Last week saw the 2021 iteration of the all singing, all dancing European Film Promotion Shooting Stars Award (disclaimer: the singing and the dancing may or may not be metaphorical). The awards ceremony, which for over 20 years has championed the brightest up and coming acting talent across Europe, was this year somewhat disrupted by the zany new fad sweeping Europe called the Coronavirus. Having a gaggle of actors, casting agents, executives, and general media leeches like yours truly congregate in Berlin as they ordinarily would was obviously not feasible, so instead we got a virtual program in which we were introduced to an extraordinarily talented decagon of people who have every chance of becoming increasingly ubiquitous as the years progress.
While each of the 37 participating countries are invited to submit an actor for consideration, each year only 10 make the final cut and are bestowed with official Shooting Star status. Since those limitations were first imposed in 2008, Ireland has got a performer over the finishing line five times. Domhnall Gleeson is probably the most notable name to have done so in 2011, while Aisling Franciosi was the last to accomplish it in 2019. This year, however, Ireland transcended ***** status and added a sixth.
In what I can’t imagine is a coincidence, given my wide ranging influence in the Irish film industry, this year’s star also happened to play a pivotal role in one of my most favourite movies I saw last year, the funny, moving, and genuine Dating Amber. Fionn O’Shea caught the eye as the good natured, neurotic, agonisingly closeted Eddie in that film; he was also in a little TV series called Normal People, and he’s about to pop up in the Apple TV project Cherry, starring goddamn Tom Holland and helmed by the goddamn Russo Brothers. And I got to have a little chat with him! Hooray!
After a horrific start where, because of my inexperience with Zoom, I sat in silence for over a minute unaware that Fionn could hear and see me, I managed to ask him the obvious question about his excitement at being part of the Shooting Stars pantheon. His enthusiasm was palpable: “Because there’s such a wealth of talent in Ireland, I felt really really proud and lucky to be Ireland’s selection. So even to be nominated was amazing, and then to be picked, and to be in the company of the other actors who have been chosen is amazing, and then even to be mentioned in the same breath as the other actors who have been selected in previous years is really really cool – some friends of mine, and some role models too. So, yeah, it’s really great.”
Being as close as I’ll ever get in the six degrees of separation to the Russo Brothers, I was curious what it felt like to be working for the directors of, y’know, the highest grossing movie of all time (as well as, of course, You, Me and Dupree, which I actually think is somewhat underrated). Unsurprisingly, Fionn was also thrilled about this, and about the possibility to contribute to adapting Nico Walker’s firecracker of a novel.
“I read the book just after I got cast, I read the script first and then the book, and I just loved it, both the script and the book… It’s kind of a wild, kinetic coming of age story, and I just loved it from the moment I read it and knew it was something I wanted to be a part of. And, honestly, I just felt incredibly lucky to be able to audition for the Russo Brothers, I wasn’t thinking any further than that at the time. I just thought ‘oh my god, this is crazy, they’re actually going to see my face!’ So then, to get the phone call to say I was gonna do it, I couldn’t believe it. There was probably a part of me that thought they’d called the wrong person.”
With Walker’s original novel being heavily autobiographical and covering some of the most painful moments of his own life, it was a reassurance for Fionn to be working with a team so clearly capable of handling the subject matter. “I should say that I play a very small part in that film and feel very lucky to be part of that film, but it was in such safe hands with Joe and Anthony and with Tom. They’re incredible filmmakers and collaborators, and being on that set, I learned so much from them.”
For the majority of the time we had left, I proceeded to interrogate him about his experiences on Dating Amber; first of all, about his insight into working with the excellent Lola Pettigrew, and about how they struck up such a likeable on screen dynamic. “We met in the chemistry reads. There were four Eddies and four Ambers, and as soon as we read together it felt like lightning in a bottle. And I would say I was more confident in Lola getting the part than me getting the part.
“I was so blown away, she’s such a spectacular actor. And I remember in the chemistry reads being like ‘oh my god, she’s so brilliant. She’s going to get this part. Maybe if I stand a little bit closer to her, my odds might go up slightly!’ But as soon as we read together, I think we both knew if we were going to be in the film, that was the combination it was going to be in. She probably wouldn’t have been in the film with someone else, and I probably wouldn’t have been in the film with someone else. It was that perfect a combination.
“And after the audition, we actually hung around for about an hour just chatting, not knowing that either of us were going to get cast. And then we went our separate ways, and then found out we were going to do it, and we had a long rehearsal time where we just hung out. And that was so important to Dave (David Freyne, Dating Amber’s writer/director) to get that relationship right. So, we spent so much time together that the first day on set didn’t feel like the first day on set. Or if it did, it felt like the first day on set with your best friend, and not with someone you met five minutes before. But I think, definitely the glue that brought everyone together on that set, cast and crew alike, was that everyone cared so much about Dave’s script, and getting the film right.”
One of the most impressive things about Dating Amber is how unflinchingly it handles issues of teenage sexuality and mental health, while still being a constantly humorous and warm piece of film. The genuine esteem and affection which the cast felt towards each other was, in Fionn’s eyes, a key factor in being able to strike that balance. “… I think a lot of that came down to the prep beforehand, all the rehearsals, and conversations with Dave and Lola, and also the atmosphere on set was just conducive to everyone doing their best work regardless of what their job was. It was just a really welcoming and open and caring set.
“Often it’s the case that the comedic scenes are a lot harder to get right, and the beats of those scenes can be trickier. And a lot of the rehearsals actually were those scenes, because we wanted to leave some of the more emotional stuff for later on. But definitely the biggest asset for Lola and I was each other, because there were days where you’d do a lot of comedic stuff in the morning, and then you’d run into the night, and finish off the day with something that was really emotionally taxing. And having the other person there to pick you up was just great, and you know, just get you on to the next day. It was really helpful, because you weren’t just going home with those feelings, you were able to vent and talk. Having each other, and Dave of course, was the biggest asset.”
The main thing I took from being able to speak to Fionn over Zoom is that he’s a super down to earth, likeable guy, who radiates a natural enthusiasm for his work, and a slight sense of disbelief that he’s found himself as now, officially, one of Europe’s most highly rated young actors. It’s particularly impressive that from beneath this exterior he’s able to conjure the intensity and suffering to portray someone like Eddie, or even a young man who thinks he’s a German Shepherd in Nathalie Biancheri’s beguiling sounding upcoming film Wolf.
It’s nice when nice people succeed, and nice when talented people succeed, and nice that there are things like the Shooting Stars program with a relatively altruistic interest in giving an artistic platform to people who could do a lot with it. They’ve championed such a wide array of talent over the years, from the aforementioned Domhnall Gleeson to Michaela Coel to Riz Ahmed to Alicia Vikander, and there’s every reason to believe Fionn O’Shea’s career trajectory will mirror theirs. As in, you know…. generally skyrocketing.
STARS! They’re just like us. Fionn O’Shea does not just act in films and TV shows, he also watches them, and consumes music and books as well. I asked him about some of his favourites.
LISTENING TO: “In Waiting by Pillow Queens. It’s amazing, they’re so good, we’re very lucky to have them. What else have I been listening to… the re-release of Love Story by Taylor Swift is something I’ve been listening to, along with Evermore and Folklore.”
WATCHING: “Probably the thing that’s top of my head at the moment is Babyteeth. So beautiful, so brilliant. And I May Destroy You as well, was incredible, oh my god. What an extraordinary piece of television.”
READING: “I’m just about to start On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I was actually given it as a gift by someone on Dating Amber, so I’m looking forward to that. And also Breasts and Eggs by Meiko Kawakami.”