Interview: Irish actor Michael Smiley on his macabre new role in Acorn TV’s Dead Still

After an enormously successful launch in the United States and Canada, Acorn TV has arrived in Australia and New Zealand.  A predominantly British-centric service that showcases the best drama the UK has to offer, one of the instantly accessible series on the “Netflix for Anglophiles” is Dead Still.  Set in 1880’s Ireland, the comedically macabre series stars Michael Smiley as Brock Blennerhasset, a well regarded memorial portrait photographer who is drawn into a series of murders that appear to be linked to his work.

The AU Review’s Peter Gray was fortunate enough to chat with the actor about his new role as it premieres on Acorn.  After admitting to feeling like “an out of work actor” in the midst of COVID-19’s impact on the industry, the two moved on to the character of Blennerhasset and how Smiley became involved.

You could say one of the positives of COVID-19 has been the ability to binge so many shows in a seating, and I was able to do so with Dead Still.  Blennerhasset is such an interesting character, how did you approach playing him?

I think someone called Brock Blennerhasset living in Ireland in the Victorian era is a fascinating starting point.  The very name itself evokes “Who the hell is he?”.  So it was a great starting point, but I sensed from the writer (John Morton) and director (Imogen Murphy) that he’s quite an internal character, he’s quite shy…it’s like he’s holding back on stuff.  He could be on the spectrum.  He’s private for a reason.  So I played him small, to be as self-contained as possible.

Him being quite an internalised character, what I got from that was he was hiding something himself…

Yes, completely that.  And also, a very private man to the point where he only had his assistant and his coachman.  That was it for him.  And then the next minute his niece turns up, and then the gravedigger turns up, you know he then has to deal with these “millennials” who are so full of vigour, and they’re disturbing his peace (essentially).  But they’re quite honest people so they soften him over time, and it’s quite nice to see an old dog learn new tricks.

What was it about this series that made you want to do it specifically? Did they seek you out with an offer?

They came to me.  Right from the off I was interested.  For there to be a show about Ireland, coming out of Ireland was quite different from the usual productions that are out there.

And did you do any research pertaining to your character’s quite unique profession?

I come from a family of very keen, amateur photographers, so I always had an interest in various films and the collective nature.  I come from that.  The idea of focusing on the earliest days of photography I find fascinating.  It’s a bit like when the internet first came to us.  You had all those thoughts and questions about whether it’ll come through computers or the television or our phones…what was going to be the medium we needed to buy? Turns out we needed to buy everything!  With photography, when the invention of taking photos came about there was a question about what we were going to do with all the equipment.  It’s fascinating to look at that familial world of memorial photos, taking pictures of the dead for the family, to think it actually happened.  The ornate nature of death and how do we address that is fascinating.

Given that the character is quite internalised, I guess you could say posh even, the accent that you have given Brock, was that your own doing?

I left it up to them.  I asked what kind of accent should he have?  I’m Irish, but Northern Irish so my accent is different from someone in Dublin, from someone in Cork, from someone in Galway…Ireland’s a small country but it’s riddled with different accents.  And it might not be something that the American ear would pick up quickly as opposed to the Australian ear…so him being Anglo-Irish meant it would be kind of posh English with an Irish accent.

The show has a very dark sense of humour amongst the material, it seems that horror and comedy are genre that you have often explored throughout your career.  Is that the material you enjoy the most?

I think as an actor, as long as I can see myself in the story then it’s something i’m interested in.  It’s not like I made a decision to make funny dark stuff…but when it’s really well written, dark comedy is a lot of fun.  I find it interesting to explore the darker side of humanity.  I don’t always want to play the bad guy but the bad guy is just always so much more interesting!  I tend to die a lot which I guess is a byproduct of choosing the edgier stuff (laughs).

Because I will go off on a tangent and say that I really enjoyed Come To Daddy and how twisted that was, especially your character!

(Laughs) Jethro! Bless him.  I loved that character.  He was such fun.  You know, if you play it straight he’s a really interesting character to have.  Such a joy.  And Brock is such a joy too, cause as his character I feel like there’s so much more to be revealed.  It’ll be interesting to see how he’s developed for a second series.

Yeah, it seems like there’s so many more layers to this character…

I think in this first series there’s a bit of a hold back.  You need to in order to show there’s more to come.  You don’t want to feel like you’ve exhausted all your avenues in this first series.  And then all you’re doing is repeating for a second.  What we really wanted to achieve with this (first series) is each episode is a story that stands on its own, but there’s still one defining arc overall.  There’s more to look forward to.

Episodes 1 & 2 of Dead Still will premiere on Acorn TV on June 29th 2020.  Episodes 3 & 4 will follow on July 6th, with 5 & 6 streaming from July 13th.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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