Cosmo Jarvis and Niamh Algar on starring in hit Irish crime-thriller Calm With Horses

Calm With Horses follows a young man who has become the feared enforcer for a drug-dealing family, while also trying to be a good father to his autistic son. Stars Cosmo Jarvis and Niamh Algar discuss their complex characters with Georgia Humphreys

Niamh Algar as Ursula, Cosmo Jarvis as Arm and Barry Keoghan as Dympna in Calm With Horses
Georgia Humphreys

COSMO Jarvis was dedicated to immersing himself into his character's environment for Irish drama Calm With Horses. Set in the fictional town of Glanbeigh, the film was shot on location in the west of Ireland.

The 30-year-old actor, who was born in the US but raised in Totnes, Devon, with an Armenian-American mother and English father, moved to the region five weeks before filming began.

And from that point on, until the film had wrapped, he only spoke in an Irish accent.

"I used as much time as I could in Ireland to try and understand the essence of the people from the place," says the star, best known for 2016 film Lady Macbeth, who is also a singer-songwriter.

"Everybody is an individual, but your environment is a big factor, so it was good to familiarise myself with the intricacies of how they talk. I hoped it would become second nature, so once we started shooting, those habits would be inside me."

In Calm With Horses – a tense crime thriller about loyalty, family and fatherhood – Jarvis plays protagonist Douglas 'Arm' Armstrong, an ex-boxer who works with the Devers, a surrogate family of drug dealers. At the start of the story, Arm has been asked to kill for the first time.

Simultaneously, he learns that his ex-girlfriend, Ursula, wants to take their autistic son to a special school in far away Co Cork. Ursula tells him she doesn't want him to be a part of her life anymore, because of his criminality. Arm finds himself at a crossroads; he has to decide what sort of man and father he wants to be.

"I liked how unadulterated he was," comments Jarvis. "I saw a lot of everybody I've ever known in him."

To inhabit the character fully, he wanted to transform his physique, so put on around two stone before filming.

"I needed to eat a lot and lift a lot of weights, and then find out about people who've boxed in the amateur leagues. I had to get bigger, but also to keep some of the fatness, because Arm's out of shape.

"It was important that he wasn't a ripped guy. He should be big and imposing. Bulky, but not in an elegant way."

One thing Jarvis didn't do while preparing for the role was read the book the film is based on; the script was adapted from a short story in Young Skins, the acclaimed collection by Co Mayo writer Colin Barrett.

"I figured whatever they chose to represent the book in the script, would have already been in the script, and that it might make things unnecessarily convoluted – because I make things convoluted anyway," he quips.

Co Westmeath-born actress Niamh Algar – who recently starred in Shane Meadows' series The Virtues – takes on the role of Ursula.

Algar, who is from Mullingar, says she understood the isolation that her character felt; the "idea of wanting to get away from a place where, for example, everyone knows everything about you and judges you".

Ursula's son Jack (Kiljan Moroney) is non-verbal, and so, as part of her preparation, Algar consulted with Autism Ireland and the National Autism Society in the UK.

"I'm not a parent, but I've got nieces and nephews and I spend a lot of time with them, and it's the idea that there's this instinctual thing that you have to look after a child, especially when they can't communicate how they're feeling," notes the actress, who has been cast by Ridley Scott in his new HBO sci-fi series Raised By Wolves.

"If Ursula had a spirit animal, she'd be a lioness – anything that comes in between her and him, she will go through them, and she is fearless. She is fearless towards the Devers."

There is no denying that there are violent scenes in the film, but "what I loved about when I first went into auditions is the stillness that Cosmo brings to this role, and the silence in the violence", recalls Algar.

"The violence isn't gratuitous," she adds, looking to Jarvis. "There's a stillness to the violence that you bring, and it's almost like your character becomes detached in those moments."

Jarvis nods, suggesting the violence is "practical".

"There's not much personal motivation or investment in any of the violence that goes on, on Arm's part. The violence, it's just sort of happenstance – a crappy thing that happens in this world. That's how I saw it anyway."

While there's a physical element to Arm as a character, Algar sees him as someone "trapped within his own body".

"He's almost seen as a large, physical threat, but, deep down, there's a vulnerable side to him that Cosmo balances beautifully."

The film is an emotional watch, and explores how bad relationships dictate the life of the abused and sedates their self-awareness through fear and habit. English director Nick Rowland liked the idea of looking at how "a community can misunderstand, or even take advantage of vulnerable people, and show how it's also possible to turn your back on these abusers".

Together with London-born Irish screenwriter Joe Murtagh, Rowland really made sure heart and soul were brought to the forefront of the drama, Algar elaborates thoughtfully.

"You need to have this soul, otherwise you're not really fighting for these characters and, from start to finish with Cosmo's character, you're there in every scene with him, especially in that last scene.

"When we shot that on the day, you could hear pin drops, because you were totally invested in him."

:: Calm With Horses was released in cinemas earlier this month and will be available on-demand from Monday April 27 via iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Sky Store, Virgin Movies, Talk Talk, BT TV, Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player, Rakuten TV and Volta.

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