On a cold winter morning in late 2020, Patrick Kielty sat into a taxi and accelerated towards the unknown. Amid the latest Covid lockdown, the Northern Ireland stand-up was making his acting debut in independent film.
Three years later, the charming drama arrives on the screen the very month Kielty is about to embark on another big adventure as new host of. The comedian shrugs: it’s funny how life works out sometimes.
“When we made this movie, we were hoping that we would able to call someone and would be on theas guests. You call the publicist: ‘Is there a chance I go on the ?’” says Kielty.
“The idea of sitting in the host’s seat rather than the interview seat with this out is very odd. Apparently, there’s a thing where you’re not allowed to interview yourself or talk about your own thing when you’re hosting [the]. That’s all interesting. But having them coming out, first the show and then this, it’s great.
is a searingly humane portrait of friendship between two lost souls. Kielty plays Shane, a separated husband and father who lives in the seaside village of Ballywalter on the Ards Peninsula.
Each morning, he commutes by taxi to Belfast for a beginner’s course in comedy. Seána Kerslake’s Eileen is a college drop-out negotiating grief and the sense, in her late 20s, that life has given up on her.
Her part-time gig driving a cab introduces her to Shane. Despite initially having little in common, friendship flourishes between these two strangers.
It’s an excellent showcase for both Kielty and Kerslake. Each delivers a masterclass in vulnerability. But their characters are also flawed human beings.
The power in Stacey Gregg’s script flows from the movie’s determination to depict the protagonists in as frank a light as possible. It’s their imperfections that make them believable.
“I love that about acting. You get to play sides of humans that aren’t always likeable,” says Kerslake, seated beside Kielty in a hotel in central Dublin. “And you can be very unapologetic about it. You’re somebody else.
“That’s one of the lovely parts of playing a character like Eileen. She shoots from the hip, even if it’s a defence mechanism. They’re not perfect characters.
“That’s the human thing. They meet at a certain point in their journey, where they realise, ‘Oh, you’re sad too’.”
Kerslake is one of the best Irish actors of her generation, and it is no surprise that she is as convincing as Eileen.
But the true revelation is Kielty as Shane. He is devastating as a middle-aged man whose world has unravelled – largely due to mistakes he has made, which are gradually revealed over the course of the film.
Kielty sees acting as broadly similar to hosting a chat show such as the. Both are collaborative projects. For someone with a background in stand-up, it’s a radically new way of working.
“They are two different things but weirdly similar. Whenever you do stand-up you’re up there on your own. It’s a solo pursuit. Walking on to that set was probably the most nervous I’ve been in my life.
“There are all these many amazing people. And then you realise those people aren’t there to judge you. They’re on your team. They’re there to help you along. It’s the same [with broadcasting] – as a kid growing up watching the…
“And now hosting it: being out the back and that music [thetheme] going. Your name being called. The butterflies. To realise there’s a load of people making that show – brilliant crews. And everyone is there to help.”
There is a long tradition of comedians pivoting to drama. No actor has ever been darker than Robin Williams playing it straight. Before Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston was best known for his screwball comedy. As was Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk.
Still, many comedians push back against the idea that, under the giggles, they are carrying baggage. It is called the tears of a clown theory – and comics will often dismiss it as a cliche.
However, Kielty, whose father was shot dead by loyalist terrorists when the broadcaster was 16, thinks the stereotype is not without merit.
“A lot of comedians kick back on that one. Simply because they’ve heard it a lot. I would say most comedians are idealistic cynics. So weirdly, there’s always going to be some sort of disappointment built in there. I think there’s more truth in that than you think.
“Also, the best comedy has a truth at the heart of it. When you’re working alongside someone as amazing as Seána, you realise that at its best with acting, there’s a truth there. That really helped me to tune in.”
He continues that the darkest scenes are often the simplest to negotiate.
“Sometimes it came easier than you thought. There were days you knew you had to go in and do that scene at a certain time. I was carrying a lot of emotion with me – you’re not seeing your family [because Ballywalter was shot during lockdown, Kielty was on living on his own]. Weirdly you didn’t have to scratch that surface too hard for proper emotion to be in there.”
is ultimately a film about human connection and the importance of sharing your feelings. That message chimed with Kielty, who in 2018 made the highly personal film , about his experiences of the troubles.
“When I started doing documentaries and I was going around places up north and you thought you were going to be talking about someone else – about what they were going through. And then you realise, ‘Oh – that’s brought me back to a certain place’.
Everybody, every day is carrying something he says.
“We do not know what they are carrying. It’s in them. So the idea of these two people revealing their most harrowing traumas in their life to each other – that rarely happens in life. Most people carry it and front it out.
“By sharing it, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised – when I look at my family history and what my family has been through – the minute you start to talk about that… I didn’t talk about it for a really long time. I didn’t want anyone to think, ‘Oh here’s your man talking about it again’.
“But the second you do, you’re amazed by someone going, ‘You know what actually…that reminds me of this’. And they tell a story. That’s when life intersects and real moments of connection happen. It helps you through.”
Kerslake matches Kielty all the way in. She feels her character is typical of many of her generation in that life hasn’t worked out. Eileen doesn’t know how to process that disappointment.
“I’ve had the privilege in my work to play characters in their 20s who are trying to find their way. When you were 18, you think you’ll have it all together: you’d have a house, you’d be on top of your career.
“That isn’t the way life is. That doesn’t mean you have failed. Or that the road ends here. Maybe this was the path you were meant to go down.
“I know it sounds hopelessly optimistic. You are where you are meant to be. Maybe the road you’re down will make you better at what you are meant to be doing.”
Kielty had never considered acting until’s producers approached him. The idea of casting him had originated with director Prasanna Puwanarajah (also an actor), who saw . Kielty’s sincerity and intensity registered with Puwanarajah.
“That’s what Prasanna said. They had seen something in the documentary where they felt [Kielty] could identify with that guy. To be offered a lead role in a movie…alongside someone as good as Seána. The idea of that never occurred to me.
“To the point where, when we had the meeting in London, you’re kind of waiting for Ant and Dec to jump out of the corner. For them to take a chance on me, just by seeing that. So many people took a chance. I can’t thank them enough.”
- Ballywalter is released Friday, September 22
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