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Tell Jim Sheridan you liked his latest film, In America, and he may have a question for you.
“Can I ask you something now, for a second?” asks the 54-year-old Irish director in his working-class brogue. “What’s your second name?”
Jenkins, he’s told. “Welsh,” he says, as if that explains everything. “It makes a big difference. As you go further away from London, you encounter people who can relate to the film.”
Washington is a lot farther from London than Cardiff, it’s suggested, but Sheridan is unfazed. He just believes his semiautobiographical film, about a young Irish family that moves to New York in the early ’80s, plays better with non-English viewers. For one thing, audiences outside England accept that sympathetic U.S. immigration agents might let a penniless Irish couple and their two young daughters cross the Ontario-New York line when they learn that the family is fleeing the memory of a dead son, Frankie.
“It’s based on sets of assumptions that different people have,” says the rumpled, T-shirted director, his shoeless feet pulled up on a chair in an opulent K Street hotel. “The opening scene is set at the border, and in England they find it very hard to deal with. Because the mythological foundation of the scene is that the Irish were let into America through death. The American audience knows that, so when the family are let in because of a death in the family, all of America says, ‘Yeah.’ And all England says, ‘No.’ All London says, ‘No.’”
So Sheridan feels hostility from London? “Not really,” he says, then pauses. “Yeah, I suppose I do.”
Some of the animosity stems from several films Sheridan made about England’s fraught relationship with Northern Ireland, especially 1993’s In the Name of the Father. Such movies were “controversial in England because of what they’re saying,” Sheridan says, “and they’re saying the truth.” He chuckles. “Or some version that’s close to the truth.”
It’s not his just anti-colonial politics that rankle English viewers, Sheridan adds. It’s also the emotional directness of such work as his 1989 directorial debut, My Left Foot, and now In America. “In Europe, everybody uses sarcasm and irony and tone. They say, ‘Oh God, I love your boots,’ which means they hate them. But in America, nobody would ever get that. They’d just say, ‘Thanks very much.’ America’s more direct-communication; it’s kind of heart-on-your-sleeve communication….I’m for doing things out front, in your face, not behind your back. For the honest anger, for the straightforward story.”
In the early ’70s, Sheridan founded a Dublin arts center that became a hangout for future members of bands such as U2 and Virgin Prunes, who have subsequently composed music for the director’s films. “We’ve kind of stuck together. We’re all from the north side, the tough side of the tracks.” As U2 put Dublin on the rock ‘n’ roll map, however, Sheridan decided to move to New York.
“I loved the idea of the city,” he says. “I loved it when I came here. I always loved it. I thought artistically it would be closer to the film world, which I wanted to do. But I got trapped in doing the theater for about seven years.”
At the end of that period, Sheridan says, “I got the chance to make My Left Foot. I went back to do it and my kids went back to school and I couldn’t get them out easily, so I stayed on. I had another film in Ireland, and that took a year, and then I was settled there. I came back to America whenever I could.”
In a way, that first film led directly to In America: While getting fitted for a tuxedo for the Academy Awards ceremony at which My Left Foot won two acting Oscars, Sheridan encountered a man who had lived in the same dilapidated Manhattan apartment building as the director and his family. The former neighbor, who had become well-known as a painter, the director recalls, said, “‘That house was blessed. You should write a film about that house.’”
Sheridan tried, he remembers, but what he wrote “was just a lot of episodes.” So he asked his two daughters, Naomi and Kirsten Sheridan, to take a shot at it. “They wrote it, but they made my character disappear. I was completely irrelevant. All I did was sing the words to pop songs that I didn’t know, sleep in, keep my head in the sky, embarrass them when I was picking them up from school. And then sometimes when I had a few drinks too many, I’d come home and rub their heads and tell them I loved them. That was my contribution to the family.
“They each wrote a 100-page script in which they were the complete heroes. It was all about school and their pals in school and trying to integrate in America. It was a fantastic story, but it still didn’t have thematic unity. They were probably too young. They were 16 and 19. So then we put all the good stories into one, and we still didn’t have a theme.”
The script sat untouched for several years, until the director decided to combine it with memories of his brother, who had died young. Frankie became the family’s missing memberwhich “gave it a perspective, and that became, more or less, the shooting script.”
Although Sheridan guided the combining of the scripts, the girls remain more vivid characters than their father. “This is inevitable when you write yourself,” he says. “When you’re writing yourself, everything makes total sense. You don’t see any contradictions in any of the actions that you take. But dramatic characters are made up of contradictions, so you become one-dimensional. It was only when I made myself like my father that I gave the character some life.”
The father, played by Paddy Considine, is an aspiring actor, but the story pays little attention to his career. There’s more about it in the finished movie, however, than there was in the first cut. Sheridan filmed new scenes of his alter ego going to auditions because the first preview audience “said they were real worried about the main character. That he looked depressed and he’d nowhere to go and he’d no quest and why did he come to America? Once I gave him a reasonthat he wants to become a great actorthey forgot about it. So I could park it and get on with the real film, but I had to add it so they didn’t feel totally depressed about him. The audience doesn’t like to feel pity towards anybody. And they were feeling pity toward my characterwhich did my head in.”
Sheridan paired Considine, who played Joy Division manager Rob Gretton in 24 Hour Party People, with Samantha Morton, who’s known for fierce roles in such films as Morvern Callar. Both had to accept being upstaged by Sarah and Emma Bolger, the performers who play their daughters. As Sheridan tells it, each girl quickly asserted herself.
Emma, the younger, was cast first. “I gave her the script to read, and I don’t know why I thought she could read. She was only 6,” Sheridan recalls. “She read it perfectly. But I thought she’d be precocious, one of those kids who’s too perfect, and you’d hate her. So I looked for another kid and I said, ‘Here, you read this,’ and Emma pulled my jacket from behind and looked at me like I’d crossed some invisible line and said, ‘Jim.’ And I said, ‘Yeah?’ And she said, ‘Is she reading my part?’
“I looked at her, and I was going to say, ‘Well, it’s an audition,’ but I didn’t want to break her belief. So I stared at her and stared at her, and nothing happened. She never flinched. So I said, ‘Oh, my God. No, nobody’s reading your part. You’re cast.’ And she said, ‘My sister’s downstairs.’ And I said, ‘Oh my God, what age is she?’ And she said, ’10.’ And I said, ‘Too young. This is for a 13-year-old.’ And she said, ‘Why don’t you see her anyway?’ So I went down, met the sister, and cast her.’
Later, Sarah proved just as forceful. “On the first day, I said, ‘Action,’ and something went wrong and I went, ‘Aw, fuccut!’ And the 10-year-old went, ‘Jim, can I have a word?’ And I went, ‘Yeah?’ And she said, ‘It’s OK to curse in front of me. I’m 10. But my sister’s only 6, and it’s rude to curse in front of her. So I’m gonna have to ask you to stop.’ I was like, Wow. I’m not going to be able to stop. That’s a joke.
“So I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you say, “Action”? Take overyou be the director. And your sister can say, “Cut,” and can say, “Cut” whenever you like. If you don’t like what’s going on, if there’s noise outside, whatever you like.’ And so we shot the film like that.”
During the course of the movie, a third daughter is born. The real-life counterpart of that girl doesn’t remember life in a New York tenement: She grew up in a newly booming Dublin, the child of a successful film director who’s now prosperous enough to own a top-rated race horse. “She said,” Sheridan recalls, “‘You know what this film is about? I never bonded with this family, because I was the poor little rich kid. I never bonded with you guys when you were all the loving poor family. But now I know what it was like.’ She thinks the film has made her bond with us. She thinks it’s about her birth.”