When Colm Meaney was first mooted to play Martin McGuinness in a film about his friendship with Ian Paisley, he was cautious it could be too earnest and solemn. That was until he read the script.
“As an actor, you’re reading from an audience perspective. That’s the way I read every script,” he said.
“I was thinking that this could be very dry. When I started reading it, it was a complete page turner, it made me laugh, but it also had emotional power. I was unashamedly kind of tearing up at the end. It was a great piece of writing, and I wanted to get involved from the get-go.”
The result is The Journey, a fictionalised account of the extraordinary way in which two foes at polar ends of the political spectrum became the closest of friends. McGuinness and Paisley’s friendship was a surprising and welcome development in the Peace Process, and such was their bond that they were even dubbed the ‘chuckle brothers’.
Director Nick Hamm’s feature film shows how the two men first connected over the course of a long car journey. In reality, that happened when they shared a flight following negotiations in Scotland.
There’s a humour in the film which was part of the draw for the Dublin-born actor. “It’s more that what the humour does is give them humanity, it makes them real people. There’s a great tradition in Irish writing, back to O’Casey, of the tragicomedy. Even the most difficult situations can be fraught with humour,” says Meaney.
“People say: ‘What was it that brought these two guys together?’ I’m not saying it was just humour. But I think what Colin [Bateman, the scriptwriter] is suggesting in the writing is it was through humour. Perhaps that was how they made the breakthrough, because they got to know each other as people.”
Hamm recently showed the film in the British parliament in a screening partly organised by Paisley’s son. Given the current political turmoil in the North, he hopes that the film will have resonance.
“I believe with what’s going on since McGuinness’s death, the movie should be looked at in a completely different way,” says Hamm.
“It’s still the same film, the same story, it’s still enjoyable in the same way. But what we do when people pass away, especially difficult figures, pretty confrontational figures if you like, is we reanalyse what they were. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter in that sense. Is he somebody to celebrate, or is he somebody to condemn?
“That’s going on right now, that reevaluation of not only McGuinness but also of Paisley, to a certain extent. These are two of the most unpopular, hated political figures in contemporary political culture.
“I think we have to be as active and aggressive about finding those middle grounds as are people who are trying to defeat us in that.
“There is an entire populist movement sweeping across Europe, certainly across America, where politicians themselves are being condemned. This is crap, this is shite. This is absolute nonsense. You need politicians. Politicians can and will change history. And these two guys did that. We cannot be complacent about what we have.”
It’s a point that Meaney agrees with: “Nick set out to make a film that would be aspirational and universal, in demonstrating how the seemingly impossible can be achieved. The world has changed so much since we finished shooting this. Trump’s been elected, Brexit happened, and Martin’s dead. It’s scary, and especially with what’s going on in the North at the moment, with negotiations to try and set up a new power-sharing executive.
“One would hope that by sitting down and watching these two guys coming from polar opposites and finding a way to make it work, that it would inspire people.”
It’s surprising to hear that Meaney and McGuinness met only once, when the actor lent his support to his presidential bid.
“It was during the final rally for his campaign for president in 2011. I met him at that event, which I MC’d for him at the Mansion House,” he recalls. “He had a wonderful presence. A wonderful warmth about him, he’d immediately put people at ease. Funny. Not coming out telling jokes or anything like that, but just wonderful, wry… I think it was through his humour that he put people at ease.”
Though Hamm met McGuinness at the very early stages of planning for the film, McGuinness sought no input into how he was portrayed onscreen.
“Nick did have a conversation with Martin in the very early days, before I came on board, and I know that he gave his blessing, and equally the Paisley family. But he never asked for any input or editorial control or anything like that,” says the actor.
“It’s very hard to go to the people that you’re portraying, because you’re trying to be truthful and honest, but obviously they have a subjective point of view that might not be necessarily true to what you’re trying to create.”
Charismatic performances in movies like Con Air, Intermission and The Damned United have made Meaney one of Ireland’s most enduring actors, while portraying Star Trek’s Chief Miles O’Brien has made him an international star.
In recent years, he’s mixed up lower-budget film roles with hit TV series like Hell on Wheels, which ended last year following a successful five-year run for AMC. He spent much of last summer in Sligo filming the forthcoming culture-clash Irish comedy, Halal Daddy.
Meaney will soon appear in the first series of Will, about William Shakespeare. “It’s about young Shakespeare when he first comes to London. I play James Burbage who built and owned the theatre that Shakespeare first worked in. It’s a fabulous show.”
Does he agree that much of the great writing is now in television?
“Twenty years ago, the big studios were making 70 to 80 films a year. Now they’re making seven or eight and all they’re doing is Marvel comics, you know?
“If any of the great directors like Scorcese were coming up today, they wouldn’t get a film made. Nobody is making the films they were making in the 1970s, except Netflix, TNT, and HBO.
“When did we vote, when did we decide that the only films that you make are comic books? It’s f***ing terrible. It’s just nauseating.
“From an actor’s point of view this train started a long time ago. It started with The Sopranos. You started to see good writing, interesting characters, on cable television, and now it’s completely gone over there. The only interesting scripts I get, feature films, are from here.”