Attenborough stresses that the performances and the players are the vital elements in any movie that he does. An actor himself, he prides himself on his casting and his ability to discover new talent, rarely auditioning, choosing instead to spend time with potential players. “Actors know actors,” says Attenborough. “I have an instinct as to whether somebody can really perform or not. I prefer to spend time with people, not just a few minutes, but an entire afternoon. I think testing them is a waste of time. The nerves and anxieties that emerge through the testing process don’t really tell you anything.”
“Casting is one of the more challenging parts of the filmmaking process,” points out co-producer Martin Katz. “Richard has an uncanny ability to recognize talent. He’s acted in more films than he’s actually directed and when he works with actors he works with them as an equal, as someone who knows what it’s like to be in front of the camera, to be interpreting a character and inhabiting a persona. He’s a man of great passion and humanity and that can’t help but show up in the performances of the people he’s working with.”
Shirley MacLaine has equal praise for Attenborough. “Dickie is a wonderful director. He is, in my opinion, right up there at the top of the ones I’ve worked with and that includes, Wyler, Wilder, Hitchcock, Mike Nichols, Bob Fosse, etc.,” offers MacLaine. “He’s one of the top because he knows how to talk to an actor. And as he says many times, if you haven’t been an actor yourself how do you know what to tell the actor? How do you get inside their heart and quell their fears and their idiosyncrasies and their sense of security and all that stuff? He makes the set comfortable and fun; it’s one of the most enjoyable pictures I’ve ever worked on.” With MacLaine set to play the pivotal role of Ethel, a woman who literally walls up her memories of the great love of her life and closes herself off to those closest to her, the filmmakers began the search for the actress who would play one of the most difficult roles in the film - that of MacLaine’s character as a young woman. “Shirley is one of the most charismatic screen icons of the last half century,” says Gilbert. “She’s also a great friend of Richard’s and he wasn’t about to compromise her position by casting someone who was not absolutely perfect.”
In the end, it was Gilbert’s daughter who focused their attention on Mischa Barton. “My daughter knew what we were looking for and sat me down to watch The OC. and there was Mischa Barton - tall, leggy, beautiful and talented. It was apparent immediately that she would be perfect to play Ethel Ann.”
Director Richard Attenborough has high praise for Barton, saying that the actress’s extraordinary ability to convey complicated emotions was critical to the role. “We had to find someone who was believable as young Shirley. There was no possibility of the story working at all unless you believe that. Mischa brings an exquisite blend of strength and fragility to the role of Ethel Ann,” says Attenborough. “Her ability to call upon the depths of emotion that this part requires, her ability to convey pain and sadness, hopefulness and fear is riveting. She lures you into the performance and makes you want to reach out to her. It’s very compelling to watch her on film.”
Barton was immediately drawn to the role of the lively and vivacious Ethel Ann. “When I read the script, I thought ‘this is a really touching story, this is something that I would want to go see,’” recalls Barton. “Ethel Ann is at that perfect place in her life, where she is truly and deeply in love for the very first time. She is wonderful to play because she is at what is probably the happiest time in her life. She has no idea what is about to happen to her, all she knows is that she loves Teddy and believes that she will love him forever and that they will be happy together for the rest of their lives.”
The actress is equally effusive about working with Attenborough. “Richard is incredible. He really is God’s gift to actors,” says Barton. “Besides the fact that he has more experience and knowledge than you could ever ask for in a director, he really does understand what it means to be an actor and what it takes to get your self in a place where you can feel comfortable and just let yourself work. He runs a quiet set so you can concentrate and not pay attention to all the outside forces.”
In addition to MacLaine and Barton, Closing the Ring brings together a stellar group of seasoned veterans including Christopher Plummer, Oscar-nominee Pete Postlethwaite, Oscar-winner Brenda Fricker, and Neve Campbell, as well as bright new lights Gregory Smith,David Alpay, Stephen Amell and Martin McCann.
Plummer plays Jack Etty, a man who has quietly loved Ethel for over fifty years. “Jack has been secretly and quietly in love with Ethel since they were young,” states Plummer. “He was best friends with her great love, Teddy, and with the man she married after Teddy died, Chuck. I think he was terribly hurt when Teddy asked
Chuck instead of him to marry Ethel if anything happened to him, I also think that he is filled with remorse that he wasn’t on that plane with Teddy. But he can’t change what has happened, so he holds back his feelings and has done so for fifty years.” Closing the Ring marks the second collaboration between Plummer and Attenborough, the two previously worked together as actors in the 1975 drama, Conduct Unbecoming.
Pete Postlethwaite was the standout first choice to play the character of Quinlan. As a young boy in Belfast during the War, Quinlan is witness to Teddy’s plane crash and the young gunner’s dying wish - to return the ring to Ethel and tell her she’s free to make her own choice. As the flames engulf the plane wreck the frightened Quinlan is unable to grab the ring. Haunted by the events of that night, Quinlan spends the next fifty years of his life on Black Mountain, desperately trying to find the ring. “I loved the story, I thought that it was magical,” says Postlethwaite. “I also love the character I was asked to play, Michael Quinlan. I thought he was a very well rounded, very intricate, very journeyed character. Things happen to him; he carries a terrible secret all his life and then eventually has to tell the secret. I found him very intriguing.”
The filmmakers sought one of Ireland’s most beloved actresses, Brenda Fricker, to portray Grandma Reilly, a woman who, like Quinlan, came of age during the war. Fricker describes her character as “having a heart of gold. She’s a bit manic but loves a good laugh,” says Fricker. “I think that for her, the war was probably the best time of her life. She was young and beautiful and had many suitors. Her life didn’t exactly turn out the way she had hoped, but she still believes in the power of love.” Attenborough comments on the decision to cast Postlethwaite and Fricker, “Pete is one of the great character actors of his generation. To have him play the role - inhabit the role - of Quinlan is extraordinary for our movie. Brenda is equally remarkable and distinguished; together they bring a distinction to the movie which you just can’t buy.”
For the pivotal role of Jimmy, the young man who finds a ring while digging on Black Mountain and heads for America to track down the owner, the filmmakers cast newcomer Martin McCann. A native of the Falls Road in Belfast, McCann was appearing in a fringe theatre production of A Clockwork Orange when he came to the attention of Jo Gilbert.
“I knew within ten minutes of watching him on stage that we had found our Jimmy,” recalls Gilbert. “Martin wasn’t just playing the role of Alex, he was embodying it. He had an energy, a vivacity, that made him just mesmerizing on stage and I insisted that Richard take see him.”
Attenborough who, over the years has cast such actors as Denzel Washington and Daniel Day Lewis in early, breakout roles has nothing but praise McCann. “Every now and again I suppose, one discovers or witnesses a natural, as one might so describe,” states Attenborough. “He has done virtually no movies but he has all the apparent cinematic technique in terms of dealing with a camera and acting in front of a camera. He has professionalism in that he has as much, if not more to say than the majority of the players in the movie. He never fluffed a single word, by fluff I mean he didn’t ever dry up, he didn’t every forget his lines, he was never late, his concentration was phenomenal and if the right parts come along, if he is fortunate to be able to follow this movie with one or two other similar parts of similar value and calibre, he’ll become a major, major world movie star. Martin is, in a word, remarkable.”
McCann describes the opportunity to play Jimmy as an honour and a privilege. Says McCann, “I still can’t believe they’re paying me to do this because I would have paid these guys! I’m still pinching myself. I never went to drama school; I’ve just done plays since I was about 10 or 11 so every day I’m constantly learning. With Lord Attenborough to guide me along and iconic figures like Shirley and Pete and Brenda beside me, I really can’t go wrong, you know. Every day on set is a gift.” McCann says that he found the similarities between him and his character uncanny. “When I first read the script I though that the writer must have been spying on me because Jimmy is so like me. I mean here’s this young guy going over to America for the first time and everything is big and new and he’s just blown away by it . . . that’s what’s been happening to me. He’s eager to learn and he wants everybody to enjoy themselves, he likes to have fun and that’s me as a person, so it’s not such a big stretch.”
Neve Campbell plays the role of Marie, Ethel’s daughter by Chuck. Comments Campbell about her character, “Marie has not had a good relationship with her mother and, because her mother was still in love with the past, has watched her mother not have a loving relationship with her father. So she herself has not learned how love should work, how relationships can be healthy and I think, as a result, is fearful of entering into a relationship herself.
Although their relationship on-screen was strained, the off-screen relationship between Campbell and MacLaine was anything but. Says Campbell, “It was an honour to work with Shirley. She’s a phenomenal actress, an amazing person to work with, to watch and to learn from. I think I was a little intimidated coming in but it’s been a fantastic experience playing Shirley’s daughter - she’s an absolute hoot!” Casting the roles of Teddy, Chuck and the young Jack, three quintessentially American small-town lads in love with Ethel Ann and the romantic notion of heading off to war, proved to be a bit more challenging for the filmmakers that the other casting choices in the film.
“It’s a hard group to cast, the 18-to-20somethings; actors of that age tend to have a very contemporary look and we needed someone who could pull off the period,” says producer Jo Gilbert, herself a former casting director. “Richard is consummate with his casting. He never follows a trend for the sake of it or casts gratuitously. He’s very sensitive to the storyline so it was especially hard for us to find the right actor for key part of Teddy who is written as very apple pie American - a good-looking, clean-cut country boy.”
Recalls Attenborough, “For Teddy we needed someone to play opposite Mischa who was not only a good actor and had a particular personality on the screen, but who would be credible as someone Ethel Ann would absolutely fall in love with. I met Stephen and was bowled over as to how classically good-looking he is. But I wasn’t at all sure as to his skill as an actor and I suppose most people have said ‘well, why the hell didn’t you test him?’ And I would reply because I think testing them is a waste of time. And so I spent two days with him on and off and I became convinced that he could, if given the right time and the right circumstances, come up with a performance and the portraying of the personality and the part, which would grant the movie real credibility. And that he’s done. He’s absolutely enchanting without any show-off or self-importance at all. He’s a delightful guy and I think he’ll also score a huge success.”
Amell says that he responded immediately to the role of Teddy, whom he describes as “an open book. Every emotion and every thought that Teddy has is readily available for people to see, so it’s apparent to everyone that he loves Ethel Ann with all his heart, that he worships the ground she walks on,” says Amell. “He probably scrimped and saved from the moment he knew Ethel Ann to buy her the ring, so when she takes the time to inscribe it and tell him to take it with him to war it probably means the world to him. And when he realizes he is dying, the single most important thing to him is that she be happy, his dying wish is that she go on and live her life.”
Portraying Teddy’s best friends Jack and Chuck are Gregory Smith and David Alpay. The three share a lifelong easy bond as well as a love for Ethel Ann.
Smith, who recently wrapped four successful years as the star of the critically acclaimed television series Everwood, says he knew from the moment he read the script that “he could get inside Jack’s head immediately. I knew where he was coming from and I knew what he was about,” says Smith. “I always try to immerse myself into whatever world the character would have lived in and with Jack it was easy. He loves life and loves his friends, so much so that when Teddy makes them swear that should anything happen to him that one of them must look after Ethel and then chooses Chuck, Jack honours that promise - even though he loves Ethel Ann probably even more than Chuck does.”
“Teddy, Jack and Chuck were young and full of life and excited about going off to war. The world was their oyster,” offers Alpay. “Nobody believed that one of them wouldn’t come back. So on their last night together, Chuck makes that promise to Teddy, never thinking that he would have to step up to the plate and keep it. But he does, even though he knows, deep in his heart, that Jack should have been the one for Ethel Ann. He keeps that promise because he’s a man of honour.” Rounding out the esteemed supporting cast of Closing the Ring are Allan Hawco as Peter, Ian McElhinney as Cathal Thomas, BJ Hogg as MacGuigan, Ian Beattie as Seamus McCarty and Kirsty Stuart as Eleanor.