Famous for his turn as the manipulative villain in Hollyoaks, Emmett Scanlan is no stranger to sinister roles – but his current project sees him really plunging into the darkest depths of the human spirit. He tells Roe McDermott about playing evil in the hugely controversial film, Charlie Casanova.
Sitting in a lovely room in The Residence Bar In Dublin, Emmett Scanlan is wearing a blood-spattered T-shirt – a marketing tool, he assures me, not evidence of murdered critics. He is musing as to whether his intense nature led to him being cast as Charlie Casanova, the homicidal, sociopathic Dubliner who lives his life by a deck of playing cards.
“I dunno if I am intense really. I just get typecast as a bad guy a lot.”
When I ask him why he thinks that is, there’s not a second’s hesitation.
“Because I have a dickhead face!” he laughs.
“I have a face that you look at and say, ‘He’s a dickhead.’ I got it from my dad, it’s genetics!” says the Marino native. “The funny thing is, I grew up idolising Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, I just wanted to be that underdog hero. The irony is, I’m the Dolph Lundgren of all my movies, I’m the Clubber Lang, I’m the bad dude. But that’s fine, I don’t mind being typecast, I mind not being cast at all!”
Despite earning international accolades for his role as Charlie, including the ‘Best Actor’ award at the prestigious ECU European Independent Film Festival, Emmett very nearly wasn’t cast at all. Although he’d worked with director Terry McMahon before on McMahon’s screenplay The Dancehall Bitch – “it was the best script I’d ever read, he’s the Aaron Sorkin of Ireland” – Scanlan wasn’t the first choice to play Charlie. He was a last-minute replacement when the desired actor wasn’t available for a screen test. When he auditioned for the lead, his very specific type of – ahem – “charm” quickly shone through.
“As Terry says, I auditioned for Charlie and 40 women lined up to slap me – some of them didn’t want to be in the movie! When we sat down and went through the script I realised I knew fuck-all about how to play Charlie. I knew fuck-all about acting. And if the movie went badly, it was my fault. So it was quite humbling and quite terrifying.”
Though it was probably more terrifying for the rest of the cast and crew, as Scanlan began to embody Charlie both on and off screen, even playing Charlie’s often lethal game of deferring to a deck of cards to make his decisions.
“Daniel Day-Lewis said, ‘I go method because I’m not good enough not to.’ I knew I wasn’t good enough not to do it otherwise. So I took out a deck of cards, walked the streets of Dublin and played the game for two weeks before we started shooting.”
Did Charlie’s dark mindset begin to invade his psyche?
“It brought me places,” he admits. “I did stuff that I, Emmett, wouldn’t have done, but it was about opening the door to Charlie. Only Terry knows what I did.”
Eh, bit creepy lads. Should we be combing the mountains for dead bodies?
“Don’t worry, I didn’t hurt anyone! But it was a horrible way to spend 11 days,” he concedes enigmatically. “I haven’t picked up a deck of cards since.”
Hugely inspired by the death of Brian Murphy during an attack at Dublin’s Annabel nightclub in 2000, the film aims to be a commentary about Ireland’s relationship with class, language, masculinity and violence. But despite his passion for the material, Scanlan admits he doesn’t feel qualified to comment on the incident or the culture of entitlement enjoyed by what McMahon calls Ireland’s “ruling class.”
“All that stuff about class, all the stuff that makes Terry tick? I get it, and see the amount of layers in it. I’m not as intelligent as Terry and don’t pretend to be. I respond to the character because he’s a bad motherfucker but such a coward.”
But Scanlan may be indebted to this “bad motherfucker” quite a bit. Taking on the role of Hollyoaks’ resident bad boy Brendan Brady immediately after Charlie Casanova, the actor’s chilling performance has earned him numerous ‘Villian of the Year’ awards.
“It’s not a coincidence. When we wrapped on Charlie I went straight into Hollyoaks, so I didn’t have time to detach myself from Charlie. When I went into Brendan, there was still a little bit of Charlie in there. But they are different characters. Charlie’s a lot more vicious. I would have a drink with Brendan Brady – just the one – but I wouldn’t dare have a drink with Charlie.”
Even two weeks before its release, Charlie Casanova has already proved divisive, with many critics slating the film, and McMahon engaging in a tête à tête with Irish Times critic Donald Clarke over the film’s marketing. But Scanlan isn’t letting the controversy affect him.
“I can’t control that. I’d prefer to make something that you either love or hate. I’d hate to make something that audiences feel nothing about.”