I Was Nearly a Film Star

In terms of being a ‘star’, the title is a little misleading, but on a couple of occasions I was associated with the making of a movie.

The first occasion took place in California, during my travels through America in the late 1960s, when I and a couple of friends met a Hollywood agent who worked with the movie studio, MGM. In turn, he introduced us to the producer/director George Englund who was in the early stages of producing the movie The Dark of the Sun (known in the UK as The Mercenaries), based on a Wilbur Smith novel. Englund was probably best known for the movie The Ugly American, starring his best friend Marlon Brando.

We became very friendly and he asked where I was from. I told him, I was from Ireland and had just driven 3,500 miles on my own in a Volkswagen Beetle across Canada. Now with a couple of new friends, I wanted to see something of America. This struck a chord with Englund. He wanted to know would I be prepared to drive a Toyota Landcruiser another 3,500 miles across America, from Los Angeles to Miami? He was going to make a movie in Jamaica and he needed to ship the vehicle out of Miami Port to the island.

I jumped at the chance, when he said he would pay me to make the trip. My friends would join me for the journey, and we would also have the opportunity as extras in his movie. We collected the Landcruiser from his home the next day and headed for the East Coast. After an agreed delivery of two weeks, which we used to see more of the states we drove through, we arrived in Florida. Delivering the vehicle to the port was, for me, the end of another marathon journey.

Unfortunately, due to family circumstances at home, I couldn’t take up the opportunity for a part in the movie. My friends also opted out. Instead, we spent some time in the Bahamas, until we parted, and I headed for Canada before flying back to Ireland.

The next time I was offered a part as an extra in a movie, would take place many years later in Belfast, and on that occasion, I was able to accept it.

It was pretty much an accident how it happened. On a trip into Belfast, I was told about a local leisure centre being used by a film company, who were looking to employ extras for a movie they were about to make in the Titanic Quarter’s new Paint Hall Studio. However, when I arrived at the main door to the centre, I discovered there were hundreds of men and women inside, all hopefuls for a part in the movie, waiting to be interviewed. It was obvious it would take hours to go through the selection process, and I still had no idea what sort of movie it was going to be, or how many would be picked for a part.

I had some free time while working on a few ideas for a book, and was only there out of curiosity. I saw no point in staying, so I turned around to leave the centre. I had only taken a few steps when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It belonged to a young woman carrying a clipboard. ‘Are you not staying for the photo shoots?’ she asked.

I didn’t know what she was talking about; explaining that I had a train to catch and couldn’t stay too long. She shook her head and explained that they looking for a certain number of men, and thought I would fit into the next group to be selected. I never discovered why she thought that, but she took my details, then guided me through the crowd to have a few photos taken. Afterwards, she said I would be contacted with more information on the production schedule.

Not really knowing what I was letting myself in for, I agreed a contract on what would turn out to be a very unexpected and rewarding, three months of film work.

My part as an extra was confirmed a few weeks later. I was to report early each morning to the Paint Hall in Belfast’s old shipyard overlooking Belfast Lough, where many of the great ships, including the Titanic, were once launched.

City of Ember, a production by Playtone, a Tom Hanks and Walden Media company, would star Saoirse Ronan, Tim Robbins and Bill Murray. The film is based on a science fiction children’s novel by the author, Jeanne DuPrau, and tells the story of Ember, a post-apocalyptic city and its population, situated deep underground. The electricity supply is failing and supplies are running low, threatening Ember with extinction. The core of the story is played out by two children who suspect there is a way out of the city to another world – which happens to be the Earth’s surface.

My own small (non-speaking) part was that of a shopkeeper who spends most of his time standing outside his shopfront door, overlooking a cobbled street, watching the people walk by towards the city centre. This included a scene where one of the children, played by Ronan, sprints past the shop, followed by a running cameraman wearing a Steadicam, a body-mounted camera, strapped to his chest, allowing him to keep his shots stable.

This scene was repeated several times, and little did I think I was witnessing the rise of a very talented and future international movie star.

Outside the shooting of the film, probably one of the most impressive aspects was the construction of the ‘City’ by highly-skilled, local craftsmen. Complete with Dickensian-old-style buildings and cobbled streets, beautifully created inside a huge, abandoned, old building, originally meant for the painting of ships, it was hard to believe Ember was all make-believe.

I had a wonderful time during my involvement with City of Ember, but sad to say, any shots of myself ended up on the cutting room floor. I was not meant for stardom, but I do retain some great memories of my connection with the movie business.

W.L.