McMenamin explores depths of human psyche
Ciaran McMenamin picks 'one for art', not for the mortgage, in a new apocalyptic film, writes Evan Fanning
Ciaran McMenamin has a simple philosophy for the choices he makes in his acting career. "One for art and one for the mortgage," the 35-year-old states, as he sits sipping a glass of water in a swanky members' club in his adopted hometown of London. "I kind of used to joke about that, but it's kind of true now," he says. "Obviously, when I say one for the mortgage, it's within reason. You still won't do something that you're not going to be proud of."
That the Fermanagh-born star of TV series Primeval has such a pragmatic approach to his profession may not come as a surprise to those who have seen his career travel a consistently upward trajectory from the moment he finished drama school in Glasgow and landed a role in the Channel 4 comedy series The Young Person's Guide to Becoming a Rock Star.
What is also abundantly clear is that McMenamin's latest project, One Hundred Mornings, is "one for the art" as his philosophy goes. Made on a shoestring by first-time director Conor Horgan, the film, which was funded by the Irish Film Board's Catalyst Project, has been making waves for quite some time at film festivals worldwide.
The New York Times recently made it their critic's choice and described it as an "intelligent, delicate debut", and glowingly pored over the psychological quandaries explored in it, such as what social norms remain once society breaks down. This kind of praise is not something that happens often to Irish films.
Horgan's film, which he wrote himself and made for what in the film world is a paltry €250,000, focuses on two couples who are holed up in a log cabin in the Irish countryside -- with no electricity, telephones or fuel and a dwindling food supply -- after an unexplained apocalyptic event. Left with next to nothing, the film explores how the human psyche will react.
"An Irish movie made like a French movie," is McMenamin's enthusiastic description of the finished work that won an IFTA for Suzie Lavelle's stunning cinematography.
"It was a completely unique process," says McMenamin. "From an actor's point of view, it was an amazing experience. He basically got the four of us and stuck us in that location for five weeks, and we just kicked and fought until it made sense."
That the movie "wasn't one for the money" allowed Horgan to push his actors and exploit -- in the nicest possible way, of course -- their desire to be a part of the project.
"You're there because you have a passion about the project in the first place," he says. "It was an amazing script, but also, selfishly, amazing from the actor's point of view. There are no tricks -- it's up to the four actors and the director to tell the story. I was hooked."
The back-to-basics nature of the shoot, which took place in the Wicklow Mountains, was also one of the attractions for McMenamin, but he's quick to reject any suggestions that life started to imitate art as the shoot progressed.
"I get excited by that whole notion of disappearing up the mountain," he says. "You're covered in s*** and you're going home and it doesn't matter. You start to forego showers during the week and then just scrub up a bit for a pint on Friday. You get lost in it that way. But at the end of the day, you're still pretending. We weren't starving to death, so I'm not going to pretend for a minute that I was doing some Daniel Day-Lewis thing, but to the best of our ability we lived and breathed it every day."
McMenamin has been living and breathing his profession since the roles started coming thick and fast following drama school. He has been based in London since landing the role in The Young Person's Guide ... in the late 1990s. These days, the work takes him around the world. "I've been in my flat for one month in the past 18 months," he says.
Being single with no children has allowed him to go where the job demands, but it's clear from talking to him that he is hankering for some stability in London. "I went for a pint recently in this trendy bar that's just opened near my flat, and sat at the bar with the paper and a pint, and I realised I was the only person there who didn't have any kids," he jokes.
Maybe that's why, for half of the past 18 months, McMenamin took a "job for the mortgage" on ITV sci-fi series Primeval. He joined the hugely popular show as the lead for its fourth and fifth series, and though the exposure of a long-running, primetime show was not something he could turn down, he admits he thought long and hard about the decision. "It wasn't an instant, snap decision when I was offered that," he says. "But then I realised in a different way that kids love it. That alone was enough for me. It's good for its genre and it pays for the mortgage, and allows me to go and do a One Hundred Mornings or another film I've just done, Jump, which I'm really proud of.
"I had a great time doing Primeval. For what it is, it's very good. But you've got to be careful -- doing something is a big decision, because you've got to make sure it doesn't prevent you from doing something else. You don't want to become 'the bloke from Primeval' or 'the bloke from EastEnders'. To have any choice as an actor is a privilege, but within that you've got to try to weave a path that doesn't get in the way of other work.
"You are trying to make a living as well. Without any doubt, it's invariably more about the piece, but you are trying to make money along the way as well."
A recent trip to the States for some meetings ahead of the US pilot season made him realise that you need to be careful what you wish for in the acting profession.
"People become obsessed with doing something American, but you realise what we get over here is the top five per cent of their shows and so a lot of what is made is s***. If you get a pilot for any American TV series, you have to sign on for seven years. That's kind of mad. You'd really want to hope it's The Wire or The Sopranos; something really good."
But for now, McMenamin admits he just wants to spend some time in his south London flat and pop home to Enniskillen for some fishing. He has finished shooting the next season of Primeval, as well as a TV mini-series alongside Brian Cox about the sinking of the Laconia, and Jump with director Kieron J Walsh. While it sounds like a rest would be well deserved, the urge to challenge himself is never far from the surface.
"It's nearly four years since I've done a play, so I've got to scratch that itch now," he says. "You get frightened that you haven't done one, frightened of stepping out from behind the curtain. If you're frightened of anything, that's good enough reason to do it. So that's what I'm going to do next, I think. Go and scare the s*** out of myself."
One Hundred Mornings is showing nationwide. Visit www.onehundredmornings. com for more details
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