Barry Ward as Gordon Close in “Maze,” which is opening tonight in New York.
By Evan Short
The legacy of the conflict is daily news in the Northern Ireland and no recollection of past incidents can be retold without the danger of re-traumatizing loved ones.
But what everyone knows, and few will say, is that for the movie business, the Troubles threw up some incredible stories that are ripe for dramatic retelling.
In that the category certainly is the “Great Escape” in 1983, which is the subject of “Maze” starring Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Ardoyne man and escape mastermind Larry Marley. It was released in Ireland to critical acclaim in September 2017.
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Tom Vaughan-Lawlor in “Maze.”
Speaking to the Andersonstown News, Vaughan-Lawlor said he didn’t take on the role lightly and did what he could to learn as much about Larry Marley as possible.
“You do all the research you can and you meet people and their experiences. A script will present a partly fictionalized version of him so you’re balancing both but I think when you’re playing someone who existed you have to be very sensitive because there’s people alive who loved him and knew him.
“It’s a very tricky balance and; it’s not that it was daunting but I was very sensitive to the face I was playing, a very well-known man in Ardoyne and someone who was a very vivid character and I suppose very dynamic man when you hear all these amazing stories.”
The dramatic events of Marley’s life were to follow him after he was murdered by the UVF, with his coffin unable to leave his Ardoyne home for three days amid a cordon of heavily armed RUC officers determined to prevent an IRA funeral.
Vaughan-Lawlor said he was aware he was playing an extraordinary character.
“I suppose in one way I felt very close to him but then there’s only so much you can do in film and humans are so complex – [but] I did feel an intimacy,” he said.
“Before the film I had heard of him but when you see the footage of the coffin trying to leave the house – wow. To have a loved one die in that way and with that intensity. He lived a very full intense life.”
Vaughan-Lawlor is a veteran of dramas which feature Troubles related politics. His most famous role as Nidge in RTÉ drama “Love/Hate” saw him battle dissident republicans, and in “Peaky Blinders” his South Armagh IRA commander met a sticky end at the hands of the Birmingham mob.
Researching these roles, he said, has increased his knowledge of Irish history.
“It’s a strange thing living in Dublin, knowing the north but feeling so removed – like it’s another planet. It’s hard to explain how you’re very physically close but so far removed,” he said.
“When I visited I was always surprised how small it is and then Ardoyne, my God, it’s a warren. You’re amazed at how to this day it’s still very confined and amazed at the stories you hear about operations that went on.
A scene from “Maze.”
“It struck me how young they were, far younger than I am at the moment. My own life mirrored men of that age, what they were involved in and their being consumed by this conflict and their families and children and wives and parents. It must have been terribly stressful.
“It’s been so eye-opening. When ‘Maze’ was in development I read around it and Northern Ireland and it is slightly, not embarrassing, but when it comes to Irish history I feel I should’ve known more. When you read about it it’s quite sobering. But that’s the great gift of being an actor. You can educate yourself on history, art, psychology – it’s a profession where you should be interested in learning about the world.”
This newfound knowledge of local issues was essential for the publicity events.
“We did a lot of press in Dublin and Belfast. In Dublin the questions were political but more about the process of making the film. About 35 per cent politics and rest dealt with performance and characterization.
“In Belfast, 95 per cent of the questions were political but we knew that and welcomed that. It’s quite inspiring because we hadn’t been asked questions with that level of intensity before,” he said. “When you do a project about Northern Ireland you have to be able to stand by its politics and back that up in interviews so you get quite interested in the subject and that’s very exciting. It keeps you on your toes a project like this.”
If the international press was bowled over by Vaughan-Lawlor’s acting then local audiences will have been equally impressed with his Belfast accent. In all the dramatic representations of the Troubles it’s clear it’s not as easy to pull off a Belfast accent as one may think but the “Maze” actor said he has played enough northern characters to find his rhythm.
“At the moment I’m doing a play in the West End – ‘The Birthday Party’ – where I’m playing a Belfast man. I think my accent goes to Monaghan a bit but not as far as Scotland!
“Accents are a funny thing and I work with [Belfast-based voice coach] Brendan Gunn who is a really brilliant man. For ‘Maze’ I watched lots of recordings of Larry, including the extraordinary interview where he’s on the couch with his wife, talking about life in the Maze. That’s a five-minute audio that I watched again and again.”
This interview originally appeared in the Andersonstown News in Belfast. “Maze,” directed by Stephen Burke and produced by Jane Doolan, opens at Village East, 181-189 2nd Ave. (at 12th Street, 212-529-6998; citycinemas.com), New York tonight, at Laemmle Monica Film Center & Playhouse 7 in Los Angeles on March 29 and subsequently in other cities nationwide. Tonight’s event will feature a question-and-answer session with Tom Vaughn-Lawlor and writer/director Burke.