Interview: Actor James Frecheville Talks Irish Famine Western BLACK ’47

Director Lance Daly’s Black ’47 is a powerfully bleak tale set during the Irish Famine. James Frecheville stars as the deserting solider returning to his family home in Connemara, only to find that the ravages of the Famine have taken away everything that he loved.

Black ’47 is a a powerful revenge story and a well constructed ‘Irish Western’ which touches on a period in Irish history which has often been forgotten by filmmakers.

I had the opportunity to speak with the film’s main star, Australian actor James Frecheville, about the challenges of making an authentic film set during one of the darkest periods in Ireland’s history.

Enjoy…

I thoroughly enjoyed Black 47  – a very powerful film. How did you become attached to it?

I’d done a film with Mac Kelleher, the producer of the film in 2015 and I was one of the people they were looking at for Freddie Fox’s character Pope. So, they pulled-up Google images and they saw a picture of me with my beard  – and my beard grows quite red, the colour you saw in the film and I think they thought, maybe James is an option for Feeney, because they were trying to find their Feeney at the same time as well. I had a Skype with Lance and we had a really great Skype and I’d read the script maybe twice before then and I just put forward my ideas for the role and what I’d do with it. By the end of the meeting Lance said, “I think you’re the guy to do it’’. I said, ‘Cool, I’ll get to work’’. 

I didn’t know how to ride a horse or do any effective, efficient killing. I spent about two months off my own dime learning these skills in an effort to secure the part completely because while it’s all well and good that the director wants you for the role, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they can finance the movie with you or that it’s going ahead. So, I sort of dismissed a lot of other opportunities at the time and started growing my beard, so that this was going to be the reality that I was moving into. Like I said, I’d never really ridden horses before and I wanted to make sure that everything was on-point by the time we were shooting because had I waited for an official confirmation before I’d gotten on a horse, I probably wouldn’t have been on the horse in half the shots, you know? So to me that was the important part of the character – getting to that level of capability physically – so that I could make the character ring true. 

How much historical preparation did you have to do in approaching this role? Did you know much about An Gorta Mor, the Irish Famine?

I didn’t know too much about it – and I think to an extent Feeney wouldn’t have known too much – only snippets which would have gotten to him over in east Asia, or wherever they were posted. I was quite busy with trying to build the character into something that was licked and loaded by the time I got to set.  It was quite upsetting what I studied, but I didn’t necessarily need to get a PhD because so much of my role was inhabiting the physical space of this guy, who had a very specific and limited skillset. 

We had an incredible armorer, a guy called Boyd Rankin who was a blacksmith and a weapons expert and I learned a lot from Boyd about the different kit that the soldiers would have had at the time and the different individual bits in his kitbag, even if there were bits that you didn’t see in the film. 

I had a lot of the language homework and making sure that the accent was on-point and not garbled mish-mash of different Irish dialects. I wanted it to be as true to Connemara as possible. 

There was just a whole lot of stuff to do and I kind of felt like it was a unified-field to get everything to the right point. I can’t remember focusing on something more heavily than the others. As far as history and backstory, I was really concerned with ideas of guilt and shame and what that must have been like to leave behind a life at 13 years old and fight for a cause that you were half invested in in the first place – just because you wanted to send coin to your mother and help support the family just by doing what you perceive to be as right. 

I think that with this character, there was a lot of regret about his life path. At the end of the first act when things turn disagreeable with what he set out to do by grabbing his family and getting on boat and leaving – he just does the only thing he knows how to do in accordance with being really, really upset and angry. 

I thought that was very well done, where he’s a man who wants to get on with his life, but there’s almost like a switch that’s flicked, and he goes into military anger mode. 

Well,  I think it’s that idea about conditioning someone. I know some people in the military and if I’ve ever been bold enough to ask them about the way that things are, they relate to this very separate mind-state. Like for instance, one friend of mine does HALO jumps  – maybe 60,000 feet – much higher than commercial airlines and things like that. He says they’re all absolutely shitting themselves on the way up and it’s not a comfortable or fun thing, it’s only when they’re back on  the ground there’s all the hoo-ra and the banter. 

I always felt that he wasn’t out for redemption  – I always thought  that he felt he was on his way to hell and that wasn’t going to change. But if he could make something good out of the situation of deserting by grabbing his family and affording them new opportunities for the compromise or sacrifice that he made along time ago then that might make things better for them but not necessary better for him. 

That cold rage is just sort of reflected in the environment as well. He sort of had selective mutism anyway, not that there is much room to get to know him on a personable level. 

Was the lack of dialogue something that was in the original script, or was that something that was parred down by you working with Lance?

I’m not too sure how much it changed from the original script that I read. There had been a lot of different versions.  Sometimes dialogue isn’t as effective in telling the story as it needs to be and there were some many wonderful opportunities in the this film to help him tell the story without words – and I found that appealing. Even though on the surface it’s a lot of hand reloading gun, daggers slashing down men and stuff like that. Initially that appealed to me on a teenage boy level  – all the cool shit that you can do. It just became more interesting to me the more and more I engaged in it. Initially it applied to me because it was a period piece and then the idea of speaking in a different language  – it was really cool challenging things to work with as an actor and for that it was such a blessing that I had so many things to do. Then the challenge of making it truthfully and to think truthfully so that Irish people would give me a pass and not put me on the blacklist of actors who screwed up the Irish accent. 

You did a really good job with the accent – it’s flawless. What about learning the language?  I had to learn it at school up until I was fifteen – so I know it’s not easy. How was it for you?

It was challenging. Luckily, I had a really great teacher. I understood phonetically everything that I was doing and I understood grammatically everything I was saying, as far as how the grammar is different from English. Then from there it was about understanding the material so much that you’re not really thinking about what you say or how you’re saying it. Good acting, I think is all about having the thought in place and then the camera does the reading. And if you’re not stretching to make people believe what you’re saying and you believe what you’re saying then that’s when it’s kind of perfected. 

I’d worn the character-in quite thoroughly before we started shooting, which was good and important for me because I wasn’t mentally strained about what I was doing or why I was doing it at the time because I think I’d built the character-up so much before we got started.

The role is an intense one and the weather appeared very bleak throughout the film…

Yeah, yeah, we were out in Connemara and up in the Wicklow Mountains quite a bit. And it was very, very cold. It was January and December  – it was cool because I had a wind mask out of that beard and I had quite a thick costume. It was the poor extras who really, really felt the weather – especially because they were barefoot. 

I remember one day, the boots that I was wearing had wooden soles  – and I didn’t realise how much wood could conduct heat. It’s quite a really strange sensation feeling the cold leach-up from the bottom until it gets to your head. I was feeling pretty durable and tough by that point. I think I was eating black pudding about five times a day, probably not five times, but I was eating a lot of energy-dense food. Usually when you’re acting in a physical role you’d have to be mindful – but I had the beard coming up to my eyelashes, so I wasn’t too concerned with having a jowl. The costume was so big and thick I wasn’t being a stickler about it being the famine and him being a lot more lean. I don’t think it was too much of an issue. I was on horses a lot and just doing fight training, leading-up to those scenes. 

The film is much like an Irish western and has woven a lot of western tropes into it. Was that something you had in mind going into the role?

I really, really, really love Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West – also his other films but particularly that one. The idea of that lethal stillness. I think that Oliver Reed said something like ‘you never see a cobra blink, do you?’ and I worked hard to get this character to a point where it was very distilled down to the purest level of rage. Those performances are all quite stylised  – it’s probably my favourite genre. One in particular, which I’ve only seen recently for the first time, which I really responded to was The Lone Wolf And Cub film series. It’s really fantastic. The first two films were re-edited in 1980 and re-branded and dubbed as a film called Shogun Assassin. It’s based-off a manga series – there’s six films. Just the cold lethalness. Having seen that recently, I was looking at Feeney like a demon or a ghost  – or someone who had resigned his fate a long time ago and he was always just going to go to hell. His actions through the film weren’t that of redemption but just of trying to make some right for his family after the initial compromise that he chose to do as a boy. 

I really love western films and it was just great to work with horses too. I’d never really ridden horses and that bond was very important to me while we were shooting. The horse had my trust and understanding – he did everything I wanted him to, which was quite cool! 

The film is a huge box office hit in Ireland. What’s it like knowing that it was a success in it’s home market?

The respect I give to the Irish – maybe I’m quite particular about what these sorts of characters should be like in these films, so to have the opportunity to have the challenge of doing it was quite gratifying. I think it’s a really good film and people are having a really good response to it  – so I’m glad that I could have been of service. 

Read the Movies in Focus review of Black ’47 

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