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Larry Mullen Jr: The Man on the Train

11/16/2011 04:08 pm ET | Updated Jan 16, 2012

The musician-turned-actor talks about his "jump off the bridge" straight into the movie business. Now available nationwide on demand via Tribeca Film.

Photo courtesy Tribeca Film / credit: Sophie Girau

Now playing across the country on VOD via Tribeca Film, Mary McGuckian's The Man on the Train is an English-language remake of Patrice Leconte's atmospheric L'Homme du Train [2002], which starred musician-turned-actor Johnny Hallyday and Jean Rochefort. In the current film, Irish musician Larry Mullen Jr. makes his acting debut opposite the legendary Donald Sutherland.

Mullen, who did triple-duty on the film—actor, producer, and soundtrack supervisor—recently talked to us about his "baptism by fire," his acting method, and what it was like to work with an icon. 

Tribeca: Congratulations on your acting debut! Clearly, you’ve always been a creative man. When did you realize that you had an interest in acting, and was there something particular that prompted you to tackle this new challenge? 

Larry Mullen Jr.: I’ve always had an interest in doing something that was outside my comfort zone; I had this thing about standing on the edge of the cliff and deciding to jump. I think it’s probably a bit like imagining that you might enjoy shark diving or bungee jumping off a very large bridge. I thought [acting] might be an exciting thing to do—I’m used to sitting and being in the background, and I’ve enjoyed that, for many, many years. But I kind of played with the idea for a while, never believing that anything would come of it.

Then I ran into Mary McGuckian, and we talked about her making films, and what that was about. And she said to me, “If you’re interested in filmmaking, you should watch this film,” which was the original Man on the Train, the Patrice Leconte version. So I had a look at that, and I loved it, and I thought, “Well, it would be great if somebody remade this film and I could get a small part; that would be a rich little idea.” To put a long story short, Mary said, “Look, if we’re going to do this, let’s create a partnership.” So we did, and I got involved in the production—trying to get the rights, etc.—which I enjoyed very much.

And then when we actually got the rights, they said to me, “Well, you’re going to have to play the part of The Man; that’s the whole idea.” And I said, “Well, what the f*&%?” So I was forced into it, but I wasn’t totally an unwilling participant. It was a pretty damn big decision to make. And of course, when Donald Sutherland signed up, it seemed like the most stupid thing I’d ever done in my whole life! [laughs] But there you have it. I ended up on a set in Toronto for 17 days working with Donald Sutherland, and it was a very different experience for me, I have to tell you.

The Man on the Train

Photo courtesy Tribeca Film / credit: Sophie Girau

Tribeca: Well, you really held your own. What attracted you to this story? What did you like about the original film, and what did you and Mary think you could do differently with this version? 

Larry Mullen Jr.: I think the reason Mary showed it to me was because of how difficult it is for people who are in music, in particular, to make that changeover [to acting]. There’s a long, long list of people who have tried and have not succeeded—not because they weren’t talented, but because it’s difficult to be believable when you’re known as one thing and then you decide to do something else.

Mary’s point was that [French musician] Johnny Hallyday [Mullen’s counterpart in the French film] had made several films and had not been terribly successful, and then he found this movie. And it was a very, very successful transition, and she was saying that this is how it can be done: with a great story, a good director, and so on.

Johnny had not been known as a great actor, and then he ends up in this movie, and it’s the right movie for him, and he’s great in it. So that’s how it started. 

Tribeca: Did you find any similarities to performing as a musician, or is that such old hat to you now that it’s not like jumping off a cliff anymore? 

Larry Mullen Jr.: I think there are some similarities, but generally speaking, when you’re a musician, you’re playing for yourself: it’s about you, and it is a very personal experience. Whereas, I think with acting, it’s kind of the opposite in some ways. It’s about the non-personal becoming the personal—you’re playing somebody else. I think for a lot of young actors, people who haven’t acted before, the great lesson is that sometimes it’s the stuff you don’t know that really benefits you.

That really stood out to me, I have to say, when I was working with people like Donald Sutherland. I didn’t know any better; I didn’t know what the protocol was meant to be. I succeeded and failed, all at the same time; I had no expectations of myself; I didn’t know whether I could do it. So I just kept on trying to do what I thought was the right thing.

I imagine had I known a little more when I got into it, the prospect of working with someone with the stature of Donald would’ve been too much. He’s an extraordinary actor, but he’s also an elder statesman. It was only halfway through the film that I actually realized how difficult it was for him, I think, working with a novice like me, but by that stage I didn’t care…

The Man on the Train

Photo courtesy Tribeca Film / credit: Sophie Girau

Tribeca: You were already deep into it…

Larry Mullen Jr.: I’d already jumped. There was nothing I could do; there were no parachutes. I jumped, and that was it. But Donald was very generous, in that he didn’t offer me huge amounts of advice and mentor me, and try and teach me. He just stayed out of my way. He just let me do it. And I think that was the great gift that he gave me. I’m very grateful to him, because I think it can’t have been easy to see me muddle through various different scenes, and mess up my lines, and not get things right. It can’t have been easy for him to watch that, given what he’s done, but he just stood back. He stood back and he allowed me to rise and fall.

Tribeca: I think it’s an honor that he respected you in that way, and let you do your thing.

Larry Mullen Jr.: Absolutely. And that’s how I see it. I see it as an incredibly generous thing for him to do, to actually just step out of my way. Because I was getting in my own way enough.

Tribeca: So the press notes mention that Mary views the film as a contemporary urban Western. With that in mind, how did you prepare for the character, and was the goatee part of your transformation, or was that something that you’d been playing with already?

Larry Mullen Jr.: You know, I leafed through the Stanislavski book on Method acting many, many years ago, but it meant absolutely nothing to me, because I’d had no experience acting. And when Mary and I decided that we would actually go ahead and do this, part of the issue for me was, “Well, what do I do? How do I prepare for something like this?” She had a very clear idea about how I would prepare to do this, and she’s worked with non-actors before, so I got a sort of binder with all the scenes in it, and I had to build my character. I grew the goatee, and I think I went into a form of Method, although I had no idea what I was doing. I got into the zone of, like, 5 or 6 individuals that I knew, and I sort of put them all together and came up with the character.

The Man on the Train

Photo courtesy Tribeca Film / credit: Sophie Girau

Tribeca: Did you go into a different mental place, or was it really more about outward appearances? What was the process?

Larry Mullen Jr.: A lot of this part was the outward, surly, rogue, tough guy, and the transformation into a “buddy” [to Sutherland’s character, a professor] was actually a nice curve. Because I wasn’t playing the same character through the whole film: I had an opportunity to engage with the professor.

But the way the film was shot—it wasn’t scene one to scene two, etc. It was shot in different sequences: outdoors, indoors… So that was a bit of a challenge. In the morning, for instance, I would be doing a bank robbery. And then in the afternoon, I would be telling the professor over dinner what a wonderful guy he was. It was a challenge just trying to figure out which particular guy I was going to be at which particular time. [laughs]

And did I pull it off? I think I pull it off in places. Is it convincing everywhere? It has its flaws; I mean, I’m not an actor, but it’s definitely something I enjoyed doing.

Tribeca: I think you see the flaws more than everyone else does... Switching gears, you wore quite a few hats on this film: you’re a producer, and you’re an actor, and you produced the score. Which did you find the most challenging? And did producing surprise you?

Larry Mullen Jr.: Yeah, it did. When you’re in the music business, everything is very personal, because you are invested in everything; there’s a very deep, personal attachment to your music. When you’re making a film, it’s very different. I think as a director who’s written the piece, I can understand how you’d feel very personal about it., [but for me] it was not a personal challenge; it was a film. And the production part of this was very matter-of-fact, problem-solving in a very basic form: how do you get the movie out, how do you get the financing, who’s going to release it, and so on and so forth. So I enjoyed that process. I thought I was better at that, in a funny way, than at the acting. The acting was a real challenge for me, although I found it incredibly liberating. Was it the most enjoyable experience of my life? No, but it did something I didn’t expect it to; it didn’t spite me the way I thought it would.

And as far as the score was concerned, that came about by chance. I wasn’t meant to do the score, nor did I particularly want to do the score, but we were kind of running out of time. Mary suggested that I get together with Simon Climie, who Mary had known for years; I hadn’t met him before. He’s a proper musician. So he and I just worked for a couple of days and came up with something. We didn’t have a huge amount of time on it. And that, I have to say, of all the things, that’s probably been the most difficult—I’m used to having time around musical projects, to access resources quickly, and get what [I] need, and this was not like that. This was very different, and it was a challenge. But we did what we were tasked to do. It could have been very different, and probably could have been a lot better. And it’s one piece of music used over the whole film; I would love to have had two or three pieces—but we just didn’t have the time for it.

The Man on the Train

Photo courtesy Tribeca Film / credit: Sophie Girau

Tribeca: So what’s the verdict? Do you think you’ll act again, or have you run screaming from this crazy movie business? What’s your plan?

Larry Mullen Jr.: Well, my baptism was a baptism of fire. I didn’t feel humiliated, and I don’t feel I failed, as I thought I might. I didn’t know how it would go. I feel I held my own, and I would absolutely like to do more film. I don’t know what I’m qualified to do, film-wise... So it’s really down to a director or a casting director to find something that they think I could do. To answer your question directly, I would love to do more acting.

The Man on the Train is currently available on nationwide VOD in 40 million homes. Find out where you can watch it.

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