Michael Smiley plays the central character in the new Irish mystery series Dead Still, and I had the pleasure of speaking with him about his role.
Dead Still is not your average mystery series. It is dark, yet has laugh-out-loud moments with its gallows humor. It was shot mostly on location in “fantastic country and stately homes” in and around Dublin, Ireland, with very little of the filming done on fabricated sets. And its story is as much about the central character as it is about the murder mystery.
Set in Dublin in 1880, Dead Still follows famed memorial photographer Brock Blennerhasset (Michael Smiley, Luther, Wire in the Blood) as he works to keep his business — taking portraits of dead people — alive. More people are taking up photography as a profession or a hobby, so the need for Blennerhasset’s services is on the wane. Lucky for him that commissions, although fewer in number, are still coming in, and that, following an injury, he has his wannabe-actress niece, Nancy Vickers (Eileen O’Higgins, My Mother and Other Strangers), and Conall Mollay (Kerr Logan, C.B. Strike), a grave digger-turned-photographer’s assistant, helping him.
Meanwhile, a certain type of death photography is growing in popularity amongst a certain subset of the population — and in a fiendish way at that. Someone has been putting a macabre spin on memorial imagery by taking pictures of people in the throes of death. Unnatural death. As Detective Frederick Regan (Aidan O’Hare, Dublin Murders) of the Dublin Metropolitan Police investigates a series of suspicious (and photographed) deaths, he looks to Blennerhasset — for his expertise and as a possible suspect.
Earlier this week I had the pleasure of speaking with British Independent Film Awards winner Michael Smiley about his role as Brock Blennerhasset, which he describes thusly: (Note that text has been edited for clarity and to prevent spoilers.)
“Well, he’s a man whose world is quite internalized. He’s been living on his own for quite a while. The backstory is he comes from landed gentry in Anglo Ireland, which was sort of the upper middle classes of Irish aristocracy, and he sort of turned his back on the family and the fortune and took up this new thing called photography. It’s an art form that he likes because he’s quite private, you know, he’s maybe on the [autism] spectrum as far as being inwardly looking. And also he’s got some secrets. So I think all of that doesn’t exactly make him very sociable.
“When these young people descend upon his house, it seems like he’s playing catch up with them in a lot of ways… Nancy, played by Eileen O’Higgins, she’s quite forthright, and he sees in her elements of himself, so that’s what makes him sympathetic towards her. But she’s quite forceful and he’s not used to that. And he’s not used to a young man like Conall Molloy, played by Kerr… And because of these murders, he’s become thrown together with the Regan character, the detective played by Aidan O’Hare, who seems to want something from him but at the same time is investigating him — there’s some sort of mystery connected to Blennerhasset.
“So he’s sort of fighting everybody off when really all that he wants is a quiet life, it seems, you know? Plus he’s got a secret. That’s how I see him, that’s how I hopefully played him.”
Michael expanded on that by going into the reasons why he said yes to the role of Blennerhasset and to doing the series.
“I felt it was a unique take on the Victorian costume drama thang, and I quite liked the quirkiness of the Gothic take on it and the idea that, around this time in Dublin, there were a lot of strange societies that were popping up…
“I was interested in the Blennerhasset character because I started reading up on who the Blennerhassets were, started reading up on what was the birth of photography like in those days. So it was a whole new world, and especially with people not knowing what to do with it in the same way as they didn’t know what to do with the internet when it first came along. They didn’t know what to do with this thing. Cos it took so long to set up the photograph, with the plates and stuff like that, they started photographing inanimate objects, which became memorial stuff. So you’re taking photographs of dead people and you’re sort of edging towards the darker side of life…
“I like the idea of this internal, quite secretive man who eventually comes up and blossoms. So I’m seeing him as a long game, which is one of the things that interests me, as opposed to just wham, bam, here’s all the characters in two minutes and you don’t have to work for it, you know?”
Given Blennehasset’s nature, I was curious to know what, if anything, Michael found challenging in playing the character.
“Well, I find accents and demeanor is always challenging. I think as an actor you try and find the character, and then if you find the character you sort of latch — you hang everything on that character.
“[Blennerhasset] was Irish but he was posh Irish. It’s like what they call Anglo, to be called Anglo, Anglo being English. So Anglo Irish are the Irish who have status and who are middle class and upwards, you know, landed gentry… Invariably the posh Protestants and the posh Catholics would have been the top end, and they’d be known as Anglos. So he was from that stock, so there’s a whole status there. And also being a man who wasn’t very demonstrative and was quite shy and thoughtful — trying to portray that through the performance was hard work at times.
Circling back to the accents, Michael shared this with regard to doing Blennerhasset’s in Dead Still:
“Blennerhasset speaks rather like that [Michael says in a posh, upstairs-at-Downton-like accent]. It’s quite English but at the same time it’s a bit Irish. That would be the Anglo voice… So it’s trying to keep certain letters [versus eliding] when you’re acting. There’s also trying to keep your mind open and concentrating on getting the right vowel sound out. So sometimes it can be like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time. And trying to make your character believable. And hit your mark. And carry your hat in the right way. And not trip over the furniture. All the usual problems of an actor on set.”
And in summing up Blennerhasset and Dead Still, Michael offered this:
“I think the problem with Brock Blennerhasset is he’s not a lonely man, he’s a man alone. And he doesn’t have the social skills. And he’s from an upper-class background. And he’s an obsessive who’s obsessed about his art, which is photography, but he doesn’t see the world around him as other people see it. Part of his journey is realizing that. I think that’s part of the journey of Dead Still — his coming to realize that there are people in this world apart from him.
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