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An Au Naturel Ability

Movies: In 'Waking Ned Devine,' Ian Bannen, 70, and David Kelly, 69, were faced with the prospect of doing a nude scene . . . on a motorcycle.

November 18, 1998|JOHN CLARK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Seated in a Manhattan hotel lobby, actors Ian Bannen and David Kelly look like a pair of aging vaudevillians. Kelly, who is very thin, is wearing a gray jacket and vest, a burgundy bow tie and a shirt with wide pink stripes. Bannen, who is portly, is wearing a black and red striped jacket, a pink tie and dark blue trousers. A boater on his head would not look out of place.

Kelly, who loves to tell stories, is telling one about his daughter, an actress, who objected to her 69-year-old father appearing in the nude.

"She said, 'What would you say if I appeared in the nude?' " he recalls. "I said, 'When you're 69, you can.' "

Bannen laughs. He, too, appears in the nude in "Waking Ned Devine," a comedy written and directed by 34-year-old British commercial director Kirk Jones that has the look of a sleeper all over it.

Bannen and Kelly co-star as a pair of old friends in a remote Irish village who discover that one of their neighbors has won the lottery and who try to ferret him (or her) out. They eventually find the lucky winner but then, because of unforeseen complications, must enlist the aid of the other villagers to collect on the prize. Not surprisingly, the pleasingly plump Bannen plays the boisterous, mischievous one, while the angular Kelly plays the timid neurotic.

The film, which was made on a shoestring, was the subject of an intense bidding war at the Cannes Film Festival last spring. After the first screening, Jones was besieged by distribution reps, one of whom offered him $1 million to put the film on the shelf until the following morning. The million was Jones' to keep if the rep's company didn't buy it. Jones declined.

The irony is that the film that's the subject of all this noisy bidding could have easily been about avarice--but isn't.

"It's about love," Kelly says between cigarettes.

"And the adventure," says Bannen, who, unlike his character, is soft-spoken. "Because in less sensitive hands it would have been a bit unpleasant, but in the end the money doesn't matter. It's about this great adventure with these two men."

Men of a certain age, that is. Bannen, who is 70 and Scottish, has been acting for 40 years, but always in supporting roles ("Flight of the Phoenix," "Gandhi," "Hope and Glory," "Braveheart"). Kelly, who is Irish, is perhaps best known for his work on stage (for "Sam Beckett") and British television ("Fawlty Towers"). Oddly enough, the two men had never worked together despite the fact that they both had started in Dublin at around the same time.

If first-time filmmaker Jones was nervous about how they would get along, his concerns were assuaged during a pre-production weekend the three of them spent in Ireland.

"I drove the car, and they were in the back," Jones says. "And they laughed about four hours as we drove down to southern Ireland. They knew people, they knew theaters, they knew directors and all the gossip and all the affairs and stuff. It was immediately clear to me that I'd picked the right two guys and that there was a genuine chemistry between them."

He says he did wonder whether the two men were physically up to the task, which included being helicoptered to remote outcroppings on the Isle of Man and riding a motorcycle nude along narrow country lanes.

"I kept sliding off," Kelly says. "There's no clothes on your bum--I mean, you slide anyway. I haven't even got much flesh on me to keep me there, you know. It's just the spikes of my bottom sticking into the cushion. I knew I was going to die."

Jones has a theory about why these two men would endure such indignities.

"I've never really spoken to them about this," he says, "but if I were them, I would be sitting at home thinking, 'I've had a really good career, I've done great theater, great TV, I've been in films, I've won some awards and stuff, and I've kept working as an actor. This is the kind of script that I wanted when I was about 30 and I never really got and I thought my time had passed me by, but suddenly this is my last chance.' I mean, not wanting to be too morbid about it, but we are dealing with two 70-year-old actors. If it were me, I would think, 'I'm really going to go for this.' "

The actors brought something to the table aside from a willingness to do things that, ironically, a younger actor might not do.

"I did also sense when they were acting that there are tricks they called upon during the film that a younger, less experienced actor wouldn't have had," Jones says. "Not only do you have the experience they have as an actor, but when you work with guys who've lived life for 70 years, I just think that brings something to a human being that transfers to the screen really well."

"It's a lovely proof that it doesn't matter that the hair and the teeth are gone," says Kelly, who still has some of both. "You still get good parts. And we do not retire. They have to take us out and shoot us. It's the great thing about being an actor. You don't retire."

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