'Many people forget about the darkness in Irishness' - rising star Moe Dunford
Moe Dunford’s harrowing performance in ‘Dark Lies the Island’ is just the latest in a series of memorable turns from ‘Black ’47’ to ‘Michael Inside’ by the rising star of Irish cinema
Look down the cast list of most high-quality Irish feature films over recent years and you're likely to find the name Moe Dunford.
A character actor with genuine range, he's played everything from perfidious RIC men and sports-obsessed schoolteachers to psychotic prisoners, desperate fathers and haunted sons in films like Black '47, Handsome Devil, Rosie, Metal Heart, Michael Inside and The Dig.
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He's a dab hand at villains, but in his latest film, Moe plays a man more sinned against than sinning. Ian Fitzgibbon's Dark Lies the Island is based on a story by Kevin Barry and set in a small Irish town containing no one especially happy. Dromord sits by a lake that may or may not be cursed, and is dominated by the Mannion family, a moody brood whose portfolio of shops, pubs and undertakers ushers the locals seamlessly from cradle to grave.
In a macabre flourish worthy of Shakespeare, family boss Daddy Mannion (Pat Shortt) is married to the much younger Sarah (Charlie Murphy), who was once the true love of Daddy's estranged son Doggy (Peter Coonan), and who also fascinates his younger, weaker son Martin, played by Dunford. Sarah narrates, and watches with pity and contempt as the three men hover helplessly around her.
"He's a mess alright," Moe tells me when we talk. "Martin ran a tanning shop for a while and that went tits up, and now he's running a chicken farm and that's not running too rosy either.
"He, his father and his brother are all driven demented over their desires for Sarah, without ever sorting out their own stuff, you know, and figuring out who they are as men.
"But that's very Irish to me, because there's something hilarious and dark about it at the same time, and it's a long way away from how we're viewed around the world as being the life and soul of the party and great craic all the time. Kevin Barry gets the demons, the psyche and the turmoil of being Irish."
He's a big fan of Barry's work. "I've read them all, and he's so good at getting the colloquialisms - and just the Irish way of life. I had actually read the character I was playing before I read the script for the film, because it was in one of the short stories, but you know the way he's dealt with in the film, where he's the younger brother, the youngest son and the 'runt of the litter' as his father says, there's scope for making him more pathetic, almost like a lost boy, where maybe in the book he might have been an older, more haggard character. If it was The Godfather, he'd be Sonny."
Moe (31) comes from Dungarvan in Co Waterford, and says he felt "very comfortable working as a character from that neck of the woods - which is small towns.
"I love where I come from, but I know the type of town in Ireland where there's like 65 pubs, I know the feeling where you're passing by a character who's having a cigarette outside a pub at 11 o'clock on a Tuesday morning, and he flicks the cigarette away and goes back into the pub. And you're wondering well what's he going back into. These characters in Kevin's stories, they give a strong counter argument about what Irishness is, there's a darkness there which a lot of people forget about."
He's proud of Dark Lies the Island, in which he is, needless to say, very good.
"The beauty of this film is how it's shot, Cathal Watters shot it and it's so vibrant, which counteracts that whole dark subject matter that's going through it. And to get to work with Pat Shortt, Peter Coonan, Charlie Murphy, Tommy Tiernan..."
He was particularly impressed by Tiernan's magnetic performance in the film, and his way of working. He plays a man who arrives in town on a bus and seems to be suffering with amnesia: gradually, as he watches the Mannions' tragedies unfolding around him, he remembers his own. "I was quite taken by Tommy's approach to this," Moe says. "He was so focused, so dedicated to the role. There's something quite beautiful about his performance, there's a vulnerability there."
After getting early breaks on TV shows like Raw and The Tudors, Dunford made his name playing the warrior Aethelwulf in Michael Hirst's hit series Vikings for four seasons. Early in that run, he starred in Terry McMahon's Patrick's Day, a low-budget drama about a young man with mental health issues who falls in love with a suicidal flight attendant. "It was Patrick's Day that made it clear to me that this was what I wanted to do, and keep on doing, telling stories.
"Acting had always been something I'd toyed with doing growing up, because I had a love for film and all. But for a long time, I just didn't feel that I could do it, that I could be open about it, really express myself. I went to drama school when I was 18, 19, but it didn't come easy until Patrick's Day. That's when it clicked for me."
He's developed into a very fine film actor since then, and has a raw intensity that catches the eye. He was brilliant as a violent yet otherwise icily calm inmate in Frank Berry's Michael Inside, suitably loathsome as a vindictive Famine-era policeman in Lance Daly's Black '47, movingly broken as a social outcast in Ryan and Andy Tohill's horror film The Dig. And last year he struck a topical note playing the father of a homeless family in the compelling and underrated Rosie, which co-starred Sarah Greene and was written by Roddy Doyle.
"You know I went over to the Toronto Film Festival for Rosie, and Roddy was there, [director] Paddy [Breathnach] was there and Sarah was there, and I got a suit for the occasion you know, and I'll never forget, Roddy just completely obliterated the red carpet event when he said to me, 'you look like a farmer who sold a dozen cattle at the mart and has gone off to have a rake of pints to celebrate'. It was hilarious!
"It was very current, Rosie, certainly very much of its time, and as a story about family, it added to Roddy's past work. I just wanted to sit in and be part of that. And I had such a great year that year, because the majority of it was spent working with Sarah Greene. She's a legend, I can see why everybody wants to work with her, and the thing about her is, there's no airs and graces there."
Starting next week, Moe and Sarah can be seen together again in the new crime drama, Dublin Murders, an RTÉ/BBC co-production based on the crime novels of Tana French.
"Actually, these two projects happened around the same time as each other, and they both deal with the darker aspects of the Irish psyche, and you know this dark humour exists within the family of cops, because these detectives, they see so much darkness every day, but there's a certain grim Irish humour that exists that gets them through the day.
"I love how Sarah Phelps adapted it from Tana's novels, it has a unique Irishness to it, and it deals again with a small town, and how trauma affects the psyche and how it affects memory, and whether or not you're capable of moving on.
"But you know for me, to work for a proper length with Sarah and Killian [Scott], I felt like I was on a project where you were allowed time to tell the story, we had seven months to shoot eight episodes, that's kind of unheard of in Ireland.
"And because it's a co-production, there's no pressure, you're allowed to tell your story, everybody's on the same page and I genuinely think it's going to be a hit, because the scripts are tight, and every episode was filmed as if it were a movie.
"The character I play in it is a decent skin," he adds with a wry smile. "It was good to play one of those for a change!"