Ben Barnes’ versatile vocal talents definitely came in handy when he had to film the comedy “Killing Bono.” Not only did the British actor have to master an Irish accent for his role in the movie, but Barnes also had to portray a wannabe rock star who kept changing his singing style. (Barnes did all of his own singing in the movie.) “Killing Bono” is based on music journalist Neil McCormick’s memoir of the same title (the book’s original title was “I Was Bono’s Doppelganger”), which details his struggles to be in a successful band while four of his former school mates from Dublin became the superstar band U2. The book’s title was inspired by U2 lead singer Bono, who once joked to Neil McCormick: “I am your doppelganger. If you want your life back, you’ll have to kill me.”
In the “Killing Bono” movie (which primarily takes place in Dublin and London from 1976 to 1987), Neil McCormick (played by Barnes) and his younger brother Ivan McCormick (played by Robert Sheehan) go through a series of misadventures on their failed quest to become bigger than U2. Along the way, the McCormick brothers form various bands (with Neil on lead vocals and Ivan on guitar), and they encounter a cynical record-company executive named Hammond (played by Peter Serafinowicz); a menacing Dublin gangster named Danny Machin (played by Stanley Townsend); a flamboyantly gay landlord named Karl (played by Pete Postlethwaite, in his last film role before he died of cancer in January 2011); and a sassy apartment neighbor named Gloria (played by Krysten Ritter), who becomes Neil’s girlfriend and manager of the McCormick brothers’ band Shook Up. Bono is played by Martin McCann, who bears a striking resemblance to the real Bono.
There are several things in the movie that are fictionalized, but essentially the story’s main concept is the same: The McCormick brothers and the members of U2 first met when they were teenagers, and Neil’s ambition to become a rock star was largely fueled by his envy of what Bono had achieved with U2. “Killing Bono” was released in the United Kingdom and Ireland in April 2011. In the United States, the movie became available through video on demand in October 2011, and it began a limited release in U.S. cinemas in November 2011. (Barnes rose to fame as the royal leader Caspian in the second and third “Chronicles of Narnia” movies, but there currently are no plans for him to be in the fourth “Narnia” film — “The Magician’s Nephew” — since Caspian is not in “The Magician’s Nephew” book.) In this exclusive interview, Barnes and I chatted about his “Killing Bono” experience, but I didn’t want to ask the same predictable questions he’s already been asked in many other interviews for “Killing Bono.” We also talked about his movies “The Wedding,” “The Words” (both due out in 2012) and “Seventh Son” (set for a 2013 release), which has the potential to be a blockbuster franchise.
As Neil McCormick in “Killing Bono,” your fashion and hairstyles in the 1970s and 1980s go through a lot of changes. Which of the styles that you had in the movie was your favorite?
Well, my least-favorite was the New Romantic look, which felt completely ridiculous.
Do you mean that A Flock of Seagulls haircut?
[He laughs.] Yeah, the Flock of Seagulls hair, the earrings, the dreadful trousers. But Robbie [Sheehan], who played my younger brother, we would just spur each other on. We’d look totally ridiculous, and Robbie would go, “I think you should have more eyeliner.” And I’d be like, “Yeah, you should have another earring.”
We’d just want to make each other more and more ridiculous. And I think that adds to the flavor. But I like the looks near the end [of the movie]. I like the brown leather trousers and the boots and all the studded belts — that stadium-rock look. I like that.
And in addition to changing their fashion style of lot, Neil and Ivan McCormick also kept reinventing themselves musically because they were struggling to find their musical identity. So when it came to recording the “Killing Bono” soundtrack, your lead vocals sound very different on pretty much every song. What was the most challenging song for you to record for the soundtrack, considering that you had to change your vocal styles to show how Neil was having a musical identity crisis?
That’s exactly what I was going for. When I was in Australia, I had just been offered the part. And the director [Nick Hamm] was like, “You can sing, but the real Neil can’t really sing. So how are we going to make it not really irritating for audiences?”
And I said, “Well, I think if you make every single genre, every single song, every single era, he wants to be that.” So he starts off like he wants to be in Wham! Then he wants to be a punk rocker. Then he wants to be Bono. Then he wants to be Freddie Mercury. Then he wants to be Mick Jagger. Then he wants to be Sting.
There were a couple of stadium-rock songs near the end of the soundtrack that had some really high notes, because in the ‘80s, the singers started to basically have competition with each other to see who could sing the highest. Journey or Foreigner — they’d all try to outdo each other. So those songs are a bit higher. You’d get to the bridge and they’d have these particular notes to them.
And that’s the blessing of being in the studio: You can have as many takes as you want. And in the movie, he doesn’t adhere to one specific sound. So yeah, some of those songs toward the end of the soundtrack were pretty challenging.
And the hardest song to shoot was on the very first day. We shot that punk-rock cover — and that was exhausting. On that first day, we were ready to go, and then we did it about eight times. All that jumping around whilst trying to sing is tiring.
The “Killing Bono” movie is a fictional version of Neil McCormick’s memoir — in other words, there are many things in movie that weren’t in the book because they didn’t happen to Neil in real life. Likewise, there were many things in the book that weren’t in the movie. One of those things in the book is how Neil (an atheist) and Bono (a devout Catholic) would often engage in philosophical debates about religion. Do you have any similar stories in real life about debating with someone about religion?
I’ve had a lot of debates over the years. One of my best friends is a very religious guy. We often have debates in the pub about life and beliefs and everything. But I didn’t really have much of that growing up.
My mum was raised Jewish, my dad is very scientifically minded, and my school was vaguely Christian. We sang hymns in school. I liked the hymns bit, but apart from that, I can take it or leave it. So I had lots of different influences when I was younger.
What kind of student were you in high school?
I went to a very academically competitive high school. So I was always quite studious and quiet, just to keep up with the other geniuses who were in my school. I would just hang out in the music department and I’d play in loads of bands. In the summers, I’d do more dramatic stuff with a theater company.
I just kept to myself, really. I always looked really young for my age. And once I hit 23, 24 and 25, I was then allowed to play the cool 18-year-olds and stuff.
I’m not surprised that Neil McCormick and Bono’s disagreements about religion aren’t in the “Killing Bono” movie, since the movie is a comedy, and putting in a religious debate would change the tone of the film. What other aspects of the movie that were changed from the book did you also think were wise choices?
Yeah, that whole religious debate [in Neil McCormick’s memoir] is not very visual. It’s not very funny. And secondly, I think if they had over-played Neil’s relationship with Bono, it would seem too convenient that he could just always call Bono on the phone.
Right. In real life, Neil kept in semi-regular contact with Bono, who would sometimes hang out with Neil after Bono became famous. So if that kind of relationship with Bono had been portrayed that way in the movie, it would be very tricky to explain why Neil would go to a U2 concert and aim a gun at Bono as he’s thinking about assassinating Bono. Obviously, Neil never aimed a gun at Bono in real life. What did you think about that “possible assassination” part of the movie?
I was concerned about that when we started shooting [the movie]. But then I thought, “Neil is desperate at this point. He’s hit his head in the car. He’s found himself in these circumstances where he’s surrounded by the swirling success of U2. He’s kind of confused and desperate. He feels like he’s let everyone down. And he’s feeling guilty.”
We had a long debate about whether he should lower the gun. Actually, it was my idea to have someone hold up the album so that Bono could not be quite sure at what he’s just seen, if anything. So it was cause for some debate. I feel like it worked, but they toyed with leaving it out.
If you could choose any rock star (living or dead) you could have gone to high school with, who would it be and why?
Oh, I’ve never been asked that before. I think it would’ve been pretty awesome to go to school with [Paul] McCartney and [John] Lennon. It would be incredible to know those people. I just saw [Martin] Scorsese’s George Harrison documentary [“George Harrison: Living in the Material World”], so it’s on my mind.
So let’s talk about some of your upcoming movies. It’s great that you’re ….
Finally working? [He laughs.]
[Laughs.] Actually, I was going to say it’s great that you’re working with some amazing talent in these upcoming films. Let’s start with “The Wedding,” which has an all-star cast that includes Oscar winners Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton and Robin Williams. What surprised you the most when you first met De Niro, since you didn’t have any scenes with him in your first movie “Stardust”?
He’s incredible. He’s really quiet. He’s such a quiet, studious man. And he reads a lot. He’s very, very shy in real life. But when you speak to him one on one, he kind of taps you on the shoulder and says, “See you tomorrow,” or something like that. It makes you feel so amazing.
“The Wedding” is a comedy, but how would you describe the tone of the film? Do you think it’s going to be rated PG-13 (12A certificate in the U.K.) or rated R (15 certificate in the U.K.)?
It’s like “Meet the Parents,” but with more swearing.
Amanda Seyfried plays your fiancée in “The Wedding,” and she said something very interesting about you in a recent interview. She said that she had to take a plane flight with you, and that it was “the best five hours” of her life. [Says jokingly] Why do you think she said that? What did you do on that plane flight?
She called me and said the interview came out, and she said, “They made it sound really weird!” I’d never met her before, and they figured that flying us over on the same flight to go and do the film would be a good thing, since we were shooting the film as each other’s intended the next day.
It’s very hard to form a connection with someone, but if you have five hours on a plane, you can form an intimacy quite quickly. We were just chatting and things and being silly and having a few drinks on the plane. She’s so easy to get on with.
And, of course, you’re also starring with Jeff Bridges in the fantasy film “Seventh Son,” which you’re filming in Vancouver and China in 2012. [Says jokingly] What are you and Jeff doing to prepare for the movie, besides smoking pot together?
[He laughs.] Oh, you remember that joke they made [on the “Seventh Son” panel] at Comic-Con in San Diego.
[Laughs.] But seriously, how are you preparing for “Seventh Son”?
I think there’s going to be a lot of fight training. They don’t want it to be just like any other film. The scenery on it is going to be incredible.
It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen. It’s a huge fantasy world of monsters and witches. It’s going to be pretty special. Sergei Bodrov, who’s directing it, made “Mongol,” which is a beautiful-looking movie.
“Seventh Son” is going to look very dark and strange. The [Tom] character in the book is 13 or something. We made it a lot more adult in a lot of ways.
What kind of fight training will you be doing?
I have no idea yet. In the book, it’s more about intellectual fighting, like setting traps. And there’s some of that in the movie: using the landscape for traps. But in our [movie] version, you get it more at the end. They’re trying to think at the moment of different ways of doing that. I don’t know exactly yet.
For the suspense thriller “The Words,” what can you say about the flashback scenes that you have in the movie?
I play a young Jeremy Irons in the movie. It’s just a really beautiful, clever story. You see different perspectives. And characters you can feel are sometimes other people’s work of fiction.
I play a young GI at the end of the second World War who has a very intense but ultimately sad romance with a French girl. It’s a very interesting part, because a lot of it is improvised silence, which is kind of ironic — doing a movie called “The Words” without really speaking much.
You’ve been cast in movies that have a lot of iconic and mega-talented actors and actresses. What’s the most nerve-racking audition you’ve ever been on in your life?
It’s definitely been for movies I didn’t get. I think if you go in and lack confidence, I think that comes across in the room. So the most nerve-racking ones are the ones when I ended up without the job.
And can you talk about what else you’re working on now?
I’m prepping for a film. We’re going to announce it soon.
[That movie, now announced, is “Overdrive,” starring Barnes and Karl Urban as brothers who are car thieves. “Overdrive” is expected to be released in 2012 on a date to be announced.]
Speaking of casting, “This is Spinal Tap” is one of our all-time favorite movies, so I have to ask you: If the same stars of “Spinal Tap” were making a “Spinal Tap” sequel to be released in cinemas, what kind of role would you want in the sequel?
I would want to play Nigel Tufnel’s son. The next time you talk to Christopher Guest [who plays Nigel Tufnel], tell him I would want to be his son in anything.
And, of course, you know that Spinal Tap is always looking for a new drummer.
[He laughs.] Yeah, Spinal Tap could re-form and maybe I could be the new young drummer.
For more info: “Killing Bono” website
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Interview with Ben Barnes for “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (London press conference)
Interview with Ben Barnes for “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” and “Killing Bono” (exclusive interview)
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