'Inevitably you are going to get compared to Love/Hate' - we go behind the scenes on new crime drama Darklands
Alex Meehan spends a day as an extra on the set of Virgin Media's new crime drama, Darklands, and meets its young star, and series producer
On a boiling hot Wednesday in July, I’m in Bray, Co Wicklow learning to hurry up and wait. It’s an essential skill for an extra in a TV show or movie, as I am rapidly discovering.
So far, I’ve waited to be bussed to the shoot, waited for cameras to be set up, waited for the crew to decide how best to shoot a scene, and waited between shots as the same scene is filmed over and over again. It turns out TV sets are nowhere near as exciting as watching the finished programme, especially when the one in question is Virgin Media’s gritty new underworld crime drama Darklands, a show that promises to be full of intrigue, drama and physical conflict.
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Along with my fellow extras, I’m standing in the grounds of a church and we’re taking part in a funeral scene. There’s a hearse, a (presumably empty) coffin, an actor playing a priest and me, in my dark suit, doing my best to look solemn and not crack a smile.
This, it turns out, is harder than it sounds. But it’s all in a day’s work for the people who rotate around the various film and TV sets operating at any one time in and around Dublin and beyond. The film and TV world in Ireland is small and many of the extras on this shoot for Darklands have worked together before. Vikings, Game of Thrones, Artemis Fowl – at any given time there is a variety of projects in production and a small but dedicated group of professional extras who are more than happy to turn up at short notice and feature in the background.
A day on set pays around €80 to €100 (you also get well fed) and there are bonus payments if you have to work late or in difficult circumstances. As an extra, you’re not told much about the scene you’re going to be in – in my case, my instructions were to be in a car park in Bray at 7am, wear the right clothes and do my best not to be too disruptive. Despite this, there is a buzz on set – lots of shows are filmed every year and not all make the grade, but the producers believe this one is something special.
Directed by Mark O’Connor (who also co-wrote the six-part drama with Adam Coates), the man behind Cardboard Gangsters, Darklands tells the story of a young MMA athlete who is faced with a tough decision: to follow his brother into a life of crime with its easy money and quick rewards, or to stay in the gym, put in the hard yards and potentially become a champion.
“The show is about a young man choosing what kind of person he’s going to be. Inevitably, when you make a show set in Dublin’s underworld, you are going to get compared to Love/Hate. But the difference here is that this isn’t a show about what it’s like to be in a drug gang. It’s about a family that is influenced by the gangs around them,” says producer Frank Agnew.
“It’s about how you survive in a neighbourhood where choices are limited and yet there are people driving around in Mercedes and BMW cars, flashing wealth they shouldn’t have and laughing at you for having a job and going to work.”
Damien is played by 16 year old new comer Dane Whyte O’Hara, who is himself a young man making choices that will impact the rest of his life. This is his first acting gig and if he acquits himself well it could open doors for him. Mark O’Halloran of Adam and Paul and Judith Roddy of Derry Girls and The Fall also feature among the cast.
“In real life, everyone has to make choices at 16 about who they’re going to be in life but in Darklands, Damien’s choices are pretty extreme. All around him, his friends in his social circle are making choices and picking sides in a feud that is taking place between rival drug gangs,” says Agnew.
Dubliner Dane was discovered when Darkland’s producer Kate McColgan put the word out that the production was looking for young martial artists with an interest in acting. Dane had been training since the age of four in kickboxing, kung fu and jiujitsu and had been a fan of martial arts and action superstars like Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jason Statham from a young age.
“I saw a post on Facebook looking for martial artists but I actually managed to miss that they were looking for a lead actor, and I thought maybe I’d be in the background. I sent in a tape and was called for an audition, and then another and then another. It was nerve wracking,” he says.
The third time round, the fifth-year student was put through his paces in an acting workshop with actor Paul Ronan (father of Saoirse) and afterwards, was informed he had the part.
“The first day of filming was an experience. I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I might be. I had met all the actors at the read through and really, I loved i," he says. "We shot during the summer, so I basically managed to land the best summer job ever. I’m really lucky in that my character Damien is so like me that it’s not hard to switch on the acting part of my brain to step into that role.”
With his parents' encouragement, he hopes to build on his experience and develop a career as an actor. A lot will depend on the success of the show.
“I’d love to be an action actor, that’s a childhood dream. I love the physicality that people like Jet Li bring to their movies and the way they suck you in. Darklands has its fair share of fight scenes so I’m in my element there,” he says.
Drug taking and the way criminals exploit working class communities is a consistent theme in Darklands, and while Dane freely admits it’s not a world he knows much about, he’s confident that the scriptwriters have done their homework and the show will ring true.
“It’s set in Bray but it brings the Dublin crime scene into the story a lot. The whole drugs thing was a learning experience for me when I got on set, but on a personal level, I’m 16 and have nothing to do with drugs. All I have to do is pretend convincingly.”
Frank Agnew is conscious that Love Hate was criticized in its time for one dimensional female characters and insists this won’t be the case with Darklands.
“We’re making TV here and I want as broad as possible a demographic to watch it, not just guys who want to see gangland stuff. Three or four of the main characters are women and they’re fully realized people. Damien’s mother is a key character as is his girlfriend, and one of the gangs that is central to the story is actually led by Judith Roddy’s character Bernie, who is the Michael Corleone of the show,” he says.
“She’s incredibly intelligent and is a ruthless character, and her choices impact everyone in the end.”
If you’d like to try your hand as an extra on a show like Darklands, check out Crowded Background Extras at www.facebook.com/CrowdedBackgroundExtras/
Darklands airs on Virgin Media One on Monday, October 7 at 9pm.
What’s what in Irish crime TV drama?
Love Hate – the crime series against which all others are measured and which gave us characters like Nidge (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and Tommy (Killian Scott). Written by Stuart Carolan.
The Fall – Set in Northern Ireland, this gripping serial killer story starred Gillian Anderson as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson and Jamie Dornan as Paul Spector. Written by Allan Cubitt.
Taken Down – Set in Dublin and based on an investigation into the killing of a young Nigerian girl in a direct provision centre, Taken Down was written by Stuart Carolan with crime writer Jo Spain.
Dublin Murders – Based on a series of hit novels from writer Tana French, Dublin Murders is set at the height of the Celtic Tiger boom and tells the story of a pair of murders that seem unrelated. Starring Killian Scott and Sarah Greene and set to air on RTE soon.
Quirke – Starring Gabriel Byrne in the title role, this three-part series which broadcast on BBC One and RTE One in 2014 is based on John Banville’s Quirke novels, and also featured Michael Gambon and Brian Gleeson.