‘He wasn’t with him for the fame and fortune – it was genuine love’ – Armagh actor Aaron McCusker plays Freddie Mercury’s Irish boyfriend in Bohemian Rhapsody
Since he wrapped on his seven year stint as the villainous Jamie Maguire on Shameless in 2013, Northern Irish actor Aaron McCusker has racked up credits in US series Dexter, The Astronauts Wives Club, and Fortitude, and will soon be seen in Sharon Horgan’s new comedy series Women on the Verge.
However, the 39-year-old actor’s next gig, playing the legendary Freddie Mercury’s long-time Irish boyfriend Jim Hutton in Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, propels him beyond the realm of the small screen and offered him the opportunity, and responsibility, of playing a real person.
Jim, who was originally from Carlow, had been a hair stylist before he met Freddie in London. They became inseparable and were together right up until Freddie’s death from AIDS in November 1991. Jim passed away 19 years later, at the age of 60.
It was important to Aaron to do the man justice, and it appears he may well have succeeded. He tells Independent.ie, “When I was filming, one of the crew came up to me one day and he said he had known Jim and praised me for doing a really good job, so that was really nice to hear that."
“Jim was really genuine, a really nice guy so he was,” he adds with an Armagh accent as mellifluous as ever despite the fact he has been surrounded by Mancunians in the city in which he has laid down roots with his wife Jennie Sutton and their children.
“Anyone interviewed about him, anything I’ve read about the people who knew him personally, nobody had a bad thing to say about him,” he continues, “He really calmed Freddie down. He was a really good influence on him. He wasn’t with him for the fame and fortune. It was genuine love.”
Bohemian Rhapsody has had a somewhat difficult evolution over the course of the past 12 years. If ‘development hell’ were ever to apply to a project it’s this one, which saw Sacha Baron Cohen and then Ben Whishaw linked to the role of Freddie. During filming director Bryan Singer was replaced by Dexter Fletcher after Singer reportedly clashed with stars Rami Malek, the ultimate choice for Mercury, and Tom Hollander, who plays Jim Beach.
Aaron says he doesn’t know the “ins and outs” of what happened, but praises both Singer and Fletcher as directors and says Mr Robot star Rami, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the late star, does an “amazing job”.
The film charts the period of Mercury’s life from the origins of Queen to their Live Aid performance in the summer of 1985. Freddie met Jim shortly before that legendary gig and they were together until the star’s death. Most of Aaron’s scenes were under the direction of Fletcher, who replaced Singer for the final two weeks of shooting, and post-production.
“He made you feel very relaxed,” he says of Fletcher. “Because he’s an actor himself he gets it and he makes it a lot of fun. It was a great set to be on towards the end.”
Aaron describes the part as a relatively small role with “four or five” scenes, but it’s an important one as it marks the first time he has played a gay character.
“It was a thing that would have been more difficult if I didn’t get on with Rami. But we got on really well,” he says. “That’s the thing – if you come into a show and you’re going to be playing someone’s husband, wife, girlfriend or boyfriend, and you don’t get on with them it’s very daunting. The fact me and Rami got on so well made it easier.”
He adds, “I never even thought about it in the end. It was second nature. I have no problem playing a gay character again in the future. I’m ticking off the boxes – serial killer, gay character, punk legend,” he laughs.
The punk legend he’s referring to is Terri Hooley, the man credited with igniting the Belfast punk scene in the 70s with his Good Vibrations record shop and label, which was responsible for bands including The Undertones and The Outcasts.
The actor is gearing up for a stage version of Good Vibrations which runs at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast from September 1 to 30. It’s based on Hooley’s book, which in turn inspired the hit 2013 film (the stage version retains the film’s writers Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson).
While Aaron relied on video clips of the late Jim Hutton to help him channel the man, Hooley is very much alive and as rambunctious as ever. Anyone who has met him will know the man can talk for Northern Ireland and often regales company with an endless stream of madcap tales about various bands and music legends of the 70s and 80s.
“The director took me over to his house to meet him and I spent a couple of hours with him, just listening really,” reveals Aaron. “Everyone warned me I wouldn’t get a word in edgeways but it was nice to meet him although nothing that I learned in those two hours will help me play him! He was basically telling me stories about John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley. At the end of the day if you’ve got stories like that to tell why wouldn’t you tell them?”
McCusker has been honing his craft on the stage and small screen since the turn of the millennium and is probably best known for Shameless although he has also played a serial killer in Dexter and an astronaut in The Astronaut Wives Club as well as a miner in Sty Atlantic's atmospheric Fortitude. However, he describes playing Terri as the “biggest challenge” of his career.
“I’ve never been as nervous about a theatre job in my life,” he says, “The character of Hooley doesn’t really get a break. He has lines in every scene and it’s going to be a huge challenge. But it’s one that I’m up for. I do love working in the Lyric – I did my first professional job there when I was 16 and then The Importance of Being Earnest four or five years ago. It has a special place in my heart especially with it being the 50th anniversary as well.”
There’s also the pressure of playing a role fellow Northern Irish actor Richard Dormer made his own in the big screen version and the possibility that the man he’s playing will be sitting front row on opening night.
“The thing is Terri is a legend but he wasn’t the best of guys at that time. He wasn’t great with his kids, wasn’t a great husband. He never really grew up, that’s the thing. He’s not a bad person, he was just too focused on the band, the music, the party life. He sort of rejected [his wife] Ruth a little bit,” says Aaron of the role.
He adds, “When I played Jamie [on Shameless] nobody could look at him and go, ‘that’s not like Jamie’. The worst thing for me to happen on stage is for Terri to say, ‘He’s not anything like me’.”
Last year Aaron performed opposite Fiona Glascott in a short film, Secret Child: The Bridge, based on the riveting memoir of Gordon Lewis about his childhood growing up with his single mother in the Regina Coeli mother and baby home in Dublin the 1950s. The film has won several awards at festivals across Europe and the US, including a Best Supporting Actor shout for McCusker at Festigious. Gordon, who is also producing the film, cast the actor in the role of his stepfather Bill because he resembled Clarke Gable, as did the real Bill.
“Bill had his demons – he was a bit of a drinker, things like that – but he was basically a good guy, which is why Gordon’s mother wanted to reconnect with him. He’s one of the good guys.” Playing good guys is something Aaron has grown to appreciate in recent years.
“Dark guys are more interesting, more fun to play, and to be honest they’re a little bit easier,” he says. “My big break was Shameless and Jamie was like a bad, bad guy and he was fun to play and I finished that after seven years and thought I’d happily go on to play characters like that for the rest of my career. But getting to play a couple of nice guys sort of changed my tune. It’s more challenging I think. It’s so easy to play bad guys and scream and growl and all that there, but I think it’s more difficult to be nice. Now I’ve done a mix of roles which I’m really happy about.”
His next TV role, in Women on the Verge, sees him playing another good guy. It was shot in both London and Dublin and he says it’s “very, very funny” and will “make adults laugh and cry and young ones laugh and cry”. He plays Martin, the boyfriend of one of the 30 something women of the title, who is played by Eileen Walsh (previously seen in Horgan’s Catastrophe).
“She basically splits up with him and has no fun on the old dating websites so decides to get back with him because she wants babies and marriage,” he reveals. “I’m a bit of a bumbling idiot who she kind of walks all over, but I’m actually quite a cool guy, and a nice guy.”
Most of his scenes are one on one with Eileen; “Me and her got on. Like I said, half the battle when you’re playing someone’s boyfriend is getting on with them. We hit it off and had so much craic.”
While Shameless aired, it was so popular that he “literally couldn’t walk down the street”. He says it’s not quite like that for him these days, although that may well change if Women on the Verge pulls a Catastrophe.
“I look at it this way: if it’s an acting career you want and you make a success out of it then you have to put up with the fact that people want to come up and talk to you,” he says of the attention. “Ninety-nine per cent of the people who ever come up to me are always genuinely really lovely, interesting people and it doesn’t bother me at all.”
Good Vibrations runs at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast from September 1 to September 30. Bohemian Rhapsody releases in Ireland and the UK on October 24.