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Q&A: Irish Character Actor Extraordinaire Michael Smiley

The De Niro to Ben Wheatley’s Scorsese on ‘Free Fire’ and more

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Ben Wheatley’s new comic thriller, Free Fire, is the British director’s first film to take place in the United States — more specifically in a warehouse in Boston in 1978, amid the carnage and confusion of an arms deal gone awry. There is a major American presence in the film, both onscreen, in the form of Hollywood stars like Armie Hammer and Brie Larson, and in the credits, which list Martin Scorsese as an executive producer.

The link to Wheatley’s home turf output is provided by the Irish actor Michael Smiley, who has appeared in four of the director’s six features, winning a British Independent Film Award for his brilliant, hilarious performance as a soulful sniper turned hitman in Kill List and becoming one of the most recognizable faces in British genre cinema in the process.

After moving to London in the early 1980s, Smiley worked as a stand-up comedian (a gig he took as a dare), a bike courier, and a DJ, and roomed with Nick Frost and Simon Pegg before breaking through with a memorable cameo on their cult Channel 4 sitcom Spaced. In 2008, he hooked up with Wheatley for a bizarro TV show called The Wrong Door and has since appeared in everything from Luther to Doctor Who to Black Mirror to The Lobster, and a makeup-disguised cameo in Rogue One. He spoke with The Ringer about working with Wheatley, his role in Free Fire, and the relationship between shotguns and male-bonding rituals.

Are you sick of working with Ben Wheatley yet?

No, I’ll never be sick of working with Ben. It’s a real breath of fresh air. It’s like you have a really posh meal, and you want somebody to bring the sorbet. Most other jobs are like the sorbet, I’m waiting for the main course to turn up. Working with him is always exciting, there’s always something new. There’s always going to be a different twist.

Your relationship him dates back to the BBC sketch show The Wrong Door, correct? You were in an episode called "The Train Pirates."

Yeah, so The Wrong Door was the first time we’d worked together. It was an extended sketch that Ben had written. We got on really well, a bit of madness, [and] had a couple of days filming on this old railway line that had been decommissioned. I was just being childish, and that was fantastic, and I thought I wanted to do that more often. Ben got contacted to begin writing a film called Down Terrace. He told me it would be one day filming and there would be no money, but when I read the script, and saw he’d written the part especially for me, I was really flabbergasted. That doesn’t happen to people like me.

Was that the first time someone had specifically written something for you? Because I know that you have a background as a stand-up comedian, so you’ve written a lot of your own material.

The first thing that was ever written for me was the character of Tyres on Spaced. That was written for me because it was basically about me. The character was taken from my life; I was a DJ and later on I was a cycle courier.

But Pringle in Down Terrace was a brilliant character, I loved playing him.

He’s an amazing character. He has a reputation for being this vicious murderer, but when you meet him, there’s total warmth, like when he hugs Karl after finding out he’s going to have his own kid.

"Hug it up, bitch."

How much of Down Terrace’s dialogue was improvised?

Really, I can only talk about my part in it, which was pretty well-written. Because we were filming with a stopwatch on every scene, there was only so much time and so much money. We had to be in and out that house. When Pringle turns up at the house with his son, in real life, that’s Rob Hill’s daughter. We come into the living room and she sees her real grandfather [Bob Hill] and gets up and runs to him and goes, "Grandpa!" I improvised a line off of that. It was more about keeping the ball in the air instead of restarting anything.

What about the exchanges between you and Neil Maskell in Kill List? So much of that movie is banter and it rarely ever sounds scripted.

Neil and I didn’t know each other beforehand. It was another bit of genius casting by Ben, because as soon as the two of us met each other we really liked each other. It was a bit of a bromance. So we would do a couple of takes where we would improvise a bit and then we’d come closer and closer and closer back to the script.

Kill List is one of the bleakest and most violent movies I’ve ever seen, and yet there’s a tremendous bond between Jay and Gal, and their friendship becomes moving in this horrific context.

Yeah, I think, like with anything, you gotta find the humanity in these people. Neil and I sat down and came up with a backstory that we were snipers. We were ex-snipers and we had been in the trenches with each other for weeks on end. We had to work on which one was a spotter and which one was a shooter, because there was a trust — I don’t know, there was an intimacy there that went beyond sexuality. You’ve got friends you don’t see for a while, but when you want to see each other, you just step back into that — then that’s what we wanted to get with Jay and Gal.

Wheatley keeps casting you as a sociopath: Your character O’Neil in A Field in England is quite intimidating and Frank in Free Fire is a badass as well.

I think that Ben sees that part of me. I’m not shy at telling people how I feel about them, but if I love you, I’d be quick to tell you that, too. I’m hands-on on lots of levels: I’m a big hugger and a big believer in truth, in emotional truth. I believe in law; I’ve got values that are analog, not digital, if you know what I mean. I have an old-school value system that has always been there. I’m somebody who can flip between them. Ben knows that if he casts me as a hard man, I’m going to bring vulnerability to it, and if he casts me as someone who’s vulnerable, I’m gonna bring some steely, orneriness to it, as well. With Frank in Free Fire, he’s a guy who’s in his 40s in the ’70s, so he would have been in his 30s in the ’60s, and he would have been in his 20s in the ’50s. Frank’s heyday would have been rock ’n’ roll — it wouldn’t have been peace and love. He’s a Johnny Cash fan, hence the black shirt and the big belt buckle. The green suit is Irish and the handlebar mustache is a concession to the ’70s. He would have been old IRA, whereas Cillian [Murphy’s] character was new IRA, more of a professional. Frank wouldn’t have been part of the recruitment drive — he’s just a soldier doing his job, not saying very much, keeping his hand on the gun the whole time.

Free Fire is obviously a very firearm-centric movie, and there’s a very different relationship with guns in the United States than in the United Kingdom. Are guns something that you’re comfortable with?

I had a gun license when I was 16 — [I had] all shotguns. I used to go hunting with my father. It was that classic bonding process that fathers and sons have. We used to go out there and he would tell me stores from his youth and I’d ask him questions and it was one of the most beautiful times I had with my dad. He’s passed on now. I think fondly of sitting in a ditch in Northern Ireland with two guns over our knees, sharing a roll-up, me asking him things. Women talk to each other face to face, they can read each others’ body language and see in their eyes if they’re telling the truth. Men don’t because it’s too provocative to look into each other’s eyes — it’s a call to war or something else. We need to be looking at something, like fishing or a football match or a drive. There’s an opportunity for intimacy there. That was my father and me, sitting waiting for a rabbit to pop up for hours on end. He taught me that you don’t kill something unless you’re going to eat it, hence the [scene with the] rabbit in Kill List; my dad taught me how to kill a rabbit and to skin it.

It’d be pretty hard to make the case that Free Fire glorifies gun violence since the point is that all the criminals are so inept at shooting each other. They’re all lousy shots.

That was the premise of the film! Ben had read a police report of a shootout in Florida and a lot of bullets had been fired and hardly anybody was injured. The damage had come from ricochets. When you fire a gun, it’s not like a Jason Statham movie where everybody is a sharpshooter. Most people are rubbish, and they panic.

It seems like Free Fire is going to have a higher profile in the United States than Wheatley’s other movies.

Yeah, especially with [Martin] Scorsese behind it. There’s more heat around it.

I wrote a piece a few weeks ago about a moment that’s happening in U.K. genre cinema right now, not just with Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, but also Alice Lowe’s Prevenge, and Gareth Tunley’s movie The Ghoul. Are people over there being stimulated and inspired by the work of these filmmakers?

Yeah, maybe, maybe. Ben is very intelligent, but he doesn’t mystify the filmmaking process too much. If you have an idea, why don’t you just go make it?

It will be interesting to see if he’s able to keep that sense of agility if he’s offered bigger and bigger movies going forward — and there’s already a big leap from Down Terrace a few years ago to High-Rise and Free Fire. By the way, how come you weren’t in High-Rise?

I was doing The Lobster at the time. The irony was that he shot the film in the town next to the one where I was born. He shot it in Bangor, where I learned to swim. It just didn’t happen. I mean, if there’s a part for me, there’s a part for me. I have a lot of acceptance for that. He’s very conscious of that, too. People say to me, "Oh, you’re Ben’s muse," and stuff like that. I’m like, "Oh man, really?" It’s a blessing to be asked to be in things, and it’s not because he’s crowbarred me into it. The idea is if it’s a Smiley shoot, then let’s have him.