Newry's Caolan Byrne on starring alongside Florence Pugh in The Wonder

Prolific Newry-born actor Caolan Byrne's latest movie, The Wonder, gets a Belfast Film Festival screening this week. He talks to Jenny Lee about the influence of Sean Hollywood, acting on stage and screen and preparing to film for a 'top secret' video game...

Newry actor Caolan Byrne. Picture by Mal McCann.
Newry actor Caolan Byrne. Picture by Mal McCann.

HIS name may not be on the tip of your tongue, but he's got one of those faces you recognise. Not surprising, because Newry-born actor Caolan Byrne's screen credits are vast: The Foreigner, Das Boot, Doctor Who, A Good Woman is Hard to Find, Chernobyl, Will, The Miniaturist, Casualty, Vera and Porridge to name a few.

This month, viewers will see him star in the Netflix psychological thriller The Wonder.

A past pupil of Abbey Grammar in Newry, he credits the work of former teacher, councillor and hurler Sean Hollywood for giving him the training and belief to succeed in acting.

Hollywood ran the Newpoint Players drama group, and their free-of-charge summer youth theatre, which also launched the careers of John and Susan Lynch.

"One of the things that Sean Hollywood told us was 'Nobody is better than you'. You carry that with you – it helps you not put barriers in front of you that don't exist," Byrne says.

It was this mindset that helped the actor secure a place in London's prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada), as he explains.

"At Rada, I would see fellow pupils who were part of acting dynasties. My da was a hairdresser and my mum a teacher and I'd no links to the business whatsoever, but Newpoint gave me the platform to believe that I could succeed."

Byrne continues to give support back to Newpoint and returned to direct this summer's production of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood.

After graduating, Byrne spent three years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, including playing opposite the late Corin Redgrave in King Lear.

His lucky break onto the screen came thanks to his friend, and former Doctor Who, Jodie Whittaker.

"Jodie was doing the film Swan Song in Sligo, with Marty McCann. Someone dropped out, and she recommended me.

"It was a really good part, and gave me the showreel to progress and I'm grateful I kept doing more and more," adds the 41-year-old.

One of his favourite roles was playing inmate Culhane in the 2017 reboot of Porridge. "It was like theatre and TV combined as it was filmed in front of a live studio audience," enthuses Byrne.

Although written by the original writers of the 1970s comedy classic, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, the show was short-lived.

"I think it was the first show to be cancelled by Twitter. It got trolled from people who've never even seen it, but just couldn't accept that anyone would dare try to re-launch the programme."

Next up Byrne is Canada-bound, for a "top secret" computer game franchise series.

"I've never done a game before, but you record the voice separately and then performance capture is used to record all your movement."

The technology is used increasingly across mediums to allow the creation of more convincing and realistic creatures, most notably in Andy Serkis's role of Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Caesar in War for the Planet of the Apes.

"The worst part is I've to wear Lycra," he laughs.

"They build your character using your every move. Physically, it's going to be the hardest thing I've ever done. Going back to the stage will be easy."

Newry actor Caolan Byrne. Picture by Mal McCann.
Newry actor Caolan Byrne. Picture by Mal McCann.

Byrne's new year resolution for 2023 is to make a return to the stage. His last play was the world premiere of Sam Shepard's A Particle of Dread during Derry's year as UK City of Culture in 2013.

"I love theatre. It's not that I have been deliberately ignoring theatre, it's just I've been very lucky to be busy with telly. It's been 10 years now and I miss it."

After relocating from London to Belfast with his wife Nuala McGreevy (the company manager of Maiden Voyage Dance) and his two young children, Byrne adds that he would love to perform back home.

"The way the industry has moved, especially since lockdown, means you don't need to be anywhere in particular," he says.

"There are very few face-to-face castings, and most of the work is outside London. The cost of London is three times as much as here, and it's lovely for the kids to be close to their cousins.

"I'd love to work in theatre in Belfast, but do classical work. I'm delighted to see Shakespeare at the Lyric again, but it's been too long. Sometimes those that run theatres underestimate an audience – they don't just need comedy, they can take the dark stuff too," he adds.

Dark is certainly one way to describe The Wonder, the screen adaptation of Emma Donoghue's acclaimed 2016 novel.

Set in 1862, 13 years after the Great Famine, English Nightingale Nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) is called to the Irish midlands by a devout community to conduct a 15-day 'watch' over one of their own – an 11-year-old girl who claims to not have eaten for four months, surviving miraculously on "manna from heaven".

Byrne says he was surprised when he got a phone call from his agent saying that Oscar-winning Chilean director Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman) wanted him to play the role of Anna's father, Malachy O'Donnell.

"I didn't even audition. I've still no idea why he wanted me," says Byrne, whose role involved a lot of emotion and non-verbal communication.

"Mr O'Donnell is a man of very few words. He's an outsider in a home full of women and he hasn't the status to speak to the village's committee of men. He can't speak up for his daughter and you do see the desperation."

The Wonder also stars Belfast actor Ciarán Hinds in the role of Father Thaddeus and was filmed in Co Wicklow, as well as within a vast aircraft hangar at Weston Airport on the outskirts of Dublin.

"The subject matter was bleak, we were getting tested daily for Covid and shooting in this dark, horrible space all day, which you would imagine would suck the energy out of everyone. But it was a surprisingly cheery experience and the most fulfilling experience of my career," enthuses Byrne.

He attributes this positivity to both the film's director and its leading lady, whose performance he believes is worthy of an Oscar.

"Sebastián is so specific in everything that he wants, even in terms of the way you are holding your hands – it's an art to him. The way he directs could seem very controlling, but instead it makes everyone feel so safe.

"Florence not only a tremendous actress, but the nicest person, with no airs and graces or sense of hierarchy."

Byrne can also be seen in the Sky Original, Borderland, which is due to be released before the end of the year.

The Troubles-based drama, also starring Felicity Jones (Rogue One) and Mark Strong (1917) is about an undercover IRA unit based in London, inspired by the non-fiction book The Road To Balcombe Street: The IRA Reign of Terror in London.

:: The Wonder will be screened at Cineworld Belfast on November 4 as part of the Belfast Film Festival (belfastfilmfestival.org) and on Netflix from November 16.