Rat's tale is a glass act, low on spin and high on bottle
Ciara Dwyer meets the creators of Rats, the criminal loved by all in Mountjoy
TALKING to the star of Spin the Bottle, Michael McElhatton, is a strange experience. The balding 40-year-old from Terenure listens carefully to each question, and then answers as sincerely as he can. When he speaks, you know that he is an actor. So many actors these days need to work on their voices, but with McElhatton it is all there: the richness, the resonance and the clear diction.
In plays, when he walks on stage the RADA-trained actor has a presence about him, but it is the voice which makes you sit up. Whether doing a dark Jacobean drama or Shakespeare, McElhatton has the skill to make complex language sound as simple as a shopping list.
I tell you this to explain just how radical his transformation is. They say that actors are chameleons, slipping on the mantle of other characters' mannerisms and personalities. And it's true. As he sits in front of me today, it is hard to reconcile this well-spoken man with his creation, Rats.
So who is Rats? And how did he come into existence?
Rats is an inner-city gouger who is forever in and out of Mountjoy. He's not even a good criminal. Every time he commits a crime, he gets caught. But prison has left its mark on him; he speaks in a quasi- spiritual way about forces and chakras and crystals. He's also a bit of a poet and musician. He writes his own lyrics and then raps.He has been in a band called Spermdot.com.
And then there is his appearance. His spindly legs are clothed in shiny tracksuit bottoms and his hair is a bizarre creation with a short blond fringe; it looks like a back-to-front tonsure. As McElhatton says himself, "I was very adamant about the look and the feel of it. The minute you put the wig on, the IQ is halved."
The character was created by Michael and his friend, actor and director Ian Fitzgibbon. Rats had been knocking around for about 10 years. Ian would talk to his buddy, and instead of replying with his own voice, Michael would burst into Rats-talk. In a process of osmosis, the character kept evolving until they decided they had better release him out into the world.
The first time Rats cropped up was in the mockumentary Paths to Freedom, which they co-wrote. With his coin rings and delusions of grandeur, Rats proved hugely popular with the public.
"He doesn't really fit into the world and the way the world works," explains Michael. "He is a delusional character, but it really is his utter belief in himself - he absolutely believes that he can be playing in Slane next year, that he can be as big as U2. I think that's part of the appeal of the character. He can be nasty, he can be aggressive, but essentially he has been well brought up. He loves his mammy and his mammy loves him and there's a very tight unit there."
As for his chakra talk, McElhatton tells me it's authentic. "A lot of guys in the Joy rely on spiritualism. We talked to lots of guys in there and they are very into this quasi-spiritual world, which you can understand. If you're locked up 24 hours a day, you have to tune into something else.
"Rats has these crystals which he believes create planets of genius in his brain. But it's just the way he is. Rats is wired up differently to everyone else."
But how did two nice middle-class boys come up with this working-class creation and nail him bang on? Rats is frighteningly accurate and so very funny, and yet they have cleverly managed not to patronise the class to which he belongs. How?
"It was never our intention to patronise. I've a huge affection, as does Ian, for Rats. I think Rats is a really nice guy and a really good guy. He'd wreck my head if I was out with him, but his heart is in the right place. We never, ever wanted to be patronising and I'd be doing a disservice to people like Rats, and also to myself as an actor, because you don't want to play a one-dimensional character.
"After Paths to Freedom, I met some people who used to teach drama in Mountjoy and they said that the prisoners loved Rats. We went back to Mountjoy to research this film and the governor was showing us around and he introduced us to a few prisoners. They said that they loved Rats and they took me to their cells and they'd written quotes from Rats on their walls - which was amazing and bizarre. And that's the best compliment you can get, really."
Although McElhatton does not hail from a theatre background - his father worked in Rowntree Mackintosh and his mother worked in a bank - in some ways it is no surprise that he has ended up an actor. He went to Terenure College, which has a strong drama tradition - the late Donal McCann, Stephen Brennan and the Grennell brothers all went there. "I did school plays there and got hooked on those really," he says.
In the Eighties, Michael followed the trend and headed to London. "I was 20, naive and foolish. I spent a year auditioning for various drama schools but RADA was the one I liked most. It was fantastic. I stayed in London for eight years. But then I got homesick and the boom was happening here, so it was a good time to come home.
Michael and Ian followed Paths to Freedom with their series about middle-class swingers, Fergus's Wedding, and now Spin the Bottle is their feature film with Rats in the starring role. It is a miracle that it was made at all. They shot it in 15 days, with little or no money. Unlike Paths to Freedom, Spin the Bottle did not make me howl with laughter. All the disadvantages stacked against the working-class character depressed me. Rats gets a job sweeping the streets and manages to muck it up, then his new job is as a toilet attendant.
McElhatton admits that the film is darker than the series, but he hopes that the bleak moments are outnumbered by funny scenes.
The late Pat Leavy plays Rats's mother, proving what a fine comic actress she was. And - as in Paths to Freedom- Gerry Ryan shows that he can be very funny by revealing a dark, demanding side.
Spin the Bottle is now showing in cinemas nationwide