Published on July 14th, 2014 | by Allan Brown0
Interview: Alec Newman Talks Greyhawk
During the Edinburgh International Film festival 2014, I was lucky enough to catch the UK Premier of Guy and Matt Pitt’s sublime British drama, GREYHAWK (My Review). At the heart of this wonderfully profound and stylish character study, is the outstanding central performance from Alec Newman. Recently Alec was kind enough to grant me the opportunity to interview him on his role in the film, as well as some other musings. Here is what he had to say;
How did you initially become involved with Greyhawk?
Alec Newman – I auditioned for Guy and Matt. No special treatment! We met and chatted and then they brought me back in to do a couple of scenes from the script and chat some more.
You’re clearly a very busy actor with a roster to prove it. Greyhawk is a low budget indie film from a fairly new director. As an already established actor, what was it about this smaller project that drew you to it?
AN – The script is always about the most important thing with any project I think- and the script for Greyhawk was very intriguing to me from the word go. It seemed to be about so much more than a blind man searching for his dog. I read and reread it trying to get my head around why it had hooked me so strongly. I wanted to play Mall from the first time I read him. That only happens occasionally with a script. Call it an instinctive reaction, whatever. I just had a strong sense of what I wanted to do with it. Also the timing was brilliant because I had just finished a long run on a TV series and wanted to dive in to something as far away from that as possible. Something that wasn’t so constrained by the medium. Something that was exceptionally well written.
Your character Mal goes on quite a profound journey throughout the film. How did you find establishing an emotional connection with your fellow actors in particular Zoe Telford and Jack Shepherd without being able to draw on eye contact?
AN – I worked with a charity called Blind Veterans UK to get a sense of what being blind might be like. I wanted it to be ingrained enough on set that I could get on with the scenes and let the blindness fade into the background somewhat. It would be horrible to be “doing blind acting” and not connecting with the other actors. I developed a way of defocusing my eyes in scenes, which we found on camera looked a lot like the blind veterans I had spent time with in terms of what the eye was doing. It was obviously important not to make contact with my eyes as they would automatically focus unlike a blind persons- although in one scene with Zoe I looked straight at her, which can happen. (I’d been with Billy Baxter at Blind Veterans and he had unknowingly looked straight at me while talking to me. Pure fluke of course, as he is completely blind but it does happen occasionally.) The emotional connections between the characters are not necessarily based on eye contact anyway I don’t think- but having learned how to listen more after working with Blind Veterans- I didn’t feel much different to how I feel playing scenes as a sighted character. Maybe it was different for Zoe or Jack perhaps playing opposite a character who can’t see you. I think Zoe used that to good effect in one of the early kitchen scenes and made it a feature.
Mal is a hard character to warm to for much of the film, he’s rude, offensive and in a constant simmer of aggression, but we still somehow root for him. How hard was it to keep the balance right so the audience would not reject him?
AN – I didn’t worry about the audience’s possible rejection of Mal. I left that to Guy as the director. I knew that Mal had a vulnerability somewhere but his journey is one of being driven so far, pushed so hard that he eventually exposes himself in the scene with Howard. It’s the kindness of a stranger that kills him. I think a lot of actors worry a great deal about the likeability of their characters. Truth is, the world is full of unpleasant , intolerable people too. Their stories are still valid, often untold. But actor vanity about whether the character is likeable? Shouldn’t ever happen because the writer and director should have already intercepted it. Plus I was playing a guy who wouldn’t give a shit about that. So I joined in. I’m glad however, that you think we got the balance right!
Playing a blind character will have come with its own unique set of challenges. What kind of research did you do to prepare for the role of Mal?
AN – I’ve talked already a little about my time with Blind Veterans to prepare for the blindness. I was blindfolded down at the centre in Llandudno for 2 days to throw me in at the deep end. Billy Baxter, and Vince Godber, the trainer there put me through some of the training that newly blind returning veterans would experience. They gave me an invaluable taste of what it might feel like to be blind- how your senses re align- particularly your hearing, and gave me the full cane training whilst blindfolded, as Mal spends most of the film using his re- acquired cane to get around. I’m still in touch with Billy and the charity. I made some good friends down there and whilst the film doesn’t dwell on Mal as veteran as such, that is why he is the way he is. It’s the issue in the film discussed least but its implicit in who Mal is and how he behaves emotionally. It was through that part of the research- learning how returning troops deal with post traumatic stress they might not even be aware they have, that I opened out the man that Mal might be.
The movie industry is awash with huge scale blockbusters films with limitless budgets. Do you think there will always be an audience for smaller dramas like Greyhawk in amongst the popcorn films of today?
AN – I do think there is always space for smaller films like this one. I think the fact that Transformers 4 and Greyhawk are both films is just coincidence. They may as well be different forms entirely for all that they relate, but unfortunately it feels like its getting more difficult for smaller dramas to get distributed to anything like their actual audience. We know from the response in Edinburgh that there is definitely an appetite for this type of drama, but it’s a question of a person who makes a business decision feeling the same. What’s irritating and wonderful all at once is that we did not set out to make a film that would sell so much as just a good film. When they begin production on Transformers 5 it will be because they know people paid to see Transformers 4 and the studio puts their trust in “the figures”. That is where it’s purely business. Smaller movies can still retain some craft and narrative integrity without having to worry about taking 100 million in the first weekend, meaning the stories these films tell still get told.If that ever changes we are in trouble. On the flip-side, its difficult for small films without bankable stars to achieve the kind of distribution that will enable the film to find its baseline audience.
The film had its UK premier at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, how were the reactions to the film and did anything surprise you?
AN – Edinburgh was fantastic. To celebrate not just our film, but cinema in general was a real joy. I saw 4 movies while I was there and they were all very different from each other, but all under the same festival banner. I caught up with people I worked with years ago and may again, and came away proud to have been a part of it all. The best moment? The session with students and up and coming film makers. I consider that money in the bank as I’ll be asking them all for a job in 10 years!! Really though- talking to those new film makers made me remember why I’d chosen this stupid, illogical career in the first place. They were passionate, and full of energy. Infact the Edinburgh film festival has a freshness to it- I’m wary of “film people” who talk “film”- but these guys were the real thing. A deep seated interest in telling stories on a BIG screen. Cinema.
The reactions to the film were astonishing to be honest. When we made it we didn’t think too much- just got on and shot the script. When it was finished everyone was nervous that it was what we thought we had made. You never really know until people outside the process sit down and view it. So we know now that there is a good story there, as well told as we could muster, and its my dearest wish that Greyhawk reaches as many of the people who would respond like they did in Edinburgh as possible. But that’s all business- I’m just an actor!
(Interview by Allan Brown)