Actor Ben Barnes discusses the incredible true story of Killing Bono, getting both the Irish accent and the music down, future projects, and much more.
Most movies based on a true story already have a built-in audience, fans of the subject matter. The wonderful new indie release Killing Bono, which is currently available on video on demand formats and will hit theaters November 4, is unique because it will appeal to both fans and haters of the mega-group U2. Killing Bono is based on the memoir of Neil McCormick, a childhood friend of Bono, The Edge, and the rest of U2. For years, Neil McCormick tried to achieve the same success as U2, while constantly living in their shadow, and this hilarious and heartfelt tale brilliantly shows us both the highs and lows of the cutthroat music business. Ben Barnes, best known to fans of The Chronicles of Narnia as Prince Caspian, delivers a phenomenal performance as Neil McCormick in Killing Bono, and I recently had the chance to speak with the actor over the phone about this wonderful music-themed drama. Here's what he had to say below.
I'm not particularly a music person, but I always love these kinds of stories. I was wondering how familiar you were with Neil's story before you signed on?
Ben Barnes: Well, before I read the script, not at all. I had never heard of him, and I don't think most people had ever heard of him, which is sort of really the point, isn't it? I was sitting in my trailer, filming the third Narnia movie, and this script arrived. It was a very, very long break. I think they were changing the blue screen for a green screen or something like that (Laughs). I managed to read through the whole script, and by the middle of it, I was literally using my prop sword as a guitar, pretending to be this clown, dancing around my trailer, thinking it was hilarious. As soon as I finished, I ordered the book that Neil had written, which is slightly self-deprecating. I read that in about a week, so I was pretty familiar with it by the time I had sent my audition tape off to the director.
What was more work for you in this, prepping to be this pseudo-rocker, or getting the Irish accent down? I thought both aspects were rather effective.
Ben Barnes: Well, I think the accent was something that sort of took over my life for a little bit. I decided just to, basically, stay in character for the entire shoot of the movie. We shot in Belfast, and as soon as I arrived in Ireland, I had the accent nearly there. Once I got there, I tested it out in public. Robert (Sheehan), who played Ivan, and I would go to pubs and I'd go up and order the Guinsess' for us. I'd just see if I could get away with it, and once I started getting away with it, it gives you confidence. But I was speaking with my friends and family on the phone in the evenings, in the accent. Once we wrapped shooting, it took me about two weeks to figure out how I sounded like before. I loved doing the music stuff. That was a real treat. We went to a studio for a few weeks in Northern Ireland, out in the country. They have some great producers, and it was such a wonderful, relaxing place. I just got to sing my ass off for a few weeks. It was like I was making my first album (Laughs). There was an irony that was not lost on me, which is that Neil and Ivan McCormick, in real life, would've given their left testicles to go and have this experience, which I had in playing them.
That's great. Did you get to spend any time with Neil himself?
Ben Barnes: I didn't spend any time with him before the shoot, because the director didn't want a copycat of him. He was like, 'No one knows who he is, so no one cares if you're like him or not.' I was basically playing what my interpretation of the man in the book. Then he came to visit, actually during the scene where I hold the gun up to Bono. He came to visit that day, and yeah. I think he was, at first, slightly bemused by the fact that I was playing him as such an idiot. He sent me a nice message once he saw it, and the family saw it. The family said, 'That's exactly how you were.'
I loved his aggressive optimism, no matter how misguided it is. It's funny too because, if you look at it in some ways, he's making good choices, but in the long run, these choices lead to such a different path.
Ben Barnes: Aggressive optimism. That's great. That's the polite way of saying pigheaded and bullish, this maniacal ambition. But you're supposed to feel empathy for this guy, because a lot of people strive for things and never quite get them. Sometimes success comes in ways you don't expect. This man is know a very talented and respected writer. He's a music journalist now, and that's his real talent.
It's cool that it took this kind of a crazy journey to find his actual calling, in writing.
Ben Barnes: He still doesn't buy it. That's the thing, even now. He still thinks that someday, someone will... even in the making of this film. He thought, 'Ah, people will see this film, and then we'll be able to do a new album.'
(Laughs) Oh really?
Ben Barnes: Yeah! He still believes, and Ivan still plays in a band. He plays in a wedding band called The 39 Fingers. There's four of them, but their piano player is missing a finger. They are still these clowns, in some regard.
I do respect that he's trying to do this on his own, and if he would've taken Bono's help, it might have been a completely different thing, but he would've been riding on the coattails of U2.
Ben Barnes: Well, especially now in the entertainment world, you take every leg up you can get. People are always like, 'Yeah, well that person's dad was a director,' or whatever. It's kind of like a weird, begrudging thing, but everybody knows that this whole business is about legs up and favors and flirting, all that kind of stuff. People love the story about how I grew up on a farm and then, suddenly, I was in a school play and somebody saw me and I auditioned and did this indie movie. Now, suddenly, I'm playing Batman, or whatever. It doesn't happen that way, though, for 99 percent of people. Also, you've got to play in the factor of chance and fate and luck, just being in the right place at the right time. It's not for lack of trying that the McCormick's didn't make it, you know. It might have been for lack of talent (Laughs).
You said you had a lot of time to work with the rest of your band in the film. I loved all the performances in here, especially yours and Robert's. Did that early training help you get into character more, along with getting the music stuff down?
Ben Barnes: Well, Robbie only sings a harmony on one song, so actually in the studio, it was mostly just me most of the time. But we did have a couple of days, at the beginning. We had that discussion and we had to laugh about how desperate they needed to be to have done this. After shooting every night, we'd go and watch films together, anything Irish, musical, or anything vaguely related to these characters. We definitely had a vibe going on very quickly.
I was wondering if you could talk a bit about working with your director, Nick Hamm, and what kind of style he brought to the set?
Ben Barnes: His style was very much like lighting a firework under everyone's feet at the beginning of every day. He would get the energy up for the day. The first thing it needs is this sort of raging energy, and he certainly gave it that. And he grew up around this kind of music and this time and he's very passionaate about telling the story. He's got a good sense of humor too.
Is there any movement on a fourth Narnia movie at all?
Ben Barnes: The only rumblings I heard were they might do The Magician's Nephew, which is sort of the prequel, next. I don't think I'd be involved, either way, because my character in The Silver Chair would be in his 70s. Unless they are going to wait like 40 years, and then do The Silver Chair, just so I could be the right age, which I don't think is a bad idea, by the way. Maybe just keep me on a retainer until then.
You could always do the Benjamin Button thing.
Ben Barnes: Exactly. Well, I don't know what the plan is, but I think I'm sort of out of it, for the moment.
You have some really fantastic projects coming up with The Seventh Son, The Wedding, and The Words. Is there anything you can say about those projects?
Ben Barnes: Yeah. I've already shot The Words and The Wedding. I shot The Words in Montreal, and it's a pretty amazing city. We had great directors on that film. The cast is obviously amazing. I didn't really get to meet the cast, because that film is sort of written in three sections. It's a very interesting story about morality and perspective. I think it was one of those things where every actor who read it was like, 'That's really interesting.' It was interesting to see Bradley Cooper and people like that do something really different and dramatic. I think he's going to be amazing in it. The Wedding was an incredible experience. I got to work with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Katherine Heigl, who I thought were all wonderful. It was a great learning experience for me, and I think it's going to be really funny. I'm the groom, so I'm stuck with this ridiculous dysfunctional family swirling around me. I'm the exasperated guy in the middle of it all. I hope that will be very funny too, and it's very sweet in its own way as well. It's kind of like Meet the Parents, but with a lot of swearing.
Do you know when production is going to start on The Seventh Son?
Ben Barnes: I think The Seventh Son starts shooting in March. At the moment, I hear it's going to be Vancouver and China. I've seen some of the artwork for it, and it looks like nothing I've ever seen.
There's another wonderful cast put together for that as well.
Ben Barnes: Oh yeah. Jeff Bridges is one of my favorite actors in the history of ever. After working with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, and previously I've worked with Colin Firth, and working with Jeff Bridges next year, I'm surrounding myself with my idols. There's no better way to learn than that, really. I don't know how I've managed to get here.
Finally, what would you like to say to anyone who's curious about Killing Bono about why they should check it out on demand right now or in theaters November 4?
Ben Barnes: I'd say if you're a massive Bono fan, or if you detest Bono, both are very good reasons to see this film. It's just not your run-of-the-mill movie. It's not in any particular genre. It's very, very funny and stupid and silly, but underneath it all, it's not like the American Dream. It's not the huge success story you're expecting. It's a story about everyone who doesn't make it, which I think is doubly interesting.
That's about all I have, Ben. Thanks so much. It was great to talk to you.
Ben Barnes: Great. Thanks so much.