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Michael Smiley Q&A
The Kill List star on his career and judging the Dinard Film Festival

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Who knew Tyres O'Flaherty would be quite such an actor? 14 years since he snared attention as the raving bike courier in Edgar Wright's iconic sitcom Spaced, Michael Smiley has segued from stand-up and sometime actor into one of our most compelling performers.

His work with Ben Wheatley has been particularly fruitful, whether it's as the damaged hitman Gal in Kill List - bringing heart as well as threat - or the ruthless, hypnotic O'Neil in hallucinatory Civil War western A Field In England.

Empire spoke with Smiley at the Dinard Film Festival - a celebration of British film, in Brittany, northern France - where he was serving on the jury alongside Eric Cantona. The festival also showed a couple of his films, including For Those In Peril and the delicate, atmospheric drama Shell, in which he plays a touching supporting part.

Michael Smiley Q&A
Michael Smiley in Kill List

I saw one of yours this morning: Shell...
It's a lovely film. It was a joy to be in as well. I really love the rhythm of it. There's a gentleness to it and it didn't feel British in any way. It felt sort of Eastern European, doing it even. There was something about it. I really loved working with Scott [Graham] - I think he's a fantastic director. I hope he does well. And his writing's beautiful. Again, there's a gentleness to it. It has a very European feel.

I could imagine your character's life outside of the scenes you were in...
Yeah. Very broken hearted. The back story for me with him, that I decided on giving him, was he was at university in Glasgow, fell in love with this Scottish girlfriend who lived in the highlands, they settled down in Glasgow, decided to try and make a life for themselves, she fell pregnant and they returned to her hometown. Then they had a second child, she got bored, they split up and she took up with a younger man, who lives further down the country, so he's stuck in a place he didn't want to be, for the love of his children. So he's slightly broken.

Is that something you do for each of your characters?
I try and imagine myself in the character's place. And then I try and add a wee bit to it. Some things are already on the paper. If it's already there I try not to add to it. If it's vague enough for you to add something then I will. And talk to the director about it. It's really how you keep it in your head, so that you're not lost. Maybe you're not shooting - you're only doing two days one week and you're not for another week or two, you're only there for a short period of time, and you've got pick-ups later on. It's just you're giving yourself something to remember. It's a place I can go to, to be a starting point, you know?

Have you effectively learned on the job as an actor?
Never trained. Learned on the job. It's a learning process that I go through every day, which is great. I think it's fascinating to be halfway through your life and still be willing to learn and loving it.
Never trained. Learned on the job. It's a learning process that I go through every day, which is great. I think it's fascinating to be halfway through your life and still be willing to learn and loving it. Putting on different clothes and telling different stories and hanging out, making new friends. You know, in every job there's always the potential of making new friends. And that's great. It keeps life very interesting. It's like a scratchcard living, you know? Every day you're a phone call away from your life changing. So all of those things keeps me on and keeps me interested and hopefully keeps me interesting.

Is that a motivation, learning, in what you choose?
You audition for parts and your agent will say: this has come up and you go along or there will be parts you really desire or you might be offered parts. There's never really a pattern as an actor, really, until you're lucky enough to go further up than that and parts are offered or written for you. And I've been blessed with that - I've had parts written for me. So there's not really a pattern. I think the point I'm trying to say is that when the opportunity arises, you grab it with both hands. Some of them you just try and put yourself into that position: 'How would I do in that situation, if myself and my wife split up and I was living in the Highlands?' I wouldn't think 'How would I deal with this if I was a hired killer?' You know what I mean? There's differences.

Are there particular qualities that the best directors you've worked with share?
Yeah. I'd say that they know what they want and they know what they want from you. But also they're willing to listen to anything you bring to it. They're wired for transmission but they do a little bit of reception. Most of the directors I worked with, that I've really got on with, I respect what they do and I'm willing to learn off them. And they like me, you know? There's a bit of a Ringo Starr factor: "I like people that like me!"

If you like somebody and somebody likes you then you create a third dimension where you're willing to help each other to get to a place where you should go, you know? I like communication. I like talking. I'm Irish, we talk, we tell stories, we inhabit things, we go off on fairy-based tangents from time to time. I like directors who know themselves and I'm interested in how they get that across, you know? Like Scott in Shell - he's very quiet and very, not shy, but he wasn't very demonstrative, but at the same time was very caring, so once you get past that, you sit and talk, I could see the soul of the man and I could see what my motivations were and we bonded on that. So I'd go "Well I see him a bit like this..." He'd go, "Yeah, well, I see him a bit like that" and then we would find something, so that whenever you're on set and you're doing a scene he would be encouraging from behind the camera, "A wee bit more of that, keep doing that, don't do this, maybe stand over there" and because there's a trust, then you're going with that and then as you go with it and you trust him, your brain opens up a wee bit more to what he's saying to you, you know? As opposed to learning your lines and not bumping into the furniture.

Michael Smiley Q&A
Michael Smiley in Ben Wheatley's A Field In England

"Stand there and do this!"
Yeah. And that has its place, too. And you learn. As I go along on this journey, you learn lots of things. I was told by an actor, when I first started acting, to "embrace and commit" and I was told by another actor, recently, that between different productions - big, Hollywood productions or sprawling, Hobbit-esque productions, through to short films or independent films - "patience and consistency" is something to hold on to. And I got a lot from that, because each production is different and the director's different and they go by their different ways, some do multi takes, some do long takes, some just let you go and don't say anything, some are with you the whole time.

Had you met any of the other jurors beforehand?
There's something very respectful, which is really lovely. I couldn't imagine it being, the Margate International French Festival, where the kids get the week off school and go to watch the French films.
No, hadn't met any of them before. It's been great, it's been lovely. I'm a massive Man United supporter. And being Northern Irish, the two most important people - players, as opposed to the manager - was Best and Cantona. And I've met Best and now I've met Cantona. I fessed up to him pretty early on, so we'd get that elephant out of the way. I just told him how important he was and we talked a bit about the current Man United team. And that's it. Now it's just like, Smiley, thumbs up. He's quiet. He's private. There's a humility there that's interesting to watch, somebody who is so iconic to the French people, be in France, and be in a film festival where he has to be out and has to be front and centre the whole time, to watch him have endless patience and have his photo taken and give autographs and talk to people. To watch somebody like that is great, you know? Because I've met some of my other heroes and they've definitely had feet of clay some of them and some of them are complete arseholes. But I think he's great.

It's a curious notion, a British film festival in France...
Yeah. There's something very respectful, in terms of cinema here, which is really lovely. I couldn't imagine it being, I don't know, the Margate International French Festival, where the kids get the week off school and go to watch the French films. They wouldn't do - they'd be drinking cider and fingering each other down the park somewhere! Whereas here the kids are out and they're watching the films and they want your autograph.

Yeah. It might not happen in Torquay...
Exactly. Torquay is probably a better description than Margate, really, because Torquay is very beautiful to look at, like this is. I've been to Torquay. It's very pretty. But I can't imagine the good burghers of Torquay coming out to see a French farce.

Oh, it's the new Ozon!
Oh, brilliant. Thank God for that! You know when you're just sick of EastEnders?

Interview by Nev Pierce

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