When Hollywood comes knocking: Diarmaid Murtagh's rise
Three years ago Cavan man Diarmaid Murtagh was playing Gaelic football with his local team. Today he's acting alongside the likes of George Clooney and James Franco. Words by Eoin Butler
When rising Irish actor Diarmaid Murtagh found himself playing a scene opposite four Hollywood heavyweights recently, in the World War II treasure hunt caper The Monuments Men, he was at pains not to appear overawed in their company.
George Clooney and Matt Damon, he reminded himself, were both playing US army lieutenants. Veterans Bill Murray and John Goodman were playing sergeants. "My character was a captain," he notes. "So in the context of the movie, at least, I outranked them all."
With TV credits including Camelot, Vikings and the forthcoming Sons of Liberty, Murtagh, 32, is something of a specialist in historical war dramas. And though his part in Monuments Men was limited to a handful of scenes, he prepared as though it were a leading role.
He decided his Captain Harpen was a veteran of the D-Day landings, who'd fought his way across the continent in Patton's army. Now, in the aftermath of Germany's surrender, his character couldn't care less about looted Nazi art. He just wanted to go home.
The film's director, George Clooney, however, mischievously threw a spanner in the works at the last moment. "I should say first of all that the guys were all very generous and open with their time. Bill Murray had me in stitches, joking around on more than one occasion.
"But when it came to my first scene, I was really nervous and just focused on not messing up. Right as the cameras started rolling, George leaned in and whispered [delivers spot-on Clooney impression] 'You mind telling me what the hell an Irishman is doing in World War II Germany?'"
A native of Kingscourt, Co Cavan, Murtagh graduated from DCU in 2003 with a degree in Business Studies. He had dabbled in drama during his time in Glasnevin, starring in college productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Hushabye Mountain. But he didn't consider acting as a realistic career option.
"I think my mother would have bate me out the door if I'd arrived home with that particular piece of news," he laughs.
For two years he worked as a sales rep in Dun Laoghaire for a company that manufactured branded merchandise. "It was good because the job involved selling myself as much as anything else. So inadvertently, it was good grounding for the career I was about to embark on."
In 2005, he enrolled in the Gaiety School of Acting in Temple Bar. When he graduated, two years later, he walked straight into his first paid gig on the BBC/TG4 co-production Seacht. "Going direct from drama school into a job I thought, 'Jaysus, what's all the fuss about? This acting thing is going to be plain sailing'. And of course, it wasn't."
One early bump in the road was a short lived RTE sitcom called The Roaring Twenties, which debuted in 2008 to spectacularly bad reviews. "From my point of view, that was a job I was happy to take on. But it didn't land and I wouldn't say I was particularly good in it by any stretch."
(This isn't false modesty either. The series is still available to watch on YouTube. Suffice to say, the words "Hollywood beckons..." are not the first that spring to mind.)
Did he ever consider throwing in the towel, getting a 'proper job' again? "Nah, the economy had collapsed by then. Even if I'd wanted to go back, it's not like there was a cushy number at a desk in the IFSC waiting for me. I'd set my course, I suppose. I'd made my bed."
He continued to pick up occasional work in Ireland in domestic television and on stage in the Abbey Theatre. Eventually he found his niche playing supporting roles in big budget international costume dramas like Camelot and Vikings. "I think for a young man, that's just where a lot of the opportunities lie. Besides, I'm 6ft 4ins. So you'll probably never see me in a rom-com or office drama."
When his stint on Vikings ended, he relocated to London, taking a job in a Shoreditch cocktail bar to help make ends meet. He was working a shift there one day when he got a call from his agent, saying the director of a new film had seen his audition tape and liked it, but wanted to see him try something a little different.
"I'd always said to my manager in the bar, 'look, I'll give you an honest shift every day of the week. But if I get an audition, I have to go'. In this case, the director in question was George Clooney. So I just dropped everything and went."
He made the requested alterations to his audition tape, sent it over and returned to work. It was a quiet Saturday night. During a lull at the bar, he glanced at his phone. Sure enough, his agent had texted to say he'd gotten the job.
That role in Monuments Men pushed his career upward several notches. For now at least, there will be no more bar work. He has already filmed a henchman role in the recently released fantasy thriller Dracula Untold, with Luke Evans, as well as played a Cockney gangster in Good People, alongside James Franco and Kate Hudson.
James Franco, I suggest, is an actor whose reputation for eccentricity precedes him? "Sure," admits Murtagh. "I mean, I arrived on set expecting the guy to be bouncing off the walls. But he wasn't. He's very quiet, softly spoken, quite cerebral. I never saw him without a book."
Murtagh still wears his rural roots in Co Cavan very proudly. As recently as three years ago, in fact, he was still lining out for Kingscourt Gaelic football team. It's fascinating to wonder what common ground, if any, he might be able to find on set with someone like Franco, a multi-hyphenate beatnik thespian from Palo Alto?
Is there a kinship between all actors that allows them to relate to each other, despite their differences? "Well, it's funny you should use that word. I was having this conversation recently with the actor Ralph Spall. And that's the word I used. Kinship. A lot of people do a lot of jobs for a lot of different reasons. But with actors, it has to be about the passion. So automatically we all have that in common."
Which isn't to say that all actors are alike. "Towards the end of Good People, James Franco and I shared a lot of action sequences. My approach would be to raise my energy levels, maybe skipping rope or something, just to sharpen my senses before a scene. Whereas he would go the other way. He'd just sit there reading something very deep. But look, he's one of the biggest names in showbiz. Different strokes for different folks!"
This autumn he commences shooting on his first lead role in CBS series The Dovekeepers, set during the Jewish-Roman War in 70AD. Another costume drama? "Yes, I'm definitely overdue a part where I wear jeans and a T-shirt instead of multiple layers of armour. But as I always say, you can't spell typecast without cast."
Er, meaning it's better to be working than not to be working? "Exactly. I'm very grateful to be able to participate in a lot of amazing projects with stand-out people. If I've got to ride out this Viking kinda vibe for another couple of years, that's fine by me."
He remains in touch with his old friends. He reckons his former Kingscourt teammates have been to every stage play and every film premiere he's been involved in. "I think it's an exciting, shared experience for all of us. I'm trying to take the good times with open arms, to balance out the bad times."
And he insists Hollywood is somewhere he feels absolutely at home. "I never found it anything other than an optimistic city. Nobody is really from there. They've left their homes, their families, to pursue something. Everyone's got a band or a script. Everybody's looking for success."
And so far, Diarmaid Murtagh is tasting more than his fair share. Is success still a surreal experience? Does he have to pinch himself to believe it's happening? "It can be in the beginning. But that feeling quickly wears off. You've earned your spot. Now you're there to do the job."
Dracula Untold is in cinemas now