Dermot Mulroney, 48, was born to play a handsome leading man, but his screen roles have actually been much more interesting since the one big life changing role that made him a star, his turn opposite Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding.
This week Mulroney plays Colonel Scott Boyer, a straight as a board national guardsman who falls unexpectedly in love with a feisty young White House operative in Big Miracle, the dramatic new rescue film based on real life events that opens this Friday.
Set in 1988 at the tail end of the Reagan administration, Big Miracle tells the inspiring story of three whales that got trapped by the advancing ice floe in the north Alaskan Sea.
It’s an interesting set up, and amazingly neither the cast nor the writers put a foot wrong. That’s surprising when you consider that when Hollywood gets its hands on a script with an obvious environmental message (and when they cast Drew Barrymore in the lead) you can almost assure yourself you’re in for a 120 minute harangue.
On paper Big Miracle certainly does look like it qualifies to be the tree hugger film of 2012, but the fact is it’s actually so much more than just a feel good drama about environmentalists demonstrating that they’re superior to everyone else.
Taken from a 1988 true life adventure story that saw a small Alaskan fishing community come together to free three whales trapped in the rapidly freezing north Alaskan Sea, Big Miracle shows how the story captures the nation’s attention and then the world’s, with unexpectedly positive results.
“I haven’t done that many films that the whole family can enjoy, and that was an attraction for me as a father,” Mulroney tells the Irish Voice, explaining why he took the role. “I just loved the way all the individual story lines worked together.
“Drew plays a Greenpeace volunteer (Barrymore) and Ted (Danson) plays an oil baron, and although each of their characters is pursuing their own agenda and are otherwise in conflict, in this case they need to accomplish the same thing. I really liked that.”
The set they filmed Big Miracle on was located in downtown Anchorage, Alaska and was, Mulroney reveals, the size of a few football fields.
“It was a great big stage that they built that went on for what seemed like forever. It was really cold and half the day was dark, so making it was a really unique experience.”
It’s a word away from his landlocked Iowa childhood, which was both Irish and American in the best senses of the word.
“I was conscious of my Irish background growing up,” he reveals. “My parents both have simpler names like Michael and Ellen, but they gave us these distinctively Irish names.
“There were a lot of Irish families in our neighborhood growing up. It was only after I left home that I realized that there are lots of people out there in America that weren’t Irish Catholics. Or that there weren’t as many of us as I thought there were at first. It’s what you imagine growing up in a big family in the 1970s,” he says with a laugh.
Curiosity about his own roots, which hail from Donegal and Mayo in famine times, eventually led him to Ireland. “I have been over only once 15 years ago and I wandered through Donegal. I noticed a road sign on the way for a town called Mulraney, but this was long before you could GPS anything,” Mulroney recalled.
“I haven’t been back to Ireland since but I enjoyed my visit. My ancestors came over in the famine times and they’ve all been here since the 19th century so we’re all Yanks. I always feel like I need to point that out before I start to take too much credit. I would only be that much more proud if my parents had only just gotten off the boat. But that’s not the case.”
Mulroney’s brothers are named Conor, Kieran and Shaun and his sister is called Moira.
“I can’t explain what was going on with my folks, I don’t know what they were thinking to be honest with you,” Mulroney says.
“But to be truthful those names have served all of us really well, and I notice those kinds of strong Irish names are coming back around. I grew up with it in the 1970s and I never questioned it back then.
“It was only when I went out into the world that I learned that nobody’s named that -- nobody! Nobody here would have the balls to name their kid Dermot now. Not in the preschools that I know about anyway.”
Mulroney is also modest about his own less known life as a musician. He began to play cello as a boy and over the years he’s shared the stage with James Fearnley of the Pogues many times.
“Let me be clear I don’t play with the Pogues, I play with James Fearnley of the Pogues. It’s important to point that out,” he says again with that indulgent laugh.
“I don’t play with the entire band but I’ve seen them play on numerous occasions. And in James’s other band Cranky George I play with him.”
He wouldn’t want you to think he was uppity or anything. It’s remarkable to observe modesty of this kind in an actor, but more so when he’s been a star in Hollywood for decades.
As Colonel Scott Boyer in Big Miracle Mulroney radiates the same kind of regular guy charm onscreen that he does off. His talent lies in his ability to completely convince you he is the character he’s playing.
It’s what makes him such a favorite for directors, including Irish American Joe Carnahan, who cast him in the survival epic The Grey alongside Liam Neeson (the film that just burned up the box office on its release at the weekend).
“I couldn’t believe that script when I read it,” Mulroney reveals, referring to The Grey. “It was a very Irish production too in that it had Liam and Carnahan working on it. And some English actors too for what it’s worth, who were playing Americans so it was a pretty mixed bag of people.”
Mulroney is too modest to say it, but his characters in both films do what he is famous now for doing, stealing the show.
In The Grey he plays a doting father in a scene that is the emotional pivot point of the whole film, and in Big Miracle he plays the ramrod Colonel Boyer, who with his grit and decency seems to belong to another age and commands the film from the moment he appears.
“It’s one of the truest parts of this movie, the relationship between my character and the young woman he encounters in the film,” says Mulroney.
“At the end of the movie you see the real couple that they’re based on, the ones who met and fell in love in real life during this mad experience, who otherwise would never have met one another. In fact there’s a strong argument that getting the whales free might not have happened at all had those two not met. They had the combined expertise to get the job done.”
And Mulroney has the skill to make you cheer for them.
Big Miracle opens Friday.
Here's the trailer: