You may know the face, but not the name. He’s one of those actors whose been around for many years and has played many varied roles throughout television and cinema. Though staying out of the mainstream media and choosing not to court the press as so many actors have, he still manages to appear in some of the biggest grossing movies over the last few years, in memorable performances in such films as Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, and more recently in the bloodthirsty symbolism laden Hollywood blockbuster; 300 where he played the traitorous hunchback; Ephialtes (Eff-e-al-tees) completely unrecognisable under full body prosthetic. So how does someone like Tiernan manage to sustain a career without being recognised? I’ve decided to find out more about him. Luckily I’ve know him for well over 20 years and I’ve often seen him around the scene, so I thought it was about time I did an interview with him – Wayne Anthony
When was it we first met again?
Erm, I met you round the Mellow Mix, the rehearsal studio off Stoke Newington Road, for those that don’t know.
That’s right. Hackney has always been a hotbed of creative talent and a host of current TV / film stars were squatting in the Borough during the 1980’s. What brought you to the Borough?
The 22 Bus.
But you were squatting too, right?
Yes, those were the days! I’d met John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) after a PiL gig and he told me to move to London. I’d read about squatting during the Punk era and I knew bands like The Clash and the Pistols had all squatted, so it wasn’t such a taboo as it is now. When I was at Drama Centre things got pretty tight and I ended up homeless, so a few of us found this house in Hackney, it was a run down Council property and had a sitting tenant, this old Jamaican lady called Mrs. Stewart and she let us in and it went on from there, I thought I was only going to be in there a couple of weeks, but I ended up squatting there from the 80’s right through into the late 90’s it saw me through the rest of Drama school and also enabled me to make a lot of choices in my work, I turned down some great stuff, but money wasn’t the objective, I was happy where I was and we were all doing our own thing.
I should write a book about it one day, the tales that house could tell about the people who frequented it along the years. People would turn up out of the blue and it had a number of movie star visitors stay there. It was also a place where Actors who had just broken up with girl/boyfriends would turn up to stay and tell us all their woes. Sometimes it was a bit like “Withnail and I.” It’s crazy how the area has changed so much since then, but I think the creativity still lives on.
The thing about where I lived, was because I was there for such a long period of time, it wasn’t what you’d imagine a squat to look like, we were homeless and it became a home and we kept everything in good repair. Unfortunately, it all came to an end when one of the later residents decided to get greedy and do a deal with the council and got developers to buy it, so they could all make some money. Such is life eh?
You were brought up on a council estate in a tough part of the world, what made you choose acting?
I think when you live in those kinds of areas you learn how to act, because you can turn a corner on an estate at any given time and bump into one of the many local bullies and if you can’t fight, you have to be able to get yourself out of that situation and that’s when the acting comes into play. (If you want to use that analogy) But everyone has an action to play in everyday life to get what they want.
I have never actually played a hard man, even though people think that those are the characters I play. I play interesting people with strange traits and faults. I have played people with mental problems and sometimes my employers and fellow cast members think I’m like that for real. I was even given a Disabled person’s suite at a hotel I was staying in once because they’d heard I was the Hunchback in 300. Ephialtes was probably the hardest person I’ve ever played, if you want to use that tag. A lot of people with disabilities are really “hard”, much harder in fact than a lot of these movie gangsters, because they really have something to fight for.
The thing about being a character actor is that people recognize you for the roles that they remember most, such as the stuttering psychopath in Cracker, but because you’re not the hero a lot of the time they don’t know your actual name, so they see you in the street and don’t quite know where they’ve seen you before. Or if you’re a copper, you seem to think that I was on your wanted list that morning, believe me that has happened on more than one occasion.
I haven’t been actually taken into the cells, but mistaken identity certainly has happened and I’ve been wrestled to the ground a few times and guns pointed at me by the force, which isn’t very nice in today’s climate. I always give it up, though I know now to point them to the pocket, which contains my ID rather than going to get it myself, made that mistake before.
What they give it to you?
So you’re not fighting off all the girls then, like Robert Pattinson?
Not nowadays no, when I first started out I did a couple of Romantic leads, but being the kid I was, I tried to make those characters grotesque, just to put a different slant on it. That’s what I do nowadays. I’m more attracted to character work, and recently I got some feedback on a role I did where I’d blacked out some of my teeth with some tooth enamel colouring, and it must have been too convincing, as people thought I’d really let myself go! And I don’t tend to play Romantic leads now. (Laughs)
Working with Idris Elba on “Luther” was a joy, I loved his performance in The Wire as Stringer Bell, so I was very excited to get to work with him. Generally every job’s the same really in terms of performance, it’s nice when you are doing Theatre, because you get to do the performance again and improve it (hopefully) over time. I love working with the Director; Wilson Milam, so most of my theatre jobs have been with him. I’ve gotten very used to working with him and it makes it hard to work with other theatre directors as his technique is so specific to him and me. But I will work with anyone, I always give Young Filmmakers a chance, sometimes it’s hell and other times it’s great. It all depends on the writing of course, and if it’s not good then there is very little you can improve on that.
Lots of actors have jumped ship moving to L.A, should we expect to see you on CSI Miami anytime soon?
What ship? It’s like the “Raft of the Medusa”. (Laughs) I don’t blame them this country is in a state of flux at the moment, so you’ve got to go where the work is, I’ve lived there a few times. I did a movie for Disney with the director of the “Cracker” I was in; Andy Wilson. He brought me over to Hollywood. He had got the job after the Producers had seen the programme and also my performance in it. The film was called “Playing God” and starred some great people. I remember getting a call from Chris Bauer (The Wire) and I told him who I was working with and he said; “Man, you’re in the shit, it’s like y’know, that’s as deep as you can get!”. I was partying with the Hollywood Elite, so I just hung out and watched everything that was happening, it was like being in a goldfish bowl, but I was never able to touch outside the rim. I was working and hanging out with Angelina Jolie (before she was UN Ambassador and International Superstar), David Duchovny and Tim Hutton. I was doing most of my scenes with Gary Dourdan, who went on to do CSI (the original series). It’s a funny one because when you’re out there you miss London and when you’re in the UK you miss back there too.
At what stage did you decide to make and direct your own film projects?
I’ve always tried to, right from a young age. I starting off by shooting little stories set on the Estates where I grew up using Super8 film and then I really saw the light after being introduced to Derek Jarman who I met on a film called ‘Dead Cat’ which was directed by a guy called Dave Lewis who used to shoot Super8 for Derek’s movies. And then seeing what they did with The Smiths videos, so I’ve been down that route mostly and ended up directing video backdrops for the band Suede for their tour. I ended up being cast in one of Derek’s films “Edward II” and that was an eye-opening experience for sure.
Directing was what I always wanted to do, even before acting. The acting was supposed to be a route to get me there, but years ago you needed a lot of money to get in the film game as a Director and to finance a project. It was lot of heartache, a lot of let downs and backstabbing, so I ended up sticking with being an Actor. Now the technology has moved on in leaps and bounds and gotten so much cheaper and more accessible, that it’s possible to achieve those ambitions, so that’s why I’ve gone back to my dream (or my nightmare). I’m just finalizing post-production on my first feature; “Break Clause” which was shot on Digital, and I’m looking forward to my next projects which I want to get on as soon as I can really.
You’ve appeared in various British gangster films, how strong is this particular genre in the UK?
If it were about quantity then you’d have to say it was in good health, but it’s not, it’s about quality and in that respect I would have to say the genre is dead on its knees. It’s had its day and the genre has definitely gone into overkill. There just doesn’t seem to be any original stories. It’s just wisecracking and one-liners and trying to look cool in a suit that cost half the costume budget. I like a good storyline in the movies I watch, personally, but that’s my opinion.
Did you have any mentors when you first entered the business?
I had some great mentors; the first was my English teacher at school, Mrs. Morris, who encouraged me to join Youth Theatre and eventually I won a place at the Drama Centre in London and I was lucky enough to be taught by some of the best in the business, Christopher Fettes, Yat Malmgren, Rueven Adiv and Doreen Cannon to name a few. I realise now how important my school and education was. It’s unfortunate that in today’s climate a kid from a similar background to mine may not get the support that I did back then, so I do feel very fortunate.
What the yellowy, curled-up at the edges way? (laughs)
Ha! No is there a difference?
Yeah about sixty million dollars! I prefer the good old-fashioned way of filmmaking. Give me John Ford over Harry Potter any day.
You do lots of work within the community; tell us about those film projects…
Well, I’m not exactly tending to the sick and elderly, but you do what you can. As an Artist I believe it is a given responsibility to be actively connected to the community you live and work in. I’ve recently been very involved with a group of young filmmakers from Highlands School and the Ghetto Youth Theatre in Enfield in Producing and Acting in “Rough Cut” a film made in response to the problems associated with Knife Crime and Gang Culture that have blighted communities not only in my neighbourhood, but also up and down the country. Ironically it is the culture spawned by the casual glamourisation of violence in movies and video games. But the project was initiated in response to that particular problem. I feel close to this subject as I lost a number of friends when I was younger to knife crime, and more recently around Hackney the number of murders, you can’t not be affected. A few of the victims I knew from around the area and one of the young lads was actually killed outside where I lived. The issue is that now with Government Cuts, we may not even be able to complete the film as our initial source of funding has been slashed. So Peter McNamara and Jamie Martin, the heads of the production, are working hard to see that they film gets finished and that kids can see it, and if it prevents one kid getting killed, then that’s a really good thing, but we hope it will prevent many more than that and make them think it doesn’t have to be this way.
How did you get involved in the new drug smuggling film Mr. Nice?
I found the script hidden in the door panels of a hire car! Bernard Rose had placed it there under instruction from Howard Marks. I had to learn my part, then go to Wales and act with Rhys Ifans and David Thewlis in the snow. I also had to drive an old Land Rover that had faulty brakes, I had my foot right down on the pedal and it wasn’t stopping; both Rhys and I thought we were going to die as we went hurtling down a hill, but luckily we survived.
Well, it’s not as glamorous a business as people think, you’re sitting around for 14 hours a day or more. You get close to people very quickly, sometimes closer than you’d like, when actors turn up in your room just to use your loo and stink the place out, then go back to their own room! Also, when you have to share a trailer with actors who prefer to sit in there to eat their lunch rather than eat with everyone else in the dining bus, making the space and your clothes reek of food, and then leave the dirty plates behind for the ‘facilities guy’ to clear up. I used to clear it up myself, but now I just put the dirty plates and leftover food in the culprits’ bags! But there is nothing worse than a blocked portaloo.
Have you ever played a role and wished you were that actual character?
No, I can’t say I have. Maybe a millionaire guy I played, I got to drive a Lamborghini and live in a big house, but then it all just seemed very shallow and empty and I wasn’t happy really. (Laughs)
Tell us a little about your graphic novel project.
I’ve been working with a fantastic Artist called Kenshiro Suzuki and we’ve been developing a script idea into Graphic form. I’ve always loved the genre of the Comic, and its always been an ambition of mine to write one, so it’s quite a pleasure for me, as my imagination can run riot without the worry of budget constraints and Kenny’s own imagination continues to delight and surprise me. There’s going to be a lot of Street Art around this project because it’s going to be very Urban, but mythological as well. I’ve been very influenced by Bernard Rose’s Candyman, which used Street Art as a kind of Urban Legend representation. My brother’s a street artist and had his own little crew back in the day and they did a lot of pieces around town, I won’t give their names for obvious reasons, as I haven’t had the chance to ask him. But I really want it to represent the young blood out there, so I will certainly be looking for someone to do that, so if you’ve got any suggestions Wayne, please let me know. I want it to be a really exciting project. It won’t be Street Dance: Part 2 Electric Boogaloo, I can assure you of that. (Laughs)