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Why Northern Ireland actors and directors are no strangers to Oscars

Tomorrow night is Oscars night, the biggest date in Tinseltown’s social calendar. And actors and directors from Northern Ireland are no strangers to the Academy Awards

By Ivan Little

Published 27/02/2016

The Oscars take place tomorrow
The Oscars take place tomorrow
Golden moment: filmmaker Terry George wins the Best Short Film Award for The Shore in 2012
Starry night: Ulster director Tim Loane was nominated for Dance Lexie Dance in 1998
Boogaloo and Graham
Ciaran Hinds with Kerry Condon in The Shore
(L-R) Michael Lennox, Ronan Blaney and B...(L-R) Michael Lennox, Ronan Blaney and Brian J. Falconer pose with the award for a British short film for "Boogaloo And Graham" at the BAFTA British Academy Film Awards

Oscar nominee Tim Loane could probably pick up another gong for himself if he ever decided to write a script about rubbing shoulders - or nearly rubbing shoulders - 18 years ago with Hollywood megastars like Sigourney Weaver and Robin Williams at the world-famous Academy Awards in Los Angeles.

Belfastman Tim had flown across the Atlantic for the glitzy ceremony after a film he directed, called Dance Lexie Dance, was nominated for the short live action Oscar in 1998.

But listening to his droll account of what happened - and didn't quite happen - makes it clear that the most prestigious date on the movie calendar isn't all glitz, glamour and glitterati.

"It was as tacky and as cardboard as it looks on the TV," says Tim. "But that is part of what makes it absolutely fantastic."

Tim's film, which was written by Londonderry man Dave Duggan, told the story of a Protestant widower, Lexie, whose Riverdance-obsessed daughter Laura wanted to take up Irish dancing and despite his early reservations the two of them ended up embracing the jigs and reels and the Dad even tried a step or two himself.

The 14-minute film, set in Derry, was hugely popular with the critics who saw it as a symbol for bridging divides in the city.

Tim Loane, who created the hit series Teachers for Channel 4 and who is one of Northern Ireland's top actors, said a large number of cast and crew who were involved in Dance Lexie Dance took up invites to go to Los Angeles for the Oscars ceremony.

"Yes there was a bit of an entourage by the time we got there, maybe a dozen of us," he laughs. "We arrived a few days before the ceremony. But it quickly became very impersonal."

In retrospect, however, for Tim the Oscars were a bit like a dream, "a funny dream".

He says: "We had the chance to attend the pre-Oscar parties, but only nominees like ourselves were able to go to a big, fancy reception in a hotel on the beach on the eve of the ceremony. It was quite extraordinary to be standing there among instantly recognisable people, drinking too much champagne because it was all free."

On the night of the actual Oscars ceremony, Tim and the rest of his team were dropped off by limousine and found themselves on the red carpet. Or on part of it.

"I thought to myself that it was probably the last chance I was going to be on the red carpet. But you quickly realise there are actually two red carpets - one for the likes of Tom Cruise and the A-listers and the second one for the rest of us."

Another local nominee once said there was one carpet for the celebs, another for the plebs.

Says Tim: "We could see what was going on with the big stars on the way in, but it was just out of reach. You're part of it, but you're not really part of it. You're there, but you're not really there.

"I stopped after a few steps on the red carpet, because I was determined to take it all in, looking at all the banks of cameras. But they take one look at you and point the cameras in the other direction.

"However, that in itself was good fun, enjoying the silliness of it all until someone came up behind us and moved us along."

At the Oscars themselves, Tim and three of his Lexie colleagues sat up near the front of the audience in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Music Centre, not far from Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger.

"And while again we could see them, the moment the show was over they disappeared, whisked away to parties all over town," adds Tim, who says that, while he and the rest of the Lexie team didn't expect to win an Oscar, they were still bitterly disappointed when the Academy award went elsewhere.

"It was a big comedown," admits Tim, with refreshing honesty about a ceremony not noted for its candour. "You know when you are at an event like that, all your family are sitting back at home in Ireland watching on the television at two or three in the morning and then there's nothing."

Tim and his colleagues weren't able to go to the swanky winners' parties, but as nominees they were invited to the Governor's Ball in what was a massive tent along with thousands of other people.

Says Tim: "I don't think we even had a proper dinner. By the time we got to sit down, we were picking over the remains of what was there."

Afterwards, Tim and his colleagues returned to their hotel. "We just wanted to hang out together. And, after I woke up the next morning, I resolved to enjoy the rest of my 'holiday' on the West Coast."

But on his return to Belfast Tim was quickly brought down to earth again after his brush with the high life.

"I was standing at a bus stop on the Lisburn Road in the lashing rain and I remember thinking what the hell was all that about in Hollywood. There had been something totally unreal about the whole thing. It really was bizarre.

"But it was something to look back on and there were things that happened that I do talk about in private, but they are not for public consumption."

Dance Lexie Dance was the first of a number of Northern Ireland films which have been nominated for the best live action short movie Oscar.

In 2010, The Crush, written by Belfastman Michael Creagh and produced by Give my Head Peace star Damon Quinn, was among the contenders, having impressed the judges with its quirky tale of how a young Co Down schoolboy was smitten by his teacher.

The lead role was played by Creagh's son, Oran, who went to Hollywood with his father who'd bought his suit in Dunnes.

The Crush didn't win and Michael Creagh admitted that he was relieved, because he was able to relax.

Two years later, a film by Belfast-born director Terry George scooped the short movie award.

The Shore, which was filmed at Coney Island near Killough in Co Down, where the filmmaker's family have a cottage, starred local actors Ciaran Hinds, Conleth Hill and Maggie Cronin.

The Shore was the story of an Irishman who had emigrated to America to escape the Troubles, bringing his daughter back home to meet his childhood friends, while in the background he kept a dark secret.

Terry George, who had been nominated for Oscars for his screenplays for Hotel Rwanda and In the Name of the Father, dedicated his short movie award to the people of Northern Ireland and the peace process.

"This is about reconciliation in Northern Ireland. It is really close to my heart," he said from the Oscars stage, as his daughter Oorlagh, who produced The Shore, stood beside him.

Thousands of miles away in Belfast, another member of the cast, Packy Lee, sat up all night to watch the Oscars.

"I couldn't go to Hollywood, because I was in a play in Belfast at the Grand Opera House," says Packy, who has been starring lately in the popular TV series Peaky Blinders and who had an extra reason for celebration after The Shore's victory.

"I'd heard that the bookies were offering 7/2 on our film to win the Academy Award. So, I put a few bob on it and, sure enough, they announced that we had done it.

"I was nearly asleep by that time, but after I went to bed, I couldn't sleep because of all the excitement. It was a fantastic feeling and the next day at rehearsals I was running around like the Duracell bunny."

Not that the Oscar triumph was a surprise to many of the actors in the cast.

Packy says: "Terry George told me even before he'd completed the script that The Shore would win an Oscar and it was brilliant to see him and Oorlagh going up on stage to collect the iconic statuettes."

Another thrill for Packy was the fact that the first film clip in a compilation at the start of the ceremony featured him throwing a crab down another character's trousers. He was also seen in another excerpt from The Shore as the nominees were revealed for the short movie Oscar.

"It was weird sitting in the house in Belfast realising that millions of people around the world had just seen a little bit of my work. And, besides, it was just wonderful to be part of an Oscar-winning movie.

"Those of us who hadn't been able to go to Hollywood got together in the centre of Belfast for a celebration drink and soon afterwards we were all at Stormont being feted up on the hill.

"Terry and Oorlagh brought their Oscars with them and I got my photograph taken with them before we went to Killough to celebrate in a local pub where we had first seen the finished film."

Last year, another Northern Irish short movie was nominated for an Oscar, but Boogaloo and Graham, which had won a Bafta, missed out on the top prize.

The film, directed by Michael Lennox and written by Ronan Blaney, was about two young boys from Belfast discovering the facts of life with help from their pet chickens.

But for one of the young actors in the film the Oscars were a whirlwind of parties, interviews and star-gazing.

Riley Hamilton went to Los Angeles with his grandfather, the Belfast kickboxer Billy Murray, and his feet barely touched the ground in four days of partying and Press conferences.

"The media really took a shine to Riley. Everywhere we went, the cameras were on him and he conducted himself very well," says Billy, who added that his grandson had learnt valuable lessons from his brief sojourn in LA.

"His confidence has soared and his schoolwork has also got even better - as has his kickboxing."

And 10-year-old Riley has also proven that he's anything but a one-hit wonder as far as acting is concerned.

For he has a small part in the new Colin Bateman movie, The Journey, about Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, and in the ITV mini-series The Secret, Riley is playing Matthew Howell, the son of killer dentist Colin Howell who murdered his wife and his lover's husband in Coleraine.

Riley and Billy didn't go to the actual Oscar ceremony. "We weren't able to get tickets so we arranged to fly home. But after we'd organised our travel, we heard we could attend the ceremony. However, it was too late.

"But all the pre-Oscar parties were amazing. It was an incredible ride for Riley who says that apart from Northern Ireland, Los Angeles is his favourite place in the entire world. He wants to go and live there."

Belfast Telegraph

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