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Even better than the real thing?

Martin McCann puts in a star turn as the U2 frontman in 'Killing Bono.' It's no surprise.

Irish Times, March 26, 2011
By: Donald Clarke


Every now and then the brave cinemagoer emerges from a film and, after chewing over the intricacies of the plot, remarks: "But hang on. Who was that guy?" A few years ago, when Richard Attenborough released Closing the Ring , a strange, era-jumping melodrama set in Belfast, the reviews were pretty iffy about the story, direction and production values. But who was that guy in the lead? He was unbelievable.

It was Martin McCann. A 28-year-old actor from the Divis Flats, McCann also excelled in the recent Swansong: Story of Occi Byrne. Now he has got the chance to play the father of the nation as a young man. Nick Hamm's Killing Bono, based on a memoir by the journalist Neil McCormick, features McCann as the titular rock bellower. It's another fine performance. When he appears in the mid-1980s garb -- pilgrim hat and girl's hair -- you feel tempted to laugh, but McCann makes a fleshy, likeable character of the former Mr. Hewson.

"I never got the similarity before," he says. "I am 5ft 7in -- 8in tops. That would be the only obvious similarity. But when I sported the wig and the tight jeans something happened. Once I had the mullet something really kicked in. I got the essence, and people seemed to buy it."

McCormick's book, originally published as I Was Bono's Doppelgänger, explains how the author, a sometime writer for Hot Press, lived his life in the shadow of U2. Neil and his brother also formed a band, but, while their pals moved from arena to stadium, the McCormick brothers never quite made it out of the pub basement. In the film Bono comes across as a sort of one-man chorus. Every now and then he turns up to pass tolerant comment on McCormick's fitful career.

The picture is actually pretty kind to the U2 frontman. The temptation to lean towards parody must have been difficult to avoid. "Completely. Completely," McCann says. "It is funny prancing around in skin-tight jeans in 2010. It would be so easy to come across as funny. And if you take it too seriously then that becomes funny. You have to completely believe in what you are doing."

A compact fellow with a round face and a melodic voice, McCann stumbled into acting by accident. His father, who worked, among other things, as a bricklayer, sounds like a typically dry Northern Irishman. His mum comes across as an amiably formidable force.

"My dad is a quiet man, but he's proud of me," Martin says with a laugh. "He'll say, 'Oh, I got that photograph of you and Kim Cattrall laminated.' He'll turn to his friends and say, 'Did you see that article in the paper about Martin?' "

When he was 10 McCann's mum put him in a black cab on Falls Road and dispatched him to the Rainbow Factory, a theatre group that drew participants from across the community. He soon found that many of the best roles -- the lead in Bugsy Malone; the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist -- seemed to come his way. For the first time the teenager allowed himself to think there might be a living in this acting lark.

"I wanted to be a pilot as a kid," he says. "I never fancied myself as a rock star or an actor. I wasn't mad into football. I loved movies. But I thought acting in movies was something that other people did. That was a whole other world. I wasn't a child prodigy. I wasn't marked down as the next Robert De Niro. It was just something to do."

Born in 1983, McCann is old enough to have lived through some of the darkest periods of Northern Irish history. Sadly, when mention is made of the Divis Flats -- positioned at the interface between the largely protestant Shankill Road and the predominantly Catholic Falls Road -- outsiders still think of bombs and shootings. But, like many children in such surroundings, the young McCann managed to live a reasonably normal life. He certainly has no interest in being portrayed as a brave wee Belfast boy.

"To be honest, as a child, I did not notice anything," he says. "How was I to know what Divis Flats was like if I had no other comparison? That was life, and I was enjoying it. I was aware of violence. But I was a happy-go-lucky child and tried to stay positive. Everybody was aware. You were even aware down south, because it was on the news. What else are they going to put on the news?"

McCann ploughed away as an actor during his adolescent years. He had a regular spot on the BBC sketch show Dry Your Eyes. He appeared in the odd short film. Then a sharp movie producer spied him in a theatrical production of A Clockwork Orange. A meeting was arranged with Attenborough, who was then preparing Closing the Ring, and, without even having to audition, McCann was cast in a major role. He jumped off the screen. His unforced, natural delivery revealed a class of talent that cannot be taught.

Closing the Ring did not make much of a noise, but the role helped him secure a part in Steven Spielberg's epic series The Pacific, a treatment of the United States’ conflict with Japan during the second World War. The story goes that Attenborough simply phoned Spielberg and demanded that McCann be cast. The actor is keen to explain that it was not nearly so simple.

"A lot of people do think that, but it was actually a long and arduous task. There was a month and a half of auditioning. First you put yourself on tape. They have a shortlist of 200 people who’ve done that. Then they whittle it down to 40. Then just two of you -- me and a guy called Hugh -- were selected to go to L.A. At that point we did think to phone Richard and get him to give the film to Steven. So, when I walked in, the first thing Steven said was, 'I'm going to watch your movie.' "

McCann goes on to explain his wonder at the extraordinary change in pace that he encountered. Used to working day and night to get a show ready in time, he found himself spending 10 months in Australia working at a hitherto unimaginably steady tempo. One episode he would have three lines. In the next he would have five. In one particularly busy show he managed 30.

Time was found to visit Romus Burgin, the soldier his character is based on. "It was quite intimidating. It's hard for me to play a 6ft 2in Texan marine," he says. "Though facially we are kind of similar. But he was this big, stoic, tall marine and I was just this young guy from Belfast who did a bit of acting. That's very intimidating. I was always aware I was spending these months playing a guy who'd done all these things before my parents were even thought of."

It must be almost as intimidating as playing the nation's most famous export. Get Bono wrong and killer monkeys may (perhaps) be dispatched from the band's looming Gothic mansion. Martin has yet to meet Bono, but, happily, it seems as if the singer is tolerant of the young man's performance. "Yes, I have heard that he has seen it and he approves."

Phew! He can sleep with both eyes closed.

© Irish Times, 2011.

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