Director Jonathan Hensleigh and Ray Stevenson on Kill the Irishman

I recently had a chance to talk with some of the cast and crew from the new film Kill the Irishman.  Here’s a short interview with director Jonathan Hensleigh who produced films such as: Gone in Sixty Seconds and Con Air and was the screenwriter for films such as: Jumanji, Die Hard with a Vengeance, and Armageddon along with actor Ray Stevenson who you might know from his roles as: Titus Pullo in the HBO series Rome, Frank Castle/The Punisher in Punisher: War Zone, or as Roger Wesley, the private security guard who strips Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg of their weapons and shoes in The Other Guys. Both of these figures have had a good deal of success despite getting into the industry late, so I spoke to them about the experience, their future, and the film which opened this weekend in New York.

I read that you started out as a lawyer and segued into a writer, how difficult was that process?  Had you always wanted to be a screenwriter and director?

Jonathan Hensleigh (JH): It’s been so long since I made the transition, I wanted to write professionally but when I was 18, 19, 20 I lacked the courage and I didn’t, I knew it was hard to break in and I didn’t want to spend those years of my life trying to do that, I didn’t follow my calling out of fear so I took the easier route.  I practiced law for a couple of years and then I reached a stage of maturity and a financial state that I could make the transition and I did.

It’s really amazing, very encouraging.

JH: Oh, well cheers!?  I did it a little later in life.

Do you think that makes a difference in your work? That you were ready for it?

JH: Yeah, absolutely.  I think that I was, I broke in when I was 31 and I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t do anything, I just sat down and started writing scripts and screen plays.  I had written a novel, I had written a three act stage play but I had not written screenplays.  I just immersed myself and went after it.

How much did you think about the genre of gangster films while working on this because this film sort of fits in the genre in an interesting way?  When I was thinking about the movie Goodfellas, your film certainly came to mind but Kill The Irishman has its own place in a blue collar, “soda bread gangster” way that I haven’t seen before.  Did you think a lot about the genre?

JH: Yeah, you can’t not think about it, it’s impossible to make a picture like this and not have it in the back of your mind and it has been dominated by Martin Scorsese for good reason, you know the pictures are extraordinary.  The pictures that Marin Scorsese has made about organized crime in this county are considered some of the finest films ever made in America so it’s daunting, it’s challenging you know but you gotta make a move so if I did anything to create a movie that stands on its own, I’m proud.  I do think that Kill The Irishman does have, has a unique tone, I do and I think that it has a very, very nice set of performances by the wonderful ensemble cast that you don’t see every day.

In this film was there a concern at all that you might have glorified Danny Greene too much?

JH: Yes, yes and that was part of the internal debate and because there were a number of people in Cleveland, remember this didn’t happen that long ago so there are people that Dan Greene’s violent actions harmed who are alive and well in Cleveland, and Danny Greene was a violent man, he was a murderer but there is a duality to the human character at times.  He is also a man who did subsidize the education of orphan children in Collinwood, he did pass out 50 turkeys on Christmas and 50 turkeys on Thanksgiving. It sounds quaint but these were acts of kindness that were very appreciated in those impoverished neighborhoods, so it really happened, you know, these are historically confirmed facts and we just tried to strike a balance I guess.

You started acting a little later than most people. How hard was it to break in for you and how much does that change your mentality when approaching a role?

Ray Stevenson (RS): Well, it was the right time for me, I think early on when I would go to some audition meetings, I’d recognize everybody. I lost jobs to people who are more recognized and indeed it still happens now where the money people will say “yeah but we want Nick Cage for this job because he’s going to bring us the box office.”  That’s the nature of the business you know. You just gotta maintain your faith and know if it’s right.  Acting is not a competition, it’s just got different rules and any business is the same- businesses make decisions for one reason or another, not [always] because this is the right product, like beta max. Beta max was a far better system than VHS, but VHS won the war, you know it won the marketing campaign and now where’s VHS?  But the people made their money from it so if you were a DVD back in VHS days, you’d [say] “why can’t they see how brilliant I am?”  One day!  Just suck it up and get on with it and enjoy your career that you’re having, cause that’s the one you’re having, not the one you think you should be having.

But you gotta be happy now. I mean this movie really showcases your talent.

RS: Oh yeah, I’m very happy, it’s great, I’ve been able to keep myself busy for the next couple of years and I have a good body of work behind me.  I’ve worked with some great people, which it’s all about and I’ve got the biggest production happening in 3 weeks time, my second boy, yeah so talk about productions, that’s a big production, boom!

What other new projects do you have coming?

RS: Three Musketeers in 3D is  coming out at the end of the year, Paul Anderson directed it and it’s going to be a lot of fun, all sorts of flashing swords and everything and I get to bring my poor-thoughted- sexiness with a tendency toward violence.  I know it sounds cliché, we’re fielding a few things at the minute, I’m at that position now where, it’s who I work with next and what we get involved with, it’s nice, it’s a great position to be in.  I’ve got enough work now where people can see that I can change between- it’s not like in the next movie he wears a blue suit- Ken Branagh said (while filming Thor) “I know you’re a big strapping lad but I’m going to put you in a big fat suit, you’ll be great!”  My agent’s going “you know people won’t recognize you, what if they don’t recognize you?” I said, “I don’t give a damn!”  I said who else is going to give me a chance to put on a big fat suit and ham it up!  Right?  It’s what we’ve been aiming for. Now the industry out there in LA, they know me, moviemakers know me, it’s seeing what’s going to come next, who knows?  I could play a midget, I’m classically trained, if they make everyone really big around me, it could be done.  Will Ferrell played Elf, you never know, it could be a lady, a very tall, deep voiced lady, who knows, but it’s been great, it does veer from feast to famine. That’s the nature of the beast.  It’s good, I support my family and do what I love to do and that’s sort of the biggest complement you can ever get from life, that you get to do it.

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About Tim Needles

Tim Needles is an artist, photographer, humorist, and writer from Long Island, NY. His writing and art work has been seen in multiple exhibitions and publications around New York as well as the Photographer’s Forum, French Photo, the New York Times, and LI Pulse magazine. He is also an educator and currently teaches art and film at Smithtown, NY and as an Education Leader for Adobe. He was recently the recipient of the Robert Rauschenberg Award in Washington DC and serves as the director of Strictly Students, a non-for-profit group for media and education. His work can be seen on his website: www.timneedles.com
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