Colm Meaney and Olivia Cooke on the movie magic of Irish-shot comedy thriller Pixie
Last year, we visited the set of Irish-shot comedy thriller Pixie in Belfast to get a sneak peak at the making of this road tripping crime caper featuring Alec Baldwin as a gun-toting gangster priest. Stars Olivia Cooke and Colm Meaney gave David Roy the lowdown on the Barnaby Thompson directed film, which hits cinemas later this month
It's a blazing, unseasonably hot day in late September 2019 when The Irish News visits the set of new comedy thriller Pixie at a disused church on Belfast's Ormeau Road.
Crouched under the shaded hood of a remote monitor, we watch as Hollywood star Alec Baldwin gets himself psyched up for a climactic stand-off/shoot-out involving his gun-toting gang of gangster priests (yes, really), who are hot on the trail of Olivia Cooke's plucky titular protagonist and her two pals (Ben Hardy and Daryl McCormac).
For Baldwin, getting 'in character' as the shady Father McGrath for this scene involves an eyebrow-raising amount of primal yelling, enthusiastic swearing and jumping up and down – before director Barnaby Thompson calls "action" and he has to lead his squad of soutane-clad shotgun wielding thugs down the aisle en masse.
It's a tantalising behind-the-scenes glimpse at the movie-making process – but after lunch at Pixie's east Belfast base camp, Colm Meaney reveals that he doesn't really go in for such energetic pre-shot prep himself.
"But a lot of guys do do it," explains the Irish star, who plays Pixie's dad in the film. "Some jump rope, some shadow box – whatever it takes to get a good performance, really."
Refreshingly, Meaney also admits that he's no Tom Cruise when it comes to doing action scenes.
"I never do stunts, no – anything beyond a brisk walk is a 'stunt' to me," he chuckles, before filling us in on his character and what attracted him to the Preston Thompson (son of director, Barnaby) penned script.
"He's a gangster who's in the protection business," says Meaney (67). "Him and Alec's drug dealing priest had been partners in their younger days. We sort of see each other as adversaries now – in fact, I shot him yesterday.
"To be honest, I thought the title was crap – 'Pixie'? – but then I read it and it was a real surprise to me. It came out of the blue. The quality of the writing was very high. All the characters were very well rounded and interesting. I just thought it was really funny and original and I read it straight through, which is always a good sign.
"Sometimes, you'll have to attack a script three or four times and struggle through it. Every time you get a new one, you're like the audience [for a film] – you want to get hooked by it and want to know the whole story.
"If I like something, usually then I'll go back and look at the character. In Pixie, to me this guy is a very original kind of gangster, because he doesn't really want to do it. He's kind of tired – all he wants to do is cook, to make nice meals and bake cakes. But he reluctantly goes out and shoots people."
Meaney is full of praise for his young co-star and screen daughter, Olivia Cooke.
"She's delightful," he enthuses of the Oldham-born actor. "I didn't really know her apart from an episode or two of her series [the critically acclaimed Psycho prequel, Bates Motel], but she brings a real strength to her character. She's a gem.
"I've two daughters, 34 and 14 – it takes a long time to recover, y'know? – so I know what forceful female characters are like. They're not portrayed on screen very often, so it's lovely to see a female character like Pixie who drives the narrative instead of just being a foil for the male characters.
"In fact, the way she liberates the two boys in this film is just brilliant."
Back at the church, Cooke has turned up on her day off to read her lines off-camera for the other actors in the scene. When we chat in-between takes, the 26-year-old explains how much fun she's had working with Meaney, Baldwin and the other 'senior' players in the Pixie cast including Irish stars Dylan Moran, Ned Dennehy and Pat Shortt.
"They've been really lovely, absolute lovely teddy bears," says Cooke.
"It's really fun: because they've been in the biz for so long, they just know exactly what they want, what they can do, what they cut for the camera and what will help the film or the scene. They're very mechanical in the way that they work, which is really interesting – whereas with myself and Ben and Daryl, because we're still relatively new, a lot of it's just coming from instinct."
On the subject of 'new', Pixie marks the first time Cooke has attempted an Irish accent on screen.
"I find it really difficult, I'm not going to lie," she reveals of her efforts to master a twang that's "Tipperary/midlands-y".
"It's been quite the challenge, but hopefully it turns out well. I watched a lot of Brendan Gleeson and Pauline McLynn [Father Ted's Mrs Doyle] and we've been working with two dialogue coaches.
"To get myself into the accent [before shooting], I say 'Literally belittled in Little Italy', which seems to work."
And now for the most important question: who is Pixie?
"Pixie is a very strong-willed woman who's a survivor, who takes no prisoners and who is out for a little bit of revenge – but in the cheekiest, naughtiest and almost light-hearted way possible," offers Cooke.
"She really jumped off the page at me because she's really really well written. Credit to Preston, who is not Irish and not a woman – he did a really stellar job, of all the characters. They feel really fleshed out and almost timeless."
Indeed, the actor is full of praise for first time screenwriter Preston Thompson's script, which she says offered her a whole new kind of movie experience.
"It was just so funny, in that kind of Martin McDonagh [In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri] vein," says Cooke.
"It's a kind of heist-slash-road trip thriller comedy film and that really appealed to me, because it's a genre I've not really done before."
And, unlike Meaney, it seems the English star was fully committed to getting stuck into the film's action sequences.
"I've shot a few guns, run away in boots with heels," she says. "It's fun to shoot guns, I went to firearms training and was quite shocked at how well I can shoot, actually. This whole sequence at the church is about as actiony as it gets, it's kind of the climax – there's been a lot of car chases and stuff leading up to it."
Cooke describes her Irish filming experience as "fantastic" and says that Ireland itself is "gorgeous", even if the weather didn't always co-operate with their schedule.
"It's always a gamble throwing people together and having such an intense shoot and being together every single day 24/7," she says.
"There was one day Ned [Dennehy], Rory [Fleck-Byrne], Daryl, Ben and myself were sat in the car on the side of a mountain for five hours just waiting for the rain to stop. But it's been really lovely – we've been very lucky."
A veteran of shooting movies in Ireland and abroad, Colm Meaney also speaks very highly of his Pixie experience, telling us: "It's a great script with great characters and it's been going very well, it's a good, happy shoot.
"Barnaby is tremendous, he's really in control and very easy to work with, we get along beautifully. We've got a great cast and we're having a great time – it's a bit worrying, really."
With a bit of luck, the end result will be just as magic on-screen.
:: Pixie will be released in Irish cinemas on October 23