TORONTO – Irish actor Brendan Gleeson says he was initially wary of starring in a Newfoundland-set film adapted from a francophone smash.
The “Braveheart” star plays an out-of-work fisherman struggling to make ends meet in “The Grand Seduction,” a comedy based on the 2003 Quebecois hit “La grande seduction,” which claimed the audience award at Sundance.
While his interest in the project was immediate, the versatile actor admits he was also “very suspicious” of how the translation would be handled.
“It was a question of how best to do it,” Gleeson said during a round of interviews at the Toronto International Film Festival last September.
“You know, sometimes these transfers from one language to another can miss the point, so I think the crucial thing was trying to find the essence of what was in the Quebec one and bring it across legitimately into a different culture.”
As in the original, the homespun tale centres on a dying community desperate for jobs.
When word comes down that a factory would consider setting up shop in the picturesque harbour of Tickle Head, Gleeson’s character Murray springs into action, mobilizing the townsfolk to do whatever it takes to win the lucrative contract.
The only problem is that the gutted town needs a resident doctor to qualify for the bid, and there is none.
Fate sends them Dr. Paul Lewis, a big-city doctor forced into a month-long stint in Tickle Head through a chance encounter with the town’s former mayor.
From there, it’s up to the kooky residents — among them a boozy fisherman played by Gordon Pinsent — to slyly convince Lewis that their sleepy town is tailor-made for his big-city tastes.
“Friday Night Lights” hunk Taylor Kitsch plays the jazz-loving, cricket-playing doctor, while Newfoundlanders, including comics Mark Critch, Cathy Jones and Mary Walsh, play some of the conniving townsfolk who secretly cater to the doc’s every whim.
Gleeson said Critch in particular was key to helping him nail the accent and get a feel for Newfoundland’s rich heritage, noting they became “bosom buddies in about two hours flat.”
Gleeson also became acutely aware that the province has been a favourite punchline in the past, and said he strove to make sure his portrayal was as authentic as possible and steered well clear of mockery.
“I get it. I know from home what that is — the paddy-whackery that happens, the ‘little fellows’ and ‘rainbows’ and all that,” said Gleeson, referring to well-worn Irish stereotypes.
“You kind of get a little bit sick of it when it becomes just the default setting for every reference and so I wanted it to have more than that and I think it does, really. And working with the guys over there — the Mark Critches and the Gordon Pinsents and all that kind of stuff — we kind of felt we knew what we were doing.”
Toronto-based director Don McKellar said he hopes Newfoundlanders “feel like it’s their movie and they own it,” noting he took pains to absorb the language and culture while shooting in New Bonaventure and Red Cliff, each several hours from St. John’s, N.L.
That included incorporating local music ditties in one scene where Gleeson picks up a fiddle and actually plays a jig.
“It’s funny, I sort of knew that he played the fiddle and I just thought, ‘This is so great because everyone out there plays an instrument,’” said McKellar, who shot from a script co-written by “La grande seduction” scribe Ken Scott.
“When I said to the people playing the villagers in the film, ‘Who plays accordion? We could use some in this scene,’ (I heard back) ‘Oh, he’s the best.’ ‘This guy.’ ‘He does.’ ‘He does.’ ‘Well, he’s the best one. You should go with him.’
“I was like, ‘Wow, if you did that on a Toronto set you’re not going to have a lot of luck.’ Maybe some guy who plays the guitar.”
Kitsch, too, said he revelled in local pastimes, spending his off-days fly-fishing or wandering down the Skerwink Trail. He was continually blown away by local hospitality, recalling one moment when he was on the hunt for a fishing reel.
“We were at this gas station and a local was there and we were asking him where we can find one because (there were) obviously not a lot of shops around there and he literally just offers his up,” said Kitsch.
“I mean, that is kind of ridiculous.”
“The Grand Seduction” opens May 30.