Blog : Film

The Brilliance of “Bodyguard” – How Jed Mercurio Creates Satisfying Suspense Through Symmetrical Story Structure

I recently watched Jed Mercurio’s TV drama Bodyguard – I had been excited to see it, having gotten utterly wrapped up in his masterly Line of Duty and having heard how he had the British public on the edge of their seats for six weeks waiting to see what would happen next. But that didn’t prepare me for how brilliant it would be. Yes, I was edge-of-my-seat sucked into it, but upon finishing it, I also realized with exhilaration how Mercurio had done that to me as a viewer – through the carefully constructed, clearly thought-through structure of the story.

(WARNING: Plot spoilers below! Stop right now and treat yourself to the show if you haven’t seen it yet … then come back and read this …)

Now don’t get me wrong – there are many elements in Mercurio’s writing that make Bodyguard great TV.

He places impactful contrast on the surface of the story that creates a range of dynamic charges and sizzling conflicts; such as how his two leads are Julia, an upper-class English woman, older, cerebral and plotting, right-wing, a politician who is making and perhaps breaking the law versus David, a working-class Scotsman, younger, intense and physical, hates and resents her politics and their results, a policeman who is charged with defending the law. Or the contrast in his forces, how Mercurio makes almost all the top end of the Home Office and Security Service white, upper-class and middle-aged, the establishment, the old order, while his cops investigating are working-class mixed-race (Indian, black, east Asian). He also presents an ongoing thematic contrast between the driving forces of different sides, between expediency versus principles: for example, between the antagonists of organized crime (killing is “just business”) and the terrorists (“money is to buy more guns”). One of the things that makes Julia such a great character is that she has the internal conflict between both: her ambition to lead that will drive her to blackmail – but also the sense that she genuinely wants the RIPA bill to pass because she feels it will protect people. (And indeed in one way, she is proven right, in that her adversaries kill her to stop it, because it would have impeded their capacity to commit crime).

There are so many excellent elements in Mercurio’s writing. How he keeps the audience on their toes, with red herrings and misdirection – everyone is deceiving, who can we trust, the long-present question of could even David be deceiving us, with his smarts, lies and war-trauma motivation, could he be behind the assassination all along? The boldness of the drama’s scale, risking melodrama, of a realistic story whose reach involves cops, politicians, spies, ex-army, organized crime and terrorists. His great dialogue (“It goes without saying I know where you live”). How he treats PTSD respectfully. How he manages for the tale to be both utterly addictive and riveting, and yet also often powerfully moving. I could go on and on.

But for me, more than anything, what makes the story so engaging, so involving, and so ultimately satisfying, is its structure — and how so many of its key elements are set up in triangular symmetry.

Mercurio sets it up like any classic story — enough exposition to set the scene, then an inciting incident that takes the protagonist off on a new, adventurous direction, a turning-point mid-way through the story that changes everything and sends us off into a totally different direction, that ultimately leads to the climax (which we only now see was unavoidable from the inciting incident) and depending on how that goes, the resolution.

Diagram A: Basic Generic Story Shape

The basic shape of Bodyguard is: an inciting incident of David heroically preventing the bomber on the train, which leads to his being promoted to being the Home Secretary’s PPO (Personal Protection Officer, her bodyguard). David then gets drawn upward into a relationship with Julia, until her assassination. At this very centre of the story, the height of the triangle, we have the turning point of Julia’s murder – where David realizes he has failed as her bodyguard … and also that maybe Julia’s not the biggest problem, he’s been too focused on her as the danger, and all along it’s been someone else worse. Then we have David’s downward spiral until the climax of the suicide vest, and the restorative resolution of his catching out those behind the assassination and attempted coup.

On the upward track, surrounded by luxury, fancy hotels, limos, big houses, filled with purpose, in a thrilling secret sexual relationship with a beautiful woman who values and respects him, David is in a form of Heaven. But in giving into these choices, of pleasure and ego over principles, David gets more drawn into sin. On the downward track after he loses Julia, David spirals into suicidal despair, in a world of rainy streets at night, dingy internet cafes, embarrassing scars, removal of his power and mission and dignity and support, alone – he’s in his form of Hell, but where ultimately he doesn’t give up, but tries to make up for the sin and failure as a bodyguard.

Diagram B: Basic Shape of “Bodyguard”

But what’s incredible, brilliant, hugely effective, is just how many elements of the story match up from one side of the triangle directly across to the other side. Here’s just a few examples:

  • The inciting incident and the climax both involve successfully defusing a suicide vest. (While the mid-point assassination involves a bomb – but one that goes off).
  • How Mercurio gives us Julia for the first 3 episodes, making her an equal character to David in our interest, a couple we care about, then kills her off precisely at the end of the first half — and leaves us without her for exactly the second half. (Even though there’s a part of us that keeps thinking, c’mon, she can’t really be dead?)
  • The inciting incident involves the terrified muslim terrorist Nadia – so the resolution involves us finding out Nadia is no scared victim, but a driven jihadi engineer who made the bombs.
  • At the start of episode 1, David is on a train, with his kids coming south from visiting his parents, lost in problematic thought. At the end of episode 6, David is in a car with his kids and his wife, going north to visit his parents, finding a new sense of peace with his PTSD and his life.
  • In Episode 1, we discover how Vicky, David’s wife, has given up on him to the point where she is now sleeping with someone else, she is done with him, his PTSD-affected violent behaviour is too much for her to handle. So we have the magnificent, powerfully moving moment in Episode 6, where she risks her life to save him.
  • Additionally, in Episode 1, David puts his body in the way of guns to protect Nadia. In Episode 6, Vicky puts her body in the way of guns to protect David.
  • The contrast between Episode 1, where David does not trust the police not to shoot, and Episode 6, where the police don’t trust David not to set off the bomb.
  • The contrast of a bomb in the most confined possible space (a train toilet) versus a bomb in the open space of a park.
  • The use of guns: the two key points when guns are fired — on the upward track, the sniper attack which leads to Andy shooting himself (successful) versus on the downward track, David’s attempt at shooting himself (unsuccessful). And indeed how in Episode 5, David tries to acquire the exact same sniper rifle that was used by Andy … in Episode 2.
  • David’s guilt at attacking Julia in Episode 3 … and his increased suicidal guilt at failing to save her in Episode 4.
  • In Episode 1, how ex-soldier Andy is disgusted at David’s profession in becoming a cop; in Episode 6, how ex-soldier David states his pride at serving alongside cops of honour like Deepak.
  • How we have Chanel the PR advisor getting sacked and David ushering her out in Episode 2, and we don’t see her again til … exactly Episode 5, where she draws David into the trap with organized crime.
  • And of course, in Episode 1, David’s promotion to Julia’s bodyguard … versus his discovery in Episode 6 that his promotion was not only not down to merit, but only so he could be the fall guy for her murder — could there be anything more opposite to a bodyguard?

Diagram C: Triangular Symmetry in Story Structure of “Bodyguard”

Okay, that’s all very clever, screenplay nerd (and likely astrologist and conspiracy nut), but that doesn’t mean anything for me, the normal viewer.

But I’m sorry, it does. This is not just Mercurio leaving clever clues and easter eggs behind for his super-fans to find — these structural elements are the foundation, the beams of the house, the frame of the car, that make the story work, that draw us in and feel satisfying as we’re drawn along them, even if we can’t see the skeleton behind the flesh.

Because in this lean, hard-won and deliberate way, Mercurio gives us information, gives us set-up on one side … and then pay-off on the other. We never get coincidences from nowhere, no deus ex machina saving the day, what occurs is satisfying and makes sense. Even though we don’t see it coming — we’re too busy being in the present moment of the riveting story — it makes complete sense when we get to each revelation or big moment. It surprises us, but also feels right. Because of the natural, considered shape of the story, the recurring yet contrasting images, ideas and events resonate with us, pleasingly. And we also don’t end up with bits of narrative, repetitive scenes, wandering sub-plots, that don’t add to the story. All that’s there is meant to be there — and that’s why there’s no let-up in our attention. In other words, brilliant storytelling.

Now I don’t know if Mercurio consciously works like this — probably it happens more in the rewriting, the editing and cutting and fixing, but it’s definitely creatively deliberate, it’s no accident. The lean building of a story with such tightly knitted set-up and pay-off, in terms of plot and emotional journeys, treats your audience with respect, and takes them on a satisfying journey. Many meandering, repetitive writers of the so-called Golden Age of TV could learn a lot from Bodyguard … they’ll definitely have a good time watching it.


The Memory of Making a Movie

The Memory of Making a Movie

Movies are exciting. There’s that childlike frisson of excitement when you are walking up the stairs of the cinema, towards a new adventure on the big screen, balancing a bag of jellies, a bucket of popcorn and the ticket you’re double-checking to see what room it’s in.

And then there’s that different excitement an actor has when you’ve been cast in a film – and it doesn’t have to be a blockbuster, it can be a threadbare indie film, you still get that same buzz of anticipation at the chance to play in front of the camera, to tell this story as realistically as possible, your moment to perform under the lights like Newman and Hepburn and De Niro. And yes, you know that 90% of film acting is hanging around. Waiting while the mechanical cogs are put in place to record your next scene – the tentacles of wires, the trundling of lights, the mysterious lenses. Trying to be pleasant even though you’re impatient, trying to maintain your energy but not burn it all up, trying not to eat another muffin. Bursting inside with the character and the lines and the scenario. “They pay me to wait around – I do the acting for free,” as Burt Lancaster said. But even knowing this, you’re still buzzing and bouncing when you get brought in to work on a film, because no matter the size of the it, no matter the wet wind and the grimy set, there’s a little grain of stardust each time the camera rolls and you hear “Action” and you get to act.

But funnily enough, after shooting is done, often what we remember most are all the things that happened around the filming. Not so much the work — what I did on a certain take of a certain shot, how I played a certain moment, how my scene partner delivered a look. But more the miscellaneous, the happenings, the surprises – the unexpected drama of real life that often comes with making a film. Maybe it’s something about filming that is trying to harness the real world, twist it, control it, refine it to create some make-believe place for a fictional set of events, but it’s like the world fights back, puts us in our place, likes to throw in a little mischief. Or maybe we just always underestimate how complex a thing making any film is (no matter the planning, every director seems shattered by the end of a shoot.) Either way, filming always seems to be a bit of an adventure, a hidden minefield of explosions of chaos and challenge.

In particular right now, I am remembering our shoot for “The Long Wet Grass,” the short film my wife Anna Nugent and the writer Seamus Scanlon boldly and bravely produced. A labour of love, they brought it to life with grit and risk and resourcefulness. After many months and months of wrangling and development, the shooting dates suddenly came together in a gap in both the director Justin and the cinematographer Lakshika’s schedules, and suddenly we were driving to the depths of Mayo to film. And while the shoot produced a beautiful, powerful, award-winning film, what I remember most are the striking little memories.

I remember driving an ancient big car at dawn, in the pitch-black country dark before the sun came up, down winding roads – with no headlights on, craning desperately to follow the vague white lines, with the DP leaning over my shoulder taking up most of my view of the windscreen. Turning the huge wheel, without power steering, to guide the heavy mule of the car around the curves and bends, no sound but the shake of trees as we passed them and the old-man growl of the engine.

I remember the horror and pride of watching my wife jump between mushy pools of frigid water in her bare feet, a thin grey tracksuit the only thing between her and the knife-like wind.

I remember the astonishing bliss of arriving back at our home base for lunch. The day before we had sat sadly in the back room of a dreary pub, dead-to-the-world, eating triangular ham sandwiches that felt like foam and rubber, our much-needed enthusiasm for the coming afternoon’s work draining away by the bite. Then the next day a half-heard rumour that a Frenchman who lived locally was going to cook us lunch … and we arrived back to a feast. Warm, crusty home-made bread in thick slabs and piping hot mellow vegetable soup, followed by a succulent roast joint and bowls piled high with steaming greens, then a fresh-baked cake and coffee to finish. A Michelin-star three-course meal around the long dining table of a rural Mayo house, provided by a nonchalant, easy-moving Frenchman with the small smile of the deeply skilled. When it turned out to be a daily occurrence, we approached the final shots of each morning with fortitude (and licked lips).

I remember standing in the revealing glare of a big Tesco’s trying to find something that could be period-appropriate costume for the next morning’s shoot, the minutes ticking away before they closed for the night, our costume designer having deserted us that evening by text.

I remember completing shooting in a town hall, and the locals utterly disinterested in us, impatiently waiting in their cowboy boots and spangled shirts before transforming the room for a visiting country music act. Waiting for the glamour to come.

I remember the boy playing the child version of me, running around a sunny meadow in the afternoon, in a white t-shirt scaring a herd of sheep.

I remember late night emergency talks when our sole shooting location, a unique untouched lakeside spot on private farmland, was to be taken away from us; surly neighbouring farmers suddenly having a surge of petty destructiveness and saying there’d be trouble if we tried to reach our location via their farmyard the next day – the only route to the location. The crew standing around the dining room, talking quietly, as if even that might risk discovery. A genuine sense of danger – and a protectiveness for our team, a growing feeling from the producers that it was unfair to ask the crew to risk being attacked, especially when they were all working for an ultra-low budget. An absolute feeling that maybe it was time to abandon the film, that it wasn’t worth what could happen. Giving everyone a chance to not turn up the next day – and every single person saying, “They’re not scaring me off, let’s shoot, let’s do it,” and the girls quicker than the men to say it. A surge of inspiration, a sudden spread of rigour in everyone’s limbs, determination fueled by temper and a glare in our eyes as we went to bed. And then slowly driving through that farmyard in the dawn, your eyes snapping around the barn, the tractor, the farmhouse for signs of life, of malevolence, of ambush; the crunch of gravel and dirt under the wheels sounding like thunder; sweaty hands secretly tightly clutching light poles and fake guns; opening the red gate, its squeal like a tortured look-out; looking back, looking back – and nothing but a silent weekday morning down a muddy lane. And then running into the farmer whose land we were filming on, previously red-cheeked and genial, now withdrawn and brow-creased, clearly not speaking things that been spoken to him. But letting us pass – only with a warning that the bull would be loose on the land today, and that it would charge if it saw us. A gulp in our throats, driving down the steep hill to the lakeside … but then nothing. Just openness, nature, green; the tall reeds, the rushing water of the stream, the bigness of the lake. Starting to film, then glancing around after each “Cut” – but no big-horned grumpy bull. Then the sun cracked out from the clouds. After that it seemed easy – but hard-won easy.

Sometimes the film in your head of the shoot, that recollection, is even more palpable than the edited film we were all there for. But it’s only memory, a film for one, and that’s why we make movies, to capture and share one of those stories.


8 Maybe Not Quite So Famous but Really Inspiring and Helpful Books for an Actor

8 Maybe Not Quite So Famous but Really Inspiring and Helpful Books for an Actor

So I am an actor who loves to read … about acting. About the theatre, its backstage inner workings, its tall tales and anecdotes, and stories of the journeys of great actors. Of course, lots about Shakespeare. I love an in-depth long-form article on a playwright’s methodology. And that’s not even mentioning the other side of the coin, all those books about the movies. I’m always excited to get a recommendation from a friend/colleague/mentor about a book that will inspire me – as an actor, as a can-do member of our guild, as an artist exhilarated to grab a piece of text and run with it.

Another day, I’ll share some recommendations for my favourite plays, theatre/film biographies, and books on Shakespeare, but today I thought I might talk about eight books that I have found to be particularly helpful to an actor, providing genuinely insightful tools for your process, and inspiration for your creativity and joy in doing the work.

I’m going to suggest some of my personal favourites, besides the famous texts you’ll find on any acting syllabus – so with of course huge respect, you don’t need to hear from me about the unquestioned masterworks of Stanislavski, Uta Hagen, Michael Chekhov, Stella Adler, Peter Brook. (I’m also going to leave out the theatre book I am currently reading, the utterly delightful and insightful Joy Ride by John Lahr, featuring his best New Yorker pieces on stagefolk, as I’m only half-way through it. But I reserve the right to add it in later revisions … )

So, let’s raise the curtain on:

8 Maybe Not Quite So Famous but Really Inspiring and Helpful Books for an Actor

Strengthen your ability to work on a text – Audition by Michael Shurtleff

I don’t know if there’s a book that produces more creative juice for an actor when preparing for an audition (or frankly any performance of a script) than Michael Shurtleff‘s Audition. Written in 1978, it’s just as vibrant today, in providing 12 guideposts for examining a text, from relationships and finding the conflict, to levels of competition and secrecy. Beautifully practical and sassily unsentimental, it gloriously provides you with a set of questions you can ask a script, so that without a director to help, you can work alone on material, and find all the fuel and spark that is within it. To be honest, if you only read one book from this list, this is the one – the code, the manual, the mentor-in-print. Acerbically funny in its truth-telling yet also full of love for actors, it’s such a great book my wife Anna and I both have our own copies of it in our library …


Understand how the stories you tell are constructed – Story by Robert McKee & Into the Woods by John Yorke

I am a deep believer that actors are storytellers – not puppets on a string, but artists who bring their insight and creativity to bringing a script to life. They owe a honourable duty of care to deliver the writer’s story to the audience as best as they can. To do so, they must understand not just their role in the piece, but the story as a whole. How it is structured, how it builds. As such, I think there are two texts that are truly genius at helping us to look at scripts and divulge their blueprint, find their foundation, see the gorgeous lines of their construction, and those are Story by American screenwriting teacher Robert McKee and Into the Woods by British TV show-runner John Yorke. If you want to learn about turning points and mid-point revelations, set-ups and rushes of information, inciting incidents and gaps in expectation, these are wonderful guides.

Be excited to practice – How to Stop Acting by Harold Guskin

This is a book I have only come across recently, and found it really invigorating. Harold Guskin is great on the idea that one of the key things we need to do with material, is say the lines aloud – a lot. Reading them and saying them, and reading them and saying them, but purposefully and enjoyably. Each time for a different reason (for example: in a rage, for laughs, intimately, for pure logic, for petty reasons) seeing how in each go-through we respond to the text, what impulses come up, and filling up the tank of possibilities in a set of lines. He starts us from the place we always want to be at: that we are responding in the moment to what is in front of us, so it is always an exploration, every run-through, every rehearsal, every practice, every take, every performance. That there is no fixed ideal, but rather we are always active, fresh-minted, surprised and surprising, like life. He encourages us to practice being available to ourselves, to our intuitions, to our crazy flashes of insight and strange notions, as we approach the work – always resulting in performances that are more colourful, exciting and unique. Guskin proposes clear exercises, offers monologues and scenes suitable for each step, and will make you feel like practicing your acting every day. (He also says it’s okay for an actor to leave his or her script on the kitchen table, which is dead right).

Open your creativity with rehearsal exercises – Masterclass by Dean Carey

I love this book. I initially picked it up in late ’90s before going to drama school, because it had over 100 monologues in it, so I could find a great one to audition with. Indeed it does. But the gold in this book is the range of hugely practical exercises that its author, the Australian acting teacher Dean Carey, provides for you to work on your material. Super-useful and clearly road-tested, he provides a range of exercises and games that you can try out on the script, that will help playfully draw out aspects of the character and scene, that truly are unique to you, your responses to the circumstances in the story. I still regularly use his exercises Extend/Advance (for turning key words on the page into sensory experiences), Explore and Heighten (for amplifying different sides of the character, as described in adjectives) and questioning Is This Good or Bad For Me? He’s also brilliant on on beat defining and titling. I guarantee after bringing some of his exercises to your prep work, you’ll find yourself invigorated, ringing with creativity, feeling the lines in your bones, and quite possibly, surprisingly already off-book (and having spent a very fun afternoon). Well worth having in your arsenal. (Plus it has really fun photos of a young, pre-fame Hugh Jackman in rehearsals, that can only inspire you.)

Learn to flesh it out and pop – Acting 2.0 by Anthony Abeson

Now I am going to state up front my conflict of interest here: this is the book by my old acting teacher in New York, Anthony Abeson. A giddy joy of a man, he draws from his own background training with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Jerzy Grotowski, among others, to teach actors practical ways to bring truth to material that flares with unique personal creativity (and book rather a lot of work, especially in film and TV). His warm and generous collections of essays Acting 2.0 is full of love for the actor in the modern world, and sets out a number of the utterly practical and playful approaches he has, that lead to an actor “popping” with life. “No recipes – whatever works,” as the man himself often says. He is brilliant on what he calls FIO’ing (Fleshing It Out) – never letting a word be spoken from the page that has not been imagined in its full life, acted out, pictured, felt, so everything said and done on the stage vibrates with resonant past-life, meaning and experience. He is terrifically incisive on moments before and the need to have found a trigger that drives you into the scene on fire; on grabbing a hold of your stereotype by the throat and making it a strength, and never retreating from working your weaknesses; and on reminding us that when we act a role, we represent all the people who have had that experience, and so we must do justice to them. Anthony is a deep believer in the self-respect of actors, and any reader of this book will only find warm encouragement to be integrous, playful and bravely full of life.

Challenge yourself to delve deeply into your work – The Intent to Live by Larry Moss

When you are ready to be challenged by a hard-ass teacher, there’s one man to go to – Larry Moss. His workshops in New York and LA are legendary for the exacting high standards he demands from actors – their capacity to be off-book, the rigour of their accent work, their willingness to dig right into the roots of a scene, their courage to bring fully of themselves in the situation proposed. And his book, The Intent To Live, is no different. Larry pushes you to stretch yourself towards your true potential as an actor, and not to settle for anything slipshod, cliched or facile. He is brilliantly comprehensive on the questions you need to ask in order to probe for all the facts that are there in a scene, and building a very specific system of wants. He opens creative doors you may not have considered, like endowing objects with past meaning, finding resonance in the blood memory of your character, and the rich physical sensations of places. He’s not easy on actors, but that is only because he sees such beauty in the actor’s purpose … and challenges us to honour our storytelling with truly our best work.

Be inspired by the stage – Theatre by David Mamet

Now obviously Mamet is a master playwright and a very powerful thinker about the craft, and you wouldn’t go wrong reading any of his books. True or False is excellent, hugely challenging, even at times maddening (to the point that I know an acting teacher who flung it across the room in mid-read rage). And we know Mamet loves to snarl and throw a grenade into the kitchen, with the idea that when the smoke clears, there’ll be a hard, spartan, clean truth awaiting (maybe a little sour-tasting, but good for you, you know?) But the book of Mamet I really love is this collection of essays from 2010 on theatre. Yes, it is still written with Mamet’s knife of a pen, with the no-nonsense gruffness of a hunting cabin, but whisper it … Mamet’s love for the theatre, after all these years, comes pouring through, and it is full of heartfelt belief in the importance of plays and in the powerful capacity of actors and in the mighty imagination of audiences. He slams preconceived notions on the floor, and leaves them for you to make your own decision about … always with the sense of great possibility. If you’re an actor, you’re going to be pretty psyched to get to work after reading it.

Picture yourself about to go on stage – The Half by Simon Annand

Maybe now you’re done reading – but there’s still one more book to see … and it is gorgeous and spine-tingingly inspiring to look at. It’s Simon Annand‘s magnificent coffee-table book of photographs of actors preparing for the stage – in dressing rooms putting on make-up and creating characters, warming-up in sweaty t-shirts, standing anxiously in corridors in full costume. It tenderly captures actors’ private moments before going out to perform, that delicious time before heading out to do it – getting into the zone, hearing the audience enter, getting your five minute call, readying yourself. I love not just seeing the actors captured in their concentration, joy and suppressed-terror, but also all the lovely paraphernalia that makes a dressing room personal – “break a leg” cards, photo postcards reminding you of the mojo of the character, lucky teddies and tea-cups. Derek Jacobi napping at the Old Vic, Kristin Scott-Thomas getting her hair done, Benedict Cumberbatch checking his pockets. If you’d like to picture yourself working on Broadway or at the Donmar Warehouse or the National, this is a magic source of inspiration. (And just maybe, that vision will come true some day …)

Thanks for reading … hopefully you’re inspired to take a little trip to the bookshop …



What Would Mick Do? Or How I’m Inspired by Michael Fassbender

On rare occasions, a new actor appears on our screens that makes me jump up with excitement, stunned by their depth, range, humility to the role and story, and a certain bold confident creativity that is being released and shared. For me, it’s happened maybe three times in the last fifteen or so years. Around 2000, I was thunderstruck by the vigour and growling fierceness, tied with vulnerability, of Russell Crowe, while in the last couple of years, I’ve been just knocked out by the dignified, fearless and thoughtful range of Oscar Isaac. Between those two came through the guy I want to talk about today, who I just think is outstanding. And as a lovely bonus, he’s an Irishman too: the mighty Michael Fassbender.

This man is a proper, serious, ballsy, dedicated, smart, talented actor who shines a genuine beacon of light of interesting, engaging performances.

I adore his bold choices of craft – being a Kerryman with a German background, there aren’t that many parts for Kerrymen with German qualities in the movies, so Fassbender naturally always has to choose a new accent. But not only that, I always feel he chooses a new voice. A quality of tone, phrasing, pacing, that breathes the substance of the character, that has been created by imagination, inspiration and choice. The spiffy over-confident soldier Archie Hicox from Inglourious Basterds is very different from the diffident Peter-O’Toole-inspired robot of Prometheus, though both would be seen as posh English accents. I love how he brings new qualities to how he walks with each role – there is an understanding of genre and archetype that come through. And yet with that, this is not a man made hollow with technique – always there is tremendous depth of emotion in his eyes, thought-through truth, honestly-imaged pains and fears and doubts. I flash to a scene in X-Men: First Class where as Magneto he is challenged to move a far-away giant satellite dish with his powers. As he did it, Fassbender could have chosen to grimace or pout, but no: I remember being truly struck with the heart-rending, tear-inducing agony that was in his heart as he did it. Not too many actors make that kind of choice in a popcorn superhero movie. To everything he does, Fassbender brings a respectful seriousness, passionate work, never disdain. Yet always a sense of play.

Outside of films, I love how he talks about the script being everything. Much more important than burrowing into endless tunnels of research and body-manipulation, is reading and re-reading and re-re-reading the script, knowing the lines and every beat of subtext and thought that fills those white spaces between the lines, understanding the story deeply and the arc of character you are playing and your part in the overall tale. He talks about reading the script a hundred times, and the longer I work as an actor, the more I think that is the most important homework. Know the lines so well that they are your friend, your inspiration, that you have asked them many questions that have sprung forth so much colour and imagination, filling out the blank canvas of the role with truth and specificity and original responses.

His range is astonishing and wonderful. The raw, haggard iron-will of Bobby Sands in Hunger (his across-a-table scenes in that with Liam Cunningham are worth watching on their own). His effortless carriage of period roles, whether a Roman centurion (I love my ancient Greek and Roman dramas and not everyone can carry it off) or a glowering Rochester full of long-bred arrogance and stricken history opposite Mia Wasikowska’s Jane Eyre. His willingness to dig dangerously deep into the dark soul of a character, bringing a crucial level of unbending power-need to slave-owner Edwin Epps in Twelve Years a Slave – to bring out honest disgust yet also understanding in the audience. To somehow be utterly fascinating for a whole movie where your head is covered by a paper mache mask, as Frank Sidebottom in Frank. Being utterly spellbinding arguing about computers (zzz), with a razor-sharp understanding of the shape of Aaron Sorkin’s scene-writing as Steve Jobs. He can play cowboys (Slow West) or intellectual geniuses like Carl Jung or do Shakespeare as the prince in the Scottish play.

In short, the man is a master storyteller – who always makes it not about him, but about the story, with all his skills and dedication. So I’m always excited to see him in whatever he’s chosen to do next. (Let’s see, next up, he plays an outlaw traveller opposite Brendan Gleeson in Trespass Against Us, plays an Australian lighthouse keeper who makes a heartbreaking choice in an adaptation of The Light Between Oceans, a novel I really liked, and he’s in Terrence Mallick’s new film. God, he’s bloody good at picking his projects too.)

Throw in his unmatched bravery (that is one man utterly unfazed about nudity). Add a lovely humility, how he always carries himself in interviews as a good sport willing to answer the lamest of questions or do some silly bit; how he is always generous with sharing credit or discussing his process on a project; and how he never steps aside from his pride and roots in his Irishness, his Germanness, his Kerryness. He’s just the business.

We’re pretty much the same age, we’re both Irishmen, both actors, we both love story. We’re practically the same. (Okay, he could be my cool cousin, maybe?) Basically, when it comes to film-acting, if I can be a little more like Fassbender each time, I’ll be doing pretty darn well. Keep up the good work, Mick, and flying the flag with such distinction – I’ll certainly be watching.


The Unregarded Director of Beloved Classics: Rob Reiner

I just realized the other day who one of my absolute favourite directors is. I hadn’t really put two and two together because there’s no hoopla around this guy, but then I looked at his body of work, and realized he had made a number of movies I just adore, that have been huge landmark parts of my life, and that I have rewatched with pleasure over and over (the true sign of a classic). Movies that feature elegant storytelling, delicious spiky humour, great roles for feisty women, a classic sense of structure, a lovely capturing of rapport and the changing of relationships, mounting suspense, a fine sense of location, actors clearly having a great time and doing some of their best work, and overall a sense of brightness, optimism and joy. Now maybe it’s not groundbreaking work in terms of form, so maybe that’s why the critics would look right through him, but I think you could say that about a number of directors we now hold in esteem – people like Michael Curtiz or Howard Hawks, or even Stephen Spielberg, whose quiet skill in crafting work in a range of genres draws less attention than the apparently obsessed auteur who is easier to pin down. And maybe his later work isn’t as stunningly consistent as his earlier movies, but all directors, even Kubrick and Hitchcock, have their up and down periods. And his narrative doesn’t really fit with the grand box-set director, this shlubby-looking gently-smiling former child sitcom star, who loved working in Hollywood and never saw himself as an anarchist rebel. But dammit, the fact is, Rob Reiner is a brilliant, memorable film-maker.

This is the man who pretty much invented the mockumentary with This is Spinal Tap, and that was his first movie! A film that rockers still adore more than any other, and dare I say it, up with Waiting for Guffman as the best of Christopher Guest’s ouevre.

Who made one of the great coming-of-age boy’s stories in Stand By Me, a movie I adored when I saw it on VHS as a twelve-year old at a birthday party when I could have walked right into those boys’ worlds and knew exactly how they felt, our wanders in the Wicklow hills seeming an equivalent to their train-tracks, and nothing being worse than a leech down your pants. Elegaic, rude, imaginative, painful, glowing with the life of restless young lads, it’s just marvellous. And I have loved watching it with the sunset of memory every time since, as I become less like Wil Wheaton and more like Richard Dreyfuss.

Who made the greatest fairy tale adventure movie of all, that most joyously heartbreakingly hilarious and wonderful The Princess Bride, which I had never seen until drama school, because my childhood friend had the poster for it on his wall (courtesy of our local video shop) and it kind of creeped me out as a kid, and when I did watch it on a couch with a bunch of acting classmates, I had to hush them because they all wanted to say the lines along with the film, they loved it that much. Rodents of Unusual Size, playing mind-games with a Sicilian, being nearly-dead, and the course of true wuvv. And the final scene still makes cry every time.

Who made the best romantic comedy of all time, in my opinion, the glorious, pitch-perfect, endlessly rewatchable-with-glee, When Harry Met Sally, a movie that I am sure more than any other made me want to live for a time in Manhattan, wandering through Central Park in fall, with a spunky, thoughtful, high-maintenance blonde chick with a magic smile, while singing Gershwin like Harry Connick Jr (done).

Who made one of the great, drum-tight engrossing courtroom dramas in A Few Good Men, featuring Tom Cruise used perfectly, Jack Nicholson in one of his greatest parts, and a deep cast from Demi Moore to Keifer Sutherland doing terrific balanced work. This quite likely was part of my decision to study law at university, the idea of prancing like Daniel Kaffee around a sun-blessed courtroom (oh dear) … before side-stepping more truthfully into acting …

Who made one of the most crazily suspenseful films of all time, without a hint of the supernatural to help the way, in Misery, showing he wasn’t just great with ensemble casts and snappy banter, but could create maddening claustrophobia and fear in one space with two actors, with Kathy Bates and James Caan in supreme form. I can remember going to see it as a celebration of finishing my Inter Certificate exam in 1991 aged 14 with two pals – when everyone else went to a rugby club disco and came back with tales of being snogged by rabid girls, and yet, I wasn’t really that jealous, which just shows (a) what an innocent 14 year old I was, and (b) how a great story experience was so valuable to me (and that’s still true. And I’m still pretty darn naive even now!) I can still remember clear as a bell my pal Moro literally leaping out of his seat in the cinema when Annie smashed Paul Sheldon’s ankle with the sledgehammer …

And that’s just dipping into the top shelf, before even giving thought to excellent films such as The Sure Thing and The American President.

Has anyone else given as many actresses their best parts, such as Meg Ryan, Annette Benning, Demi Moore and Kathy Bates? Has anyone else adapted Stephen King so well? Or brought Aaron Sorkin to film as astutely? Provided more memorable lines than “I’ll have what she’s having,” “You can’t handle the truth,” “Mine goes up to eleven,” and “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!”? To me, it tells me everything that I can remember the exact time, place and way I felt the first time I saw so many of his films.

Writing this, I’ve discovered there’s a whole host of Rob Reiner’s later work I’ve not seen, so I’m excited to get a hold of the likes of The Bucket List, Flipped and LBJ. And I was delighted to see he’s got a new thriller coming out, Shock and Awe, about a group of journalists skeptical of George Bush’s weapons of mass destruction. I can’t wait. With Rob, I’m pretty sure at the least, I am in for a good time. And that’s a pretty good film-maker, eh?