In a cinema always on the look for the next big badass, a towering Irishman named Ray Stevenson is rising to become the real, killer deal. Moving from his country's embattled North to England while a youth, Stevenson pursued a seemingly unlikely career in interior design before watching John Malkovich's combustible stage performance in Burn This. That kind of simmering heat can be said to have driven the most notable roles in Stevenson's career path, whether playing good, evil or, more often, a combination of the two. Stevenson's parts as the knight Dragonet in King Arthur, the most formidable Punisher yet in War Zone, or The Other Guys' sardonic security man Roger Wesley have established the actor as the mercurial Guy Not To Be Messed With--a 'tude perhaps none more memorably essayed than the lustily brutal yet somehow lovable ex-gladiator Titus Pullo through two seasons of HBO's Rome.
Yet no glare that Ray Stevenson has cast pays unnerving tribute to his heritage like Danny Greene, the nigh indestructible, real-life kingpin that had the Cleveland mob crying "Kill the Irishman." A former altar boy who became a legendary union bruiser before going full gangster, Greene's bravado and warped sense of morality would make him into a legendary example of a working-class crook going up against The Costra Nostra--a battle that saw Greene survive repeated assassination attempts that turned Cleveland into a car bomb war zone.
Like the best movie kingpins, Stevenson's magnetic turn as the man who saw himself a Celtic warrior is at once endearing and reprehensible, displaying a vulnerability that's just as quick to turn cold as ice. Tautly directed by The Punisher's Jonathan Hensleigh, Kill the Irishman pits Stevenson against a rogues gallery of great character actors that include Val Kilmer, Tony Lo Bianco and, of course, Christopher Walken in another wily turn as the Jewish numbers man who puts the titular hit out on Greene. But if there's a gang that Stevenson really honors here, it's Michael Caine, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson, all of whom often found themselves playing violent men of honor who rained fire on movie screens. In Ray Stevenson's case, Kill the Irishman seems like the spark of what promises to be a formidable career as one of today's most magnetic hard men.
Daniel Schweiger: Though most people might think you're from England, based on your accent and previous roles, it's surprising to find you're an Irishman.
Ray Stevenson: In fact, the Irish won't let me be Irish because I was born in Northern Ireland, which is British. The British won't let me be English because I wasn't born in England. Good luck to them! I'm an actor, and I don't live anywhere near those places.
DS: Nevertheless, how important was it for you, culturally, to play an Irish character who's very proud of his Irish roots?
RS: Danny is a second or third generation Irish American, so he's first and foremost an American, yet something resonates and stirs within Danny that's culturally older than the religion around him. He feels more and more inside his own skin when he turns toward his Celtic roots.
DS: When you were growing up, did you ever remember any guys like Danny from “the neighborhood”--toughs whom you'd be scared not to respect?
RS: In Northern Ireland, there were soldiers with bullets. There were bombs going off down the street, so you kind of kept to yourself. But every city has its local crime families, and you'd hear scary tales about them. One of the safest places to live was on the same street as the mother of the English crimelords Ronnie and Reggie Kray. There wouldn't be any of those muggings and rapes. It would just be dealt with.
DS: When you read up on Danny, he definitely doesn't seem as “likeable” as your portrayal of him. How importantly was it for you not to romanticize this man?
RS: I don't think we make excuses for Danny, but while we're not trying to glorify him, we also show him as a human being. Danny was a career criminal in that world. He blew people up, and there's carnage on the streets. What I love about the movie most is that it's about his personal journey and finding his own skin, as it were. I think that's what resonates with people. We're all out there trying to find out a little bit more about who we are and why we are, and this is his journey. In that way, Kill the Irishman is a very human story that takes place in this violent, heady world of '70s mobsters. It's more of an intimate crime film.
DS: How did you research Danny?
RS: It's all there--the police reports, documented histories, personal reports, and the biographies. And then there comes a point where you have to start pulling back because you have to play the script. We're not doing a documentary or a pastiche of his life. You can only go so far to get some sort of idea of the guy before you have to play the script.
DS: What was it like to physically transform yourself into Danny?
RS: It was kind of like osmosis. Danny was an ex-boxer and was quick with his fists and balance. So we had to find some physical shape for Danny--where the center of his gravity was--so when he's walking and behaving, you get some feel of the heft of the guy.
DS: You're working with some absolutely terrific American “crime” character actors like Tony Lo Bianco, Vincent D'Onofrio, Paul Sorvino, Vinnie Jones, and Christopher Walken in Irishman. What's it like working with this kind of ensemble?
RS: They're all charismatic guys. We were blessed with this cast because they just had to turn up, and already you've got a great representation of their equally charismatic characters. The villains of the day were like the rock stars and movie stars, so these guys bring it in spades. The mobsters they're playing were larger than life. They were in your face. After this, crime itself got smaller, more sophisticated, and went underground. Now, the more subversive criminals are, the more they disappear from view.
DS: That's certainly not a problem for an actor like you, who excels at playing imposing characters. But would you be scared to actually meet Danny?
RS: If he wanted to meet me, I'd be very scared! When you watch him in a movie, you're kind of glad he's there and can't wait to see what he'll do next, yet he's at such a dark place. I think if you were around him, you'd feel a kind of malevolence.
DS: Danny thinks of himself as Robin Hood, but he's actually robbing from his own people. Where do you think he went wrong in his life? And do you think he could have ever followed the straight and narrow?
RS: I think if Danny had been born to a socially better class and went to better schools and had things provided for him, then he probably would have been a robber baron on Wall Street and committed just as many crimes. But I think Danny was destined to become a career criminal. If he's got no money, then he's robbing banks. If he's got all the privileges, he's robbing companies and people's pension funds. I think that's just the way he was wired.
DS: I think this is the first role I can remember seeing you in that you had hair!
RS: That was great, and I've got hair again coming up again in Thor, where I play Volstagg. I think he phallically makes up for all those other films where I didn't have any hair.
DS: That being said, I think you actually might be playing the most physically fit Volstagg fans have ever seen...
RS: We tried, but we couldn't make him huge. If you went for the real girth that he has in the comic books, it would be ridiculous. But with Marvel's blessing, we decided upon this scale of Volstagg, and hopefully I play him with as much vigor and honesty so you'll get the essence of him on screen. I hope the fans like it.
DS: Your Rome co-star, Kevin McKidd, talked about the possibility of a movie based on the show, which remains one of my favorites. Have there been any new developments with it?
RS: I wish. I read a script, but it's a tricky sell. In order to finance the film and distribute it, the powers that be would need to have some recognizable box office names in there. So who do you lose for the TV series so you can put that box office name in there? And if you did that, would you still have Rome? So if you used everybody that was in the TV series, alas, the money wouldn't be in place to finance your movie. It's a bit of a Catch 22.
DS: How do you think you fit into the tradition of action anti-heroes?
RS: I love the opportunity to do this type of stuff. I think each role brings different qualities and I get to work with like-minded people, which I think is a big key in this business.
DS: Is there a completely different role you'd like to play? Perhaps one that Hollywood wouldn't think you're capable of?
RS: Oh Lordy, I really don't know. I'd like to play a midget because you'd have to make everybody around me really big.
Interview transcribed by Peter Hackman.
Anchor Bay Film's Kill the Irishman opens in theaters this Friday, March 11th.