At a cloistered boarding school in Ireland, Ned (Fionn O’Shea), the bullied outsider, and Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), a transfer student and star athlete, are forced to room together. Conor is drafted into the senior rugby team, whose actions dominate life at this sports-obsessed school. Ned and Conor take an instant dislike to each other, and seem destined to remain enemies until an English teacher, Mr. Sherry (Andrew Scott), begins to drill into them the value of finding one’s own voice. But this lesson isn’t appreciated by everyone at the school, certainly not the rugby coach, Pascal (Moe Dunford), who has his own agenda, and who harbors some deep suspicions about Sherry. In his first lead role, Fionn O’Shea (The Siege of Jadotville and the upcoming The Aftermath with Keira Knightley and Alexander Skarsgard), gives a star-making performance as Ned. I spoke to the talented Irish actor about his experience making John Butler’s Handsome Devil.
Danny Miller: I was so moved by your performance as Ned and I appreciated the fact that there were things we didn’t know about him. Unlike some of the other characters, Ned’s own sexuality remains fairly ambiguous in the film.
Fionn O’Shea: Yeah, definitely. I think that these days people are a lot more comfortable with the idea of ambiguity when it comes to a person’s sexuality so it wasn’t something we felt we needed to explain. But we definitely talked a lot about Ned’s back story during rehearsals and on set. John Butler is such a great writer and director, he really understood these characters and he was such a joy to work with.
It’s ultimately a different kind of “coming out” story than we’re used to seeing, especially at a posh boarding school. I wonder if this film were made even ten years ago if the scene in which the rugby players show support for their teammate would have gone the same way. Do you think that scene was a kind of wishful thinking or do you think things are really changing in that regard?
Oh, I think things are really changing. That’s not to say that there isn’t still a lot of homophobia in school settings, of course there is, but it’s definitely different than it used to be. Look at the passage of the marriage equality vote in Ireland, that was so inspirational for everyone, especially kids in school who are struggling with their identities — that was a very powerful message to send to them. On the other hand, you don’t want to fall into the trap of saying, “Well, that passed so I guess we don’t have any more issues with gay people.” It’s still really hard for LGBTQ kids growing up today, no question about it. But I don’t think that scene was just wishful thinking, I think that could definitely happen today.
Whenever I see a film set in that kind of a boys’ boarding school, I grit my teeth and wait for the bullying to start. But I thought the depiction of that seemed a lot more realistic in this movie, I was glad it didn’t go to extreme Lord of the Flies-like lengths!
I think the way John showed it in this film, the bullying was more psychological than physical. In some ways that hurts even more. I went to a school like the one you see in the movie but my experience was nothing like Ned’s — I actually had a great time. But I had friends who had experiences like Ned’s, for sure.
The English teacher played by Andrew Scott reminded me of how one great teacher can make all the difference in the lives of students struggling in school. Did you have anyone like Mr. Sherry in your experience?
That’s really the dream teacher, isn’t it? I did have one teacher that was quite like that, who’s sadly passed away now, but he was a really inspirational person for me, such a lovely man. But John had a teacher very much like Mr. Sherry. I thought Andrew played him so beautifully. He’s just incredible in everything he does. Sherlock Holmes as well, and now his production of Hamlet with Jessica Brown Findlay has just moved to the West End, I can’t wait to see it.
Back in the day, agents and managers would discourage the actors they worked with from playing a gay person or even from appearing in movies that touch on LGBTQ issues. Do you think we’re finally past that stage?
I certainly hope that’s a thing of the past. I talked to John and Andrew about it and they agreed that it’s not at all like it used to be. For one thing, I think today we accept that someone’s sexuality is a part of their identity, but it’s not the whole thing.
I was so invested in your portrayal of Ned that I really cringed during the scene in which he betrays his friend. Was that a hard scene to shoot?
Oh my God, I cringe every time I see it! It’s so hard for me to watch that scene to this day, I’m always squirming in my seat. It actually was pretty difficult to shoot but more because of the number of extras we had in that scene — just corralling them all together was a challenge. And then we’d break for lunch and out of about a 100 extras, 85 of them would come back with their jumpers ripped in half! In terms of my performance, I was a lot more nervous about the singing I had to do for the concert scene, that was really nerve-wracking.
I bet. We see Ned singing quite well early on when he’s rehearsing with Conor, was it hard to have to sing badly later in the film?
That’s very generous of you to say that I ever sang well! (Laughs.) I definitely don’t have a record deal coming off the back of this film. Nick, on the other hand, is a really talented singer and guitar player. I’m not the worst singer in the world but my no means the best. When we rehearsed it beforehand, John kept saying, “Hmm, that sounds little too good, let’s put your part higher.” He kept making it higher and higher until it was at the point where it was impossible to sing it properly. So I wasn’t actually trying to sing badly, it just kind of came naturally!
In general, are you okay with watching yourself on the screen?
The first time I watched this film it was a total blur. I remember thinking everyone else was good but I hadn’t a clue as to how I came across. I’ve seen the film 13 times now so I’m pretty comfortable watching it at this point, but yeah, it can be difficult to watch yourself. Helpful, too, I always learn a lot. But it’s very hard to watch yourself ans day, “Oh, that was good!” I’m much more likely to watch and say, “Whoa, that was really bad, here’s what I could have done differently.”
Have you had a chance to watch the film with American audiences? I wonder if they respond differently. I don’t know a thing about rugby, for example, but I don’t think that hampered by enjoyment of the film. Are there any nuances that you think we might not get?
I’ve sat in with audiences in Miami and L.A. and also when the film premiered in Toronto. I definitely noticed that people laugh at different things and are quiet at different bits. It’s fascinating to see the different reactions. One example is the scene in which Conor is fighting a bully and it gets pretty vicious. When we showed it in Toronto everyone was in shock during that scene, they were like “Oh my God!” but in other places they were laughing and clapping like it was the greatest thing that ever happened!