We talk with the lead actor in Ken Loach’s new film…

Nabbing the lead in a Ken Loach movie was, reckoned Barry Ward, “something I thought only happened in the movies”, and the Irish actor will be making many more, if JIMMY’S HALL is anything to go by.

Barry Ward is on his way to an audition. Something he spends a lot of his time doing these days.
“There’s definitely been a sharp increase in doors opening of late,” says the former Blanchardstown native, now firmly embedded in London after a Rough Magic play took him there nine years ago. “It’s what every actor dreams of – having a Get In The Door Free card. ‘The man’s just played the lead in Ken Loach’s latest movie – he must be good!’.

“It ain’t necessarily so, but, hey, I’m happy to have this kind of opportunity right now.”

It may not be Loach’s finest film, but Jimmy’s Hall still packs a punch, with Ward perfectly cast as the charmer radical at its centre – so, its leading man will be in demand for at least a few years to come.

Having just enjoyed a largely positive reception at Cannes (Variety dubbing it ‘a surprisingly lovely, heartfelt film’), Jimmy’s Hall tells the story of James Gralton, who, on August 13th, 1933, became the only Irishman to be deported from this country as an ‘illegal alien’. That Gralton was deported without a trial reflects just how keen those in power wanted him gone.

Taking place ten years after the Cork-set, brother-against-brother drama of Loach’s The Wind Shakes The Barley, deep in the heart of Leitrim, in a little priest-infested backwater named Effernagh, Jimmy Gralton is determined to prove that true freedom means living under no one’s rules or regulations – whether that be the Catholic Church or the State, the British landowners or the right-wing flank of the IRA. At the centre of this determined stance is the local community hall, where not only are land disputes between poor farmers and their wealthy landlords resided over, and classes in arts, crafts and assorted skills are given, but, with Jimmy having just returned after eight years in America with a gramophone and a bunch of jazz 78s under his arm, the locals are learning how to jump, jive and wail.
Unsurprisingly, dancing to the devil’s music soon comes to the attention of the local priest, Father Sheridan – who’s played by Jim Norton. Just in case you had any trouble guessing from the outset that, once again, the Church need a good kick up the arse.

From the start though, Ward was determined to prove that, when it came to Gralton, there was a little sinner mixed in with the saint. This was a man who fought for many rights, including the right to party.
Barry Ward: It would be so easy to make this guy just seem like a noble crusader,” says Ward. “He brought a sense of fun with him wherever he went, and he inspired that in many people around him. He had travelled the world, despite the severe economic hardship of the times, but he made the most of what life had to offer, and he encouraged others to do the same. Life was there for the living.

It was this positive attitude that saw Ward encourage his fellow actors to embrace their roles, and throw off any nerves they might feel about working with such a legendary director.
BW: I just noticed early on that there was this air of uncertainty, a sense of not wanting to disappoint this hero,” says Ward, “and I realised that I just couldn’t buy into that. Because that’s not how Jimmy would have handled it. I just felt I had to keep in character, and that meant trying to create an environment to make sure everyone gave it their best. There were times when I felt that with the supporting cast in particular, that Jimmy would have wanted everyone to feel like they belonged, and what they had to contribute was valuable.

And what of the end result? Can Barry Ward be truly critical of JIMMY’S HALL?
BW: I was very, very pleased, thankfully. I would have hated to be the one who led a bad Ken Loach film. If it had been a bad Ken Loach film, I would have felt, oh, shit, this is all my fault.

Ward could also have been The Actor Who Killed Ken Loach’s Film Career, given that the director had claimed during the shoot that JIMMY’S HALL was going to be his last fictional offering. The shoot was tough, reportedly, but Loach has since retracted his retirement.
BW: Which is a relief, wouldn’t like to think I led the movie that forced him into a retreat from the good fight. That would be hard to have hanging over you…

How tough was the film shoot that inspired the grizzly old Loach to such despair?
BW: This shoot ran like a well-oiled machine, so, I can’t really say what would have inspired such a mood. I guess it might have been the business side – that’s usually the toughest part of a film shoot these days, especially when you’re trying to make important films.

Just read on Wikipedia that Ken Loach is quite political. Were you aware of that? And if so, did you feel the need to read up on World Politics 101?
BW: I did indeed, yeah, I read a lot of the works of James Connolly – there’s a lot of parallels there with Jimmy Gralton – and I was devouring whatever Leftist literature I could get my hands on. I was carrying The Communist Manifesto around in my pocket. It was a part of the job that I really loved, because politics is something that I always felt I would like to study more. So, that was a real joy, having that as part of my homework.

So, to be the face on the poster, you must feel as though you’ve moved up the food chain?
BW: Definitely, makes it all seem worthwhile. All those oddjobs, small parts, whatever scraps you could get – this is the pay-off for all that. And all the hard work in the world doesn’t guarantee a break like this, so, there’s a lot of work involved too.

Did it feel like this was your prize fight, your shot at the title? Land a few good punches in this fight, and you could be hitting with the heavyweights from now on?
BW: Yeah, it’s a useful analogy, getting into the ring for your title shot, but Ken is the sort of guy who’s going to make sure you’re match fit before he lets you step into that ring. He’s not going to get you in there just to see you come out bloodied. So, we were very well rehearsed before we stepped on set. And the very fact that you’ve been cast by Ken in the first place gives you a lot of confidence. It makes you up your game. I’ve been such a fan for so long, and anything I knew about his approach, I was already familiar with. So, I was in my comfort zone all the way through, even in the auditions. I didn’t feel a sense of pressure at all. I just felt, here’s a master. If anyone knows what he’s doing, it’s this man. He’s not going to let someone like me come in and fuck it all up, so, in some ways, there was a lot less pressure there than I’ve felt with many other jobs.

Jimmy’s Hall hits Irish screens on Friday May 30th

Words: Paul Byrne