- 03 Dec 20
After starring in Tom Sullivan’s Irish-language drama 'Arracht', Dónall Ó Héalai was named one of the ‘Stars of Tomorrow’ by Screen International – a list that has included Jessie Buckley, Paul Mescal and Barry Keoghan. He discusses his breakthrough role in the gripping feature.
Dónall Ó Héalai fears that when he found out he was listed on the coveted ‘Stars of Tomorrow’ from Screen International, he may have frightened a whole trainload of people.
“As soon as I read it, I let out a roar,” the Connemara actor laughs. “The person who was sitting opposite gave me the strangest look. But I was over the moon, really. As an actor, Screen International would always be something I looked over, annually. The Irish talent that have come through, from Jessie Buckley to Barry Keoghan to Niamh Algar... to be in any way associated with actors of that calibre is beyond a privilege. It’s humbling and massively inspiring.”
Ó Héalai is fresh from the early success of his Irish-language drama Arracht, which has been selected as Ireland's entry in the foreign language film category for the 2021 Oscar race, after its debut at the Dublin International Film Festival this year. Beginning in 1845 on the eve of the famine, it follows the story of Colmán Sharkey, a man “hunted for and haunted by” a crime he didn’t commit. Unable to keep his family alive, Colmán is subsumed in darkness until he meets and cares for a young child, who ultimately brings him back to life.
The gorgeous-looking Arracht was shot in Lettermullan, around 13 miles west of Galway City. As it turns out, the landscape of the west of Ireland plays a hugely important role in the film.
“I think it’s the first time that part of Connemara has ever been onscreen,” says Ó Héalai. “It was shot in September and October, with this amazing fall-coloured backdrop to the story we’re telling. And much of it was shot at sea, as well, which was exciting and challenging.
“It’s a huge testament to our cinematographer Kate McCullough and what she was able to achieve with the camera. She’s one of the most exciting cinematographers working in the industry at the moment.”
Ó Héalai has spent the past few years in New York and Los Angeles, and couldn’t have wished for a more perfect homecoming project.
“It’s rare as an actor that you get something so close to home and close to the bone,” he says. “Especially as an Irish person, I was very much aware while reading the script that this could easily have been my story – had I been born 170-odd years ago. That was something that really drew me to the film.
“And Tom O’Sullivan, who I’ve worked with in the past, is a tremendous talent and a wonderful director and storyteller. If you watch his work, it’s full of heart and humanity. He put together a script that had a lot of integrity to it.”
Ó Héalai is first to acknowledge that the making of Arracht was a community effort.
“The local people got on board,” he enthuses. “Getting the support of the people where you’re shooting is a really fantastic aspect to filmmaking. It’s something you don’t think about until you experience it.
“It makes such a difference, especially when you’re telling a story of the scale of Arracht, on the budget we had. The success the film has had, they all had their hand in that. From locations, to teaching me how to row a currach. We’re hugely grateful to the people of Lettermullan.”
Ó Héalai may have had to be taught how to row a currach, but one thing he didn’t need schooling for was the Irish language, which he grew up speaking.
“It’s lovely to work with the language in that capacity,” says Ó Héalai. “It’s a gift as an actor to have those opportunities, but it also works in Arracht because it’s true to the times. Films, acting and storytelling are always trying to get at the truth, and as Gaeilge sounds right for the period. It brings authenticity to the piece.
“I think we’re at an interesting place with foreign language films,” he continues, “when you look at the last couple of years with Parasite, and shows like Unorthodox. We’re becoming more willing as audiences to look at material that isn’t in English, and that’s a great thing. It opens up the world to you, as an audience member and as someone who loves film. But then, on the other side, it’s interesting and exciting to see the Irish language have a chance to be operating at that same level.”