Imagine an aspiring Irish actor, living in New York, who writes his first screenplay, gets to stare in it, then have renowned Hollywood heavyweight Barry Levinson direct it. This is no blarney, just the fulfilment of that proverbial American dream. McEvoy spoke to Paul Fischer in Los Angeles.
It wasn’t so long ago since a young Irishman from troublesome Belfast was on his way to a new life. Barry McEvoy was 15, when he and his parents opted to leave strife-ridden Belfast for a new life in America. But, as the brash young actor explains from his New York apartment, it wasn’t necessarily the ‘troubles’ that brought them to that Brave New World. “You couldn’t pinpoint any one thing that forced us to leave”, McEvoy explains in thick Irish brogue. “I’m sure the troubles were a factor but it was a combination of things. We’re Catholics but we came from a mixed neighbourhood, it was a strange existence”.
The family settled for a life in this land of the free, amidst the gentle chaos of an Irish community entrenched in Maryland, Washington. “We were very much a part of the Irish community there, frequenting the Irish pubs and just hanging out with our mates. You could go a week without hearing a single American accent”, McEvoy says laughingly. His dad became a barber . and still is . while Barry ventured into acting, but not an original aspiration. “I started out wanting to be a director, but circumstances stepped in and one day I ended up auditioning for something as an actor and thought: How fucking cool is this, eh? And I was hooked”. McEvoy was lured to the theatre; movies were not part of his thinking.
He began to flex his acting muscles on the stage, firstly in Washington D.C and then worked extensively in the New York theatre, including the Broadway productions of On the Waterfront and The Sisters Rosensweig, going on to star in the national tour of the play. His other New York stage credits include Harold Pinter’s Moonlight at the Roundabout Theatre, in which he starred with Jason Robards, Blythe Danner, and Liev Schreiber, as well as plays with the Circle Rep, Classic Stage Company, and the Irish Arts Centre. While McEvoy managed to attain a level of success, there were times he thought he would never continue with it. “This acting’s a mug’s game and can be just so demoralising, and there were times I found the whole thing so fucking depressing”.
But he prevailed nonetheless. “As soon as I was ready to give the game away, something amazing would suddenly come up and remind me just how gratifying it is to act. I don’t know how to explain it”. McEvoy was not in search of movie stardom, but a fortuitous conversation with his dad the barber, changed his direction and life. “My dad has always been a barber, or something to do with hair, and at one point briefly ran a hairpiece company in Northern Ireland,” said McEvoy. “I’d heard him tell various stories down the years, so I handed him a micro-cassette recorder one day, and suggested that he just talk into it whenever he was inspired, and we ended up with five hours worth of tapes. We went to the pub to talk or at home, wherever, and his old stories just fascinated me. So one day I finally said to him: Da, I’m going to write all this down and maybe do a screenplay. Somehow my father didn’t quite believe me”.
Inspired by his father’s tale of hairpiece salesmanship, amidst the turbulence of Northern Ireland, McEvoy wrote the ironic comedy, An Everlasting Piece. The film revolves around Colin (also played by McEvoy), a Catholic and George (Brian O’Byrne) a poetry-loving Protestant. In Belfast in the 1980s, they could have been enemies, but instead they became business partners. After persuading a mad wig salesman, known as the Scalper (Billy Connolly), to sell them his leads, the two embark on a series of house calls.always in neighbourhoods that are dangerous for one or the other partner. Then they find out they may lose their exclusive wig distributorship to competitors.
Through a series of comic twists, the pair is given large orders for wigs by both sides of the Protestant/Catholic conflict. “I always knew that I would be in it, after all, why else would an actor write his own script?” It was fitting that the first reading take place in one of McEvoy’s regular pubs. “At the end of the reading, my dad asked: Are you bloody stupid? You gave George all the best lines”. At that point Barry knew he had written something which was far from an ego trip for him as an actor. That was further accentuated when the film finally got before the cameras. “I was proud that I had written something beyond my dad’s story, that the film had become larger than what I had originally envisaged”. McEvoy was stunned when Hollywood studio DreamWorks agreed not only to finance the film, but allow this unknown Irish actor to play the lead.
Then of course Barry Levinson agreed to direct, and McEvoy was in heaven. “It was a dream come true. I was convinced that it would all come crashing down, but before I knew it, I was back in Belfast making this movie. How amazing is that!” Even more amazing, he adds, Hollywood or not, nobody insisted on changes. “You hear these horror stories as to how Hollywood can take your script, change it and fuck it up completely. But every word in the film is mine and Barry just encouraged me to enhance certain scenes, he was amazing”.
The film was shot on location in Belfast, and for McEvoy, he had returned home a movie star. “I didn’t recognise Belfast; it’s not the same as when I left. Now it was so clean, no graffiti to be seen anywhere and hardly a military presence. Yet in some sadistic way I kinda missed the way it was which was bad of me. But it was fun being in my home town shooting a movie there with all these big lights and cameras”. McEvoy also arranged for his father to take a break from his real-life hairdressing to visit the set. “We even got him a tiny role in the film: There’s a scene at the end when I cut an old man’s hair; that’s me dad”, the proud son enthuses.
His dad has since seen the finished film and though he found looking at his cinematic life often intense, he remains proud. “After the first screening we all returned to that pub where we had gathered to read the script for the first time, and there was dad, pleased as punch, accepting everyone’s congratulations. It was a sight to behold”.
McEvoy says that An Everlasting Piece has enabled him to be sent “the odd script” and has just finished co-writing a new screenplay “which has not one profound message to say. It’s like those old carry on films but decidedly a lot weirder. I don’t know if the Americans will get it”. What they WILL get, though, is this piece of Irish comedy that shouldn’t prove TOO hairy for the masses”.