Actor Anthony Welsh, perhaps best known for raw British dramas Starred Up and My Brother The Devil, brings his talent for gritty realism to acclaimed actor, writer and director Paddy Considine’s latest film, Journeyman.
It’s one thing remembering a good film, it’s another remembering exactly where you were when you first saw it. Perhaps that’s the difference between a good film and a great one. For London-born actor Anthony Welsh, seeing writer-director Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur for the first time was a watershed moment.
He was in the Tricycle Theatre on Kilburn High Road, London when he witnessed Considine’s incredible feature film directorial debut and says he left the cinema thinking, “This is the kind of filmmaking I want to be a part of. It was the best thing I’d seen in a long time.” Little did he know that he’d be starring in the filmmaker’s next effort.
In Journeyman he plays Andre “The Future” Bryte, the boxer responsible for delivering the blow that causes Considine’s Matty Burton to suffer brain damage during his last bout. The story, less concerned about the drama inside the ring, focuses on Burton’s road to recovery, his health, personal relationships and marriage forever changed as a result of a desperation to end his coveted career on a high.
It’s the focus on rebuilding a life that takes Journeyman away from typical sports movie conventions. “I think what makes this one different is that really, it isn’t a boxing movie. Boxing is the backdrop to the real story,” Welsh tells me. “It’s about family, forgiveness and endurance. It’s grounded in a reality we can all relate to, hopefully.”
For Bryte, Welsh took inspiration from some of his favourite on-screen boxers (“I can just hear the Rocky film score and get emotional”) as well as real life stars of the ring. Considine also recommended the actor watch interviews with retired boxer and now controversial political activist Anthony Small.
Welsh mentions the likes of Naseem Hamed, Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor because of their confident, self-styled pre-fight “trash talk” but suggests Michael Watson’s fight with Chris Eubank and Gerald McClellan’s defeat at the hands of Nigel Benn stuck poignantly to mind throughout filming. That’s because both matches saw one of the fighters suffer severe brain injury as a result.
Welsh admits, “I kept pictures of them all on my apartment wall as a reminder every day that we were representing real stories, real lives and the pursuit to do them justice was paramount.” In Journeyman, Bryte endures a titanic battle with the determined but aging Burton. After the fight he returns home only to collapse on the living room floor, his resulting coma a delayed reaction to a devastating Bryte punch. When he awakens, a very different kind of fight begins.
“Proud and grateful” to be in the “touching” Journeyman
Welsh says the film is as powerful and touching as he envisaged. I’m in “disbelief that I’m even in it”, he says, adding that he’s “proud and grateful” to have been involved.
While it was hard work, especially the physical training and the dietary requirements to get in shape, Considine insisted they had fun shooting. “Paddy [Considine] would say to me every other day, I just wanna have some fun! He has the whole film in his head. The script is just there so everyone else has a rough idea of what he wants to do. He’s very instinctual, open to ideas, he loves actors and filmmaking in general. He gave me a lot of ownership, which was scary and exciting at the same time.”
Indeed, improvisation helped maintain a level of authenticity and was something the director insisted upon. Welsh remembers one scene in particular. “On the way to training one morning, he told me we’d just shoot the press conference for real and not to worry about the script that much. Bear in mind, the journalists, photographers, security, the promoter and much of the stand-in crowd were all real professionals from the boxing world!
“It was kinda scary, but he encourages and entrusts you in a way that makes you want to step-up. He had a lot on his plate as writer/director/actor, but he really seemed to handle the roles seamlessly. I never felt like I was being directed by the actor or acting with the director, he just wanted what was best for the story and was always enthused and excited every day we were there to tell it.”
Considine’s positive influence is something Welsh will carry with him throughout his career. “I’ve been fortunate in a lot of the jobs that have come my way and I’m very grateful. It usually comes down to the people I’m working with and the story we are telling. It’s hard to say what it is exactly that I look for, but something that excites me, scares me or quite simply something I think I’ll have some fun on.
“Journeyman was tough at times, especially the training and definitely the dieting, but we had so much fun. The thing that appealed to me most was Paddy in all honesty. I auditioned without reading the script. I didn’t even have audition material to read, he just told me what he wanted and I did my best. First time I got to read it, I welled up. It was clear to me I was going to do it even before then.”
Considine, whose credits include memorable performances in Shane Meadows’ A Room For Romeo Brass and Dead Man’s Shoes as well as the meditative Summer of Love, relationship drama In America, and box office hit comedy Hot Fuzz, certainly saw something special in Welsh.
A talent on stage, on TV, and on the big screen
The actor’s talent and experience across stage, big and little screen was presumably a factor. I asked how they differed and whether it was a challenge switching between mediums.
“I think if there’s any difficulty in switching between them, it’s in finding the tone of each project and making those adjustments as quickly as I can. So for instance, I went from Journeyman straight to Fleabag. With Journeyman we had more time, we’d talk and find subtleties organically. Fleabag was awesome, but the tone was very different and I’d have to make that personal adjustment quickly to match everyone, so when our director would say, “On action we need a big laugh”, I can go for it and feel truthful.
“I enjoy the challenge and the variety. Once I’ve done one, I’d like to do the other. In stage-work you get to feel the entire emotional journey in one performance on one night with immediate gratification at the end.
“Screen work is finding truthful moments daily that can be stitched together as a whole piece. They’re all about finding the truth. And yeah, hopefully by doing them all, over time I’ll understand more about what works for me and what doesn’t. The failures and the successes should all help me in my future work.”
“I just hope I get to keep working with great filmmakers and learn as much as I can along the way.”
Anthony Welsh on stage.[/caption]As Welsh prepares to head back to the National Theatre for a second run of a new play called Barbershop Chronicles, I ask about his favourite movies. He’s quick to single out White Men Can’t Jump because of his love of basketball and says Hook was always a favourite growing up. “I literally only realised a few years ago that Hook was Dustin Hoffman,” he says.
“To reel off a few there’s The Five Heartbeats, Love Jones, Mo’ Better Blues, The Godfather, Shawshank Redemption, Good Will Hunting, Boyz in the Hood, Pan’s Labyrinth, Old Boy, A Prophet, Lion King, He Got Game, Forrest Gump, Ninja Scroll and Bullet Boy.
“I became aware of some of these through acting, but most I watched when I worked at a local independent video shop in my college days. I was allowed to take back any films overnight and bring them back the next day, or just watch them in the shop. I got to watch a lot. There’s so many directors I’d love to work with I’d be remiss to name only one. I just hope I get to keep working with great filmmakers and learn as much as I can along the way.”
Journeyman premieres at the BFI London Film Festival in October before a UK theatrical release in February 2018.