The Monthly interviews former Green Party Leader, Steven Agnew, about his role in a new film “Welcome to Northern Ireland”

How did you get involved with the film?

The film started production in October 2018 and at that point I was still an MLA but over the course of making the film I transitioned from being a politician to becoming a lobbyist.

Michael Macbroom, the film’s producer and director, had been a friend of mine for a long time and we had made a film together when we were much younger, in our twenties, after he had finished a film studies degree. He had been told that you can’t just make a feature film, that you had to make short films first but Michael ignored that and just made a feature film.  Since then we’ve both gone on to have families and careers.

How does this film come about?

We were having a discussion about writing a film back in 2016, one of those 2am Saturday night, Sunday morning conversations, and I said I would love to be involved, and around 2 years later, Michael came to me and said he had a script and he had the part that he wanted me to play.

This film seems much more like a major enterprise?

Yes, it was. When we started filming I was still an MLA but the Assembly had collapsed. I was still doing a lot of work but there was some work which wasn’t possible to do at that time. I was also seeing changes in my personal life as well, so my circumstances were changing, in some ways dramatically, and then there was this film project.

It came at the “right” time?

Well, sort of. Michael is a professional filmmaker, and Will McConnell filmed the material, he is a film-maker. Laura who plays the partner in the film, has done a fair bit of acting, so I really was the amateur in the production.

How did you negotiate that situation?

In some ways the weight of the acting falls on the least experienced person and I have hoped that because of that it wouldn’t be detrimental to the quality of the film. Michael has worked with actors who have little experience before so he was well aware of what was possible and what my limitations were.

The film captures moments in Northern Ireland’s post agreement landscape particularly well. Did you feel that when you were filming it?

Michael wrote the part for me and partly that is because he likes working with inexperienced or amateur actors and partly because that is the way of low budget films. There was another element to the film, that Belfast, the city, is part of the film. The city is encapsulated within the story of the film.

The film documents the period where a particular type of economic growth is taking place and there are substantial changes occurring because of that. In one part of the film, we look at the issue of Tribeca, the development project that was being proposed at the time of filming, and there was an element of “let’s capture the city as it was before the developer’s destroy it” and that is Michael’s writing and there was an element of capturing that moment.

The city is definitely part of the film and the story seems to proceed from that starting point?

There is also a sense that as Belfast is booming, there might be development which wrenches away the soul of Belfast and I think having the central character as a tour guide and having him trying to tell an honest story about Belfast and Northern Ireland is a useful approach to telling the story. He is effectively being stopped from offering a full and honest  impression of a city that he loves by the very forces which are changing the look and feel of the city.

What other issues does the film look at?

The central character arrives back in Belfast with enthusiasm and we see where that enthusiasm is directed. I think there is a fair bit in the film around questions about women’s rights and marriage equality, around particular types of people, particular types of approaches, and particular aspects of what was growing in Belfast regarding business development and the corresponding ideas that accompanied that growth.

Was it difficult process regarding acting in a feature length film?

Michael knew what I can do and there was a fair bit of improvising around a scripted dialogue, and I would learn the dialogue inside out so that when a moment came to say something I felt would fit, I was able to do that.

I did have to do a few takes for particular scenes and there are moments where we had to film from many different angles, but I think, generally, I was able to portray the character in a way that brought that person to life. And of course I wanted to do the best job I could possibly do albeit being aware of my abilities and my shortcomings.

Where to now?

There are a lot of actors who have never made a feature film, and I have done that so I think that is something to be very happy about. I would like to think I might be able to work on another film, and if I was approached with something that interested me and I thought I could actually do it, then I would like to think I might work on a film in the future.

artist forms link
New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.