'I had to check my ego at the door when I started acting' – Cathal Pendred on move from MMA to movies
Five years after he retired from life as a professional UFC fighter, Dubliner Cathal Pendred is performing opposite actors of the calibre of Sam Claflin and the legendary Timothy Spall.
They share several scenes in crime thriller The Corrupted, the latest from director Ron Scalpello, which also boasts Noel Clarke, Charlie Murphy, Naomi Ackie, David Hayman, and Hugh Bonneville among the cast.
It comes on the back of smaller roles in Scalpello’s 2017 bare-knuckle fighting film, My Name is Lenny, and Irish flick Cardboard Gangsters, as well as stints in TV series including Ray Donovan, Into the Badlands, Magnum PI and Amazon’s Lore.
However, the 31-year-old says he’s still trying to shed his former persona as he infiltrates an industry where sports stars turned actors are often not afforded as warm a welcome as those who have honed their craft the traditional way.
“People wouldn’t say it to you but you can definitely feel it,” he says of the cynicism. “I’ve come up against it even outside Ireland where people see that’s my background and then they might not be confident in my abilities.”
Some actors have requested to see Cathal’s previous work before they will work with him and others, he says, worry he’s “not up to it”. He's enjoying proving them wrong.
“I’m always trying to shake the name of being a ‘former fighter’,” he adds. “I just want to be an actor. My agent in the States, when he put me forward for roles at the start he would use UFC but now it’s just my body of work. He doesn’t even mention it unless it’s really necessary for the role.”
Born in Boston but raised in Dublin from the age of four (he has duel citizenship and divides his time between LA and his hometown), his childhood and teenage years were dominated by sport, particularly rugby, and he went on to win the Leinster Schools Senior Cup, before deciding to build a career from his hobby of martial arts.
Just six years later he was plotting his exit with acting his “unofficial retirement plan” - his UFC career had taken a toll.
“I always planned on getting in and out. I didn’t want to be in it for too long and I got out a bit sooner than I thought - I was 28 when I retired,” he says, admitting that competing in the UFC became extremely tough.
“I fought five times in the space of a year, and it’s not just the actual competing but the training day in, day out, and you can’t go out and enjoy yourself or even eat a pizza at the weekend,” he reveals.
“And then there’s the weight cutting. You’re depleting yourself and you dehydrate yourself to get down a couple of stone under weight and it takes a toll on you by the end of it.”
These days he still trains, but on his own terms. It is not like other professional sports where those who have retired cannot train with their former team mates and peers. He still gets his fix training with other fighters.
“It’s the best of both worlds. Martial arts started as a hobby for me and became a career and towards the end I wanted to go back to it being a hobby as opposed to having to do it all the time,” he says.
When he made the decision to pursue acting, his background as a disciplined fighter helped to a degree, but the transition still proved to be a steep learning process.
“There are definitely things I’ve been able to take from my period in MMA in terms of working my way up the ladder. But I had to check my ego at the door when I started off in acting. You’re starting off at the bottom and working your way up and there was a lot to learn,” he says.
In fact, it is not the acting itself he has found most challenging, but rather the unstructured, unpredictable life of an actor.
“It has taken a while to get my head around it,” he says. “You can be working for a month or two and then off for a few months so that can be frustrating because in sport I always had the next goal, the next match. That’s the biggest challenge – the in between jobs part.”
Given super human discipline and a relentless competitive drive is part and parcel of life as an MMA fighter, however, it has served him well in doggedly pursuing his new craft and building his career from scratch. And it’s starting to pay off.
While his role in My Name is Lenny was small, his character “got a particularly good reaction” at the London premiere, prompting Ron to cast him in a bigger role in The Corrupted, which hits the big screen on Friday, May 10.
He plays Gerry Dwyer, a former paramilitary from Northern Ireland who is working amongst the criminal underworld in London. His scenes with Claflin and Spall get “pretty heated”.
“[Gerry] is one of those guys quietly going about his business but when he gets ticked off he loses the head," he explains. "There’s a few scenes in there where he really kicks off which were fun to film. There’s one with Sam Claflin towards the end that was a really fun one.”
“In a personal sense I wouldn’t be intimidated at all,” he says of his heavyweight co-stars, “But acting wise these guys have great résumés. This movie features a lot of British actors who are really experienced actors and Timothy Spall was a little bit intimidating in terms of acting chops but after a few days it was fine on set.”
Getting the accent right was important to him, and it seems he nailed it since legendary Scottish actor David Hayman, who has spent time filming several projects in Northern Ireland over the course of his career, thought he was from the north.
“It was only after a few days of working with him we were having lunch and I was talking and he did a double take and asked, ‘What happened? Where’s your accent?’,” laughs Cathal.
In fact, accents come so easily to him that he has not yet played a role in his own Dublin accent. He has tackled American, Russian, rural Ireland, Northern Ireland, and English.
“I was in an American production last year [Amazon’s Lore] and it was an Irish story and there were only two of us who were Irish doing Irish accents and I was really particular about the accents and they didn’t really understand why.
“But I knew the Irish audience would go through it with a fine tooth comb. I wanted to make sure we all hit the nail on the head so I became the unofficial dialect coach!”
The Corrupted releases May 10