Sunday 19 January 2020

Irish star Moe Dunford talks Michael Inside, bidding farewell to Vikings and 'finally feeling useful on set'

Moe Dunford's range is one of the broadest in the Irish acting landscape. 2018 looks set to be his annus mirabilis

Moe Dunford. Photo: David Conachy
Moe Dunford. Photo: David Conachy
Moe Dunford made his name as Aethelwulf in the TV series Vikings

Hilary A White

Eight-year-old Charlie Dunford is delighted, apparently. His father has just passed his driving test, which means more setting off on journeys together and more adventures. Thirty might seem like a late age to get a full driving licence but Charlie's father has been busy.

It's been three years since I met actor Moe Dunford for a chat as he sat on the edge of a breakthrough into the notoriously uncharitable Irish acting industry. His reputation had been built on a blistering starring turn in Terry McMahon's Patrick's Day, the kind of tour de force most actors wish for once in a career, let alone at its outset. His emergence in the Irish-Canadian series Vikings solidified the view that a thorough new screen talent had announced itself. Twice, IFTA judges agreed.

Since then, Dunford has been tireless, fuelled, he tells me, by a hunger to work with as many directors as possible, to build up experience and a body of work, but also to make hay while the industry sun is shining in his direction. He's too shrewd to take anything for granted, and while his profile may have changed since our last encounter, his humble appreciation of his lot has not.

"I've probably aged about 20 years since you've last seen me," he laughs. "But I'd like to look back in 20 or 30 years and be able to say there's a really strong body of work. I want to get that body of work here and then go where the work takes me. I still like travelling, that sense of freedom. It's just that thing of finally feeling useful on a set, after a long time of not knowing what I wanted to do or wondering could anyone really have a career as an actor."

Moe Dunford made his name as Aethelwulf in the TV series Vikings
Moe Dunford made his name as Aethelwulf in the TV series Vikings

That body of work is really coming together, you may have noticed.

By the time 2018 closes, Dunford will have appeared in six feature films and two TV series. Of the latter, Striking Out saw him portray the love interest of Amy Huberman's Tara. Meanwhile, he bowed out of Vikings after four hugely fruitful and sword-clanging years as Aethelwulf .

He agrees the end of Vikings, in particular, feels like the closing of one chapter and the opening of a new, the end of a formative time that now paves the way for other avenues.

"I very much feel that way," Dunford frowns. "I loved the experience. It was all I wanted to do for a few years, to play that sort of role. I grew up with films like Braveheart and that, watching those types of movies with my dad. I loved that environment, the outdoors, all the background acting, but also the quieter moments on set."

As for the big screen, Dunford's list is as long as it is varied and positions the Waterford man as having one of the broadest ranges in the land. Romantic comedy Handsome Devil and fun caper The Flag, both released in 2016, are the lighter end. The darker end of the spectrum, meanwhile, is where things have become very interesting for Dunford. You only have to look at The Lodgers, a gothic chiller filmed in Wexford's Loftus Hall, and Lance Daly's upcoming and hugely-anticipated Irish Famine revenge saga Black 47.

And then there's Michael Inside. Written and directed by Frank Berry (I Used to Live Here), it tells of a callow youth (played with smouldering sensitivity by 18-year-old Dafhyd Flynn) who is caught holding drugs for a friend. Once inside, the learning curve of prison life is steep, even when he is taken under the wing of David (Dunford), who may or may not be a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Filmed in Cork Prison, Michael Inside is a searing flame of social realist drama that is getting unanimous plaudits from those who have seen it. Dunford had a gut feeling about the project's visionary, Frank Berry, and, just as with McMahon and Patrick's Day, wrote the director a letter demanding to be involved.

"Patrick's Day came out in 2015, and the first film I saw after that was I Used to Live Here. So I wrote Frank a letter saying I'd love to work with him. Two or three years later, as soon as I finished Vikings, I got cast in Michael Inside. I was like, 'right, these are the stories I want to be doing'. I remember going down to Cork for filming. Sometimes, there's a feeling on set. You don't know what it is but something is working."

What began with Patrick's Day's study of the fine lines in mental health, and what is now continuing in Michael Inside's harrowing depiction of how easily a young and malleable soul can slip through the cracks of society, is evidence of Dunford's habit of finding time for projects that serve a social function through raising awareness or provoking discussion. Even today, as we meet at a hotel on the outskirts of Dublin, he's just wrapped for the day on a shoot for Element Pictures' production of Rosie. Written by Roddy Doyle and starring Dunford and Cork star Sarah Greene, it tells of a young family caught up in the current housing crisis.

"I like stories about humanity. I've seen incredible acts of kindness and generosity from people through my life but also the scum of the earth. And I've seen some people who have such a horrible sense of entitlement. They're all stories that need to be told, and I hope this might expand on the problem and make them known to more people. The housing crisis is the crisis of our time. It really is. It goes back to that whole thing with mental health that Patrick's Day discussed. It can affect anyone."

Dunford takes things to heart. It is part of what embeds him so neatly in any role he takes on and therefore the reason film-makers always want to work with him. If this has perhaps meant a slight delay in Charlie and his old man embarking on exciting excursions, it has most definitely been worth it.

Michael Inside opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday, Cert 15A.

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