What’s it like to stand teetering on the brink of stardom? It’s exactly where Moe Dunford is… not that he realises it himself for one second.
Ask him about the prospect of fame, and the Dungarvan-born actor is genuinely stumped, as though the thought hasn’t crossed his mind.
“Ah, I’m a country lad,” he smiles. “I’m not even going there. Wow … you really stopped me in my tracks with that question.”
But it’s a very valid one. Thanks to his star turn in new Irish film Patrick’s Day – the story of a man living with schizophrenia and an overbearing mother, who falls hard in love for the first time - Dunford has been showered with critical praise.
And because of his portrayal as the intense, vulnerable Patrick, the awards have already started to stack up. At last year’s Galway Film Fleadh, he won the Bingham Ray New Talent Award.
More recently, he has been selected to receive a Shooting Stars accolade at the Berlin International Film Festival. Incidentally, previous recipients include Carey Mulligan, Rachel Weisz, Kelly Macdonald, Daniel Craig and Domhnall Gleeson. Not bad company to find yourself in.
Like in all the best breakthrough roles, it’s easy to see right away what Dunford brings to the screen.
Just as Colin Farrell’s wolfish charm was present from the get-go in Tigerland, and Michael Fassbender’s intensity was blindingly obvious in Hunger, so too does Dunford’s complexity give Patrick’s Day much of its horsepower.
Its writer/director Terry McMahon has admitted that it was the ‘man-child’ in Dunford that swung him the part.
Dunford certainly mixes endless charm and candour with the unabashed enthusiasm of a newbie. When I ask him how old he is, Dunford responds: “27…why, how old are you?” Clearly, the media trainers have yet to get their hands on him.
Little wonder that the Shooting Stars jury have noted that he has ‘the ingredients of a modern day Hollywood hero’ to hand.
Only two short years ago however, things were very different for the father-of-one. Four years after graduating from the Gaiety School of Acting, Dunford had amassed a handful of small TV roles (most notably in The Tudors). He knocked on doors aplenty, but his big break remained stubbornly at large.
“I was on the dole and had no work,” recalls Dunford. “I wasn’t really working, I wasn’t happy, and I took no pride in my job. Look, I didn’t get into acting thinking it was going to be easy, but I never had anything to fall back on.
“Honestly I was thinking of packing it in. It wasn’t easy supporting myself, or for that matter paying for my boy (Charlie, now 5).”
A script through the letterbox one morning changed all that. At the time, writer/director Terry McMahon’s debut film Charlie Casanova was polarising audiences and critics alike. Yet McMahon was kicking back against the critics in a scrappy way that Dunford admired.
“It was amazing to see the balls on him, fighting publicly for his movie,” smiles Dunford. “But then I read the script and I was glued to it.
“When it comes to films about mental health, they very often get it wrong, and I was waiting for that point to come when I read this script, and it never came.
“I knew (McMahon) was onto something. It moved me beyond words, and I’d never had this feeling before, but I knew I had to get that part.”
Dunford isn’t the only one, incidentally, to believe that McMahon’s treatment of mental illness is on-target.
Esteemed psychiatrist Professor Ivor Browne (below)has given the film a resounding endorsement, going so far as to say that the film could have lasting societal impact on Irish society at large.
“I feel it is vital that Patrick’s Day should be shown to as wide a public as possible,” Browne has said. “This film is an extremely valuable piece of work that will have a major impact on people’s understanding of the nature of psychotic breakdown and indeed of psychiatric illness generally.”
Needless to say, it’s a responsibility that Dunford didn’t wear lightly.
A successful audition later, and McMahon was convinced that he’s found his protagonist, yet financiers and producers had to be convinced of Dunford’s appeal, too. In the end, the second callback audition got Dunford the gig.
“I had a trip to Malta booked that day, and I cancelled it,” says Dunford. “Terry keeps saying that it’s because of my generosity that I cancelled a holiday to go to the audition, but in truth it was desperation to get the part.”
Doing McMahon’s complex script justice was an intense, 16-day blur.
“It was a crazy and short shoot, but I loved the responsibility of carrying the film and getting it made,” recalls Dunford. “It was a really special time, but we were against the clock.”
Yet some things were very much in the film’s favour, even if time wasn’t. Kiwi actress Kerry Fox, whose film credits include Shallow Grave and Intimacy, plays Patrick’s overbearing mother Maura. Landing Fox was a genuine casting coup for McMahon, and her presence on set, says Dunford, brought the production to life.
“Ah, she was brilliant, and couldn’t be further from the role of Maura in real life,” he says. “I had to do a pretty intense mental breakdown scene, and she was the one who came on set and was there for me. She put a bathrobe on me and hugged me afterwards while I tried to calm down. I’m still in awe of her.”
Catherine Walker (Leap Year, The Clinic) plays Patrick’s love interest Karen; again, the actress was a huge help to Dunford in navigating his first film lead role.
“It’s easy for me to say now that (the film’s sex scenes) weren’t a problem, but of course I was scared and nervous back then,” he admits.
“She was very open and honest, and made sure to check in with me as she’d done that stuff before. She made it easier. Terry told me for those scenes, ‘think of the most beautiful woman you’d ever seen’, and I didn’t have too much look further than Catherine for that.”
Job done on getting Patrick’s Day in the can, the time eventually came to bring the film to various festivals across the world. For the man who missed out on Malta, there have been trips to film festivals in New York, LA, Palm Springs, Les Arcs in France and Texas.
And with the film gaining traction ahead of its Irish cinema release this week, Dunford finds himself in a very delicious position. He has returned from a handful of big studio meetings in LA (“I’m still knocking on the doors, even if they’re the doors over there,” he insists). A chance at the big leagues, it would seem, is there for the taking.
“Of course I would love a great part in a blockbuster or a deadly TV show,” he enthuses. “I’d love a chance to do what I love and pay my way. I’ve been fighting for opportunities for so long, of course I would go for it.”
Yet fame, celebrity and the paparazzi on your tail can often be an occupational hazard for actors in blockbusters, I tell him. It’s already patently clear during this interview that talk of his private life is “off the table”, and mastering a fine line between the two can often be a challenge.
“A friend of mine, Jack Reynor, is pretty huge right now, but he’s still this grounded lad, and has his head on his shoulders,” muses Dunford. “I like how he does things. He’s deserving of so much success but manages to keep himself to himself. He’s a guy you’re happy to see do well.”
Whatever may happen Stateside, Dunford is hoping to reunite with McMahon on his forthcoming prison drama Dancehall Bitch.
Certainly, Dunford is strapped into the rollercoaster, and like many box-fresh actors, is a little unsure of how the ride will go, or even if he’ll enjoy it if things get too adrenalised. But amid it all, Patrick’s plight as a lovelorn lost soul is rarely far from his mind.
“I’m loving the screenings and the premieres, but I have to remember why I did the part in the first place,” he says. “Telling those stories means more to me than any fame.”
Patrick’s Day is showing in Irish cinemas from February 6. Professor Ivor Browne takes part in a special Q&A at the IFI Dublin on Friday. See www.ifi.ie for details