If there was an acting award for versatility at this year’s SXSW film festival, Welsh performer Aneurin Barnard would be the clear winner. In the Narrative Spotlight selection “Hunky Dory,” he sang and acted opposite Minnie Driver as a hunky high-school student with a voice to melt hearts. And in the Midnighters film “Citadel” (winner of the Midnighters Audience Award), Barnard played a young father suffering from agoraphobia, fighting for survival after a pack of feral children attack him and his family. The latter horror-thriller comes out this Friday (go HERE to see where it’s playing).
[Editor’s Note: This interview originally ran during the 2012 SXSW Film Festival. “Citadel” opens in select theaters this Friday.]
The actor recently wrapped shooting “Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes,” directed by Francesca Gregorini (“Tanner Hall”) and starring Jessica Biel and Alfred Molina. He also stars in the upcoming “Trap for Cinderella,” co-starring Alexandra Roach (the young Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady”) and directed by Iain Softley (“Hackers”).
I was surprised to go from watching you play a teenager in “Hunky Dory” to a father in “Citadel.” How old are you?
I’m 24. In “Citadel,” I play a very young father. When I first signed onto “Hunky Dory” I was actually 18 years old. I was lucky enough that nothing’s changed. The age has changed, but I still look like a teenager! Whether I’ll ever grow up or remain like Peter Pan, I’m not sure.
So is this your first festival experience?
I did a movie called “Ironclad” a while back and that went to the London Film Festival and a few other places. But this is the first one in the States.
How’s it going so far for you?
It’s brilliant. Everything that I’ve done over the past three years is only now coming out, which is fantastic. I’m very happy about that. So you know, having “CITADEL” here, “Hunky Dory” here. Then I’ve got another film which is about to come out in the UK called “Elfie Hopkins.” And I just had a TV movie come out called “We’ll Take Manhattan” on the BBC. It’s a really nice time for me.
You’re like the British male equivalent to Jessica Chastain.
Yeah, maybe, yeah!
What’s it been like showcasing your range as a performer to SXSW audiences?
There’s such a good thriller/horror following here at the festival. So that’s why “Citadel” works so well here and with the people that come here. The fans, the bloggers, the press, the industry people. And then also I think with something like “Hunky Dory,” it’s great because of the music side to this festival. A major part of the film is just music. It really jumps into that element of the festival.
“Hunky Dory” kind of plays like a British ’70s period equivalent to “Glee,” a show with a huge fan-base. Are you ready for that side of the job, if the movie goes over well in Britain and abroad?
I try to stay out of it as much as possible. I try to be respectful and talk to any fan and sign anything that anyone wants. Without the fans, you’re not much. You need fans to do this job. I’ve got a nice little following and it seems to be growing as each thing comes out. Different films, different genres show the different things I do. It’s nice because it brings different groups of people to following what I’m doing. So hopefully it kind of reiterates that I’m not just a one-trick pony as well.
You look a fright in “Citadel,” especially after seeing you play the teen hunk in “Hunky Dory.”
I do think about this! I kind of go, well how are “Hunky Dory” fans going to feel about “Citadel”? I think they’re gonna love it and think, “Jesus! That was completely different.” We’ll see. I’m very lucky because all of my roles have been completely different. So that’s quite sweet. Hopefully, it will just show that my dynamic as an actor is versatile.
So many actors, when starting out, struggle not to get pigeonholed in one genre/role. In the two things I’ve seen you in, you’ve manged not to do that. What do you account that to? Your training? Plain luck?
I think it’s training, but I think it’s also a strong mind from when I was younger. The actors that I watched, they could play any role. In the good old days of the movie business, the greater actors survived really in the world. You have lots [of actors] now, but not like the old-fashioned guys. It didn’t matter what the role was. They would make it their own. And there’s never a role too small, never a role too big. It was about the dominance, just kind of driving through and creating something.
For me as a Welsh actor, Richard Burton is one of my biggest idols. And I’ve got so many: Peter O’Toole, Laurence Olivier and Oliver Reed. If they got “Hunky Dory” and “Citadel” offered to them, they would do completely different jobs on both of them. For me, it’s important to show that it’s a creative work that I do. It’s my craft. If I was a carpenter, I wouldn’t just make the same chair continuously for all of my life. I’d like to make one out of wood, different textures, different styles and different carvings. It’s very important to me because I like having fun, showing that I can do anything that comes towards me really. I’d like to think so anyway.
Your singing in “Hunky Dory” is really quite impressive; you hit some crazy highs. How long have you been singing?
I’ve been singing since I was about 10 years old. At about 11, I started acting. I took it very seriously and I used to do lots of singing. And I got a few record deals in the UK. Got a lot of recognition with my voice. But I decided against it. Music’s very personal to me and it’s very intimate. The trouble with the music industry now is that you don’t get to decide what you want to do. Labels command you instead. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, you could create your own record label or write your own stuff in your basement. It was so much more accessible. But now you’re kind of commanded by a hierarchy and you’re puppeted with your talent instead of in a creative environment.
The whole process of “Hunky Dory” was wonderful in that sense, musically. All the kids in the orchestra were playing the instruments. The choir was actually singing every song. Every actor in the film sang everything live.
It was a long process. We started when I was 18. I did a workshop for “Hunky Dory” and we had our first orchestra [session]. The musical director and the composer were there. We had a few songs and a few other people that are not in the movie, just singers. We just jammed for four days solid playing every song we could think of from ’70s and had an amazing time doing it. And through that, I think we found the genuine, fluid natural environment of how music is. I think that’s when the decision came to do everything live and not record in a studio. We realized that we could do it live and it had a raw richness to it. It was a smudged beauty. We embraced that and kind of ran with it and made that the key special element.
Moving onto “Citadel,” how close were you and director/writer Ciaran Foy on set, given the fact that he suffered from agoraphobia as well?
Ciaran is one of the best directors I’ve worked with and such a genuine lovely guy. And for this to be his first feature is just incredible, I think. His first feature straight into a festival!
It’s always important for me to be very close to the director. When you’re working on something which is very personal like with Ciaran — he suffers from agoraphobia — it’s very insightful. I’ve got him as a free gift. His tales are free for stimulation. So it was very important that we could just talk about anything at any moment. And it was tough. I kind of lived that for two months; very long days.
I talked to Elizabeth Olsen about her work in “Silent House.” She was also tasked with maintaining an unrelenting fear of her environment. She talked of bringing the role home with her at the end of each night to the point where she suffered from nightmares. Was that the same case with you?
Yeah, I had no choice, you know? The days were long. 12, 14, 16 hour days sometimes. Also I was just sitting in a hotel on my own a lot. I’d have one drink at the bar at night just to settle the nerves, try to switch off.
I’m not a method actor, but I wouldn’t say I’m not, either. For this role I really did jump in there and lived it a little. It got to a point where I would go to the gym. I’d finish filming and I’d go straight to the gym and just run for an hour and a half; just completely exhaust myself out. Probably not the best thing to do, but they didn’t have to use much makeup on me then because I was actually unbelievably tired and worn out. And hopefully it added to that element.
Fun fact: You and actor Tom Cullen studied together at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. He broke out last year at SXSW with “Weekend” and now you’re following in his footsteps. Coincidence?
Yeah. It’s funny because I was in the year above Tom.
Did you go to him for any pointers on how to handle the festival?
You know, you kind of just have to embrace it, I think. The nice thing is Tom knows that I’ve been in these positions before. It’s funny because Tom asked me things…
Before he came here?
Yeah, ’cause I left two years before Tom and went into the business. It’s nice when you can tell a friend how to do it.