Mark O’Connor had a major hand in the rise of Irish star Barry Keoghan,and hopes to work similar magic with the cast of unknowns in his new crime series Darklands, writes Esther McCarthy.
GIVEN that the first young actor he cast in a movie —a teenager named Barry Keoghan — was recently named by Disney as its new Marvel villain, it’s safe to say that Mark O’Connor has a knack forfinding new talent.
It makes it all the more intriguing to watch the young cast of Darklands being put through their paces as they film climatic scenes in a seaside town in Wicklow.
In a sports club on Bray seafront, two of the lead characters in the new series from Virgin Media are engaged in a dramatic face-off. There’s a sense of excitement on set as the cast and crew prepare to film the final scenes of the shoot in late summer.
Created, co-written and directed by O’Connor, the six-part crime drama series is the filmmaker’s first foray into television. Debuting Monday on Virgin One, it centres on a teenage MMA fighter with a bright future, who is torn between his own ambitions and family loyalties to his brother, who is heavily involved in crime.
Later, as he works on the final edits of the series, O’Connor says casting several unknowns in leading roles was a risk which has paid off.
“I found it very challenging and thrilling to be honest, it was really intense. The casting process was much larger, much more work.
"We watched hundreds and hundreds of tapes to find the cast that I have chosen to cast in this project and most of the actors in this are completely unknown. I took a lot of risks but I feel like they’ve all paid off. I think they’re all very strong.”
The series lead is Dane Whyte O’Hara, an experienced young MMA fighter who was just 15 when filming started and was stunned to get the role — he’d originally applied to be an extra.
“We needed an MMA fighter and someone who could hold the series together and he also needed to be in his teens,” says O’Connor. “He holds the whole show together with his central performance. It’s just incredible.
“There’s a lot of really exciting new names in it, like Thomas Kane-Byrne and Lorna Meade who plays Donna. This is a very female-driven project. My previous films, I think, were quite masculine, and they were in that world.
“I wanted to flick the coin on this and I thought it was the right time. So I really went for strong female characters and they almost rule the roost in this. Donna runs the younger gang but then you’ve got Bernie who’s the head, she’s the boss. She is played by Judith Roddy — the women in this show are really in control.”
O’Connor was keen to go beyond the typical crime drama to really examine how young people can get pulled into criminality.
"Showing how these people get into it and the consequences of their decisions within that world.
"Everyone’s got a motivation, everyone’s in it for different reasons. And a lot of it is family reasons. This is about showing the backstory. Where they came from.”
The series will revolve around two opposing families, including the family of the young MMA fighter. When his brother gets more deeply involved in crime, his loyalties become tested. “Basically, the family starts to break down, disintegrate, and it shows the effect that gangland can have on family, really. It’s a kind of a metamorphosis of this young boy.”
Over the past decade, O’Connor has established himself as a maverick in independent Irish cinema, consistently producing engaging work on tiny budgets.
After making his first short film at the age of ten, he went on to make dozens more, mainly comedies,dramas and horror films, before studying at the New York Film Academy and Ballyfermot in Dublin.
As well as Keoghan, he cast an up-and-coming Peter Coonan in his first feature, the well-received crime drama Between the Canals. Further features, Stalker and King of the Travellers were released in cinemas, but it was 2017’s Cardboard Gangsters which proved to be a game changer for the filmmaker.
It became the biggest Irish release at the box office that year. The story of a group of young men trying to take control of the local drugs trade also found international legs. He co-wrote the screenplay with John Connors, who also stars.
“That was amazing for myself and John. It was a tiny budget and we made it in such a short space of time and it was so difficult to get it off the ground. It was the biggest selling Irish film in 2018 and it was sold to Netflix worldwide. It was pretty great.”
Darklands is his first move into television and he feels the format is right for this story, which he had been developing for years.
“It wasn’t until when I was watching Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and all these TV shows that I realised that the narrative form of television is so interesting because the characters are evolving.
"When you watch them on box sets or on Netflix now, it’s basically like an extended film. I just thought I might as well do a much longer form.”
Barry Keoghan, who made his acting debut in O’Connor’s first film and went on to feature in two more, has gone on to become a bona fide Hollywood star, but never misses an opportunity in an interview to mention his first film mentor. Keoghan spotted an ad looking for local talent in a shop near his north-inner-city home.
“It just said: ‘Interested in acting? Looking for young lads from the area’. And I think Barry was the only person to ring me!” laughs O’Connor. “I got the script written and then I was trying to get funding.
"I couldn’t get the funding for a while and I was back and forth. He was ringing me over two years I’d say. And he was a kid, he was only 13. I told him I’d get him in this because I could tell he was very enthusiastic. I knew he’d have something because of the way he was talking.
“So I got him in Between the Canals, then in Stalker and King of the Travellers and helped him with getting his agents and all that stuff.”
He must be delighted for Keoghan’s success. “It’s amazing because you know, he always had the drive, which is what you need.
"You can have talented actors but if you don’t get out there and really push yourself, meet directors, meet producers… that’s what Barry has as well, apart from being a great actor, having a great look about him.”
Darklands begins tonight (Monday) on Virgin One