Since its debut last year at the Cannes Film Festival, Ken Loach’s latest film “Jimmy’s Hall” has charmed its way around the world, but perhaps nowhere more so than recently at the Los Angeles Film Festival where audiences were utterly delighted to be called out in the film by an Irish priest (Jim Norton) eager to shut down a communal dance hall in the small village of Leitrim during the 1930s, claiming “the Los Angeles-ization of our culture” is taking hold. So how did one of the film’s stars who accompanied the film out to L.A. now feel that they were sitting in this den of sin?
“It feels like home,” says Barry Ward, with the same devilish grin he brings to Jimmy Gralton, the irrepressible rebel who reopens the dance hall after being exiled from the village for his Communist leanings ten years earlier and returns to Leitrim as Ireland as a whole struggles to recover from civil war. “Apparently, Jim, the actor, was like, “Really? Would I say that?” Paul [Laverty], the writer went through the transcripts of the priest sermons, and that was the exact word he used.”
It’s a sublime moment in a film full of them, though it comes from a filmmaker not known for making crowdpleasers. Despite a long and storied career, Loach only recently made a move away from the devastating dramas he’d long been known for that chronicle England’s social and political woes with lighter comedies such as “Looking for Eric” and “The Angels Share.” While these later films still demonstrate the director hasn’t lost his indignation about inequity, he’s been able to find a happy medium, quite literally, in stories of those who seize on to something bigger than themselves to find hope in trying circumstances.
“Jimmy’s Hall,” purported to be Loach’s final film, at least on the scale of a polished period piece such as this, is the director’s biggest testament yet to that notion, exuding the joy from the young men and women who breathe new life into the space Gralton built by coming together as a community. If indeed “Jimmy’s Hall” is Loach’s swan song, there might not be a more fitting end, considering how the director has often seen his films in the same way that Gralton sees his dance hall – as a place to share ideas and play, allowing his actors great leeway to bring their experiences into the film rather than rely on a script set in stone. When Ward and his co-star Simone Kirby, who plays an old flame of Jimmy’s who is every bit his ebullient equal, were in Los Angeles, they spoke of getting the unique experience of working in such a free environment as the one Loach creates, getting swept in big crowd scenes and putting on their dance shoes.
Simone Kirby: When you know it’s a Ken Loach film, the interest is already there. That’s all people have to say. We were both fans of his films, and we didn’t know anything about this film when we met him, but we were both keen to work with him.
From what I’ve heard about the way Loach works, you may not have even known what you were getting into when you were on the set.
Barry Ward: Yeah, but it was great and very exciting — and mysterious. At the same time, we both felt confident and safe because you know Ken Loach is amazing.
Simone Kirby: You know his body of work, so even though you’re signing on for something, and you don’t know who your character is or what the script is, and you don’t see any of that stuff, when it’s Ken Loach, you trust that he knows what he’s doing.
Barry Ward: Cillian [Murphy], my friend who had done “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” told me, “You’re going to love [working with him], and I’m not going to tell you much about it. Just go with it.” I’d been a fan of him, having read lots [about him], and I knew the actors involved, so I wasn’t hugely surprised [by the process]. But I was surprised by how cool he was, personable, easy going and inspiring.
Simone Kirby: Orla Fitzgerald, another friend of ours, had told me after she came back from Cork from filming [“The Wind That Shakes the Barley”], she told me everything, and it all sounded a bit scary to me, so I hadn’t expected it to be so much fun. But it’s so much easier to work that way. I hadn’t really expected that. I thought that it was going to be quite challenging, but I was ready for it.
Barry Ward: Yes, he was on set a lot. Occasionally, they’d surprise you with an improv line. They’d ask one character to say something to you, so they get a real reaction. That was happening to me quite a bit. So you’d come up with a response, but then the next take, I usually would have a word with Paul and I’d be like, “How can we make that more succinct?” He was always on hand and they were tweaking as they went. He was constantly contributing.
Simone Kirby: Paul mostly just stays in the background watching, looking really happy. He’s such a lovely guy and he feeds a really good energy on the set. He and Ken have worked together a lot, so he only steps forward when it’s required and it’s a lovely vibe between him and Ken, and all of us.
You also shot the story in sequence, which is unusual these days. Did you find it helpful?
Simone Kirby: We actually asked Ken, “Is it for the budget? Is it very tricky to shoot sequence?” He said, “No. There’s nothing more difficult about it. All you have to do is just jiggle things around a little bit, and it’s really easy to accomplish …” Not easy, because nothing about filming is easy, but [he said], “It’s certainly no more difficult than shooting out of sequence.” When he said that, I was baffled that more people don’t do it.
Barry Ward: It was very helpful for us, definitely.
Jimmy has flashbacks to his time in America, but in general, if you didn’t necessarily know the full arc of your characters, did that affect how you went about playing them?
Barry Ward: We shot the flashbacks first, so when we come to the real time, or the contemporary stuff as it were, you know what’s happened, but you’re constantly being informed as you go along, without knowing the future, which is exactly as real life is. It requires less acting, which is what he’s all about. He’s all about capturing people being.
Barry Ward: Very much so. The original site was like a few miles away from where we shot the movie, but you have the same landscape, so when you look around, you see exactly what they saw. The fact that the hall we used in the movie was a real live functioning hall, it just meant that you could experience it very much as they did.
Ken Loach likes to have his actors come from the area. Did you actually have a personal connection?
Barry Ward: My dad was from the same place and he was born in the year Jimmy Gralton was deported, so it was a cross-over. But we didn’t know anything about him. The government were very successful in brushing it under the carpet.
Simone Kirby: I’m from Clare, which is just a couple of hours south, and where my parents grew up in is quite rural, quite similar to Leitrim, so I had spent a lot of time when I was growing up on farms.
There’s an amazing moment where Jimmy leads a march with at least 75 people in back of him and even a few cows. What was it like to look behind you?
Barry Ward: That was incredible. That was a great buzz. The most daunting thing about that for me, was the fact that Donal O’Kelly, an actor, was present and he originally played Jimmy in a stage production…
Simone Kirby: Which inspired Paul [Laverty] to write the script.
Barry Ward: I’m a big fan of his as well, so I was a bit nervous in that respect. Also, Ken likes to talk to everyone individually, give everyone a note, and gee-up the forces. So we’re shooting this big scene all day long, and we’ve got a hundred strong animals and people marching a couple hundred yards, Ken, is 77 now, I think, and after a while, the camera’s miles away, and he was like, “I’m not running up there again and again each time, so Barry can you be my spokesperson and give them all a good speaking to? A good geeing-up?” Unbeknownst to me, that was to prepare me for this speech that lay ahead. But I wasn’t aware of that. So I was running up and down this line trying to gee-up the troops, and keep that energy level up, so it felt that we’re walking into a march for the first time. It was brilliant. It was great fun.
There seem to be a lot of unbroken takes in the film. Does that play into the energy or do you become drained?
Simone Kirby: It was great because we felt free to improvise and play, especially in those big scenes where there’s a lot of us. We could just find a new way of playing out the scene each time so it was a little bit different from the time before, and we keep this buzz between us as a community. Then, [Loach] was able to just film all that.
Barry Ward: Yeah, I’m a big fan of it when watching movies, but to do it, you just forget you’re acting as a crew for these eight-minute takes whereas the alternative, which is unfortunately the norm, you might have one line, so you’ll do a pick up [shot] and you record one line, or even a couple of words, then you reset and do it again and again, and it’s more about the machine around you. You become really self-aware and self-conscious: “How am I inflecting? How am I saying it?”
Simone Kirby: Just have the conversation, record it and let it be organic.
Barry Ward: Yeah, it’s a much healthier way of working.
That would seem to be true of the dance scenes in the film as well. Because at points they seem to be physical manifestations of who you are as characters, particularly when it’s just the two of you alone, did you contribute much to the choreography of them? The movements, especially Jimmy’s use of his hands, were interesting.
Barry Ward: That was just to distract from my feet. [laughs] That was actually the Shim Sham, which is a set routine, so we were trying to learn that. Frankie Manning, the guy who originally did it, just had rhythm in his bones. I’m not a dancer, so when they were shooting it, I noticed it wasn’t a big, wide, long shot, so I was thinking, “They’re probably not going to get much of that [on camera].” The stuff between [Simone and I] was a little more improvising, in terms of they’d shoot and then say, “Okay, well this isn’t working. Can we just limit it to this or expand on that?”
Simone Kirby: They watched us in rehearsals, and everyday our choreographer would send [the filmmakers] little videos of us to show how we were getting on. They decided that Barry’s character shouldn’t be a very good dancer. They thought, “He’s a farmer…” and we had to work with that as well. If Barry had turned out to be an incredible dancer, they probably would have said, “Oh, it turns out that Jimmy Gralton was an incredible dancer.” So in a way, they worked from what we were giving off. When I was a child, I had done a little bit of Irish dancing, the step dancing that you see before they break out and do their jive. I loved it. I was just about to start competing before we moved house and it all went up in the air, so when we got back to doing that again, if there’s joy on my face doing that, it’s because I just really, really love that kind of dancing.
Simone Kirby: To do all that stuff last year and to come back a year later and do it all again, has been [like] ”Whoa! This is a long process.” But fun. As we were saying to each other today in the car, it would be terrible to have to do all this with someone that you didn’t get on with, so it’s nice for us that we’re pals and we can do this together.
Barry Ward: It’s also cool to be ending here because Loach is very popular in the UK and Ireland, and he’s quite popular in Japan, but he’s never really had huge successes here in the States, and I think this is probably his most accessible, so that’s very exciting.
Simone Kirby: The experience was so amazing and big, as to be part of both our lives, that it’s easy to remember and talk about it. If it was another project, I don’t know if I’d even remember how I felt about it. This film, I feel very connected to.