Adolescents often learn the value of embracing themselves for who they truly are, and not unquestionably following the example of their peers. So when teachers and classmates try to convince teens not to be completely true to themselves, and choose one part of their personality that they want to solely identify with, the human experience can become humiliating for those who are targeted. That universal feeling of pain and confusion, which resonates with many people, is the gripping theme and driving force in Irish writer-director John Butler‘s new coming-of-age LGBT film, ‘Handsome Devil.’ The movie features actor Fionn O’Shea in his first major leading role, as a teen who’s determined to pursue his own interests, despite the pressure he receives from his classmates and teachers to conform to modern ideals and expectations.
Breaking Glass Pictures released ‘Handsome Devil’ into select American theaters and On Demand this weekend. The distribution comes after the drama had its World Premiere at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, and then its U.S. Premiere at the NewFest LGBT Film Festival. The drama also opened the Glasgow Film Festival and closed the Dublin International Film Festival, and was also an official selection at the Miami International Film Festival.
‘Handsome Devil’ follows 16-year-old rebel and loner, Ned Roche (O’Shea), as he’s unable to convince his widowed father, Dan (Ardel O’Hanlon), and aloof stepmother, Nathalie (Amy Huberman), that he doesn’t fit in at his Irish boarding school, where rugby is the most valued aspect of life. The teen’s solitary nature and ambiguous sexuality lead him to be a target of ridicule by his classmates, especially from the athletes, including Weasel (Ruairi O’Connor).
But Ned’s fortune seemingly changes when a new transfer student, Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), is assigned to be his new roommate. While Ned initially believes having to live with a star rugby player will make his life worse, the loner soon discovers that his new roommate is also struggling with his own issues that make him feel isolated from their peers. The unexpected bond that begins to grow between the two roommates eventually makes Ned feel as though he has a true friend.
But Ned and Conor’s new-found friendship is tested when Ned’s new English teacher, Dan Sherry (Andrew Scott), realizes that both teens have true potential. The instructor encourages the teens’ friendship and musical talents, much to the dismay of the school’s rugby coach, Pascal O’Keeffe (Moe Dunford). The coach begins to resent the fact that Conor’s friendship and interest in music are distracting him from his athletic abilities on the field, particularly since the team may have the chance to play in the finals for the first time in a decade. The coach’s discontent not only strains Ned and Conor’s friendship and leads them to be targeted by their classmates once again, but also makes Dan reconsider his own past and secrets.
O’Shea generously took the time recently to talk about starring in ‘Handsome Devil’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the actor discussed how Jason O’Mara, his co-star in last year’s action thriller, ‘The Siege of Jadotville,’ referred him to Butler for the role of Ned in the coming-of-age drama. O’Shea also humbly revealed how he was initially nervous when filming on ‘Handsome Devil’ began, as the drama marks his leading role in a movie. But his natural relationships with the writer-director, as well as with Galitzine, helped make him feel more comfortable on the set.
The conversation began with O’Shea explaining how he became involved in ‘Handsome Devil.’ “I was in South Africa filming another movie (‘The Siege of Jadotville’), and I was working with Jason O’Mara, and he’s very good friends with John (Butler). John was talking to Jason, and he said, ‘I’m looking for someone to star in my film.’ Jason very kindly recommended me,” O’Shea revealed. “So I then read the script (for ‘Handsome Devil’) and immediately loved it. I then recorded an audition and then sent it to John.”
The actor then shared what it was like to work with Butler on ‘Handsome Devil.’ O’Shea noted that he and the coming-of-age film’s writer-director “had a rehearsal period, which was really nice. Most of the time, you don’t have the chance to rehearse anything.”
The performer also divulged that “Since our characters were supposed to form a friendship, it was nice that Nicholas and I had a couple of days to run scenes, and practice the music a little bit, together. That time working together was so much fun.” He added that he and Galitzine talked about their characters’ new bond, but they didn’t have a formal rehearsal time together. “What was nice was that we also became friends on a personal level as our characters were becoming better friends in the story.”
While forming a friendship with Galitzine in real life helped positively influence Ned and Conor’s connection, “I was nervous going into filming, since I had never played the lead in anything before,” O’Shea also admitted. “But the experience was great. The producers, Robert (Walpole) and Rebecca (O’Flanagan), created such a nice atmosphere on the set. They brought together a great group of people. So it felt as though I was walking into a family right on the first day.”
As the friendship between Ned and Conor grows, the two begin to question what it means to truly be themselves, and why it’s important to overcome conflict, in contemporary society. O’Shea added that he feels it’s important for teens and young adults to stay true to themselves, as showcased in the film. “That was a great message, because my mom would also tell me not to follow the crowd. That was definitely something that was instilled in me from a young age,” the actor noted.
“It is a challenge to deal with identity and being true to yourself, which is showcased in the movie. The story also talks about how in school, you can have these binary definitions put onto you, and you have to be either one thing or the other. But the film talks about how you don’t have to pick a side-you can actually be whoever you want to be. That’s a message in the film that really spoke to me,” O’Shea revealed.
While ‘Handsome Devil’ features that essential message of honoring your true identity, the performer also liked the fact that Butler infused comedy into the more dramatic moments that Ned and Conor experience. “Life is never just funny or serious; it’s a mix of everything. John found that balance perfectly, and I think mixing the more dramatic scenes with the funnier ones is interesting,” O’Shea shared.
‘Handsome Devil’ was filmed at Castleknock College in Ireland, and the actor enjoyed the experience of shooting the comedy-drama on location. “We filmed in an actual boy’s boarding school. Some of the students who actually attended the school were actually used in the background of the movie, which was great,” O’Shea noted.
“Filming on location in a school like that was brilliant, because we were able to see the things they were doing everyday. Some of those things even made it into the film,” the performer admitted.
“In one of the scenes, Conor’s pocket was ripped off of his shirt. That actually happened in that school every day. So John decided to write it into the story,” O’Shea explained. “We would shoot an assembly scene, and there would be 100 extras. They would take a break for lunch, and when they came back, 50 of the 100 students would have the pockets ripped off of their jumpers. Some people would even come back with their jumpers cut in half! That was difficult to shoot, but also very entertaining.”
The actor then spoke about how Ned is considered to be an outsider at his school in part because he’s a musician. But O’Shea didn’t know how to play the guitar before he began filming his scenes for ‘Handsome Devil.’ “So I learned how to play the song that’s specifically in the film. Nicholas was so helpful with teaching me how to play, as he’s a singer-songwriter,” O’Shea revealed, before adding that he feels he played the music in the drama so well because of his practice with his co-star.
The actor also shared that his experience of going on the film festival circuit with ‘Handsome Devil’ was “an amazing experience. I’ve never done a festival circuit like this before, so it was cool to be able to go to different festivals.” O’Shea also divulged that “Every audience reacts so differently; so the audience reacted so differently in Toronto than in Dublin and Miami. So it was fun to be able to see how differently all of the audiences reacted. People laughed and were silent at different parts of the movie.
“It was also cool to have had people come up to us after the screenings, and tell us about their own experiences in school and what those moments meant to them. It was a dream come true to have people talk to us about their own experiences, and how the film reflected those moments, and what the movie meant to them overall,” O’Shea emotionally admitted as he reflected on his time sharing ‘Handsome Devils’ with audiences.