Ciaran's Art of Darkness
Enniskillen-born actor Ciaran McMenamin loves exploring grim roles and his latest part was a really tough test, by Audrey Watson
He's been a murderer, a vampire and a rapist and next week Ciaran McMenamin will be trying his hand at cannibalism. The Enniskillen-born actor returns to our TV screens in The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, a grisly and chilling true tale of Irish convicts who escape their captors and end up eating each other to survive.
“It's only recently that I've turned nasty,” jokes the London-based 34-year-old. “Before, I was always the nice guy next door — a bit of a cheeky chappy — but I don't mind the change. The nasty roles are more fun to play, but every part is different and I enjoy them all.”
McMenamin is shockingly convincing as Pearce, a farm labourer who in 1819 was sentenced to seven years in the penal colony of Van Diemen's Land (now known as Tasmania) for the theft of six pairs of shoes.
He was then transferred to the notorious Sarah Island where, after being flogged relentlessly, Pearce and seven other men escaped into the rainforest. With no provisions, hunger quickly set in and the decision was made to eat one of the group.
“It was a very tough role both to play and prepare for,” admits McMenamin. “I had to go on a strict diet to get the ‘dying look'.
“I went to the gym a lot, was running a lot. Not drinking any beer and not eating any spuds basically.
“I lost a stone in the six or seven weeks before we started shooting — and then put it all back on again really quickly afterwards,” he laughs.
“The film was shot on location in Tasmania. It was tough terrain and we were in the middle of nowhere, but it was also a lot of fun.
“For me, the hardest part was trying to imagine the horror of what these guys went through. They had been beaten and abused for so long for such minor offences that they had to make a break for freedom.” Tough role or not, Ciaran jumped at the chance to work alongside fellow Enniskillen-man Adrian Dunbar — the first time the pair had worked together.
“I have always followed Adrian's career and he was a big influence on my decision to become an actor,” he says. “I always hoped that one day we would get the opportunity to work together.”
The writer and producer of the BBC drama is another Enniskillen man.
Nial Fulton (who teamed-up with Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers) started working on the project 10 years ago and even way back then he had earmarked Ciaran and Adrian for the main roles in the film.
“He pitched the idea to me a while back and I thought it was an amazing story. And of course, there was the Adrian factor so I jumped at the chance,” says Ciaran.
It was almost 11 years ago that the young McMenamin first came to our attention as Dino in the film Titanic Town. It was a role he clinched while still studying at the prestigious Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow.
While there, he won the Kenneth Branagh Renaissance Award in 1997 and also the college's own Gold Medal in 1998.
After graduating, the talented young man walked straight into the lead role of Jez McAllister in C4 series Young Person's Guide to Becoming a Rock Star.
“I've been very lucky, hit the ground running and have been working solidly for the past 11 years,” says Ciaran.
“But it is a very competitive industry and although I've been fortunate, the fact is that for every part that you get there are four or five that you don't.”
Early on in his career, he also had the enviable task of appearing alongside Kate Moss in an ad campaign.
“Every man's dream,” he laughs. “Kate was lovely, but it was a long time ago and we haven't stayed in touch.”
The modelling was a one-off and since the Young Person's Guide, Ciaran's list of acting credits includes: David Copperfield; the movie To End All Wars (alongside Robert Carlyle and Kiefer Sutherland); the part of Leo Young in Jimmy McGovern's TV movie Sunday; Jericho; Amanda Burton's deviant son in Silent Witness and, most recently, appearances in Jonathan Creek and the role of Quincey in Demons.
Over the years there have also been returns to the stage in London and also at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast — the venue where he began his professional career in a play called Tinderbox. His most recent theatre performance was a part in Martin Lynch's World War I play, Holding Hands at Paschendale, at the 2006 Belfast Festival at Queens.
There really are too many acting credits to list, yet McMenamin doesn't seem to enjoy the high media profile of other home-grown stars such as James Nesbitt.
“Jimmy is the best-known Northern Irish actor and no one could ever be as famous as him,” he laughs. “Fame depends on how much publicity you do and I'm happy to just do whatever's necessary and then get back to my life.” He very politely brushes off any enquiries about girlfriends, insisting on keeping that part of his life resolutely |private.
“I keep myself pretty much to myself in London,” he says. “I've a great bunch of mates who all do ‘real' jobs, so I hang out with them most of the time.
“Any spare time I have, I head back to Enniskillen to go fishing with my dad.
“Four of my best mates are still there and if I've finished a job and have time on my hands, I head home.”
He has fond memories of the Ardhowen Youth Theatre where he went to drama classes, initially just for fun, while still at school.
“Neither my mum or dad or anyone else in the family has any background in acting and I started going to Ardhowen for a laugh really. One summer, I really got into it and realised that I enjoyed bringing characters to life and that this was what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “I then started working with the Ulster Youth Theatre and it all went from there.”
Despite his success, Ciaran has no plans (for now) to try his hand in Hollywood.
“At some stage I might, but I really enjoy what I do in the UK and I'm always working,” he says. “If an offer came, I would consider it, but I really don't intend going to America and having to start all over again.”
If he's going to move anywhere, he says that it will be behind the camera.
“I wouldn't mind writing,” he reveals. “I've written a few short stories and would like to turn them into a play or something, but for now, I'm just focusing on acting.
“TV, theatre or the movies — if I like the project, I'm happy to do it.”
The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, Monday, BBC NI, Monday, BBC1 NI, 9pm