Tuesday 6 December 2016

'An Oscar nomination would have been nice, but it's not why I write films' - Mark O'Halloran

Following the death of his dear friend and Adam and Paul co-star, writer and actor Mark O'Halloran was unable to work. Now, he tells Maggie Armstrong how writing Viva - a film about a drag queen in Havana that was shortlisted for an Oscar nomination - helped him through his debilitating grief

Maggie Armstrong

Published 21/02/2016 | 02:30

Mark O'Halloran, actor and screenwriter who spent eight years on Viva. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Mark O'Halloran, actor and screenwriter who spent eight years on Viva. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Mark O'Halloran. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Cuban queen: Mark O'Halloran's Viva.
Greatly missed: Mark (right) with the late Tom Murphy in Adam and Paul.

Let us start with the bad news. It is old news anyway. Viva, Mark O'Halloran's newest film, did not get nominated for an Oscar on that clamorous day the Irish cleaned out the Academy Awards announcements - Saoirse Ronan, Michael Fassbender and Lenny Abrahamson to boast of a few.

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The good news was that it wasn't even bad news. I called Mark up. "There's a sense of relief that all that madness is over," he said. "It would have been nice but I don't live for these things. That's not the reason I write films."

When we first met, Viva was still on the shortlist, whittled from 81 down to nine films in the Foreign Language category in which it was the official Irish submission. Mark was talking apace, downing black coffee as if it were medicine, breaking into mischievous anecdotes, and his round, child-like eyes twinkled. He was pleased, and why not.

It took him, the accomplished stage actor, playwright and screenplay writer of Adam and Paul and Garage, eight years to finish Viva. A film which, like all his work, tells a story from the gutter to the stars. A film which helped to release him from a deep grief at a time his pen had run dry.

Set in Havana, Viva tells the tale of Jesus, a poverty-stricken young hairdresser whose secret life as a drag queen provokes the rage of his macho father. The film is co-produced by Benicio Del Toro. Mark wrote the screenplay in English and had it translated into Cuban vernacular Spanish.

However, how is it that this wraithlike white man from county Clare, with no Spanish, ended up writing a Cuban film in colloquial Spanish which, on a tiny budget, was then tipped for an Oscar?

The actor's adage to "go where the work is" more than applies.

An invitation from Paddy Breathnach, director of I Went Down and Shrooms, first brought Mark to Havana in 2007. With producer Rob Walpole they were there to explore the underground drag scene and see if there was a story to be told.

Life - which we'll get to - got in the way of art, and it wasn't until four years later that Mark finally returned to Havana, alone, and stayed three months.

He was nervous at first. Cuba has been ruled by the Communists for over five decades and the people are not always trusting of foreigners. "Sometimes Havana feels like a very large fish bowl with the whole of the world just staring in at it, and they know that," says Mark.

"To give myself an 'in' into the world of Havana drags I brought over a bag of 20 cast-off wigs that Pantibliss gave me, and a bag of MAC make-up. And I was very popular, because wigs and proper make-up are very difficult to get on the island. The embargo has a huge effect on every part of life."

Rory O'Neill, the man behind the Pantibliss mask, very much enjoyed his bit part. They're good friends. Mark has never done drag - "I don't have the face for make-up" - but says he's always been "fascinated" by what drag means to the gay world.

"My own theory is that drag takes a lot of fear that gay men have, that their effeminacy gives them away and is their greatest weakness. It takes effeminacy and it performs it as strength, and throws it right back at them. In that, it becomes an act of empowerment."

He writes from observation. Adam and Paul, his film about two heroin addicts on death's door, began as a heap of diary entries he idly scrawled while living on Mountjoy Square and Parnell Street. He has written a diary every night since he was a boy.

In Havana he did the same, transcribing from the streets, hanging around with the queens and living in the city centre in a gay B&B or casa particular, "which was like living in the middle of a Mexican soap opera."

He studied Cuban literature and history, and educated himself on the Cuban bolero singers from the 1940s and '50s that fill the film. "My hope was that I would write a film that was as melodramatic as a Cuban love song. Cuban love songs are full of drama. Full of tearing doors off hinges and throwing people out and going into mourning and all of that. The drag queens respond to that. They give you full drama and truth."

Viva came to life, premiering at the Telluride film festival in Colorado. Reviews have used phrases like "feel-good" and "crowd pleaser". Does this show a deliberate attempt of Mark's to make it a romance rather than a film in the "queer" category? In the way Carol is a romance - not a film about gay people.

"I've no interest in writing 'a gay film'", he says. "I don't want to write for a small audience. I want to write for as many people as possible. A film that is about homosexuality is going to be really boring. But a film about a man written with as much depth as possible is going to be interesting to watch."

For his trouble, Mark got a cameo in his own film. He plays an Irish sex tourist, a nasty piece of work. In one scene, he beats Jesus around; in another, he has sex. "Very tastefully done," he says. "My mother will be able to watch it."

That is Phil, a "great woman, and a great friend" and Mark's father was John, a Telecom Éireann worker who performed in music halls. Mark was the eighth of their 10 children.

He grew up in Ennis, county Clare where there wasn't even a cinema. In the early 1980s they watched Withnail and I on VCR. A David Bowie fan "like all gay boys", he and his school friends were "aspiring Goths" with "very long hair". Then the Smiths came along, and they grew especially pretentious.

"Morrissey sang 'I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside' which we thought was so profound, when we were 16, so we all hung around in black and pretended to be miserable, but we had a good time."

Mark knew he wanted to act, and though he wrote his diary every night, it never crossed his mind to write films or plays. "When I was 19 I read Ulysses. Hadn't a clue what was going on. Didn't remember a thing." So he beat out his own path.

He failed first year Science at UCG and went to Amsterdam - at 19, his first time on a plane - to work in a steel factory. He went to his first gay bar in Amsterdam, returning to a Dublin hostile and ignorant of the gay community.

He spent much of his 20s out of work. When he came out of The Gaiety School of Acting at 22 he immediately landed the part of Robbie Boyle, the crippled son in Juno and the Paycock in a Gate production that toured to the West End. He had two lines and didn't get to say them often, as he was understudying Tom Murphy. Tom became his boyfriend and the other half of Adam and Paul.

At 30ish, he was introduced to an obscure director named Lenny Abrahamson - the same Lenny Abrahamson today in line for Best Director at the Academy Awards.

"I had this idea for a film called Adam and Paul, not particularly well worked out. I had no idea about plotting or how to put a film together and Lenny is so brilliant at all that. I used to just write, write and write."

He knew it would be about two addicts trying to score drugs over one day in Dublin. "I knew that one would constantly get hit all the way through and one wouldn't. And in the middle they were going to meet a baby. That's all I knew." He knew the genius part, that you never find out which is Adam and which is Paul. Both helpless souls are interchangeable, expendable to the world.

He wrote the part for Tom, who was at the height of his craft, having won a Tony award for his Broadway performance in The Beauty Queen of Leenane. He and Mark had broken up by then but remained best friends.

The actor they had cast for the other part pulled out at the last moment. Mark was screen-tested, auditioned and got the part.

He says it was down to the right look. "I've always been sort of skinny and I look wrecked most of the time."

Tom played the one who got hit throughout, and the two middle-class thesps somehow managed to break open the door to an underclass of homeless in their bleak and brilliant portrayals - a kind of comedy Mark says is "funny but it's not funny".

"He was the best of his generation I think. His performance in Adam and Paul is the best Irish performance in film I'd ever seen."

In 2007, Tom died from Hodgkin's lymphoma. Few people knew he was sick. In a terrible coincidence, it was the same disease Mark's older brother Darragh had died from when Mark was 23. Tom was just 39.

"I miss him every day," says Mark. "He didn't allow a lot of people in and I was very honoured to be one of those people who was very close to him." Tom was mischievous, and wild at heart, but mysterious to the end, according to this friend. "He had huge depths that I am still only discovering as I look back on the scribblings that he left, or the letters that he wrote.

"Certainly his passing had a massive affect on my life. I was a little bit debilitated, I didn't work for a long time after it, I wasn't able to. Viva was the first thing I wrote after it. It was two years after his death. Garage was released the day before he died. And I didn't want to write any more, I was done by that stage. Working with Paddy was a revitalisation of all that kind of thing."

Creativity escaped, and in Havana, seeing prostitution on the streets, he got the idea for Trade, a play he wrote in seven days flat for the Dublin Theatre Festival. It's a love story between a rent boy and a married man which he is now adapting into a screenplay. "It's very heavy subject matter," Mark says. "There's about two jokes in it. And neither of them are funny."

Mark writes at home between two desks, imposing a creative curfew of 10.30pm. Tesco down the road closes at 11pm, and his Twitter followers receive the daily bulletin when he leaves his rented flat at the canal to buy bananas. "The walk between my flat and Tesco, it's really good. I've finished my work, and my head is a bit stewed, so I go there every night and I buy fruit."

He lives alone, is "single, shall we say", but doesn't crave company after work. "I don't drink. And I think when you're in the middle of writing something you have to stay away from people. You have to stay clear. Also, because you're in your head all day, you're not the greatest company in the world."

How could the material he writes not trouble him internally and shake him physically? For instance, the unbearable cruelty of Adam and Paul robbing a Down Syndrome boy, or the death monologue he wrote for Lippy, a play about the true-life suicides of four Irish women. Mark had to read the women's final letters and coroners reports to understand what her last thoughts were.

"That wasn't a pleasant couple of weeks. I don't think I'd go investigate work like that again. "But," he brightens, "it's the Pavlovian idea of what education is. Repetition, repetition, repetition, and then learned behaviour after that. So, if you're thinking, thinking, thinking about something, of course it's affecting your body. When you're in the middle of something, you tend to see it around you. So the world can maybe seem like a darker place if you're doing something like that.

"Sometimes projects crash into each other," he says, not complainingly. He's about to appear in History's Future, a Dutch arthouse film. He's at the final stages of another screenplay called Halal Daddy, an "irreverent comedy" set in Sligo. He has another film on his laptop which Lenny Abrahamson is "sick of waiting for". It's set in 1981, about a country boy from a fracturing family. It may be the most autobiographical work yet from this unfolding force of good.

'Viva' will close the Audi Dublin International Film Festival on February 28, see diff.ie

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