It’s been a busy and transformative past five years for Kingscourt actor Diarmaid Murtagh, or so it dawns on him as he speaks to the Celt’s SEAMUS ENRIGHT from his south London home last week. From making his local début in Livin’ Dred’s portrayal of Frank McGuinness’s ‘There Came a Gypsy Riding’ at the Ramor Theatre back in 2009, his most recent performance was as ‘Dimitru’ in the big screen, fantasy-action-horror ‘Dracula Untold’, which is currently on show at Odeon Cinema in Cavan...
“I suppose it does feel like a bloody long time ago when you look back at it. Five years, right! It’s been a busy few years alright. A good five years though,” he calmly reflects.
Cavan has a long tradition of producing actors of calibre like TP McKenna, Padraic McIntyre, Brian F O’Byrne and Aaron Monaghan to name a few, with Diarmaid the latest to see his name in lights.
Having unpacked one bag following two-and-a-half months of filming in Romania for an upcoming History Channel mini-series ‘Sons of Liberty’, the Celt finds Diarmaid in somewhat rueful mood preparing to pack for his next role, in Malta, a new CBS series, The Dovekeepers.
The role, which sees him star alongside the likes of Dean Norris (Breaking Bad), Ben Barnes (Killing Bono) and Ray Spall (Prometheus), meant this proud former ‘Stars’ man would miss Kingscourt’s appearance in the county final at Breffni Park.
“Someone will update me no doubt. I try to get home as often as I can,” says the Inver College educated Diarmaid. “It’s not as often as I’d like but thankfully my absence is down to work reasons, which are manageable.”
Diarmaid remembers fondly his time working with Livin’ Dred, first with Gypsy Riding, followed by a role in Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, though admits “it’s been a hell of an arch in terms of career since then”.
The DCU Business degree graduate adds: “I was very much only beginning to learn my craft back then. I still am.”
It was while studying in DCU that Diarmuid first began acting, having joined the college’s Dramatic Society.
Despite starring in productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Hushabye Mountain, a career in acting still didn’t seem a realistic option back then.
It wasn’t until Diarmaid went with friends on a J1 Working Visa to Chicago that the possibility of focusing on a stage career really began to ingrain itself.
“All the stars seemed to align there. With DCU at the time they had a wonderfully successful drama society. After four years, I’d been in musicals, student films and all manner of stage shows. “When I went to Chicago I arrived in a city with a world-famous theatre scene with The Chicago Theatre, the Goodman Theatre, the Steppenwolfe, the world-famous Second City Comedy Club, you couldn’t get away from it.
“They promote their arts scene so heavily over there. I’d end up going to see shows, big money ones, which was a bit of a pinch on a brickie’s wage. I’d end up forking out a hundred dollars or more for a show. The lads with me really didn’t understand that one”, he laughs.
But it was from here that Diarmaid realised the direction his life would take and humbly concedes it took a return home from foreign shores for him to realise the burgeoning arts scene right here on his very own doorstep. Enrolling in the Gaiety School of Acting in Temple Bar in 2005, Diarmaid graduated two years later, walking almost instantly into his first paid acting job on the BBC/TG4 co-production ‘Seacht’.
With appearances in An Ideal Husband, Macbeth, Christ Deliver Us and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at The Abbey Theatre, Diarmaid eventually found a niche for himself playing supporting roles in big budget international costume dramas like Camelot and Vikings, all shot on home soil.
When his involvement with Vikings ended in Spring 2012 ended, Diarmaid moved to London and at one stage even took up a job in a cocktail bar in London’s East End in order to pay the bills.
Among Cosmopolitans and Mojitos, it was while here that Diarmaid received a defining phonecall from his agent in relation to a part for a new film - Monuments Men, and the director was none other than George Clooney.
In landing roles such big budget films, Diarmaid finds reassurance in his acting ability. It means he is anything but overawed by such occasions.
“If anything the higher the stakes, the bigger the energy I get going into these things. For me, certainly getting on the set of Monuments Men, or Dracula Untold, or Vikings, it’s tremendously exciting, but there’s also a great sense of validation. There’s a lot of reassurance that comes with it too. You’ve gone through the processes, worked your way up and did well in the audition. You’re there to do a job. It’s now my time,” he puts plainly.
Where the audience first encounters Diarmaid’s character, Captain Harpen in Monuments Men, is at a salt mine at Altausee. Historically it was where the first American boots, part of General George S Patton’s 3rd Army, landed after Germany’s surrender and the role called on Diarmaid to research it thoroughly.
“I was in conversation with George Clooney beforehand about what it was he wanted. We just talked about his ideas for the back-story and if I had any of my own to go with it.”
Diarmaid decided Harpen was a D-Day veteran who fought his way across the continent. Now, in the aftermath of the war, Harpen cared less about main plot-line of seeking out looted Nazi art and instead just wanted to return home.
“He was very supportive of that. George loves to create a back story. Nothing happens in isolation and he really wants you to think about your character before you bring it,” he explains.
It’s not always so easy to find that interface between himself and the character, Diarmaid explains. Some are easier than others. In Good People, alongside James Franco and Kate Hudson, Diarmaid found himself cast as a Cockney debt-collecting gangster; while in Dracula Untold, filmed in Belfast and currently showing in Irish cinemas, he plays second-in-command in the storyline to the main character played by Luke Evans.
“They’re not easy connections to find but as an actor you find that one place and grow into it,” he says.
Interestingly, Diarmaid is among a new group of actors who have also begun to ply their craft in the virtual world, playing the character of John Cockram, an English pirate, a protagonist in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, which itself has sold 11 million copies worldwide. Ironically, not a video game player himself, Diarmaid has many friends who are: “Usually they spit out their beer or popcorn or whatever they’re drinking or eating at the time whenever I pop up.”
In all seriousness however, Diarmaid believes that part of the industry is one that is set to take off, with the likes of Ridley Scott doing a digital version of the game Halo, and Steven Spielberg working on a similar project.
“It’s an enormous new arena for actors and all professionals in the entertainment industry. The motion render work they do, either by facial capture or full-body movement, combined with the voice, you see each of the three elements broken down quite technically before being reassembled in a virtual world. It’s quite amazing to see.”
As part of that growth in the film industry, Diarmaid also sees Ireland as having a key role to play. He credits successive governments’ support for the arts, even during recessionary times as key to the enviable position the Irish scene now finds itself.
“The likes of Ardmore Studios, such a wonderful location for years and now you have Ashford Studios with it, where Vikings was filmed, which is really second-to-none. For my money, I think it’s superior to Pinewood here in London. It’s only a matter of time before it gets a few more sort of A-list projects in there and it will be absolutely shoulder-to-shoulder, competing toe-to-toe with the biggest studios in Europe for the very elite projects. That can only be good for Ireland and I’m proud as an Irishman to see that happening,” he says.