Friday, August 21, 2009

Sturgess & Kingsley in Kari Skogland's FIFTY DEAD MEN WALKING: Actor Q&A

No, it's not a Zombie flick -- nor an over-
populated Death Row movie. FIFTY DEAD MEN WALKING is the title of a new film from Kari Skogland, below, who previous-
ly has given us The Stone Angel and Liberty Stands Still. The movie's odd moniker refers to how many lives might be saved in Belfast of the 1980s due to one Irishman's working with the British Special Branch.

Call this guy a collaborator. Call him an informant. Call him a special kind of "peace activist" or what you will -- via the multi-layered, energized performance of Jim Sturgess (shown below, right), the real-life character Martin McGartland becomes alive and remains memorable. The actor's vigor and scruffiness is both offset and abetted by the quietly elegant work of Sir Ben Kingsley (below, left) as McGartland's Special Branch "mentor," here known as Fergus, who recruits the lad and then becomes his corrupter, enabler and maybe savior.

One's viewpoint on the "troubles" during this particular period of Irish/British strife will undoubtedly color the reaction to this attention-grabbing new film, which Ms Skogland has adapted with intelligence (from the book by McGartland and Nicholas Davies) and directed with a smart combination of brawn and finesse. How all the characters on view use and abuse each other, how they justify their most violent actions, and how they lie about, convolute and whitewash events -- and themselves -- keeps viewers nicely off-balance, forcing us to think and then rethink our reactions to their actions. Some kind of compromise with ethics is always in the offing; just how much of one is the abiding question.

The major strength of the movie is how it pulls us into the netherworld of collaboration and treachery, making it appears alternately grueling and exciting, helpful and destructive, but slowly and increasingly deadening for the man in the middle. Sturgess allow us to see all of this, while Sir Ben makes a fine foil: a man who may not be as directly involved but is certainly, in his own way, as culpable. The supporting cast includes Kevin Zegers as the best friend, Natalie Press as the girlfriend, and a surprising Rose McGowan as big-time "terrorist" (the term is mine not the movie's). Everyone rises to his or her role, but it is no doubt Ms Skogland, as adapter/director, who is responsible for how well things mesh.

The interplay between the wild Sturgess and a calm Kingsley often becomes akin to chamber music in how beautifully and adeptly the two play off each other (read the Roundtable interview below to learn how impressed Sir Ben was with Ms. Skogland's contribu-
tions). The editing (Jim Munro, who's worked with Skogland on five films), cinematography (Jonathan Freeman: The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio) and production design (Eve Stewart: Vera Drake, Nicholas Nickelby) are all first-rate, as are the technical credits in general. Exciting, thrilling and suspenseful as much of Fifty Dead Men Walking is, you are likely to come away from the film wondering more about the meaning of collaboration and betrayal -- and, if faced with similar circumstances, what you might have done .

The movie opens today, August 21, via Phase 4 Films, in New York City at the Quad Cinemas in the Village and at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square.


The bloggers roundtable with Sir Ben Kingsley and Jim Sturgess was the best attended that TrustMovies has so far been part of. Extra chairs had to be carted in at the last moment, so that everyone could be seated.

Roundtable: Jim, I understand you stayed in character while filming?

JIM STURGESS: Yeah. It was more staying in the voice than in character. I’d always wanted to try it and know what that felt like—to commit from the moment you get there to the moment you leave, and it seemed like this was the right project to really go about and do that. And also, in order to pull it off and make it totally believable from every angle of the film, whether that was costume, makeup, you had to be as rich and believable as possible. And it’s a hard accent to do. So I just kept doing it, and kept doing it, and didn’t stop. My mum hated it! She couldn’t understand a word I was saying. She kept going, “Speak properly!”

BEN KINGSLEY: “Speak properly!” [Laughs] “Stop showin’ off!” [Laughs]

The subject of the IRA has been brought up in many films, but what was it about this film that piqued your interest?

KINGSLEY: Kari is a really brilliant director, and like many thrilling events – plays or films – if you set them in a specific context, they’ll really take off. If you set them in a context that’s invented, then you’re into generalizing and guessing. But we knew how tight the constraints were on those two guys at that time. We knew the terrible corners that they could get themselves into. And none of this film is fictionalized. This is a great thriller anyway, and a great relationship between two guys anyway. You could set it in the Bronx, you could set it in any context. But to choose this amazing sectarian politically violent context was a stroke of genius on Kari’s part. And therefore, we lived in the perfect environment to tell this story about two guys caught in this impossibly grey area where you can’t really see who the enemy is or where the enemy is. So it’s very specific, and the specifics fed our characters and helped us enormously. And we were in Belfast, which is a great bonus.

So much of this film is about overcoming your fears and fighting for what you believe in. What scares you as an actor? And what did you learn about yourself when working on this film?

KINGSLEY: I think the thing that scares me most as an actor is judging my character. It’s not quite what you’re asking, but it’s as real a fear as hurting my foot in a car chase. Not to sentimentalize, because this film could’ve been over-judged, and certainly this relationship could’ve been over-sentimentalized. And to keep it raw, to keep it tough, to keep it elemental, was the biggest challenge. And my biggest fear was to make my character lovable, and that would’ve been a disaster.

Did you hurt your foot in a car chase?

KINGSLEY: No, I didn’t.


KINGSLEY: That ambulance chase for Jim was extremely uncomfortable and cold. He was wrapped in hot water bottles and blankets. You’ve probably forgotten all this, haven’t you? You’ve wiped it from your memory!

STURGESS: No, I remember it very well! It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. They basically strapped my head, my arms, my torso, my thighs, my ankles, so I couldn’t move for hours. And I had this sticky, cold blood poured all over me.

KINGSLEY: And I remember that the special f/x guy was extremely brutal to Jim. He was knocking him about! And you were treated like a piece of meat! I was the one who was like, “Oh, be careful! Oh! Don’t do that!” It brought out the very caring aspects of my character. I was actually looking after him on the stretcher.

STURGESS: You get this moment where you suddenly go, “Actually, I want to get out of this now!” I was there for I don’t know how long and suddenly when I decided, “Shit, I actually want to get out of this!” And you can’t move. And I had to stay in it for another hour or so.

And what did you learn about yourself making the film?

KINGSLEY: We learned that when actors are pushed into a corner, they’re very mutually supportive. Especially in the scenes where Jim and I get very tough with each other—that was when we were most trusting of each other. You learn about yourself in a situation, not about yourself in isolation. That mutual dependency when the film gets dangerous. I mean I was hanging out the back of a fast-moving ambulance. That wasn’t CGI! That ambulance was moving very fast.

STURGESS: I couldn’t tell. I was only looking at the ceiling! I was all strapped-in, and I didn’t know WHAT was going on! [Laughs]

What’s the atmosphere like today in your native England, as opposed to many years ago when the IRA were at it’s terrorizing peak?

KINGLEY: Well we have a different terrorist threat in London now, and we’ve had some pretty terrible terrorist attacks in London recently. So I would say the alert is just as high, but the enemy’s different.

What was it like recreating the events with people who actually lived through it in Belfast?

STURGESS: It was a huge part of the process for me. Once I found out I got the part I went to Belfast immediately, and it was an amazing opportunity to sit down with people from both sides and hear what they had to say. If you’re gonna learn about a situation, to get right amongst it and hear it from the horses mouth was very important to me. I met these people and they were real people, and we got to know some of these people just from them being around and helping us on the set – and this is from both sides. Just some of the things that they were prepared to have done, or some of the things they did, basically. You look in the whites of that man’s eyes and you go, “I can’t believe you did that.” They were pushed to some extreme acts of violence. Getting involved in shooting soldiers… It was a military operation and it comes with what it comes with.

KINGSLEY: We were filming in Belfast so wherever one was in our peripheral vision, historically, it was clear that there would be people there that witnessed moments of harrowing violence. To honor their story as victims or as regretful perpetrators was an enormous responsibility, but we felt we were supported rather than impeded; absolutely supported by that community.

Sir Ben, did you build your character just from the script, or did it help speaking to the real-life perpetrators at all to get inside your character’s head?

KINGSLEY: Well Jim’s mandate was different from mine because Jim was part of that community and his character was born and bred in that community. I was an exile. I was from the north of England, I was British Special Branch, I was there on a landscape that I find perplexing, baffling, confusing, and I just had to manage it to the best of my ability. My character is isolated. I capitalized on that. I was given an opportunity by our director to meet people, and I declined politely. I would rather follow my own intuition in that isolated state – and the script, which I found impeccable, and my own imagination. The only encounter I had was a silent one. I was in my hotel bar in Belfast, because I hardly left the hotel [Laughs], and three very big men in leather jackets came and stood behind me, and just put a pint of Guinness in front of me, shook my hand, and left the bar.

What did you feel when you went to Belfast, visiting what was once a war zone?

KINGSLEY: I was there when it was a war zone. I was there in the late ‘80s because Belfast was brave enough to have a film festival, and you went through barricades to get to the hotel. You went through a series of metal cages to get into it. And those cages have all gone, but I was there. I saw it. I wasn’t fearful, but I was aware of that smell in the atmosphere of adrenaline and mistrust. It was a strange, heightened, bizarre, unattended festival.

STURGESS: It was strange for me because it looked like any Northern English town to me, but you could feel that there was once a war zone there.

KINGSLEY: Those murals are still there, aren’t they?

STURGESS: You can really tell just from the artwork and the sort of feel of the place which was a protestant area and which was a catholic area.

KINGSLEY: The semi-automatic weapons, and the masks, and the names, and the style of the drawings. It’s al there.

STURGESS: One of the guys we met was one of the mural painters and it was amazing—he was doing a project with another protestant painter, and they were doing murals together, and there was this amazing moment where they each painted the other one’s flag.

With this film, Hunger, and the upcoming Liam Neeson film Five Minutes of Heaven, there seems to be this major trend recently of IRA-themed films. Why do you think that is?

KINGSLEY: Because I think people feel secure enough to move forward; and part of moving forward is healing; and part of healing is recognizing what really happened. It’s like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. People can now move on, but you have to heal first, and to heal first is acknowledging the truth. I think this film does acknowledge that it was at times horrendous, chaotic, thrilling, adrenaline-driven, passionate, callous, thoughtless, thoughtful, everything all mashed up together in that grey area.

But hasn’t the real-life McGartland taken issue with the film? I read that he “disowned” it after screening a rough cut early on.

KINGSLEY: Not any more. Not any more.

It’s interesting to debate what exactly drove Martin to be a double agent, and I’m wondering what your take on that was.

STURGESS: I had the same questions, and that’s what really interested me in the character. I couldn’t find the answer. I couldn’t tell if he was just doing it for money, or for this moral high ground, for the thrill of this underground world from a kid coming from Belfast in a poor part of town. And I think it was all of the above. It just wasn’t black-and-white.

There’s this interesting surrogate father relationship between Martin and Fergus. How did you two manage this relationship?

KINGSLEY: I think that was in the script. What’s wonderful about film is you can create an emotional relationship just by what lenses you use. You really can! It’s all about lenses. There are times when you’re more vulnerable in close-up, or you’re more vulnerable in long-shot, and I think Kari managed that relationship and literally allowed the observer to come in and pull back by that choice of lenses. I think she’s a brilliant director. We didn’t have to address that problem which I think would be a distraction to us—whether we are being too much of a father/son or not, and when to pull back and so forth. It was very much in the script, very much under her guidance, and also, we depended on and trusted each other a lot as actors, so that dynamic was one that had the perfect movements. I think that actors have a very fine intuition about what is a genuine pattern of human behavior and what is a false pattern of human behavior. And what made this genuine was the symmetry of Jim’s character being fatherless, and my character being son-less. Both of us had lost that very important relationship in our lives, and therefore thrown together, there was that need for a particular ingredient in our lives. For me, that makes complete psychological sense. And that’s what urges me to say, “It’s not fictitious.” In the same way that Shakespeare can write a play and it’s psychologically absolutely sound, but all the characters are invented.

You’ve had some interesting hairpieces of late in your films…

KINGSLEY: I think I’m pretty well shaved-headed in most of the things I do!

But what about The Wackness?

KINGSLEY: [Laughs] The Wackness, yes! I wanted him to look ordinary. I think this [points to his natural bald appearance] is a bit, “Look at me!” But I think that the grey hair and the beardless face just made him more ordinary. An ordinary guy from Manchester caught up in extraordinary events.

There must have been interesting insights into the psychology of an actor, since you’re an actor playing a character who’s a double agent, and thus, acting to deceive those around him.

STURGESS: That’s another thing about doing the accent and coming into these pubs and clubs that I’d never be allowed to tread if I had just come as myself. So there was that fear and tension when I’d go into these bars and clubs and hang out with these people, putting on as though I was a local kid from the area.

KINGSLEY: That’s espionage in itself.

STURGESS: That’s espionage in itself. So you really got a sense of , “Oh shit, they’re going to find out!”

Jim, what’s going on with the Spider-Man Musical?

STURGESS: The show? Yeah, I’ve only been starting to hear stuff about it since I’ve been in New York.

You’re set to do it, right?

STURGESS: No, I’m not doing it. I’m not involved. I did a workshop for it to help out the other actors getting involved in the final production. But I’m not involved.

Lastly, it’s very interesting—you have this upcoming Bollywood film, your first, called Teen Patti, where you star alongside a Bollywood legend. What was it like working on that, and what are your thoughts on the renewed interest in the Bollywood film industry given the success of Slumdog Millionaire?

KINGSLEY: I worked with Amitabh Bachchan, who is a glorious man to work with, and a beautiful director [Leena Yadav]. I filmed in England. They all came over to the UK for the scenes at Cambridge University in London. And I found it absolutely thrilling. Very disciplined film crew, amazing DP, continuity, lighting, everybody impeccable. I loved it. I was very happy on that film. And I think [the renewed interest in Bollywood] is all part of India reclaiming her rightful place as an economic and social power.

Regarding your performances, the thing that stood out to me most strongly was the particular combination of Sturgess’ energy – so rough and loud and all over the place – against Kingsley’s sense of quiet. It finally got almost like chamber music. I don’t know that when making the film you guys would even know that this was happening since you can’t know how the film will be edited. Did the director seem to direct this, or did it just come from you?

KINGSLEY: I think Kari is one of those lovely directors who casts the film and gives you the role, and then something inside of you says, “I don’t have to audition for Kari, anymore.” She really does inspire that kind of trust. So that the director that you very generously allude to was thinking, in her casting, I believe: “I’ll have a pizzicato violin section there” (he points to Mr. Sturgess), “and I’ll have a cello section here” (he indicates himself). And that’s what she did!

(Photos are from the film itself,
except that of Ms Skogland,
which comes courtesy of the IMDB.)


aseem said...

I loved reading this article and listening to Sir Ben is always a pleasure.

What a Man.

James van Maanen, said...

Indeed. Sir Ben was especially well-spoken, answering each and every question specifically and directly, with nary a waffle or an excuse. And his praise for Ms Skogland seemed genuine and deserved, considering the fine job she's done on this film.