Barry ward

Director created ‘sense of community’: Ward

Barry Ward as the activist James Gralton in a scene from the

County Leitrim-set “Jimmy’s Hall.” SONY PICTURE CLASSICS

By Karen Butler

Irish actor Barry Ward says the notion of working with Ken Loach was a lifelong dream that ultimately came true when he was cast in the British filmmaker’s latest period drama, “Jimmy’s Hall.”

“Even though I kind of adored him and worshipped him, I had underestimated him. I had undervalued him,” Ward told the Irish Echo in a recent phone interview. “When I met him then, I thought, ‘Wow!’ I had no idea just how good he is – as both a man and a director.’”

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

Ward said he was a young teen when a friend introduced him to Loach’s brand of social realism, urging him to watch the auteur’s 1969 picture, “Kes.”

“I never thought movies were made about people like me, so when I saw ‘Kes,’ I was kind of going: ‘Wow! This is incredible that there’s somebody out there, making movies about people I can relate to.’ So, it really opened up a new world to me,” Ward noted.

Inspired by a true story, “Jimmy’s Hall” is about Jimmy Gralton’s return to County Leitrim after the Great Depression ends his decade-long exile in the United States. Gralton was run out of his rural Irish town in the 1920s by the parish priest and politicians who feared his Pearse-Connolly Hall -- a community center he opened for those seeking education, entertainment and intellectual discussion – had become a breeding ground for social and political activism. Gralton arrives back home years later with the intention of caring for his elderly mother, working on the family farm and living a quiet life. However, it isn’t long before his neighbors convince him to re-open his hall, a move seen by the local authorities as an open act of rebellion.

“It’s a story of Irish history that was unknown to me, or Ireland at large, so I was thinking, if anyone was going to unearth it and give it a fair hearing, it was Loach and [screenwriter Paul] Laverty,” Ward explained. “I agree with their politics. I think their movies [such as ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ and ‘Bread and Roses’] are always politically sound, though, my main concern wasn’t the politics, to be honest. I wanted to just be sure we were making a good movie and, in that regard, I was absolutely confident from the get-go because of having seen their previous work. There is never a bad performance in a Ken Loach movie, so I really thought, as soon as I got the job, you know, ‘This is a winner.’”

“Jimmy’s Hall,” which is imbued with warmth and humor, addresses Irish politics and history without ever losing sight of the people at the center of its story. Ward said that sense of comradery amongst the characters was evident even as he and his co-stars – including Simone Kirby, Jim Norton and Brian F. O’Byrne – were rehearsing for the film.

“There is a great sense of community and heart and I was aware of that whilst rehearsing because, at that stage, we still hadn’t a script, so I didn’t really know the story or what we were getting in for. But [Loach] creates that working environment, so we were all rehearsing together, dancing together and just hanging out, and it was wonderful because we had all of these kids who had never acted before and they were so enthusiastic about it and just really gave it their all and they kind of looked up to me as an older actor, who had some experience. That dynamic you see in the film, Ken Loach created that behind the scenes, so we were living that every day,” he revealed.

Ward also said Loach hired locals whenever possible and met with numerous actors for the role of Jimmy, trying to quickly determine where they were from and what class they were to see if they were right for the part.

“When I went in to meet him, I knew well that he would be sussing out my working-class credentials, which wasn’t a hard sell because that’s the truth of it,” emphasized the actor, who was born and raised in the Dublin suburb of Blanchardstown. “So, we kind of talked about everything other than acting, really. He asks you about your life and what you do and what your parents do or what they did and their background. And my dad happened to be born in the year that Jimmy Gralton was deported, about 20 miles away, in the same town in the same part in the west of Ireland, so there was that connection to that place and that part of the world, so I was trying to sell him my working-class credentials and my connection to the countryside.”

After a successful run on the film-festival circuit where it earned stellar reviews from critics, “Jimmy’s Hall” is to open in U.S. theaters July 3. It co-stars Andrew Scott, Francis Magee, Aileen Henry, Stella McGirl, Sorcha Fox, Martin Lucey, Mikel Murfi and Shane O’Brien.