The Big Interview: Game of Thrones and Derry Girls actor Ian McElhinney

When actor Ian McElhinney was offered the part of no-nonsense patriarch, Granda Joe, in '˜Derry Girls,' the hit Channel 4 coming-of-age comedy set at the tail end of the Troubles, he wondered if he would have to adopt the region's distinctive rapid-fire accent.

Friday, 4th January 2019, 3:00 pm
Updated Thursday, 10th January 2019, 2:18 pm
Ian McElhinney as Granda Joe in Derry Girls.

The Belfast actor said: ‘‘It’s a particular accent and I suppose if they had said ‘yes, you have to do a Derry accent,’ I would have gone off and tried to work on it. But I said to them, and I meant it, ‘this guy (Granda Joe) is a bit of a humpy b******, and it seems to me that something a bit more Belfast actually suits that kind of tone, because it’s a more aggressive accent than the Derry one - the Derry accent is a bit softer.’’

In the end, McElhinney was told to use which ever accent felt comfortable to him, so he stuck with his own - but points out he likes the ‘tuneful’ north west brogue.

‘‘It has it’s own music - that’s something that Lisa (McGee, the writer), has captured very well -there’s a musicality; there’s a rhythm in how she writes - she writes very much with a sensibility for her own tongue; the way people talk where she’s from and she’s quite particular about trying to stick to the rhythms that she has written.’’

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Ian McElhinney as Ser Barristan Selmy in Game of Thrones.

McElhinney has been filming the second series of ‘Derry Girls’ (a transmission date has yet to be confirmed), and is thoroughly enjoying himself.

‘‘Derry Girls has been great fun. It’s a great team - not just the cast, but the crew as well.’’

In the first series, he proved his pedigree as the unflappable head of the house, Granda Joe, with a cache of withering looks and hilarious one-liners, including “I’ll compromise you through that window!” – said to son-in-law Gerry (Tommy Tiernan), during the now famous how-many-bags-of-chips debate.

The wayward wains, Erin and Co, may he hilarious, but the grown-ups of Derry Girls, including McElhinney, are as every bit as funny; but filming those comedy scenes, said McElhinney, requires long days and hard work.

l-r: Gerry Quinn (Tommy Tiernan), Mary Quin (Tara O'Neill) Erin Quinn (Sairse Jackson), Orla McCool (Louisa Harland), Sarah McCool (Kathy Clarke) Granda Joe (Ian McElhinney)

‘‘With so many of us in these scenes - there’s sometimes 10 or more - it can be a long day just getting all the necessary shots in.’’

But he believes viewers are in for treat when the new series airs.

‘‘Most of us probably feel that if anything, the new series is going to be stronger than the first.’’

Professionally, McElhinney has never been busier.

This month he is playing the storyteller in Peter Corry’s, ‘The Music Box’ at The Waterfront Hall, a show which takes audiences on a magical journey of Christmas music, past, present, traditional and contemporary.

‘‘It’s the 10th anniversary of the show, so I’m back to help Peter (Corry) celebrate it.

‘‘It’ll be fun. Peter and I have been working together, one way or another, for 15 years at least, so it will be nice to get together again.’’

The son of a Church of Ireland minister, McElhinney said growing up he was ‘‘one of the kids reared to leave’’ Northern Ireland.

And he did. In 1966 he attended college in Edinburgh and Boston. After four years’ teaching in Yorkshire, and about to turn 30, he decided this was his last chance to become an actor and returned to Ulster in 1979 during the Troubles.

‘‘In those days you had to have the equity card and I was advised to go back to my roots and that’s what brought me back to Northern Ireland, otherwise to be honest, I didn’t think I’d be back here at all. I saw myself as a citizen of the world.’’

Yet, McElhinney, who is married to the playwright Marie Jones and has three sons, never did leave Northern Ireland. Instead, the industry came to him.

‘‘This is the wonderful irony; if you had said 20 or 30 years ago that we’d have the industry here that we have now, people would have laughed.

‘‘I did a lot of television in the 1980s and a lot of it was troubles-related TV. Most of that was shot anywhere but Belfast, maybe Glasgow or Birmingham or Manchester - somewhere that felt like a northern city, with terraced houses, two ups, two downs, but not Belfast, because it was just too dangerous. It was risky to put people out on the streets, especially doing Troubles-related stuff dressed as policemen or paramilitaries or whatever.

‘‘And now, I have spent most of the last two or three years, working without having to leave home base. That’s been a nice bonus from a personal point of view.’’

In recent times McElhinney’s best known roles, aside from Granda Joe, are as Barristan Selmy in Game of Thrones, and as Morgan Monroe in The Fall - both filmed here.

Over the years he has had notable appearances in Taggart, Hornblower, Cold Feet and The Tudors, and, of course, is lauded as a highly accomplished director. But these days he finds he’s getting recognised in a way he wasn’t before.

‘‘I’ve been an actor for 40 years now and I’m glad to say I’ve had a full working life, but there’s no question that in the last 10 years I’ve done more stuff that’s been more visible.

‘‘I still go out assuming I’m anonymous, like anybody, and then every so often someone will come up and say ‘will you sign this or can I do a selfie with you’.’’

He added: ‘‘I’m glad to say that I’ve got to the stage of instead of slowing down I seem to be speeding up. I’m not complaining.’’