Fiona Shaw, James Brooks, and Colin Meaney Talk Shop with VO

Actress Fiona Shaw (pictured above with James Brooks), who plays Mrs. Dursley in the Harry Potter films, said if she had enough lifetimes to do everything she wanted, she'd live in Vancouver.

Last Thursday, VO's Hollywood correspondent, Tracy Wren, interviewed Shaw and other prominent actors at the U.S.- Irish Alliance's third annual Oscar Wilde: Honoring the Irish in Film awards ceremony, an elegant event at the historical Los Angeles Ebell Theatre, celebrating Shaw and other Irish-related stars spoke to Tracy about their work and about Irish achievement in film, at home and abroad.

Over the years, the Irish contribution to film has been enormous, from John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), to the most recent Best Picture Academy winner, No Country For Old Men, written by Cormac McCarthy, inspired by the poem Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats. While partaking of a four course meal including the finest of Irish cheeses, smoked salmon, wines, whiskeys and beer, and listening to the lovely strains of Duke Special, a Belfast ‘hobo-chic’ artist with a velvety voice, Tracy spoke informally with the Oscar Wilde recipients, asking them about their own relationship with Irish cinema. The interviews follow.

Academy Award winner James L. Brooks (The Simpsons, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, As Good as it Gets) confessed he loved the Irish most because they “celebrate writing. They celebrate poetry; they celebrate kinship, loyalty and good spirit in hard times,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary race of people.” “I love Oscar Wilde and I love him for saying, ‘If you’re not too long I shall wait for you the rest of my life.’ I remember when I first heard that my brain exploded. I love how witty he was. The Irish are a people actually promising you fun.” When asked if The Simpsons might take a trip over to Ireland, Brooks replied that they all loved it and that it was definitely a possibility. I asked him what his favorite Irish film was. “The Full Monty – now that’s a good enough answer.”

In his acceptance speech, Brooks, describing himself as an “honorary Irishman”, admitted to having believed, as a boy, that he actually was Irish.

“As a young boy I regularly accompanied him to his favorite neighborhood bar though we were months being in the rent he would buy round and round of drinks for the house his cronies would thank them by raising their glasses and rubbing my head. That’s the way they showed my dad what a swell guy he was by rubbing my head. Ladies’ night at the bar was particularly rough for me. My father was a handsome man so the woman sought to charm him by demonstrating how good they were with children, with me as a prop.”

It wasn’t until several later years that he first noticed the name on his grandparents' door: Bernstein, and realized he wasn’t Irish. Thereafter, the boyish Brooks had to keep his identity secret, something he says, Oscar Wilde would have understood.

Actress Fiona Shaw (Harry Potter, My Left Foot, The Black Dahlia), spoke of her recent performance of Beckett in New York. “The Irish love of wit has translated into an American love of wit. The capacity for language and the fun with language, the excitement about the funny ways that people say things has remained a big part of American culture and I think the Irish are partly responsible for that. After all, America is made of people escaping different cultures and the Irish have benefited as much as anybody. There was a moment I think in 1847, when there were so many Irish that they were 10% of the population.”

I asked if she was conscious of an Irish voice in cinema or if she thought that Irish cinema was becoming part of a world cinema. “That’s such a hard question. Maybe a bit of both, actually. I think that what’s happening is that the strange neurotic scenes of various countries are finally coming through in enormous American films and so the big landscapes of cowboy films are suddenly becoming ways to explore themes of identity and loneliness and desolation and the absence of God or the presence of God. Those were all historic themes that the movies are beginning to retell and either absorb or be free from.”

Have you ever worked in Canada? “I have. I shot a film there last year and it’s a lovely, lovely, lovely place and If I had more than one life, I’d live in Vancouver in one of them.

Actor Colm Meaney (Kings, Star Trek, The Dead), proclaimed that the Irish language was very much alive. I told him of a poem I had read in which the Irish language was compared to a sheep who had wandered onto a rocky ledge covered in sweet green grass, then upon discovering that there was no way back, had died. Emphatically, Meaney replied, “In Dublin, people are bribing parents to get their kids into Irish schools. If anything, Irish has become kind a middle class aspiration so I don’t think it’s a sheep on a ledge. Kings did surprisingly well at the box office and it’s certainly laid the ground work for future films in Irish.?” Aren’t there soaps in Irish, as well that are quite popular? “Oh yes, so it ain’t dying yet.”

Finally, I spoke with producer/director J.J. Abrams. Regarding Irish cinema as an emerging voice or as a part of a world cinema, he had this to say. “I work with a man named Gormally and he’s a 1st AD from Scotland. His father was a director and he knows everything there is to know
about Scottish cinema. When you’re with him it feels like the whole world is Scottish cinema, just like when you’re in Hollywood, it feels like the whole world. So my guess is the while Hollywood has been the purveyor of film, there are far more people out there than there are here. And I think that increasingly the international voices that are out there are becoming heard and being seen as valid, for what they actually are, instead of being drowned out by the strong-arming of American cinema.”

I propose that in the new cinema, individual voices will be heard by a wider audience. Likewise, American cinema, rather than strong-arm any country, will link arms with diverse cultures, empowering the individual voice while at the same time enriching a world cinema. Irish and American cinemas have taken that first step.

Photo of Fiona Shaw with James Brooks compliments of Trina Vargo of US-Ireland Alliance

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