Plays Hardened Fighter Feeney Getting Revenge in Black 47
by Brad Balfour
In the Irish film Black 47, times are not good. Thanks to Draconian laws imposed on the Irish people by their genocidal British occupiers, the potato famine that had hit Ireland in the mid-1840s depleted the starving populace of their main source of food. Forced evictions by the absentee English landlord further exacerbated the situation, causing thousands to either freeze to death or emigrate to America. The year 1847 was the worst of all, and into this desperate situation rides Connaught Ranger Fenney, one of the many conflicted Irish men who joined the British Army to escape such conditions and fight for them in their foreign wars.
Actor James Frecheville finds himself transformed into a piano-wire strung, crack fighter who becomes hell-bent on bloody revenge against those who have had his mother, brother and the rest of his family either executed or starved and frozen to death. After the film’s premiere New York screening, the ginger-haired Australian stood outside by the movie poster and explained that he was really challenged to show the complicated, entanglements within this character.
“Feeney’s not really a good guy – he’s killed women and children – so whether he’s doing this with any other motive than revenge is hard to consider. But as the story develops, he shows he has more honor than most of the British depicted in the film other than Hannah [the disgraced inspector forced to track down his former military comrade] played by Hugo Weaving.”
Frecheville (pronounced “fresh-ville”) also had to give life to a character who has little to say and is as emotionally crippled as the landscape into which he strides.
“Sometimes it’s better to play a character who doesn’t say very much,” Frecheville said. “Then I really have to use all my acting experience to make this character something more than just a killing machine. To play this character really demanded that I learn a lot of things I have never done before: speaking Gaelic in a particular accent, riding a horse and using a weapon you see him fighting with; that required skills I never knew I had.”
Added the pleasant, thoughtful performer, “When I was interviewed for the role I had to wait for a couple of months for Lance [Daly, the director] and the producers to decide. My agent told me to not to do anything until I was confirmed for the part. But I was so passionate about playing the part that I grew a beard and went to Ireland on my own coin to get into this character.
“Originally, I was on a list to play Freddie Fox’s character, Pope [the British Captain tasked with tracking Feeney down]. They saw a picture of me on Google with my beard and thought I might be a better fit for Feeney. Then it was that two-month process of waiting to get confirmed for the part. It’s always up to the powers [that be].”
The tall actor has impressed many with his chameleon-like range ever since he was first spotlighted in Animal Kingdom, director David Michod’s Australian crime drama. Competing for the lead of “J” Cody, auditions for this story of low rent crime family took place in 2008 with about 500 young men. Plucked out of that pack, filming ran through 2009, disrupting Frecheville’s high school studies. He then had his film debut at 2010 Sundance Film Festival (where the it won the World Cinema Jury Prize, Dramatic); The Hollywood Reporter proclaimed him “a brilliant casting choice.”
The 28-year-old recently starred opposite Pierce Brosnan as a ruthless tech consultant in a digital cat-and-mouse tale in I.T. – director John Moore’s suspense thriller. So again, his versatility was called into play with Black 47.
“Some people were saying to Lance, ‘Why are you having an Australian play an Irishman?’ But there is some Irish in a lot of those who were moved to Australia. [But my ancestry] never came up much. In Canada and the US people really hold onto their Irish ancestry, but Australia is such a melting pot that it all blends together.”
Born in Melbourne on April 14th, 1991, James Aitken Frecheville grew up in the Malvern East suburb where he attended Lloyd Street Primary School and studied at McKinnon Secondary College afterwards. He developed his interest in drama and the arts and excelled at it throughout his school years. Initially, Frecheville was involved with mostly amateur youth theatre groups (including school productions) before getting work as an extra on the Australian television series City Homicide.
Prior to his big break, Frecheville took a series of acting courses. As he explained about being in the spotlight for this feature, “It’s hard to make films for any reason, [but] with a context like the Great Hunger – unless there’s a sort of genre spin on it – it would be difficult to make a film about so much suffering and find a common thread that would get it financed, make it marketable, and have people want to see it because it’s such a horrible part of history.
“[In] shooting the film, I learned about how some soldiers compartmentalize their experiences – like how Feeney had [heroically] saved Hannah from a big fire fight where everyone else is decimated. Once they return back [to Feeney’s command], he gets put back into the ranks, so he just got fed up with everything and left. I was dealing with shades of regret and guilt. He had been off killing people for 13 years and you’re trying to think about what that does to people. He tries to get his mother and brother out of the troubles, but that doesn’t happen, so when he gets captured [after witnessing one of his family being gunned down by the British officials evicting them] he just effectively uses the skills he knows. The sense of utter resilience these people had, their mettle, how mentally strong, how adept [they were at handling] pain that modern people aren’t conditioned for.”
Following a classic narrative of the wronged native on a self-destructive course of revenge, Black 47 unfolded like a gothic American Western straight out of directors Howard Hawks or John Ford’s playbook.
Acknowledged the actor, “I had a personal road map for the way I wanted [him] to get colder and stonier as the film got on. [This movie presented an idea] that resonated with me that this guy was well on his way to hell before we meet him. After his personal setback of finding out his mother and brother not there anymore, he just commits this execution of rage because it’s the only thing he knows how to. I like the idea that he’s not necessarily a hero. He’s done terrible things as a soldier, and maybe he’s trying to seek redemption by taking away the people that do this to other people. He’s already carved his path to hell, so to speak. He’s just going out with a bang.”
To get there, Frecheville had to steel himself for the role and learn lots of unique life skills. “When I was prepping, I was staying in a house with no warm water, having cold showers to toughen myself up for a winter shoot. I had more prep for this than any other part in my career. The hard part of the shoot was beforehand, and then at the shoot was just a matter of executing.
“The horsemanship was a big part of it,” he continued. “I figured it out from the inside out at the same time I was figuring it out from the outside in. I learned in California how to ride a horse and use the kukri, the curved blade he uses in the film [which he wields like a samurai sword]. I learned how to use this weapon efficiently. We had an incredible [expert in these vintage weapons] who made all the gunpowder himself for the film. I had a flintlock rifle that was once used for killing elephants. It was nice challenging work.”
Since the Irish natives in the West Country region only spoke Gaelic – unless forced to speak English by the Brits – Frecheville also had to learn a particular regional dialect from this particular period of time. “I learned how to speak Gaelic for the role and had a dialect coach who was making sure it was all tuned up to where it needed to be. It was a really gratifying experience and I was lucky to be involved in the film.”
And how did he know he got it right? “Apparently I passed – some people in Ireland couldn’t tell I was Australian. My teacher, who is a native speaker and knew the dialect of Irish [heard here] which only spoken in a few places in the west is the expert and said I passed to his level of satisfaction.”
After all that training, does the Aussie see that he will have another opportunity to use Gaelic? He hopes so. “I really enjoyed the process and if there’s more opportunity to use Irish in a film I’d love to because it’s a beautiful language.”
As for his experience of working in Ireland, Frecheville noted, “I had been to Ireland before in 2015, I wasn’t in this part though. My experience with Ireland before was just that it’s a wonderful [country] with wonderful people. The landscape is so rich, lush, and green. Connemara is quite rocky which reflects nicely on the character. It can be really desolate and barren. The landscape was a large part of the film as an unspoken character.”
But he also got to see other sides of Ireland as well. “I spent some time in Ireland waiting [to do some pickup shots] that we would need later. [During that time, I got to visit some other places in Ireland.] I really fell in love with West Cork, where my friend Sam runs a rock-n-roll pub in a small town there that’s been in his family for three generations. It was a really amazing decompression. And I went to a famine museum near the Ring of Kerry. I learned a lot.”
Copyright ©2018 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 17, 2018.
Photo #1 ©2018 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.
Photos #2-7 ©2018. Courtesy of IFC Films. All rights reserved.