Best known for playing Prince Caspian in the last two “Chronicles of Narnia” movies, 30-year-old British actor Ben Barnes has been slowly branching out into other types of movie roles and genres in recent years.
In Nick Hamm’s Killing Bono, he plays journalist Neil McCormick, who started out as a musician going to the same Dublin university as the guys in U2 but never was able to get anywhere with the band he formed with his brother Ivan (Rob Sheehan). Based on McCormick’s memoir of the same name, the film follows them from Dublin to London, trying out all sorts of musical styles and line-ups, but always being overshadowed by the success of Dublin’s prodigal sons. The movie features a really funny performance by Barnes as McCormick comes off as a bit of a prat, and watching him acting out as a frontman to the band during their musical performances is particularly amusing.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Barnes a couple of weeks back to talk about his role in the movie.
ComingSoon.net: Hey, Ben, haven’t spoken in a while, not since “Easy Virtue”…
Ben Barnes: Oh my goodness. That is a little while. I’m all grown up now!
CS: I literally watched this movie last night and I just assumed the whole thing was made up. I had no idea there was a guy named Neil McCormick and that he’s a rather famous journalist.
Barnes: There is indeed.
CS: Were you familiar with him at all before you got the script and were offered the part?
Barnes: No, and I think the point is that nobody has ever heard of Neil McCormick unless they have very scrutinously read the names at the bottom of every review of every album they’ve ever read, which I don’t think people do particularly. I think that’s the point that it’s a story about failure. It’s a story about success sometimes coming to you in a way that you don’t expect it to necessarily, and the way you envision your life going and your dreams don’t always pan out exactly how you envision it or how you might hope. No, I remember getting this script and reading it. I was a huge fan of “The Commitments” and I knew it was the same writers, so I read it with some enthusiasm, and I just thought it was so funny. It was one of the first scripts that kind of made me giggle on every page. I like that kind of dry Irish humor, and it was prancing around in leather trousers and screeching these ’80s rock ballads, and I thought if that wasn’t perfect for me, I don’t know what is.
CS: You actually are a singer yourself I understand.
Barnes: Well, actually the last one I sung on was probably “Easy Virtue.” I sung half the soundtrack of that, but that was Noel Coward jazz and this is ’80s rock, so they’re very different, but I grew up singing in choirs and in lots of different bands and all that kind of stuff, so yeah, I love using the musical elements. It’s a great passion of mine and it’s nice to use any skill I have in that area when it comes to the acting.
CS: The songs were pretty cool, so were they written for the movie or these actual songs written by Neil’s band?
Barnes: They were. We took about two of the songs, some of the worst ones, we took Neil and Ivan’s original lyrics, but we couldn’t use any of their tunes because they were so horrible and unlistenable to, so there’s a great songwriter, Joe Echo, wrote a bunch of new songs in that ’80s style and then we decided that Shook Up could never quite decide what genre they wanted to sing, which is why they sometimes sing stadium rock, and sometimes they sing half-reggae, and Neil McCormick couldn’t decide what kind of frontman so he tried to be Bowie and then he tried to be Jagger. He had no real frontman musical identity, which is part of the reason why it never quite works. He just wanted to be successful and famous and do the music, but he didn’t quite know how to go about it.
CS: And you actually sung all the songs yourself?
Barnes: Yeah, I sing about 12 songs in the movie, something like that.
CS: Did you do all of that beforehand in the studio or were you able to do any live performances?
Barnes: No, you record it all in the studio because you’ve got all the sounds of the crowd and everything so the sound would be terrible if you recorded it live, but the performances with an audience are all recorded, but if we’re in the rehearsal room or in the flat where they rehearse together, some of that the sound is just taken from what we were actually doing, because all those guys we had in the later band were actually great musicians as well.
CS: I was curious how much of the band were real musicians and how many were just background actors.
Barnes: Well, the 15-year-old kids that we had for the band The Undertakers when they were still at school, they were chosen because like in “The Commitments,” they were just great kids from Dublin who didn’t really play but learned a little bit, but we were supposed to be terrible so it didn’t really matter. They did have great timing and great faces, the U2 kids could play but once we get to (later in the movie), they were terrific musicians. We could really press “stop” on the tapes when we were recording those gigs and we could carry on.
CS: Have you done an Irish accent before and is it a little nerve-wracking doing one while shooting in Dublin?
Barnes: I wasn’t nervous about it because it’s one of my favorite accents and I’ve always kind of done it. I’ve watched a lot of Irish comedians, Dylan Moran and those kinds of guys, and I loved “In Bruges” and Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleason, all those great actors, so I’ve always kind of mimicked them. I can barely get through a movie without mimicking something if I like it. Yeah, and I just stayed in the accent for the whole shoot actually, from the minute I landed to about two weeks after I got home, I couldn’t shake it. I think you just gotta be brave with it and go out into pubs and order your drinks in the accent and see if anybody looks at you funny, which they didn’t, so I think I got away with it. I don’t think I got caught, but it’s funny. Sometimes you do a particular accent and it will stop you from being natural with your acting. It will stifle you a little bit, and sometimes you do an accident and there is immediately a character there, and I think as soon as I go into that Dublin kind of thing, I go a bit wide-eyed and crazy and ambitious like Neil does.
CS: What about the performances? Was a lot of that choreographed or did you just let you do your own crazy moves and see what worked?
Barnes: No, all the crazy moves are unfortunately were from my wheelhouse of dance moves. They’re all Ben Barnes originals, which is probably heartbreaking… certainly for me. No, I think one of the reasons I could finally use my terrible dancing for the greater good and make people laugh, but no, I just wanted to be as ridiculous as I could possibly be, because I thought that was one part of the film where I could really go for the goofiness, because he takes it so very seriously, Neil. I was watching David Hyde and Jagger and if you were to take the way Bowie and Jagger and Freddie Mercury move and put them as frontmen right now, you would think it was bizarre, but for some reason at the time, it was not only okay, but the pinnacle of cool. Jagger was doing the chicken dance essentially. I was just kind of blending all those guys together and seeing how ridiculous I could make him look.
CS: Speaking of which, have you actually met Neil and has he seen your rendition of him?
Barnes: Yeah, I didn’t meet him before, because the director said he was so irritating that if you were to meet him and copy him in any way, the film would be unwatchable, but I did meet him about halfway through shooting. I think at first he was a little bit scared that I’d be making a fool of him basically, even though he’s self-deprecating in the book, it’s another thing to see it visually. Also, he was in control when writing the novel about how stupid he came across, while this was in my hands now. Once the movie came out, he sent me a lovely long Email about how his friends had said he was exactly like that, precisely that irritating, but the character has a wonderful empathy to him as well I think, certainly in the book he does, and if it didn’t come across on the screen then it’s my fault. When he says, “I’d rather play to 500 of our own fans than 50,000 of yours,” you can hear the audience groan and curl up and say, “What are you doing? You made the wrong decision!” But that reaction can only be that way if you care what happens to this person. You only care if there’s something about him that you believe in and that you like, so hopefully there’s elements of that.
CS: I gotta agree that as a writer that we do like to make fun of ourselves but not so much when others make fun of us.
Barnes: Yeah, exactly. Not just writers. I think everyone’s like that. “Oh, joke’s on me… what did he say?”
CS: And you got to work with Pete Postlethwaite in this, which must have been one of his last films, which is amazing.
Barnes: I know, incredible. He just wanted to keep working. He was old friends with the director actually, and he was very sick when he was filming, but he just forged his way through and it was a real privilege and honor for me to do those four or five scenes with him. He was still experimenting. He had never played a character like that before. He had never done many comedies and certainly never played a very camp character like that, and he was still doing different things up until just before he died, which I think is something wonderful and admirable.
CS: That’s amazing. I had no idea that he was even sick because he was working so much in his last years.
Barnes: He kind of kept it from people really, but by that point, he was doing chemo and everything, but it was really special.
Killing Bono opens theatrically on November 4 in select cities.