To portray a fisherman suffering through the Great Hunger, a famine that ravaged Ireland in 1845, in the film “Arracht,” lead actor Donall O Healai fasted for months until he was down to virtually skin and bones.
It’s an extreme level of dedication we’ve seen from a number of actors across the years. But because “Arracht” had to be shot in reverse, O Healai then had to rapidly put back on enormous amounts of weight while filming continued.
“The weight loss was a lot, but the weight gain was also dramatic,” director Tom Sullivan told TheWrap’s Steve Pond. “We didn’t really have, because we were low budget the facility to furlough the actors or crew for a couple of weeks as Donall put the weight on. He had to do that immediately. So that was a massive challenge for him.”
“I was trying to gain as much weight as I could so that there was a stark contrast. There was a method to the madness,” O Healai added.
O Healai and Sullivan participated in a Q&A as part of TheWrap’s virtual Awards and International Screening Series Wednesday night. “Arracht” was selected as the Irish entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards. They discussed just how physically and mentally demanding it was to properly convey a character going through this much suffering.
“When he arrived on set the first day, he was kind of there in character completely,” Sullivan said. “He had literally starved himself, and it brought such a huge wave of momentum to the crew and everyone else because Donall just led us for the first few days. We followed him and put the camera on him. You were in a different world Donall for the first week.”
“Arracht” is the story of a fisherman who on the eve of the Great Hunger finds himself unable to protect his family as the famine progresses. But as years go by and he finds himself alone and dying, he meets a young girl who nurses him back to health.
O Healai says he spent months researching about the Irish history and what it would be like for his character, only to have a realization when a friend pointed out something key about his character.
“He said, ‘Your character doesn’t know it’s a famine.’ For some reason I had forgot that. He’s right,” O Healai said. “I just really banked on the weight loss to get me where I needed to be, and when you’re fasting, hopefully it takes you to somewhere else, and it panned out.”
When he finally did get to eat again after four months of fasting, Sullivan recalls his star sitting at the crafts table eating three separate dinners provided by the catering team.
“He’d sit at the table and gorge. I’ve never seen a guy happier,” Sullivan recalls. “I heard this groaning. ‘Donall what’s wrong?’ ‘I had too much!'”
Sullivan picked on him further, saying that when he first saw O Healai for the first time in five years to discuss the part, he would have some work to do to get into famine shape.
“Donall was a big guy, Donall liked the burgers, living in New York,” Sullivan joked.
Even if O Healai was “festively plump,” as he described, losing the weight ended up paying off on screen.
“And it worked, brilliantly. There was no in or out of character for Donall, he was there the whole time. So yeah, sorry Donall,” Sullivan added. “I’ll be forever grateful Donall because you did that for us. I think the authenticity comes through, and ‘Arracht’ works because of it, so thank you.”
Check out the full conversation with the team from “Arracht” here and above.