Close-up: Liam Cunningham

Can the actor's role as a priest help Ireland come to terms with its past?

When Liam Cunningham was invited to audition for Hunger, Steve McQueen's film about the 1981 IRA hunger strike in Northern Ireland's Maze prison, his reaction was hardly one of delight. "As soon as Bobby Sands' name was mooted, I grimaced; it's still an open wound in Ireland," says the 47-year-old Dubliner.

The 27-year-old Sands starved himself to death in 1981 in an attempt to win political-prisoner status, and remains an emotive symbol of the complexity of Ireland's past. "I remember all these black flags in windows in Dublin at the time," Cunningham recalls. "And there was Margaret Thatcher on TV trying to dehumanise these men."

It was the combination of McQueen's thoughtful approach and Enda Walsh's powerful script that led Cunningham to accept the role of the prison priest with whom Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) debates the morality of his protest. Their impassioned exchange – shot in an incredible, 22-minute single take – is the centrepiece of a largely dialogue-free film. "When Steven told us how he wanted to shoot it, Michael and I looked at each other and said, 'We'll have to move in together.' We spent five days going through that scene 15 times a day. The assistant producer would come round to slide our lunch under the door."

Having played an IRA member in Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), does Cunningham see Ireland coming to terms with its past through such films? "It's a measure of the peace process that we are able to deal with this on screen," he reflects. "Some beautiful art has come out of a horrific situation."

'Hunger' (15) is screened today and tomorrow at the London Film Festival ( www.bfi.org.uk/lff/). It is released in cinemas on 31 October

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
Sport
football
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us