On the Rise with Peter McDonald from "I Went Down"
by Laura Phipps
Riding high on the increasing tide of English-language foreign features
comes Ireland’s “I Went Down,” opening in New York City today. The film
follows the adventures of two small-time thugs, the irascible Bunny
(Brendan Gleeson, “The Butcher Boy“) and the innocent Git (Peter
McDonald), who are forced to get along while navigating the bogs of
Ireland as they honor an assignment from a crime boss. The film, which
has become the top-grossing independent film in Ireland, is scripted by
noted playwright Conor McPherson and directed by newcomer Paddy
Breathnach. Breathnach won the New Director’s Award at the San
Sebastian film festival both for “I Went Down” in 1997 and for his
feature “Ailsa” in 1994. During this year’s Cannes film festival, Fine
Line Features announced a first look deal with director Breahnach and
producer Robert Walpole’s Treasure Films, giving the American company a
first option on international and domestic rights for future projects.
At Desmond’s, appropriately an Irish pub in Manhattan’s Gramercy
district, indieWIRE sat down with the talented young star of the film,
Peter McDonald, for a couple of pints of Guinness. With his beaming blue
eyes, reddish hair, and quintessential Irish charm, agents and casting
directors are taking notice of McDonald’s film debut as the likeable and
laconic Git. A stage veteran, McDonald is now slated to star in “This
Lime Tree Bower,” a co-production between Treasure Films and London’s
indieWIRE: What do you think about the Irish film scene right now?
Peter McDonald: The whole crew on this film was Irish. Everyone
involved was Irish, except BBC films was the main financer. And the
wardrobe and the production designer, they were Scottish. There’s
people there to fully produce films in Ireland, and there’s more and
more independent films being made there, and there’s a lot of investment
going into film in Ireland at the moment. Wait over the next three or
four years, we’ll see if there’s really good films being made. That’s
the only way you can judge. There’s been some films made before in
Ireland but I think it’s probably entering more of a new phase now. “I
Went Down” is a film that doesn’t really have a theme behind it that’s
related to Ireland or being Irish; it’s just set in Ireland and the
characters are Irish. It’s going to be interesting to see what
happens. I’m going to do another film in Ireland next year, another one
with Conor McPherson, and he’ll be directing it.
iW: Tell me how you got involved with “I Went Down.”
McDonald: I was hired to audition the actors who were coming in because
it’s good to have an actor to read against the actors. Paddy wanted me
to do all the different characters in it, so, I did that, and while I
was doing that I read the part of Git [Hynes] against all the girls. So
I did it, I got paid and I went off, and a couple weeks later he got in
contact with me, and said, “I’d like you to audition for the part of
Git, so I did. And then I did a screen test with Brandon, and I got the
part. And that’s how it was.
iW: Did you have any idea this was going to happen, or was it kind of a
McDonald: No, I didn’t when I was just auditioning for the part, but
then when he called me in, I knew he’d recognized what I did with the
part when I was doing it, so when I did it again, I thought something
must have struck a chord there, with what I was doing with the
iW: You’ve never done movies before. What were your feelings about
doing a movie, at first?
McDonald: It was such a good script, and there were so many good people
involved, and I had a strong instinctual feeling about the character,
but the background working atmostphere of the film just allowed me to
concentrate on acting, so it was a very good first film experience. And
especially when you really believed in it, and when the writing was so
iW: How did you get to know Paddy? Were you friends?
McDonald: We’re friends now. We didn’t really know each other then. He
had met me–you know Dublin’s quite small–he’d met me at a bar. I’d
done a show of Conor’s before, so he just knew me from that, and I might
have been just horsing around in bars–I think that’s where he saw most
of my acting!
iW: Why do you think you connected with the character?
McDonald: Well, I loved the relationship between the two guys. I liked
the fact that you learned a lot by his reactions to what was going on
around him, and I liked his stubborness. They’re two underdog
characters, who have basically nowhere else to go but each other.
That’s a theme that’s been done many times before but I thought this had
its own feel.
iW: What are some of the other roles that you’ve played?
McDonald: I’ve played a violently alchoholic, Jimmy Hendrix-obsessed
monster who almost kills his girlfriend. The majority of parts I played
up until I played Git were more extroverted characters, and a bit more
aggressive, but I had played one or two that were a bit more low-key.
No matter whether it’s introverted or extroverted, normally it’s what’s
behind that that you have to get across to the people who are watching
it. The two are as much of a smokescreen.
iW: How did you come into playing Git as understated and quiet? Was
that already in the script or did you bring that to the character?
McDonald: My take on that character is that he’s a normal character in
difficult circumstances. He wants a normal life, and he’s just
surrounded by people he doesn’t understand or trust. But he’s no
choice, so he has to get through this. But the way the film is set up,
he doesn’t know many people outside of the situation either, so, when he
comes down to it, the only person he has is Bunny. I tried not to
romantisize Git, because he’s a bit of a hero, he has morals in the
film, he’s a kind of moral agent in the film.
iW: Did you improvise in the film?
McDonald: There’s no improvisation in the film. But yeah, we’d talk
about the characters a lot; we talked about the script, but in general
the atmosphere of the film was that we were all looking for the same
thing. We were all working for the same thing. And the film was the
goal; no one’s ego or anything, or anyone’s performance above anyone
else’s. We wanted to hear each others’ opinons on the story and how it
was being told. But I think a lot of it just happened naturally between
me and Brandon. I think we both naturally know how to play that style
of situation comedy, where it’s not comical performance: the situation’s
funny anyway and the characters in the situation are funny. Rather than
trying to actively seek laughs, you just let the characters do it the
way it’s written. This script goes from extreme comedy to sadness in a
breath, and we both know how to do that. We had a great working
iW: Would you like to act in American films?
McDonald: Yeah, oh yeah. Yeah, I really want to work here. I think the
independent scene here is great. I can’t wait to play Americans. . .
iW: What American accents do you do?
McDonald: You name it. Well, the ones I’ve been looking at have been
[breaks into Southern accent] from down South. . . po’ white trash kinda
shit. . . But I’d love to do something from more around here. I’d love
to play a New York accent.
iW: Where did you learn that?
McDonald: See, the thing about. . . I’ve had your TV all my life. All
your comics, all your writers, all your hit TV shows, all your films. I
know all your personalities– your celebrities, that kind of thing. So
if you’ve an ear for accents, if you’re an actor and you’ve eye for body
language and stuff like that. I’ve been watching that since I’ve been
watching Irish television. And then I’ve been here and I’ve travelled
a bit, so. . if you can pick it up, you pick it up. It’s very
interesting to me to play characters like that. I mean who knows.
We’ll see what happens in the next three or four years.