of people involved. They didn’t even have wardrobe or make-up on the shoot. I’d say it was more like a documentary film crew.
But yes collaboration is one of the great things about filmmaking, though it is more so with other films than with Downhill because of the scale, and for that reason it was very different. One of the great things about the film job is that there are so many different departments and people that it can be like a fun day out.
When you are dealing with an ensemble I would imagine one of the challenges is balancing the different personalities of the characters. What are your experiences of working in ensembles?
Well it depends on who the other actor is. There are different types of projects, and sometimes I am inclined to take a small part in a big project. Child 44 is a modern murder thriller set in Russia that had Tom Hardy in the lead. So when you come in with a small part and you are faced with Tom Hardy, you then have to find out what kind of person you are working with. But you also have to find out how precious the writer is about the script for example. So there are all these things you have to learn quickly and if the writer is on set he might be coming over to you to tell you that you shouldn’t be changing that word.
In the case of Tom Hardy for example, he was quite clear that he wasn’t on the script at all. He was in another world close to the script, and so it became a one on one improv situation. When he went off script he’d ask you questions so that the camera can see you thinking before you answer, because then you are not just reciting a line. There can be a freshness or reality that comes from how the lines being recited off the page, and that’s why a writer on set can kill the thing by insisting on the exact lines, because it then it becomes an exercise in reciting what’s written.
It can still be nice to stick to the script because it’s a different, more technical and precise approach – you say your bit and I’ll say mine and let’s keep it to time and make it look real.
There is a freshness to an ensemble piece such as Downhill where you can just throw things in. You are just looking for an happy accident where you’ll get a happy clash or a little touché of improve or chat that comes together. But hopefully there are some bits in the film where that does happen and it invokes genuine laughter. The ensemble doesn’t always work but when it does it is nice.
As an actor would you agree that it starts with the script, which is the seed for potentially a new story or character, and the role of the actor is to then evolve it?
Exactly, and that’s what Torben [Betts] the writer of Downhill did. He was able to come along to rehearsals and do rewrites. He would even try to write new scenes. This was an unusual process and on the series Banished that I’m doing in Australia, which is written by Jimmy McGovern, he will not be there. Now they might be able to Skype him and run stuff by him if you come up with some ideas, but the general rule is the script will be done and finished, and you’ll be working fairly closely to it. Otherwise the continuity lady will be coming up to you and telling you said “It” when you were supposed to say “That.” This is the kind of stuff you have to put up with.
But every project varies in how precious the script is, and whether it can be deviated from or loosened up. I personally believe it is nice if you can make it up, to stick to the plot but just keep it real and try to keep it fresh.
If you could take one memory away from the experience of Downhill what would it be?
Well there are so many memories and it was so long ago. The crap sandwiches – there was no base and so when you set off on each day you were given a little bag like schoolboys with an apple, a sandwich and a bag of crisps.
It’s very hard to find an avocado in the north of England, and it’s a terrible thing to say with my present memory about the crap food.
We had the golf cart crash, the bowling, the puke… I like the puke scene.
There is not one memory in particular that is leaping out at me. We saw some beautiful scenery and we had some tough scenes, long days and some good laughs. It was a tough gig because you constantly have to be ready to come up with something and so it was like writing in the moment. Whilst a lot of the improv was thrown out, some of it did make its way into the final version. But we put a lot of ourselves into our performances.
I like the banana moment – where I’m giving the banana a blow job in the background. That was an idea I came up with on the spot, and it was fun because the crew couldn’t stop laughing. So we had to do it again, but that first time nobody could control themselves.
The banana moment is my key memory, along with the crap food, the sandwiches and the lack of avocados and lattes in the north of England; in the wilderness.
It was a lot of fun making the film, and I just hope that people get to see it.
Downhill is available on DVD and Digital Platforms fromJune 16 2014