The pride in playing a repressed schizophrenic - Patrick's Day star Moe Dunford
Moe Dunford is proud of his family, his hometown and the light his new film Patrick's Day is shining on mental health. Hilary A White meets the rising star.
There are some interviewees whose ennui is writ large across their face as they drool out pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all answers to genuine lines of enquiry.
Then there people like Moe Dunford, who glow with pride and gratitude that they are being written about at all. You can see it clear as day, from the warmth of his greeting to the thought he puts into the questions presented to him, as if he understands that legions of actors would kill to be in his shoes right now.
But the Dungarvan man hasn't got here with firm handshakes and genial laughter alone, although you suspect they have played a part. The reason we're having this particular conversation is because of his extraordinary lead turn in Patrick's Day, the sophomore outing from Terry McMahon.
Dunford had always shown promise on the small screen as hirsute swashbucklers in Vikings or Game of Thrones, or in more soapy fare such as Raw, but McMahon - an Irish film-making enfant terrible - saw something in the well-built actor, that indefinable something that makes you take a leap of faith.
"I was an unknown," Dunford shrugs. "A complete unknown. It took a lot of guts for him to fight for me because certain members of the Irish Film Board did not want me to be in it. They wanted 'a name' - and I believe there were a few names attached to it at certain times - but I didn't care who they wanted, how pretty, how good or how famous they were. I wanted this part."
Dunford's sincerity is one of his most likeable traits. It allows his love for such things as canoeing and the outdoors, Jack Reynor and Mel Gibson's adrenal jungle epic Apocalypto to beam forth. On the other hand, it means that he lays it straight on the table about troubling times, when things were less than ideal in his life and McMahon's casting offered a lifeline. He explains how he wrote McMahon an email after his first audition, stating some very personal reasons for wanting to play the part of Patrick.
"I needed to play Patrick. I was an out-of-work actor and these opportunities don't come by much," Dunford chuckles before straightening his expression. "But I wasn't in the place in my life where I wanted to be. I was in difficult places in my personal life, my career - I had no f**king career! It came out of nowhere and spoke to me. I could empathise with the character because I felt he was quite repressed, and it wasn't him - he is a beautiful character - it was the things and people around him and the molly-coddling that was repressing him."
Patrick's Day tells of a virginal young schizophrenic who falls in love with a troubled air hostess, and the efforts of his smothering mother to destroy the relationship with the help of a detective. It is an eclectic piece that challenges the social restrictions placed on the mentally ill. What audiences everywhere will soon come to see, and what film festival judges already know, is that Dunford's performance, at moments muscular and throbbing, elsewhere bruised and tender, is a thing of spectacular dramatic skill. What was Patrick built out of?
"I'm from Dungarvan in Waterford," he begins. "It's a great town. There's great people there. They've shown great support for the disadvantaged, they come together, they pull together. It reminded me of people from home. I felt similar things to Patrick in my own life. I know a lot of Patricks out there, people that aren't so open. If they want something, they won't try and get it because they think they're not allowed or not deserving. So it just came from my life - I felt for him."
Mental health awareness is, thankfully, something that Dunford's generation are starting to take hold of in this country. It's an issue that is "big time" close to his heart, and he lists off names like Damien Dempsey, Sinead O'Connor, Bressie and groups such as First Fortnight and Darkness Into Light as being torch bearers for the long overdue discussion Ireland is starting to have about it.
Meanwhile, the proceeds from three screenings of Patrick's Day in Dungarvan during the week went directly to Pieta House.
"The theme of Patrick's Day was a lot more important to me than the acting," he swears. "I gave myself to it. Bressie said recently that it was like a rubber band had been tightened and tightened over years of repression, and now all of a sudden it's become loose, and everyone's talking about their experiences. I didn't have that growing up in Ireland, I wasn't able to talk about it, and I'd be ashamed of talking about it if I was feeling depressed or anything.
"It's about breaking down those walls," he continues. "Patrick's afraid of his condition. He's been told he can't love, so when he meets a woman he's utterly head over heels about, he says to her, 'you can't be with me because I'm schizophrenic, and she says 'aren't we all?'. And that blows his mind. It's her openness about it, and Ireland has been sadly lacking in that. And films about mental health have been lacking in that too because people watch them but it doesn't make them go 'wow, I connect with that person, a normal person going through their own struggles'."
He was initially sheepish about the idea of acting. As a third-year student in CBS, Dungarvan, "Maurice" watched from the back as a couple of his friends took to the stage for a school production of Macbeth. Eventually, the need to express himself grew too insistent. "I just really admired those young fellas getting up and having the balls to get laughed at for expressing themselves."
The bug had bitten and the Gaiety School of Acting, where director Patrick Sutton christened him "Moe", was the next step in the young man's self-discovery. "I was always good at putting on masks, doing impressions of teachers, other people, actors. But going to drama school and meeting these new people who were openly expressive as opposed to closed-off was a learning experience for me in getting to know myself, which I needed to do to be comfortable in my own skin."
"Pride" has been an omnipresent theme during our chat on this crisp, cloudless morning. Touchingly, the 27-year-old wells up as he recalls his five-year-old son Charlie's recent school report that was handed to him by the boy's "incredible mother". "He's given me everything. He's given me a reason… Great lad," he says through a teary grin.
At a glance, he may seem like a friendly reveller on the bus down to Electric Picnic, but Dunford really is exactly the type of export we need more of in this country - dignified, genuine and comfortable in their ability to rise to the challenges of their profession.
"There's a thing in Ireland about success and false modesty and self-deprecation," he muses. "I've been drawn to it in the past, but this opportunity to provide for myself and my family, I'm going to take it. There's no way I'm backing down."
By the time you read this, Dunford will have received the Shooting Star Award as part of the Berlin International Film Festival, the latest accolade the film has garnered overseas. The presentation, made last night at a special ceremony, puts him in the company of Daniel Craig, Carey Mulligan and our own local-lad-turned-bona fide star Domhnall Gleeson.
"It's really cool," he nods. "And I'm very proud to represent Ireland."
Not as proud as we are of him.
Patrick's Day is showing in selected cinemas nationwide.
Review of the movie
There are times you walk up a busy street and feel like the only one going in that direction. Sometimes film reviewing feels like that. Terry McMahon's second film, Patrick's Day, has been getting some rave reviews, and while there is a lot to admire in it, I did not absolutely love it.
The premise is excellent. Patrick (Moe Dunford) is a young man with schizophrenia who takes his meds, lives in sheltered accommodation and works in a shop. Every year on his birthday, which happens to fall on March 17, he and his mother Maura (Kerry Fox) go into Dublin to celebrate. They go to the same restaurant, get the same photo, and a selection of these marks the passing of time on Maura's wall.
But on this latest Patrick's Day, son and mother become separated and Patrick ends up in the company of a drunken suicidal air steward, Karen (Catherine Walker), to whom he ends up losing his virginity. While Patrick has been having fun, his mother panics and goes to the Gardai who can do little before the correct amount of time elapses.
Mother and son are reunited but it is not a simple case of all's well that ends well. Maura is not pleased that he has been with a woman, an older woman at that too. She foresees only trouble and does her best to keep the pair apart. But Patrick fixates on Karen, whose difficulties, although not officially labelled, prove as troublesome as Patrick's.
The dialogue is weak in places and the overuse of super close-ups got tedious, hammering home points that the scenes themselves could have conveyed without so much signage. The biggest flaw was the introduction of the dodgy cop who wants to be a comedian (Philip Jackson). It felt contrived and weird and undermined the whole film.
That said, however, it really is a good idea, brave, interesting and original and universal rights around sexuality is a great theme. Moe Dunford gives an amazing performance, as Patrick he never over-eggs the mental illness but gives a raw, convincing portrayal. The Damo Dempsey songs on the soundtrack work really well, and there is a lot to admire overall in the film.