Stars of new Irish film The Drummer and the Keeper on its handling of Asperger's and bi-polar
A new Irish film takes a fresh, funny and effective look at some serious issues. Its two leading men talk to our reporter
Dermot Murphy and Jacob McCarthy have both wanted to be actors all of their lives. Both have devoted years to studying, working, hoping, trying and failing at a notoriously tough gig and both were very close to giving up on the dream. Then along came Nick Kelly's screenplay for The Drummer and the Keeper. And here they are, two lovely, chatty, gorgeous and very tall young men excited about the film that restored both of their faiths. The Drummer and the Keeper, played by Murphy and McCarthy respectively, won Best First Feature at the Galway Fleadh and has just opened nationwide.
Over four and a half years Kelly wrote nearly 30 drafts of his first feature film so he was in a good position to guide the young stars over what could have been rocky ground. Gabriel (Murphy) is the drummer who has bi-polar disorder with psychotic and delusional episodes. It makes him a great and enthusiastic musician, but also somewhat unpredictable and occasionally dangerous. Haunted by the mother who did not survive the same diagnosis and causing problems for his family, he agrees to take his medication more regularly. Lithium moderates him, but dampens his spirit too. Another part of his treatment is to play soccer in a mixed ability team. There he meets Christopher (McCarthy), the keeper, an almost 18 years old with Asperger's. After a somewhat fractious start the two become friends.
It all sounds rather serious, but the film has a very light touch and lots of laughs. Focussing on the people as opposed to the labels was a key factor, which results in Phelim Drew's soccer coach uttering: "I know you're bi-polar and all, but there's no need to be an arsehole."
Still, portraying both bi-polar disorder and Asperger's was an inevitable challenge for two young actors in their feature lead debuts. McCarthy's mother suggested he speak to a neighbour whose son has non-verbal autism.
"I sat in on one of his behavioural therapy lessons and just hung about the house watching him go about his daily routine and how he interacted with people," he explains. "Then I started to watch documentaries and allow it to wash over me before I made any decisions on how he moved or sounded."
Writer-director Kelly had a special understanding of the situation because his son Finn has Asperger's, which was both an insight and an added pressure for McCarthy. "I had met Finn, and obviously I felt scared because you don't want to do anything to offend people. A lot of the time it is the language we use, but I understand people's sensitivity. It sounds awful and obvious but we are all just human beings."
Murphy felt similar responsibility. His research took him to St Patrick's Hospital and to spend time with people who were dealing or had dealt with bi-polar.
"One of the guys I hung out with explained to me that bipolar is not a mood disorder, it's an energy disorder, and that was the key for me. But I was still very nervous about it right up until the camera was on. But all credit to Nick, you could tell straight away how informed he was and how careful he was being."
"Yes," agrees McCarthy. "It was character first and whatever the disorder happened to be came second. They're just these young men trying to figure it out."
The film was shot in 21 days (12 hours at a time) and the chemistry between the friends on-screen translates to their friendship in person. They had not met before although McCarthy had seen Murphy in one of his earliest roles, in the Billy Roche play Lay Me Down Softly. Murphy had wanted to be an actor since early childhood. "I grew up in Wexford in my Nan's house, around the corner from the cinema so on a day off my Mom would take me to see movies and it came from there. That was what I wanted to do and theatre was just a way to get there."
Fellow Wexford native Roche cast him in his first role. "Billy took a chance on me and that's how I went to London. I was about 23, 24 and I got an agent from that job and started doing TV jobs."
Screen acting is where he feels at home and despite what looks like steady acting work on paper - Murphy has had TV roles in Raw, Clean Break and Six Degrees - he recently turned 30 and was having doubts. "I honestly wasn't sure if it was what I should be doing, and then this film came along."
Currently based between London and Dublin, he grins involuntarily and goes all coy about what he is doing next. "I don't know if I'm allowed talk about it or what? " he asks McCarthy. They do some muttering, I hazard a guess, suffice to say it's good. It's ironic that although just turned 24, McCarthy was having doubts of his own about his career choice, even though he too had wanted nothing but to be an actor since childhood. His interest is very much in theatre but this big break has reinvigorated his passion.
Straight after his Leaving Cert McCarthy spent three years at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He rather astutely got himself a US Green Card and in early 2015 moved to LA. Not an awful lot happened for him from the many auditions he went to in that first 18 months. When he got a break it was in Dublin. "I came back here and I filmed this and then I went back to LA and did another nine-month stint, but it was very disheartening," he says. "I was planning on moving back here when very serendipitously the call came through for AP Bio."
A new NBC Comedy series written by Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers, AP Bio is set in a high school ("I've only ever played 17 year olds!") which has started shooting. "It's not a sitcom, there is no laughter track, it's a single camera, a lot more in the vein of The Office or Parks and Rec."
Both agree that something interesting happened when they let go a little. Murphy nods as McCarthy says: "I spent so long pushing, trying to force something to happen then as soon as I got to a point where I thought I can't do this anymore, put my hands up and walked away just to re-evaluate, it happened."
They also bridle at the bad rep millennials, for whom they are surely poster boys, have for not being able to stick at things. "It infuriates me!" says McCarthy, pointing out that "millennials aren't a product of themselves, we're a product of our parents, you created us so if you have a problem with us you have to look at yourselves is how I feel personally." Murphy adds: "It's also a ridiculous generalisation."
They point out how disenfranchised it can feel to be young when so many major decisions that will affect the rest of their lives are made by much older generations. McCarthy, who lived in the US during the last election, points to the demographics that voted for Trump. "There was only one state where the 18-25 demographic voted Republican." Murphy lived through Brexit in London. "That was the same, young people and old people wanted different things."
One generational generalisation they do accept is that theirs is an emotionally richer one.
The Drummer and the Keeper is a story of friendship and good friendship stories often pack a more powerful emotional punch than any romance. "I was raised by women so I think that influenced me," says Murphy. "But as a generation I think we're redefining the notion of masculinity and I think it's important to do that."
And they see a change in the Ireland they were keen to leave. "When I moved away originally I was disillusioned with Dublin," says McCarthy. "I felt trapped and I moved to London and I had an amazing time but now, I don't know if I'm seeing it through rose-tinted glasses, but it feels like it's having a cultural, artistic renaissance."
As for most people distance teaches you that Dublin or Ireland isn't that bad. McCarthy was recently called a Dubliner in print for the first time and he was delighted. "When I had these childhood dreams of being an actor I thought nobody in Ireland does that, but now I have friends popping up all over the world."
Murphy is happy that his first big break has, despite his travels, happened in Ireland. "All you want to do as an actor coming through is be part of something that means something. And I was so delighted that it was here."
The Drummer and the Keeper, now showing, Cert 15A
Sunday Indo Living
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