In Black 47, James Frecheville plays battle-hardened soldier Feeney, who deserts the British army to return home to Ireland, where he finds his country ravaged beyond recognition by the Great Famine. When he discovers that his mother has died of starvation and his brother has been hanged by the British, something snaps, sending Feeney on a relentless quest to get even with the powers-that-be who have wronged both his family and his country.
Karl Argue sat down with James to discuss his ruthless pursuit of justice in Lance Daly’s revenge thriller.
This film is quite meaty and your role is very intense. How did the script come to you?
I was given the script and had a Skype meeting with the director [Lance Daly]. I was originally on a list they were looking at for another character. They pulled up a picture on Google where they saw me with a red beard and thought ’Maybe he’d be a better fit for Feeney.’ I read the script and really responded to it, then had a great Skype with Lance for about an hour. At the end of the call, he said he wanted to do the film with me. I said, “Great. I’ll start growing my beard and learn how to ride horses!”
This is a big movie for Ireland.
It is. And to play a guy like Feeney who’s carrying all this emotional baggage of revenge, I had to know what I was doing. It was important to do it right.
Both physically and mentally…
Yes, For example, I didn’t want to leave them an option to cut to a stunt double. I did some serious knife training to learn how to kill someone properly! I learnt how to shoot different guns. And I did most of my own horse work. That was satisfying as I’d never ridden in my life and I had to look like a soldier that had been doing it for 13 years.
Funnily enough, the character started taking shape as I was growing my beard. This guy would have spent six months on a boat after he deserted from India – trying to figure out how to move beyond what he’d just done for the Empire and how nasty that was… like “To Hell or to Connaught!”
What I’m getting from you is that finding this character was a journey. You didn’t really know who the character was at the start.
In a sense, it’s a very archetypal sort of role. A man on a horse with rage in his eyes, on his way to Hell, tries to make some amends. At a reduction, that can be very straightforward but it’s about trying to make it more dynamic than that. There was so much to work with but I think that great actors in great roles is about cultivating simplicity. Building up enough to work in the process before you start shooting so that when it’s happening you’re not mentally strained. It’s just there. It’s happening like osmosis.
Did it change much from what was on the page and to what you brought to it personally?
Not so much for Feeney. There were elements of it changing and shifting as we were shooting. But a lot of my dialogue was in Irish, which couldn’t really change because it was a very particular version of the language that not many people speak anymore. I had a fantastic teacher. So I had a lot of support there.
Does it add a bit of pressure playing Irish when you’re not?
Yes – that was part of the responsibility. Doing it to the best of my ability and hoping that passes the test. Because when you’re not Irish and you’re playing Irish of course there’s more pressure to make sure that it’s right. This is a really important story and it’s never quite been visited cinematically. With that comes a responsibility. You’d better do your homework. I didn’t half-arse this. I’d never been more focused in my life.
We spent a lot of time doing table-work with Hugo [Weaving], figuring out the dance of these two characters. Given that they’d had prior connection and experience with each other in the war – stuff that is suggested in the film and not necessary discussed. It’s all just shapes and flavours and implications.
What did you do as an actor to dig into to reach that ‘revenge’ state?
It was an exercise in focus and and learning how to concentrate on multiple, multiple different things at the same time and conditioning yourself for that. I’m a big lover of Sergio Leone films like Keep Your Loving Brother Happy and that idea of rage and that ice coldness that comes with it sometimes.
As an actor, I was able to snap into Feeney and then snap out. You can’t stay in that space – or I couldn’t – and be effective on set as far as dealing with other people and other things. It was so violent and so cold that I personally didn’t want to fully inhabit that character while we were shooting. Not that I didn’t want to inhabit it… but more that I’d dance into it and dance out of it. Some days I’d be in it more and some days I’d be in it less. Had I stayed in character, maybe I would have gone completely insane. And I’d kind of already gone insane enough!
Also there’s that element of where the embellishment is or isn’t or what you’ve led on to people about what your process is or is not, because in my opinion that’s not somebody else’s business but mine – it doesn’t matter what your process is, it just matters what you can deliver between ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’ and the mental dexterity or flexibility to move with the punches and move around.
Finally, would you have any particular advice for budding actors?
Some great advice passed on to me from a director I worked with is that you just need to do man stuff – go camping or learn how to hunt. I think it’s really about developing skill bases. Read books. Have varied interests. Find passion in different skill sets.
Black 47 is currently in cinemas