Simone Kirby is in good company on the set of Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass in London’s Shepperton Studios alongside the likes of Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman and Michael Sheen. Speaking to Film Ireland, Simone says, “Things are going well. I’ve only done a few days. I’m playing Tyva Hightopp, the Mad Hatter’s Mother – you don’t see his parents in the first movie but we meet them in this one. It’s a great experience so far” – and an experience that is obviously very different from her last cinema role, playing Oonagh in Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall, the true story of Irish political activist Jimmy Gralton, which has been released on DVD and Blu-ray and is the reason we’re chatting.
Looking back gives Simone a chance to reflect on her experiences of the film. I ask her about her memories of how audiences reacted. Simone picks out Cannes and Ireland among her highlights of the film’s reception. “It was really nice to go to Cannes with a Ken Loach movie because they’re such huge fans of Ken’s films over there. And then we came home and did the Irish premiere, which got a great reception. It was great that people who hadn’t heard of Jimmy Gralton before now knew about him and what he had done. That was one of the most satisfying things, to be at the Irish premiere and to be there for people’s reaction after the film. It’s nice to be a part of people finding out who he was and that the movie politically stayed true to who he was and what he did.”
Preparing for the role meant Simone had to immerse herself in the history of the film’s subject matter. However, it was her feet that led the way. Simone tells me how herself and Barry Ward, who plays Jimmy Gralton, first learned to dance together before going to Ireland and meet up with the rest of the cast. “We then did a lot of history lectures and political debate and went around Leitrim and Jimmy Gralton’s homestead. We all got very well versed in the politics of the time and who the man was and we all read a book called The Cause of Ireland that Ken had suggested to us.” Has she put those dancing skills to use since? “No! I’d love to but I haven’t had the chance. I love the Jive, particularly the Shim Sham. I had done a little bit of set dancing when I was younger, so it was great to revisit that and I’d love to go to the odd ceile!”
Of course, we need to talk about Ken. Simone explains how working without a script and shooting in sequence with Ken worked for her as an actor. “In terms of filmmaking it’s very rare – when we were auditioning we weren’t even doing characters from the film, we were just improvising scenes that Ken was coming up with for him to get an idea of what we were like and who we were. It’s an unusual way of working but really exciting. And then shooting in sequence is very helpful for the actor as well – Ken is very kind to actors that way.” How does that come out in the wash? “I think it’s very authentic. And that’s what he aims for. Everything is there at your fingertips. He tries very hard to make it as authentic for people as possible, and that shows on screen I think.
“There’s a lot to be said for shooting in sequence – very often you won’t have played the scene beforehand, so you kind of don’t know what you’re aiming for and if you’ve shot the end of a movie before you’ve shot the beginning there’s little room for movement because you already know where it’s going; whereas if you shoot something in sequence it really helps you to be free to try things out – there’s no consequences because you haven’t filmed the next scene yet. That allows for improvisation and movement and leaves things a bit more open. When you’re playing everything in the moment it’s very real and the stakes are very high all the time. You’re going with how you feel every day. You’re not holding back or aiming for anything because you don’t know exactly what the shape of the film is going to be.”
Jimmy’s Hall is available on DVD & Blu-ray from 26th September, 2014