14 Sep 2015

Meet Moe Dunford

Charles Gant catches up with the Irish actor, a 2015 Shooting Star who is currently juggling work on a new movie with his recurring role in TV's Vikings

Moe Dunford © Vittorio Zunino Celotto-Getty Images for European Shooting Stars

By any measure, Irish actor Moe Dunford has enjoyed a pretty remarkable nine months. It began on his birthday last December, when he received the news that he’d been chosen as one of the ten Shooting Stars, having first been submitted for jury  consideration by the Irish Film Board. On February 6 this year, Patrick’s Day, in which he has the starring role, opened in Ireland, hot on the heels of premieres in his home town of Dungarvan and Dublin. That was also the day Dunford flew to Berlin for his participation in the Shooting Stars activities, culminating in receiving his award on stage at the Berlinale Palast from Natalie Portman.

In April, on the set of History Channel series Vikings, in which he plays Aethelwulf, he learned that he’d been nominated both as Rising Star and Best Actor at the Irish Film and Television Awards, for his performance in Patrick’s Day. A month later, he won the latter prize, beating Colin Farrell, Michael Fassbender and his good friend Jack Reynor – another of Ireland’s fast-rising talents. “I thought they were having me on, to be honest,” says the winningly cheerful and self-deprecating Dunford. “It was such a great night, and we were all on such a high, as the referendum result on gay marriage in Ireland had been announced the night before, when the whole country exploded. Patrick’s Day was my first movie. To be in that category was something very special.

”Whether as a consequence or not, three days after the awards ceremony, he received a message from John Butler, director and co-writer of The Stag, starring 2004 Shooting Star Andrew Scott. Butler’s new film, Handsome Devil, is a coming-of-age tale that brings two teachers into conflict after two 16-year-olds form an unlikely alliance. “John asked me to meet up to talk about the role of Mr Sherry, the English teacher, in the vein of Mr Keating from Dead Poets Society. I read it, and Andrew Scott came into my head! John said, ‘To be honest, I do have someone else in mind. I just wanted to meet you. What do you think of the other part: the rugby teacher, Pascal?"

Dunford’s head was full of Mr Sherry, and couldn’t see himself as Pascal, so they parted cordially. A month later, he suddenly had an epiphany that gave him access to the character, “this homophobic guy who’s trying to succeed via this talented rugby-playing boy who’s just joined the school”. Despite surmising that it was now too late, he messaged Butler, who immediately replied, “That’s the strangest thing ever. I was just about to email you to ask if you wanted to audition for the part.” Shortly after, he was handed the role.

The film, which does indeed co-star Andrew Scott as the other teacher, started shooting in August, and wraps in a few weeks. Dunford is currently dividing his time between it and the fourth season of Vikings, which has just cranked up for a 20-episode run, double the length of the previous seasons. It’s a far cry from a couple of years ago, when he went up for the lead role of Patrick’s Day, playing a man with mental illness who tries to escape the protective bond of his mother (Kerry Fox) when he surprisingly finds love with a troubled flight attendant (Catherine Walker). After several auditions, writer-director Terry McMahon told him he wanted him for the part, but it would be a battle to convince the financiers. “Understandably,” explains Dunford. “I wasn’t known.” Eventually, a united front by McMahon, seasoned producer Tim Palmer (Into the West) and casting director Rebecca Roper won the day.

Dunford was born in Cork in south-west Ireland, but largely grew up in Dungarvan, county Waterford, about 80km to the east. It was when his father started running a pub in Cork, when he was eight years old, that his movie education really began. His schoolteacher mother would take Moe (christened Maurice) and his brother up for the weekend, and while his parents were busy in the bar downstairs, “I would be watching movies upstairs on the cable channels, high on as much Lucozade and robbed bacon fries as I could find.” Adds Dunford, “I saw Leon. I saw Walkabout. Not the type of movie that an eight-, nine-year-old kid would be watching, but somehow we were glued to it. I even saw Showgirls. The less said about that the better, the psychological trauma it caused me.”

An English teacher at school, Mr Lake, first got young Moe interested in literature, although acting only followed when he auditioned for West Side Story, in the doomed hope of winning back an ex-girlfriend who had been cast as Maria. He was admitted to Dublin’s University College Cork, signing up for classes in English, music, history, psychology. “I was enrolled, but I never went,” says Dunford. “I didn’t show up to college at all. I stayed in a house with 10 or 11 of my friends from school, and I was drinking and partying at my house. I totally flunked.”

Before the year was up, he instead applied to the city’s Gaiety School of Acting, auditioning with a monologue from a Neil Simon play combined with Irish playwright John B Keane’s Sive. He was admitted, and went on to pick up representation from prominent Irish agency Lisa Richards on the back of his graduation showcase. Plays, and TV work followed, until Patrick’s Day came along in the summer of 2013 – an experience that has evidently made quite an impression on the actor. "As a filmmaker, Terry's an inspiration, because he's not afraid to be outspoken and tackle issues about Ireland's darker side," says Dunford, adding that he hopes to work with McMahon on another film project. Meanwhile, he acquired an agent and manager in Los Angeles, and has subsequently been out for casting meetings.

Still, Dunford had never experienced anything quite like Shooting Stars, which is arranged by organisers European Film Promotion to coincide with the annual get-together for the International Casting Directors Association. “The speed dating thing,” says the actor, referencing the frenetic session in which the attending casting directors meet all ten Shooting Stars in rapid succession, “it’s something I’d never witnessed in my entire life. I spent so many years as an actor trying to get seen by one particular casting director in Ireland, and you might meet them once in three years. And all of a sudden you have a premiere of your film, you're shipped over to Berlin, you're sitting in a seat and the casting director of Bond is walking up to you, five minutes later another casting director, and then you meet 30 casting directors in two hours. It was like: Bring on the party!"

The surreality of the occasion continued when he received the Shooting Star trophy from Natalie Portman – whose performance in Leon had made such an impact on Moe as a child. "The eight-year-old boy in me was laughing that night," says Dunford. "When we were all backstage, it was like being in a dreamlike state. I really took on board how giving Natalie was, how giving with her time to the ten of us. And it really hit me what she said. She said, you'd think it gets easier, but it never does."

Now back on the set of Vikings, Dunford admits that one thing that "has" become easier is the action component of his role. He remembers shooting the early episodes: "The horse master Tony Doyle put the fear of God into me. 'You're riding it like a camel! You like like a donkey! Riding a camel!' I learned on the job. I have to lead armies and charge and face Vikings head on. It's now my favourite part of the job, the action and the stunts. I can ride now, one-handed, no-handed, swinging a sword. Horse riding used to be just something I'd have on my CV in the hope that I'd get a gig."