James Frecheville may not be a household name, but he’s been around for a while. “It’s not for lack of trying,” Frechville says, his tone sincere. Frechville’s starring role in Black ’47 came after a Skype interview, in which he was all but promised the role. “You’re the guy to do it,” Frechville recalls director Lance Daly telling him.
Months elapsed before Frecheville was signed on, but from there the preparations began.
Frechville said: “One of the things about this film that helped was having time to prepare.
“I was able to learn the dialect – especially when your character is communicating through these emotional channels, you have to know what you’re saying.”
The Irish dialect, which few people speak, Frecheville pulled off so flawlessly some people thought he was Irish and not, in fact, Australian.
“A friend of mine told me I look like I could be from Connemara,” he admits.
Preparing for the accent wasn’t the only thing that took time.
James Frecheville: The actor asked his friend to snap this pic especially for Express.co.uk
He said: “Before Black ’47, I had never ridden a horse, so I had time to learn in America before going to Ireland.
“I had to get in the physical shape to be confident doing what my character needed to do.”
The character in question is Martin Feeny, an Irish soldier who, having deserted the army, returns to Ireland to find his mother died of starvation, his brother hanged.
The setting is Ireland during the height of the potato famine and English ethnic cleansing of the country.
The film’s title refers to 1847, the worst year of the Irish famine, a potato blight that between 1845 and 1850 killed more than 1 million people.
Black 47’s setting – the famine, colonialism, forced religious conversions – exists almost separate from Feeny’s story, which is one of vengeance.
Feeny, staying with his now widowed sister-in-law, is told the story of his family’s demise. He tells the family he wants to take them to America to escape the famine, but before he can the bailiffs come to evict their family and arrest Feeny’s nephew.
Feeny’s nephew hits a soldier and the cycle repeats itself – in the fray, Feeny is arrested.
But Feeny breaks free and kills six cops as he escapes and when he returns home finds his sister-in-law and her baby having frozen to death.
Knowing he will be found and hanged himself, Feeny decides to take his revenge for the death of his family in something of a suicide mission. “He falls back on the only thing he knows – his training as a soldier,” Frecheville says.
Black ’47 is both a deeply personal story of revenge and also a lesson in history.
Despite the fictitious events personal to the Feeny clan, the events of the famine are wholly true, which wasn’t lost on Frecheville: “The story is so devastating and one not fully understood today.”
Black 47: Frecheville stars as Martin Feeny, a man whose life has been destroyed by the famine
But Frecheville approached the role, and the weighty history heaped on his shoulders, with a singular approach – Feeny’s revenge.
“I don’t think salvation was on his mind; he already knew he was going to hell and after he killed six police officers.
“Maybe he thought they would get him, so he figured – I’m going to make you suffer before I go.”
When asked about his character’s motivations, religious beliefs, and reasons for deserting, Frecheville answers mostly with ‘maybes’, as if the character he built from the ground up had a life before him that Frecheville himself can only partly understand.
“Maybe he saw his whole regimen get wiped out, and he was left thinking ‘why am I here’,” he says of Feeny’s desertion.
“Maybe he thought the only good thing he could do to balance out the thirteen years of war in Afghanistan was to get his family to America,” he says of Feeny’s motivations.
Despite the way Frecheville hedges his own character work, he speaks with the confidence of someone who has studied not only the history but also the character.
Black 47: Huge Weaving and James Frecheville have a tense camaraderie in the movie
He said: “Famine happens in colonised countries. They could have had enough food and clothes for the people, but because of politics, it was exported.
“Did you know Ireland used to be one of the most forested countries, but that wood was used to build English naval ships?” he asks.
Reminding the audience of this context was not Frecheville’s job, however – his job was to build a character shaped by these events.
“As an actor, you owe trust to the editors, and the DP and the director, and the way the shot is framed. It’s my job to come in with a fully cooked character,” he says.
Martin Feeny was certainly fully cooked, and Frecheville so inhabited the man that, once filming was over, he spent some time with a friend in the countryside readjusting to 21st-century life.
“As an actor, it’s my job to do this slightly schizophrenic thing, but I think if I’d had to go straight back to a city it might’ve undone me. Who knows,” he says with a faint laugh.
Black 47: Out on Digital Download today and DVD/Blu-ray from December 26
Frecheville speaks with a soft sincerity, a self-assuredness as far from arrogance as you can get.
“I’d like to try a comedic role,” he says. “I always thought I’d be better as a clown than a maniac.”
Though Martin Feeny is somewhat maniacal, he is far from being unempathetic – it’s impossible to watch Black ’47 without feeling angry at the injustice.
Anyone doubting if the callousness the English (Jim Broadbent’s Lord Kilmichael and Freddie Fox’s Officer Pope) is plausible need look no further than the way some in power speak about refugees and immigrants today.
Whatever relevance to current day struggles around class, immigration, and nationality Black ’47 has, it is left to the audience to draw the parallels.
Unlike Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, which plays heavily on current events, Black ’47 is set solely in history.
“There was a lot of responsibility to tell this story,” Frecheville acknowledged. “I’m honoured I was able to.”
Out on digital today and available on DVD & BluRay 26 December.