Handsome Devil has been getting warm praise for its lighthearted tale of friendship in a rugby-mad boarding school, writes Esther McCarthy

JOHN Butler’s new film, Handsome Devil, has been winning many fans on the international festival circuit ahead of its Irish release. The buddy comedy from the writer/director of The Stag is also likely to be a breakthrough feature for many of its young cast.

Of these, the charismatic screen presence and perfect Irish accent of Nicholas Galitzine is poised to both endear and confuse movie fans over the coming weeks.

Galitzine utterly convinces as a Dublin student in the feel-good drama, set in a rugby-mad school. The thing is, he was born and bred in London, and for a nation who’ve grown used to international stars mangling the Irish accent, his is something of a revelation.

“I’ve always been fairly good with accents,” he tells me. “The Irish accent was always something I did around the house for fun. I sent over my audition tape for Handsome Devil. I really loved the script and I was like: ‘The Irish accent’s probably pants. I’m never going to get this job’.

“A couple of weeks later John emailed back saying: ‘There’s this Irish actor in London, where did he come from?’ They had to break it to him that I wasn’t actually Irish.

“It’s something I was fairly nervous about, because you hear a bad accent in a film, and it just completely takes you out of it. Obviously, being the only English lad in the film, I was pretty nervous.

“I came over a couple of weeks before shooting and listened to everyone chatting away. It’s been a really awesome thing that people thought I was one of their own, because I’ve always wanted to be Irish all of my life! Now I feel I’ve slipped between the cracks a little bit.”

With three features under his belt, and two more on the way, Galitzine has the potential to enjoy a successful screen career. But it was misfortune which put him on the path to acting; sport was what he excelled at, and hoped to do for a living.

“Acting was probably the furthest professional choice that would have made sense to me,” he agrees. “I was kind of the athlete of the family. I was playing for Harlequins rugby academy, hoping to pursue a career in rugby. That was my kind of plan.

“It was a shame how it worked out in the end. I hurt myself and I couldn’t do it any more.

“I had to strap my shoulder up for every single game with heavy duty taping, just so it wouldn’t kind of pop out.”

Despondent because of the persistence of his painful injury and with no idea how to fill the gap left by sport and its importance in his life (he also played football and athletics), he was encouraged by close school friends who were actors to audition for a small play they were bringing to Edinburgh Fringe.

It gathered heat, and to his surprise, the director was contacted by various agencies who expressed interest in representing him. “Three years later, here I am!” smiled the actor, who is currently in LA as he prepares to embark on the next stage of his career.

In Handsome Devil, Galitzine uses some of his athleticism and rugby skills as Conor, the star player in a school where winning is all. When he forms an unlikely friendship with the decidedly unsporty Ned (Fionn O’Shea) — who his classmates assume is gay — many are unhappy with this break in the conventional.

One of the most interesting elements in this multi-layered film is the sense that sport most be a macho environment, and that gay men in sport are still uncomfortable in revealing their sexuality. The movie, which also stars Andrew Scott and Moe Dunford, is a very personal one for writer/director John Butler, who drew on some of his own experiences of growing up gay in Dublin.

Homosexuality in Ireland was still illegal during his youth. “We’ve changed so much since then. You know when you see archive footage of Dublin in the 1980s and you go: ‘God it’s like a foreign country’,” he says.

“Not all the scenes that I’ve written about have happened to me, but the feelings of the characters that are in those situations are mine. I think that’s the way to go, because you can keep writing from that place.”

In The Stag, Butler explored male friendship in a way that few Irish filmmakers before him had, and he agrees it’s an area that intrigues him.

“It’s a fascination of mine, it always has been. The Stag was about male friendship. This is about male friendship among guys whose sexuality is, at the least, ambiguous.

“Men rely on and cherish their friendships with men so much, and at the same time, very often, they don’t talk about anything to those friends. That’s fascinating to me — the distance that’s kept between men is what men cherish, which is such a weird, paradoxical feature. The buddy movie, which I would consider Handsome Devil to be, is the perfect set-up for that type of exploration.”

Films that look at the complex area of male and female friendships and their dynamics in general would be something he’d like to see more of.

“I think films about friendship are less common than they ought to be. I think romance has the prime spot because of the domination of that narrative in society. Not enough people talk about friendship. I love Richard Linklater for that reason. I think he goes there, as does Alexander Payne. I think those guys push it around in a way that is interesting.

“Friendship’s hard to write about because it’s ambiguous I think. Boy meets girl and the optics of it are very clear and understandable to an audience. People aren’t comfortable with ambiguity in terms of writing it or experiencing it in a cinema, whereas I love it.”

It was important to the filmmakers that they get the film’s climactic rugby scenes spot on, and Irish rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll was on set to put the cast through their paces.

“It was amazing, and he did do that thing of putting manners on them just by his presence,” says Butler. “I mean, who’s going to not listen to Brian O’Driscoll?

“In practical terms, there were eight or nine moves that we needed to be able to run ten times in a row. Brian ran all the moves, he figured them out, he told the guys where to go, where to stand, what to do. It was pretty inspirational.”

  • Handsome Devil opens in cinemas on Friday


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