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Art imitating life

Singer- songwriter Niall McNamee told David Hennessy about his new film that sees him play a struggling musician, his time playing in Irish pubs in London and working on the building sites where people didn’t believe he had starred with Jackie Chan.

Niall McNamee is a singer-songwriter and actor.

He gets to do both in his current film Love Without Walls where he plays a struggling musician and writes the songs for the film’s soundtrack which have also now been released as an EP. The film will screen at the ICC in Hammersmith this weekend when Niall will also take part in a Q and A and perform some of the songs from the film.

“It is the perfect mix,” Niall told The Irish World when we asked how he enjoyed combining his music and acting.

“I love doing both and there’s pros and cons to both, but I never thought I would get the chance to be in a movie playing a songwriter and all the songs would be my own. It’s a bit of dream.”

Niall has previously featured on hit shows such as Call the Midwife and Bad Sisters, shared the screen with Pierce Brosnan and fought with Jackie Chan.

Throughout his years as a struggling young actor, Niall supported himself by playing in Irish pubs in London while he also worked on the building sites and did ‘every job under the sun’.

He also had a stint playing GAA with Fulham Irish although he admits that auditions prevented him from togging out too much.

Love without Walls sees Niall’s character and his girlfriend, played by Shana Swash (formerly of Eastenders and sister of Joe) struggle with the cost of living crisis and then homelessness.

Filmed in the bleak early days of 2021 when streets were still emptied by the UK’s third enforced lockdown, the film has already won Best UK Feature at the Manchester Film Festival, Best UK Feature at the London Independent Film Festival and has been nominated for four National Film Awards.

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With its current themes, Love without Walls is a story that will be familiar to plenty in 2023’s climate.

“Not only is there more people on the streets than ever it feels like but we’re also living in a society that is increasingly not using cash so if you see someone on the street who’s homeless, no one has anything.

“You’re getting to the point where you go, ‘Is there going to be a homeless charity that donates them card machines or something?’

“Because it’s unmanageable. To be honest anyone who has some kind of ‘sensible’ reason as to why they don’t give money to homeless people, I just tell them to f**k off, ‘They’ll only spend it on beer’, let ‘em spend it on beer but just give them it.

“I find it very hard not to give money to homeless people because I always think the amount of sh*t we spend money on, even if it’s a chocolate bar or a pint, anything like that that you don’t really need.

“There should be no one on the streets.”

But once you fall down, it can be hard to get back up.

“This movie shows it. It shows all the stages of becoming homeless, how quickly it can happen, how it can happen to anyone.

“Anyone who’s lost their phone or their wallet or their ID, you realise quickly you can’t get anything done, how quickly you fall off the system.

“If you lose your keys and you need to get in but you don’t have your address or proof of address.

“You need to get a bank account but you haven’t got your phone, suddenly you can fall off the radar so quickly and the world shrugs its shoulders and goes, ‘There’s nothing we can do’.

“That’s happened to me on weekends where I’ve lost a few things and I felt like I’m off the radar, let alone being homeless.”

You’re a musician like your character in the film. There must have been lean times of not knowing where the next pay cheque was coming from…

“Yeah, definitely. One of the things I’m proudest of in London is when I was early 20s I managed to build up enough pubs to play in because I worked on the building sites before, and I had a white van and I was doing deliveries.

“I’ve done every job under the sun, and hard graft as well.

“Every now and again I’ll have a nightmare of a truck arriving outside a building site with a load of lead on it because I remember having to carry that up the stairs- You know moments that stick in your mind as an 18 year old on the building site? Just couldn’t believe how heavy this bit of lead was, just insane.

“But definitely there’s been a lot of lean times and you’re never far away from them so you’ve got to kind of keep going and work wherever you can, but I’ve never been too proud to roll up my sleeves and do work.

“I suppose the difficult thing in my line of work is it is a bit up and down sometimes.

“I think the difficulty is finding a job that accommodates the fact that you’re going to have to maybe go for an audition in the middle of the day.

“Because I used to go and start on a building site and two days in, I’d get an audition for some small, tiny thing and they would be like, ‘Don’t come back’.

“’Oh right, so for an audition I’ve got to go and find another job’.

“That was the stressful point for me, having to find a new job every time I got an audition.

“Sometimes you would be in a regular job, ‘This is keeping me steady here. This is keeping me really steady’.

“And then you get offered an acting job and you go and do it and you’d have a great time.

“You’d do the play and you’d go and get pissed with your mates and it would just be this amazing time where you forgot you were ever on a building site and then the last day of the play comes and you go, ‘Oh sh*t, I have to go back to the building site again’.

“So you are kind of searching for that be all and end all job.”

Born in Leicester, Niall grew up in the Dundalk area although where he was living was nearer to South Armagh.

“I’m 29 now and I moved to London when I was 18 so it will be eleven years in September which is mental.

“I love London, it’s been very good to me.

“I know a lot of people who are my age who have lived in London for six or seven years, they studied somewhere and then came here.

“It’s only now I’m realising how young and nearly brave it is at 18 just to go up to a building site at 18 in London and go, ‘I wanna work here, I’m an actor by the way’, it’s insane.

“When I see 18 year olds now I go, ‘That was me’, you know?”

Did you skip college altogether then? “I moved to Chiswick in London first to go to a drama school in Chiswick called Arts Ed which was going to be a three year course and then maybe three months in, it just wasn’t working for me really.

“I think I was too impatient. I thought drama school was going to be this thing where you went there and you did shows in front of agents and all that and then you kind of got out there and started working as soon as you could.

“I remember asking them early on- they always said I was a bit too eager, I was never concentrating on what we were doing, I was always going, ‘What’s next? What’s next?’- And I remember saying, ‘So when do we do a show in front of agents?’

“And they said at the end of third year so I went, ‘Right, so I’m here for three years definitely?’

“They were like, ‘Yeah’.

“I remember going, ‘I’ll be 21 then, I’ll be over the hill. What’s the point?’

“I remember there was a girl who was 21 and she was in her first year and I remember thinking, ‘Bloody hell, she’s left it too late, hasn’t she?’

“It worked out. I’m glad I left because knowing what my attitude was at the time, my eagerness and all that, I would’ve wasted three years because I didn’t want to learn anything.

“I just wanted to do it and I probably didn’t realise how much I had to learn.

“But it all worked out, I left and- right place at the right time- within a few months I was playing Romeo in Romeo and Juliet in the West End and playing Edward Heath as well.

“I got an agent from that and it all started kicking off then and before I knew it, I was fighting Jackie Chan,” Niall can’t help but laugh at the last statement himself.

“It was bonkers.

“I auditioned for this thing I wasn’t allowed to know the name of.

“All I knew was that I was an IRA man in it and I was the last one on the day.

“The casting director was like, ‘Listen, sorry. Lovely to meet you. We are running really late and we need to go and collect the kids from school so whilst you’re doing your auditioning, we’re just going to be packing up if you don’t mind’.

“I remember thinking. ‘What’s the point of me auditioning, learning these lines?’

“And then a week later my agent rang me and said, ‘You’re fighting Jackie Chan’ and sent me the script of this movie called The Foreigner where I kill Jackie Chan’s daughter and he comes after me.

“I said, ‘Right, when do we start?’

“And she said, ‘You’re getting collected tomorrow and you’re in the gym with Jackie Chan and the stunt team for two weeks going through this big fight scene’.

“I remember the first day of filming was the day after Ireland beat Germany, Shane Long scored that goal.

“I remember going to O’Neill’s in Kingston to watch that game. I must have had three pints, not much but on my first day I slept in, I was four hours late to fight Jackie Chan- The fear. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, for the rest of my life I am going to have to live with the fact that I got sacked the day before I started filming with Jackie Chan and it never happened’.

“But luckily all the team rallied round and often you get taken to set hours and hours before you’re needed anyway so they just kept it quiet.

“I had a nickname from then on, ‘Sleeper Cell’.”

Jackie Chan didn’t beat you up for real for being late then? “No, he was lovely. He was so nice actually and wow, f**king wow, seeing him fight up close.

“I didn’t have to do anything in the end. I just stood there, he nearly moved my arms- unbelievable.

“Sometimes I forget that, it’s an insane thing to have done.

“Pierce Brosnan was in it as well and he was lovely.

“And then back to the building sites, ‘Oh you’re an actor, what have you been in?’

“And you say, ‘I’ve just filmed with Jackie Chan’, ‘Yeah, sure you have’.

“That was the worst thing about it. Until it came out, no one believed me which I understand.

“It was mad now that I think about it.”

Niall learned some of his showmanship and sustained himself by playing Irish pubs in London.

“I decided I was going to start playing in pubs when it had got to January the year after I had done The Foreigner with Jackie Chan because I had never earned enough money to pay tax before.

“When I got paid all the money for The Foreigner, I just got the biggest tax bill I had ever had- the only tax bill I had ever had and hadn’t saved near enough.

“I remember in a young naïve way going, ‘This is mental, they’re taking all my money, what the f**k is this about?’

“And I remember going, ‘Right, I need something that pays better than these building sites. I need something that I enjoy more’.

“I remember I got these cards made and I had a map, picked out where Irish pubs were and walked with my guitar down the streets every day and every pub I went in to, I’d hand my card in.

“I  played in the pubs for years and got to know a lot of people through it.

“There were some dingy ones, there were some brilliant ones, some ones I loved, some I f**king hated and they hated me.

“But actually funny enough in the synergy of that Love without Walls came because after lockdown one of these pubs that I played in wanted someone to play.

“Jane Gull who is the director of Love without Walls had found me online.

“Having turned down a couple of big names who were interested in playing the role, she found that I was a singer-songwriter and an actor and she wanted to go and see it for herself.

“So she went to see me playing in the corner of a pub and approached me then.

“It would be very similar to a couple of scenes in the movie and that’s how it all started.”

Niall will also play at the big Bloomsday celebrations at Embassy Gardens this Saturday 17 June where his girlfriend, the well known Imelda May, is also on the bill.

“I’m looking forward to that.

“It’s good fun to be able to hang out and play together.

“I mean it’s a hell of a line up. Video Blue, who’s from Dundalk, is playing it as well and Jessie Buckley and Imelda, I think there’s even people they haven’t announced yet.

“I think it will be a very special thing and what I think will be nice about it is I think we have St Patrick’s Day and we know how Paddy’s Day goes and I love that but this feels like a bit more of a focused thing on the art and the culture of Irishness.

“I think that will be really, really nice.”

Having just released his EP to go with the movie, Niall is working on an album to come later this year.

“I’m going to start releasing singles in the coming months from my first ever album, my debut album and then I think by the end of the year the whole thing should be out.”

Love without Walls is out now and screens at The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith on Saturday 29 July with the screening followed by a Q and A and concert by Niall.

Niall’s EP Love Without Walls – Music from the motion picture is out now.

For more information, click here.

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