Irish Eye on Hollywood

Jeremy Irons and Neve Campbell in Last Call.

By Tom Deignan, Columnist
August / September 2002

Recently we’ve seen hot young Dubliner Colin Farrell starring alongside Tom Cruise in Minority Report. Then there’s Belfast’s own Ciaran Hinds appearing in not one but two summer blockbusters. There’s former Irish TV star Victoria Smurfit falling for Hugh Grant in About a Boy. And there’s Cork-born theater legend Fiona Shaw falling for…Mira Sorvino? Dressed in drag?

It’s all in the name of art — high art. After all, the gender-bending film in question, Triumph of Love, was based on the classic Pierre Marivaux romantic comedy. Furthermore, the period film was written and produced by the one and only Bernardo Bertolucci, of Last Tango in Paris fame.

Those cinematic credentials are nearly as good as those of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. That film’s cast reads like a Who’s Who of great actresses, spanning several generations. Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd, Maggie Smith and Ellen Burstyn all star in Divine Secrets, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Rebecca Wells.

Slightly less well-known, but no less admired by her peers, is co-star Fionnula Flanagan.

The Dublin-born stage and screen actress has been working to great acclaim for well over two decades now. But her recent films have cast her opposite decidedly A-list actors from Nicole Kidman to Bruce Willis.

And that’s just how Flanagan likes it.

“It’s delicious to work with people who are A-list people,” Flanagan said in a recent interview, seated in her hotel room at the Essex House in Manhattan, on Central Park South.

“The nice thing about working with a cast like Divine Secrets‘ is, you’re not starting in Acting 101…so you can just step into a scene and get it done,” says Flanagan, who trained at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and rose to fame playing six different female characters in a performance based on James Joyce’s Ulysses.

More recently, Flanagan was roundly acclaimed for her performance in the spooky Nicole Kidman blockbuster The Others. And she spent much of June in Hawaii shooting an action flick starring Bruce Willis, and directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day).

This is a whole new world compared to the prestigious theater, and Irish cinema, which nurtured Flanagan’s career. She has appeared in acclaimed Irish films such as Waking Ned Devine and Some Mother’s Son. (In fact, Flanagan says, it was her work in Terry George’s story of IRA men and their mothers that got her involved in The Others.)

In Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Flanagan plays one of three friends of the mother of Sidda Lee Walker (Sandra Bullock), a prominent young playwright in New York who feuds with her eccentric Mom (Ellen Burstyn) back in Louisiana.

Flanagan and the “Ya-Ya Sisterhood” set out to make peace between mother and daughter. No matter what it takes.

“I was one of the few women of the planet who hadn’t read (Rebecca Wells’) book.” Flanagan read the script first, and is glad, she says, because it gave her a better sense of how the story could work on the screen.

Flanagan was also excited that first-time director Callie Khouri was attached to the project. Khouri is best known for writing the provocative Thelma and Louise.

What about those who will inevitably gripe that they don’t want to see just another “chick flick”? Flanagan has no use for such moviegoers.

“Would you say I’m not going to see Porgy and Bess because it’s a black story? People will maintain those stereotypes…to suit their own purposes. It has nothing to do with the film…(They say) `I won’t go see it for fear I might learn something’.”

But, for those guys who want their movies with thrills, chills and nuclear bombs, there was Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman and Belfast actor Ciaran Hinds in the recent summer smash Sum of All Fears.

For better or worse, the latest big-screen adaptation of a Tom Clancy best-seller taps into a very real fear in the U.S. right now: terrorists stealing a nuclear war-head and setting it off on U.S. soil.

Though Clancy’s blockbuster novel was published in 1991, the topic could not be more timely.

While many actors from all over Ireland can tell you stories about losing the Irish accent to play in a big Hollywood production, Hinds can now go one better: he plays a Russian president.

Needless to say, he had to get his tongue in shape for his role as President Nemerov.

“Speaking even a little bit of Russian seems like an ocean of Russian when you don’t speak the language,” Hinds said. “The Russians use the Cyrillic alphabet, which is completely different from the English alphabet.”

Hinds is a respected actor of stage and screen, who has also appeared in Irish and Hollywood films, such as Some Mother’s Son, Mary Reilly and Circle of Friends.

Reared in Belfast, Hinds studied law at Queen’s University before moving to London where he attended the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. His diverse stage performances range from Shakespeare’s Richard III and Troilus and Cressida, right up to the Western-tinged absurdity of Sam Shepard’s Simpatico.

Hinds also starred in the long-awaited summer gangster flick Road to Perdition, along with Paul Newman and Tom Hanks.

Another acclaimed Hollywood actor, Jeremy Irons, couldn’t pass up a recent opportunity to portray a legendary Irishman on the small screen. He played the great Irish-American author F. Scott Fitzgerald in Showtime’s film Last Call.

Irons told the New York Times: “For me, (Fitzgerald’s personality) covers a deep-seated insecurity, which is Irish, very Irish.” Irons’ maternal grandfather emigrated to England from Fermanagh.

In Last Call, Irons (who is married to Irish actress Sinead Cusack) plays one of the most brilliant, yet gloomy writers ever to put pen to paper. The Great Gatsby author died, rotted by alcoholism, in his early 40s. Showtime’s Last Call, which also starred Sissy Spacek and Neve Campbell, is a look at Fitzgerald’s final days.

According to producer/director Henry Bromell, Irons indeed had a certain Irish quality they were looking for.

“For Fitzgerald we were trying to find an actor…who the audience would believe is capable of writing The Great Gatsby and who could portray a complicated Irishman,” Bromell told reporters recently. “Fitzgerald was a middle class American Irish boy with big dreams and big ambitions.”

Added producer Helen Bartlett: “F. Scott Fitzgerald was very handsome. He went to Princeton and he just wanted so much to belong. Marrying Zelda (Scott’s wild wife, played by Spacek) meant so much to him in terms of being part of the upper class,”

Last Call is based on the memoir of Frances Kroll (played by Campbell) who Fitzgerald hired as a naïve, 23 year-old secretary in his waning days. ♦

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