Friday, March 11, 2011

Interview with 'Kill the Irishman' star Ray Stevenson

By Pete Roche

It’s only fitting the producers of Cleveland-centric mob movie KILL THE IRISHMAN came to our fair city March 9th to premiere the film.  Perhaps even more apropos was the location of the press stop just hours before the Cedar Lee screening event.   Cleveland Movie Blog caught up with actor Ray Stevenson—who plays titular, Celtic-crazy gangster Danny Greene—in the basement of a west side Irish pub on a drizzly Ash Wednesday—one week prior to St. Patty’s Day.  The West Park neighborhood has always boasted a strong Irish presence; many homes off Rocky River Drive are occupied by third or fourth-generation cops and firefighters.  And most of these families hold their Catholic faith and emerald isle ancestry close to their hearts. 

It’s these folks—teamsters, teachers, politicians, and public servants—who frequent the many tricolor-themed watering holes dotting Lorain Avenue. Some of them were at P.J. McIntyre’s on Wednesday afternoon, nursing midday pints or enjoying late lunches, oblivious to the imposing presence of The Punisher in the secluded party room below. 

Greene would have appreciated the conjunction of dreary weather and the working-class vibe pervading Kamms Corners with the pub’s comfy cottage décor and patrons sporting telltale Lenten smudges on their foreheads.  Whether the union man-turned-mob heavy would have toasted his biopic with libation and laughter or downplayed all the fuss is a mystery—much about the man was, after all—but the cast of the Jonathan Hensleigh film had fun exploring his mythos. 

Stevenson sure did.  Despite his burly physique, he’s a charming fellow who didn’t evince any of Punisher’s moroseness or Green’s vitriol during our chat—a testament to his ability to convincingly spin other personalities for the camera. 

“He was a career criminal, and we don’t try and soft-soap it or glamorize him,” he said of Greene.  “We don’t pull our punches with that.  But he went on an incredible odyssey, his own personal journey, which resonates with all of us.  We’re all trying to find out more about who we are, what we are, why we are.  And he found his own skin.” 

Stevenson knows something about playing the anti-hero.  In PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, soldier-turned-vigilante Frank Castle wages a one man war on crime after his family is ruthlessly gunned down.  His intentions are good, but his methods cold and brutal. 

“He was a highly-trained machine, basically,” Stevenson said of the Marvel Comic mercenary.  “He had a family, and the trigger point for him was that the justice system let him down so badly.  The criminal fraternity could afford the best lawyers.  They actually got off on technicalities.  And Frank just thought, ‘Well, that isn’t justice.’  He definitely wasn’t looking to exercise any redemptive qualities, because the job was never going to be done, once he set himself up [as Punisher].”

“Danny Greene was a very physical guy.  A stand-up sort of guy.  If you had a problem, he’d be the one who turned up. He wouldn’t hide behind the enforcers; he was the enforcer.  Again, he was a violent man.  But it doesn’t mean he woke up in the morning thinking, ‘How can I be more violent today than yesterday?’  He lived in a violent world and was just handy.  A tough guy.”

Stevenson, born in Northern Ireland and raised in Northumberland, admitted his own ethnicity informed the role.  But he didn’t let his own greenness color the gangster’s outlook.  Danny was born here, after all, and never once visited the homeland.  So while his ancestry was not imagined, it may have been exaggerated.  It certainly figured in the man’s braggadocio; Danny often wore green suits, drove green Cadillacs, and had his union office carpeted likewise. 

“Whenever I hear the barroom playing a few Celtic tunes it kind of picks up its own resonance with me, even though it’s not that I’d be flag-waving,” he said. 

“I don’t go down that route.  And I think with [Danny] being Irish-American—he had no connection with the old country—there was something inside.  A code of conduct—whether a warrior’s code or criminal code—that was breached by the people he’d put on pedestals and wanted to affiliate with—these Italian mafia guys.  These larger-than-life underworld figures he was aspiring to become.”

Are pride and vengeance justification enough to curb one’s moral inhibitions?  Would Greene have been a more upstanding citizen had he not been orphaned by his father or bullied in Collinwood’s schoolyards?

“I’d hate to do a disservice to people who had just as much hard knocks…the same lack of access to better schools or better environs,” said Stevenson. “People who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made something of their lives and became pillars of the community.  I think if Danny Greene had been borne to wealthy parents with a better education, he’d probably have ended up on Wall Street doing more damage than he did on the streets of Cleveland.  He would have been-larger scale, or perhaps more covered-up.  He was a career criminal and had that type of mind.  Probably would have ended up running Enron or something!”

Or become a judge or a mayor, perhaps?

“It’s in their psyche,” observes the actor.  “I think it’s too easy to blame nurturing and people’s environs.  It’s too easy to label someone with a bad background and say, ‘Well, they’ve obviously got some terminal ailment because they didn’t have good upbringing.’  It’s like blaming the parents as well; you have really good people whose children unfortunately sometimes turn out to be murderers.  Or they might be brain surgeons.”

Stevenson hasn’t had an opportunity to tour downtown Cleveland—but he admitted feeling excited on the drive in when he started seeing highway signs for locations depicted in the film.

“That’s when it became real for me,” he said.   

Hensleigh—who directed a 2004 version of THE PUNISHER (starring Thomas Jane, not Stevens, in the title role) and scripted DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE—wanted to film IRISHMAN in Cleveland, but Michigan offered better tax incentives at production time.  So it was either off to Detroit—or nowhere.  Besides, Frank Jackson’s Cleveland no longer resembles Ralph Perk’s Cleveland.  Establishing shots panning the downtown skyline were digitally doctored to omit the B.P. Building and Key Tower, as neither existed back in the days of disco. 

Cleveland has prettied itself up,” noted Stevenson.  “It’s more gentrified.  We wanted to shoot here, but it no longer looks like it did in the seventies.  Whereas Detroit is still kind of on its knees.  A great town with hard-working people, but as far as infrastructure it had the look we needed.”

The motor city proves a suitable Midwest substitute onscreen (even if we know St. Malachi Church is spelled with an “I” not a “Y,” and there’s no street called Clifford in Lyndhurst). 

“You hit one location, you’ve got to shoot that location out if it appears throughout the movie,” the actor said of the Motown production.  “So you shoot everything on that location in the three or four days you’re there, then you’re off to the next scene.  It’s very rare you get to shoot sequentially.  The scene’s got to stand, and it’s the director’s job to maintain the arc of the whole film, and your job as an actor to maintain the arc of your character and make sure this series of events will stand not just as history, but as an emotional journey.” 

Stevenson described working with Christopher Walken, Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer as an “amazing” experience and noted his costars were perfect choices to portray the colorful Mayfield Road Mob.

“In that day and age, the criminals were larger-than-life guys,” he said.  “They had a charisma—a presence.  If one of them walked into a bar, everyone’s head would turn: ‘Who’s that?’ And these actors—they’re all leading actors.  So there’s no shrinking violets, no wallflowers here.  But they’re playing these guys who had that presence anyway, so it was great.” 

Although typically cast as a heavy—be it a centurion on HBO’s ROME or thug in the recent action-comedy THE OTHER GUYS, Stevenson loves mixing it up.  For the part of Volstagg in the upcoming superhero fantasy THOR he’s barely recognizable beneath his prosthetics and fat suit.    

“It’s a thousand pounds of fun!” he joked.  “He has a very childlike quality.  He’s got a heart the size of a planet and wears it on his sleeve.  And in the next movie it’s Porthos from THE THREE MUSKETEERS.  He’s got a sexy hedonism and a tendency towards violence.  But it’s been terrific to bring these characters out, to bring them to the screen.  For me it means a much more interesting passage of time.”

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