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I don't know who I can talk to. I've got people who want to kill me . . . people who want to hate you or love you or take a bit of you. -- Bono

When Meta Meets Magnificent: Neil McCormick on Chasing Bono

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Neil McCormick and Nial McNamee. Photo courtesy of Neil McCormick. 

The first time I interviewed journalist/author Neil McCormick, it was the summer of 2011 in Pittsburgh. Our team at @U2 held an event following a public screening of the film Killing Bono at the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center. McCormick’s memoir of the same name had become this film, so at that reception, I hosted a Q&A with him to discuss the process of turning the book into a film and what it was like to see “himself” portrayed on the big screen. He likened it at the time to his head exploding with conflicted feelings. While he loved the concept of having a film about his life, he hadn’t expected it would be a comedy. He knew that certain elements would need to be fictionalized, but didn’t necessarily want that narrative to be interpreted as his truth. I remember leaving the interview not entirely sure if he was glad the film existed.

Now, seven years later, here we are. The original screenwriters of the film have transformed the story into a London stage production and given it a third title, Chasing Bono. After seeing McCormick’s apparent participation in the pre-production, I was anxious to hear if he was simply a masochist or if the tides have turned where his origin story is concerned. After nearly a month of “Chasing Neil,” I caught up with him via email to get the scoop.

TK: How did you first learn that your book was being made into a play? 

NM: It was all very meta. I was watching Seven Psychopaths on TV, starring Colin Farrell as an expat screenwriter in L.A., when I got a phone call from Dick Clement, an expat screenwriter in L.A., who, weirdly enough, told me he had just had lunch with Colin Farrell. Who, by the way, does a very good impression of Bono. Dick had also just recently met up with Ben Barnes, who played me in Killing Bono. It all stirred up thoughts of the first draft script for the film, which Dick always liked way more than the actual movie. Dick told me he and his writing partner Ian La Frenais were getting more and more involved in the theatre world and asked me if I still had the stage rights to my original book I Was Bono's Doppelganger, which (thanks to my very good agent Araminta Whitley) it turns out I did. And thus it began.

TK: I’m unfamiliar with British law—did they need to get your permission before turning it into a performance? Did they consult you on any of the aspects of the adaptation?

NM: They did need to get my permission and they have generously consulted me throughout. It has been a lot of fun. Dick and Ian are legendary writers, in the U.K. anyway, so I was a bit nervous about interfering with their genius, but they've worked wonders with the themes and characters and dialogue out of my book. And when I nervously sent them notes on the script, including some short passages of new dialogue, I am delighted to say they included them all.

TK: The creators, Clement and La Frenais are an accomplished writing team who have been cranking out hits since the ‘60s. How did you feel about them repurposing your material? Did you know either of them prior to this project?

Dick and Ian are legendary. I grew up watching their brilliant British sitcoms Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads And Porridge, and loved their classic `80s drama Auf Wiedersehen Pet. They did the screenplay for The Commitments too, a classic Dublin comedy about a struggling rock ’n’ roll band, so I was confident they knew the territory. I met them when they did the first draft of the film Killing Bono, and that was a delight. They told me they loved my book and so we have become a mutual admiration society. Then they met Bono and Edge through that and they have all become great pals too. They are a couple of gentlemen and an inspiration to every writer. I doubt there has been a more effective and long-lasting writing team, though Bono and Edge could still catch them up one day. They have a real gift for pulling comedy out of drama with pathos and a philosophical subtext so they were perfect for this. As for the fictional liberties they have taken with my real life, that is weird and can be complicated to deal with. But I understand the writing process and so I have surrendered my ego to it as best I can.

TK: How did they/you land on the title Chasing Bono? Who had the idea to alter it from Killing Bono or I Was Bono’s Doppelganger?

NM: It originally came from a conversation I had with Bono back when I was a struggling wannabe rock star and he was living out every one of my teenage fantasies. He had called me from Miami and he was talking about smoking cigars with Frank Sinatra and I just said, “Stop! I don't want to hear it. The problem with knowing you is you've lived my life.” And he said, “That's cos I'm your doppelganger and if you want your life back you'll have to kill me.” Out of that came I Was Bono's Doppelganger, but when the book was published in the U.S. they didn't like the word “doppelganger.” Bono actually came up with the title Killing Bono. He said, “I know a few people would wear that T-shirt.” But I was never entirely comfortable with it, it's a bit too homicidal. I mean, I may have been envious of his success but I am also his biggest fan and he is my friend and I never really wanted to kill him. Maybe just maim him a little. 

Dick and Ian felt the same way and decided early on they wanted to change it. It was Racing Bono for a while but that's not right either because I lost that race before we were even out of the school gates. I suggested calling it I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For but apparently someone has used that title before on a song back in the `80s (ahem). And anyway it would be hard to fit on the posters. Dick and Ian came up with Chasing Bono. And I don't know how I feel about it but you've got to call it something and I haven't got a better idea.

TK: Do you know the actor who portrays you? If not, how has he prepared to "become" you? Is it completely surreal to see someone pretending to be you in person (vs. film/tv)?

NM: I have met the actor who portrays me, Niall McNamee. He's young, handsome and a talented musician, so, perfect casting! It's all deeply deeply weird. Niall has read my book and he's been chatting with me and observing me, but I've told him to find his own way into the part because I've changed a lot since those wild young days. I was there to hear another actor read the part early on and he was very good but he played me completely differently, much darker and more Irish. He was good, and it made me think about how every interpretation lends a different energy to the story. The thing is this character it is not really me, it is an archetype of youthful ambition and creative frustration in some kind of parallel universe version of my life and I am just doing my best to enjoy the absurdity. I am not sure we ever like anybody else holding up a mirror to our vanities. I thought Ben Barnes was actually brilliant in the film Killing Bono, but personally I didn't think he was much like me, whereas I thought Martin McCann, who played Bono, was just like young Bono. But when I spoke to Bono about it, he had the completely opposite feeling. He was uncomfortable watching the guy playing him but thought Ben Barnes had me nailed down perfectly. Ultimately the actor plays the script, not the person.

TK: Your social media followers have seen reports from read-throughs in preparation for this upcoming play. How involved are you in the day-to-day progression of the project?

NM: I’m quite involved but trying not to get in anybody's way. So I am available whenever needed and I've been in to listen to read-throughs and talk to cast members. It's been a lot of fun. [My brother] Ivan and I went in and taught our own doppelgangers how to play some of our songs. The weirdest moment was when the actor playing Bono was unavailable for the first big read-through, so they asked me to read Bono’s part opposite the actor playing me. It was a bit of a head fu** but I do a good Bono impression apparently. So there is my new title: I was Bono's Understudy.

TK: What's this about band practice with your brother? Are you performing at an event separate from the play? 

NM: Ivan and I were just working out some of the songs mentioned in the play because no one has heard them for over 30 years … including us. It is not a musical, I should stress, it is a play with music. But it was great getting together with Ivan to go through some of these old songs, and amazing that we still remembered them, including the classic “I’m A Punk,” which was the first song we ever performed at the school disco supporting The Hype in 1978. “You can take your razor blades / out on the street / You can cut off your hair / you can cut off your feet / you can nail your granny to the wall / you can eat screws for lunch / but nothing's gonna make you a punk.” A lost classic, I think you will agree.

TK: Will you be at opening night? Any idea if the members of U2 will attend?

NM: I will be at the opening night for sure. And I'm going to drag every rock star and minor celebrity I know down there. But I wouldn't expect U2 to venture into this particular hall of mirrors. They tend to be circumspect about such things and rightly so. They have been quietly supportive behind the scenes.

TK: Any hopes of the production traveling to Ireland, the states or elsewhere?

NM: We can hope. It's got to be a hit in London first and then anything can happen. Or not. I have learnt from hard experience not to get my hopes up too high. I'm just going to enjoy this for the weird experience that it is right now.

TK: Any details that you want to add?

NM: There was one read-through early on, just to see what kind of shape the script was in, when the actor reading Bono’s part was 6 foot 2. I told Bono about it and he heartily approved of the casting. He said, “I've always felt 6 foot 2.”

Chasing Bono opens Dec. 6 at the Soho Theatre in London. Tickets are on sale now and start at £11. Visit this page to book. 

© @U2/Kokkoris, 2018.