The screenwriter and star of An Everlasting Piece, Barry McEvoy did not have to go far to find the inspiration for his script about two Irish barbers who attempt a toupee coup in Northern Ireland. Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, McEvoy grew up the son of a barber who had done his own stint as a hairpiece salesman. The elder McEvoy had regaled his son with stories and anecdotes of his adventures selling wigs to both Catholics and Protestants despite the tensions that threatened to make his own hair fall out.
The McEvoy family eventually moved to the United States, settling, coincidentally, in Barry Levinson's beloved home state of Maryland. Years later, after an evening of reminiscing with his dad, McEvoy recalls, "I asked my dad if he would get one of those microcassette recorders and record some of the stories for me. I was touring with a play, and he started sending me tapes on the road every two weeks. Pretty soon I had about seven hours worth of tapes. I went through and transcribed them all trying to decide which stories I could use, and that was the genesis of the script."
McEvoy continues, "I realized early on that it had to be a comedy. I mean, they're hairpiece salesmen. I wouldn't want to see a drama about hairpiece salesmen, but it's also not a film about bald jokes. When it's happening to you, going bald isn't funny. But how you deal with it--that's funny. What do you do? Do you panic? Do you comb it over? Do you get a hat? Then you bring in two people from opposite sides of the fence laughing at each other, laughing at themselves--and especially their customers. That's what I wanted."
Once his screenplay was completed, McEvoy began gathering some of his actor friends to join him in script readings in local New York pubs. One of those who saw an early reading of "An Everlasting Piece" was producer and casting director Louis DiGiaimo, who knew McEvoy from having cast him in the film Gloria. DiGiaimo was taken with the story of the two barbers, one Catholic and one Protestant, which blended humor into a potentially volatile partnership. He gave a copy of the script to producer Mark Johnson, who likewise saw its potential, and eventually brought the script to director Barry Levinson, with whom he has shared a long association.
Levinson recalls, "I read the script and thought it was really interesting. I loved that it was a comedy set against the backdrop of Belfast during this highly charged period in the '80s. I'm not from there and can't pretend to be, but I felt very comfortable with the piece. I liked that it dealt with the problems of Northern Ireland with humor, which I think is a much more interesting approach. Comedy is a great way to explore issues and conflicts because you're coming at them from a different perspective."
ASSEMBLING THE TEAM
"Avalon is one of my favorite films, so when I heard that Barry Levinson wanted to direct this film, I was bowled over," McEvoy says. "I knew it would take a director who was sensitive to the material because we were dealing with some very touchy issues, and had to be very careful about having fun with them. Barry is smart and funny, and from our first meeting had a genuine understanding of the material."
Wearing the dual hats of writer and actor might have proven a conflict, but Levinson notes that McEvoy had no trouble separating the two once they got on the set. "Once we got underway, he was focused on being an actor in the movie. He wasn't jumping in and out as an actor and then a writer. He was very committed to his role and, I think, did a terrific job."
McEvoy wrote the part of Colm, the Catholic half of the hairpiece partnership, for himself, loosely basing the character on his father, though he added some qualities that he is quick to point out are not shared with his dad. "Colm is very vain, though my dad isn't vain at all," he states. "Colm is also very cocky, but during the course of the film, every time he gets too cocky, he gets a kind of smack on the head telling him to wise up. By the end of the film, he comes to realize there's more to life than his own needs."
By contrast, the role of George, Colm's Protestant partner, is almost too humble and complacent for his own good. Brian F. O'Byrne, who stars as George, offers, "He's a regular guy. He does have notions of himself as a poet trapped in a barber's body, but that's basically it. He's quite happy with his lot in life until all of the sudden, this guy Colm arrives with a lot of attitude, bringing great fire and spirit into George's dull surroundings. He throws George's life into chaos, not only because he changes his job, but because he is forced to deal with a Catholic and confront that whole issue. So the two of them set off--two guys going around Northern Ireland trying to flog these hairpieces--like a road movie with a wig."
"Brian is one of the most exceptional actors I've come across," Levinson says. "There's a soulfulness about him that he was able to bring to this character, but at the same time he's very funny. That combination of soulfulness and humor in the part of George was very important to grounding the story."
Like McEvoy, O'Byrne has his roots in Ireland. "Both of us are Irish, though we both live in New York, so have more of an outsider's view of Ireland in a sense," O'Byrne remarks. "Then you add in Barry Levinson who brings a completely American sensibility to it. He can stand back and forget about the politics of the situation completely and just find what's funny in it."
The international perspective expanded with the casting of noted British actress Anna Friel in the role of Colm's girlfriend Bronagh, who proves to be the inspiration behind the success of the partnership. Levinson knew that Friel was perfect for the role the moment he met her. "I just thought she was just charming. She had a toughness to her and a great sense of humor, and I liked that she was strong, which was so right for the character."
Friel, in turn, reveals that the chance to work with Levinson was what first drew her to the project. In addition, though she is from England, Friel had a special affinity for the story because her father hails from Belfast. "I found the script to be very funny, and at the same time very profound. I thought it was very refreshing to look at the relationship between a Catholic and a Protestant where both sides could laugh," she says.
Friel also loved that the character of Bronagh was not relegated to being only a girlfriend, but was herself pivotal to the story. "I always go for more interesting characters, and Bronagh's not your typical girl on the arm," the actress notes. She's quite brash and really savvy. She's the one who gets Colm the job in the hospital barber shop that basically sets the whole thing in motion."
It is at the hospital barbershop that Colm and George meet the inmate known as the Scalper. There was yet another country heard from when renowned Scottish actor and comedian Billy Connolly was cast as the Scalper, who had once held the toupee monopoly in Northern Ireland, but who lost it when he--well, lost it.
Connolly explains, "My character had a wig company, but suddenly lost his mind and began scalping people instead. He starts spouting all sorts of crazy nonsense off the top of his head. In truth, I talk like that in my daily life," Connolly jokes. "It's a smashing part. The great thing about it is he doesn't have to communicate with anybody or make any sense, which allowed me to improvise frequently in the film."
Though Levinson and Connolly had known each other for years, An Everlasting Piece marks the first time they have ever worked together. "Barry has been my friend for a long time. I admired his work and thought it would be lovely to experience working with him," Connolly says.
"Billy is wonderful. He has a way of acting insane at times--and you believe him," Levinson laughs. "In the role he plays in this film, the guy has obviously gone off the deep end, spouting things that make no sense whatsoever. Billy is so good at that, and I was glad we could get him for the part."
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
An Everlasting Piece was filmed at Ardmore Studios in Dublin, Ireland, as well as on location in Dublin and Belfast. Arriving in Belfast, Levinson reveals that he had a feeling of being right at home. "It reminded me so much of Baltimore with its row houses and the shipyard that I started thinking, 'I'm doing another Baltimore piece.'"
Despite its familiarity, Levinson notes that filming in the winter in Ireland presented its own set of challenges. "It's a tough place. I mean the weather alone can really beat you up, although somehow the Irish are impervious to the fact that it's raining like crazy and bone-chillingly cold. We also had limited hours in which to shoot because by 4:00 in the afternoon the light is gone."
When filming was completed, the international group involved in the film expanded again with Hans Zimmer--who is originally from Germany and grew up in London--composing the score. "I showed the film to Hans and he loved it and wanted to work on it," Levinson says. "He's done a lot of big movies lately, but we agreed that this movie shouldn't have a big score because it's not that kind of movie. It's a small, intimate piece, and I think the score Hans created really supports that feeling, while capturing a very Irish spirit."
Levinson adds, "It is really remarkable to realize how influential the Irish have been in terms of music and dance, as well as literature and poetry. They have incredible whimsy and a sense of humor that's extraordinary, and this movie has a bit of their whimsical optimism. It basically says that the humanity of man ultimately can conquer all. When you finally get down to that, and don't get caught up in all of the other things, friendship and humanity is ultimately what endures."