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Brian Milligan: 'It's fantastic to get the chance to work with Robert Redford'

Actor Brian Milligan flies out to the US this weekend to start shooting a major new movie about Northern Ireland. He talks to Ivan Little about the opportunity of a lifetime and keeping it real as a striker with Newtownbreda Football Club.

The life of Brian Milligan just keeps getting better and better. For as soon as the busy Belfast actor finishes filming his role in the second series of the hugely successful TV series The Fall this week he will jump on a plane to America to take up an invitation from the Sundance Kid himself, Robert Redford.

And there's no Sting in the tail for Brian who can scarcely believe his luck at getting the chance to work with movie giant Redford and some of the other biggest players in Hollywood at a prestigious film festival in Utah next week.

Brian will also be staying at Redford's fabled resort for two and a half weeks as he takes a major role at the iconic Sundance Festival.

"I can't wait," says 31-year-old Brian, who's an amateur footballer as well a professional actor. "It's not every day that a chance like this comes your way."

Brian, who lives on the outskirts of south Belfast, owes his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to film-maker Oorlagh George, who along with her west Belfast-born father Terry, won an Oscar in 2012 for their short movie The Shore which was shot in Co Down.

Oorlagh saw Brian in the first series of The Fall and she immediately thought he would be a perfect fit for her latest major movie project, Stranger with a Camera.

It was one of a large number of movie scripts considered by the creative team behind the Sundance Festival and was one of eight projects invited for intensive development at a so-called Director's Lab in Utah.

Brian has already filmed a trailer for Stranger as a taster for the Sundance after Oorlagh flew into Belfast to meet him and offer him the job on the movie, which she has written and plans to direct after it goes into production, hopefully after the festival.

In Utah, Brian will work alongside well-known creative advisers and top notch production crews rehearsing, shooting and editing six or seven key scenes from the movie under the expert eye of directors, including Redford and Oscar nominee Ed Harris.

The Sundance Festival, which started in 1981, has supported a massive range of independent movies which have gone on to widespread critical acclaim and commercial success, including Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. The storyline of Stranger with a Camera centres on a wealthy American-based Belfast man who returns home for the funeral of his mother and is promptly arrested for questioning about the IRA murder of a policeman 20 years' earlier.

The man's daughter, who comes with him, then sets about unravelling why her father has been lifted and tries to uncover the mysteries which he has kept hidden from her. Brian plays the part of her uncle with whom she stays in a small village in Northern Ireland.

After Oorlagh was invited to take part in the Sundance Festival she asked Brian to go to Utah with her. He didn't have to think twice.

"It's just fantastic," he says. "I will be working with Oscar-winning cinematographers and editors as well as directors. I am excited but I have to admit that I'm a bit nervous about it all, too."

Redford's resort is the last word in luxury and Brian has been invited to go to spa sessions and horse riding outings. "But on my days off I have asked to stay on in the editing suites so I can immerse myself completely in all aspects of the filming process," says Brian.

After Sundance, it's the Golden State for Brian as he heads to Hollywood where he has a series of meetings lined up with LA casting directors and management companies.

"It will be a case of knocking on people's doors and letting them know who I am. I have had a few positive phone calls already so I have my fingers crossed."

But Brian isn't expecting overnight Hollywood stardom. "One bit of advice I have received is that this industry isn't a sprint and if you can jog your way through it, you're doing fine," he says.

For Brian it's been a 20-year marathon from his early teens. He took his first tentative steps onto a stage at the integrated Lagan College in Belfast where he admits his academic journey was anything but dramatic.

After he'd taken part in several school plays, the hand of fate really came knocking on the college door and he was auditioned for a part in a six-part BBC series called Safe and Sound, which also starred Coleraine actress Michelle Fairley, who's now the baddie in the American series 24.

Brian says: "I was asked to stay behind one day in school and I thought I was in trouble as usual. Then I was handed an envelope which I thought was my suspension. But it turned out to be a letter about the auditions for Safe and Sound in the city centre."

Brian got the part and later acted at the National Theatre in London in two plays called Sunnyside and Dog House.

But even bigger fish were waiting for him to fry in the shape of the movie The Boxer, a Belfast-based story of an IRA man turned boxer, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. The star amazed him with his knowledge of Belfast and his style of acting.

He insisted on film colleagues calling him by his character's name, Danny Flynn, and Brian says: "He knew everywhere in west Belfast because he'd stayed here for months before filming started.

"He trained all over the west of the city and nobody recognised him. He even told me that Raffo's was a great fish and chip shop."

After The Boxer, Brian took himself off to drama school in England before returning to Belfast and while the roles didn't exactly dry up, he wasn't submerged with work either.

Until, that is, the movie Hunger came along. Brian made a big impression with his portrayal of IRA man Davey Gillen in Steve McQueen's award-winning movie about the 1981 hunger strike at the Maze/Long Kesh.

Irish actor Michael Fassbender played Bobby Sands in Hunger and Brian was snapped up by his London-based agency Troika. He says: "I was fortunate to be picked up by such a brilliant company and they have really looked after me."

Brian's next big break took him to South Africa to film a major HBO TV series called Strike Back, which was based on a novel by former SAS soldier Chris Ryan and he's also appeared in the movie Leap Year which was shot in Dublin.

But he's been enjoying getting back into The Fall where he plays the part of James Tyler, an abusive husband who blames himself for the death of his young son and who in the first series goes to Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) for counselling, little realising that he's a sadistic serial killer.

Brian had hoped his character might be written into the second season which has been filming in Belfast for the past few months. And sure enough writer Allen Cubitt did expand his role.

"Obviously I can't say anything about the plot. But it's looking great," says Brian, who has worked extensively with the man of the moment Jamie Dornan, who has also starred as Christian Grey in the upcoming movie Fifty Shades of Grey from the steamy EL James books.

Brian, who has four brothers and a sister, says: "He's a great guy. He's really down to earth.

"He's just one of us, a typical Belfast bloke. He's one of the nicest people I have ever acted with."

Brian has no airs and graces either. He's an Arsenal fanatic who also plays football with his local Amateur League team, Newtownbreda.

He's a striker whose 13 goals – 14 if you count a penalty in a shoot-out – recently won him an award as one of Newtownbreda's clubmen of the year.

His busy movie schedule sometimes means he has to cry off from matches. But Brian clearly hates to miss the rough and tumble of the game.

Occasionally Brian's opponents give him more attention than his team-mates: "One centre half asked me if I was 'that actor from Hunger'. And I started to worry that he mightn't realise that I was only acting the part and that wasn't me in real life.

"But he said he really loved the movie and wished me all the best."

One of his most bizarre recognitions came in Cape Town in South Africa. "I was buying a few presents for people back home.

"A guy shouted my name from a balcony and said 'Wait there, wait there.'

"He came running down the stairs and asked to get a photograph of me and him. He said he had seen me in Hunger and this, that and the other.

"He said he was a big fan which was a bit surreal standing in the middle of a South African shopping centre."

It's obvious from talking to this likeable, self-effacing actor, who is nothing like the hard man that he plays in The Fall, that he doesn't particularly enjoy some of the trappings that movie and television success brings in its wake.

He says: "To me it's only a day's work. I just do my job and go home to my wife."

The way things are going for Brian, he may just have to get used to the stares and the selfies ...

Actor, director and movie legend

  • Robert Redford started his career in television in New York during the 1950s with guest roles in series such as The Untouchables, Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Dr Kildare
  • He made his big screen debut in the 1962 film War Hunt alongside John Saxon, which was set in the last days of the Korean War. He went on to make two films with Jane Fonda – The Chase and Barefoot In The Park
  • It was Redford's role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid alongside Paul Newman that proved to be his big breakthrough
  • During the 1970s Redford had roles in some of the major films of the era including The Way We Were, The Great Gatsby, All The President's Men and The Sting , for which he was nominated for an Oscar
  • He made his debut behind the camera in 1980 when he directed Donald Sutherland in Ordinary People. The film won both the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars, among others
  • Redford is founder and chairperson of the Sundance Film Festival held each January in Utah. The festival's original goal was to show American and independent films

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