“Hunger," the harrowing new film about IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, opened in New York on Friday, March 20.
Dublin-based actor Liam Cunningham plays Father Dominic Moran, who takes Sands to task about his Republican convictions.
For his performance, he won Best Supporting Actor at the Irish Film and Television Awards earlier this month. (He previously won this award for his role in Ken Loach's “The Wind that Shakes the Barley.”)
In the film, Moran calls Sands’ decision to go on a hunger strike a suicide and a grave mortal sin. In a tense exchange between the two men, we discover that Moran also doubts its political effectiveness. Both men want the same thing, it turns out, but through different methods.
Although Sands’ hunger strike is the subject, director Steve McQueen doesn’t linger on the details of his life story, or on how the Troubles started. Instead McQueen focuses on the everyday life of the prisoners in the notorious H-Blocks (where paramilitary prisoners were housed throughout the Troubles).
The H-Block prison wardens’ day begins with a search under the car for explosive devices. For the Republican prisoners, the day begins with a violent strip search and interrogation.
In the film all of this is presented dispassionately. McQueen stands back and takes no sides.
When Cunningham, who was an electrician in Dublin and Africa before he got his acting start in the late 1980s, first heard about the film he was intrigued by the script.
However, he admits to being uncertain about working with fledgling director McQueen.
“The writing attracted me,” he said in an interview with IrishCentral. “The quality of Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s words was immediately impressive. But I didn’t know anything about the director at all.”
It didn’t help that he had read a quote by McQueen where the would-be-director had compared actors to “overfed race horses.”
“McQueen had never made a feature, had never worked with actors, but in fairness he quickly realized that actors bring humanity to a script. When I eventually met him, we had a kind of speed date, and I discovered how focused he is, and how pragmatic he is, so I signed on,” Cunningham says.
The scene between Michael Fassbender as Sands and Cunningham as the disapproving Moran is without doubt the most tense and electrifying in the film.
Says Cunningham, “It’s a very interesting scene. We see a Catholic beating up Bobby Sands – verbally – for making what the priest considers all the wrong decisions.
Although there are obvious political dimensions to all of this, McQueen keeps coming back to the personal. What it costs a person to do, what it costs a person to witness.”
The standoff between Moran and Sands also set a record for being the longest continuous one-camera shot in cinema history.
“We had to double up the film magazine so we could actually shoot the entire scene as it’s written in the script,” Cunningham explains. “That’s how it became the longest unedited shot ever to appear in a film. For Fassbender and I the challenge was to make the scene look as authentic as possible.”
Cunningham was certain the film would get noticed.
“I told my cast mates I was sure it would go to Cannes but I wasn’t sure how it would play out.
“When I finally saw the finished film I was very moved by it. It’s brimming with humanity, it doesn’t get into who’s right and who’s wrong, and it’s all the more powerful for that.”
“I really hope people see this film. America is such a large market, but it will deeply touch everyone who sees it,” he says.
"Hunger" opened on March 20 in New York City at the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue at West 3rd Street.
Liam Cunningham in the harrowing new film, "Hunger"