How 'Artemis Fowl' Star Lara McDonnell Got Over Her Judi Dench Jitters
After working together on Disney’s Artemis Fowl, Dame Judi Dench proclaimed the then 14-year-old Irish actor Lara McDonnell to be “the real deal.” Costar Josh Gad agreed with Dench and felt that McDonnell was “nothing short of a revelation.” Director Kenneth Branagh was so taken with McDonnell’s “tremendous” performance in Artemis that he invited her to gain some work experience on his subsequent film, Death on the Nile.
After a nine-month audition process, McDonnell landed the role of Captain Holly Short, an elven reconnaissance officer within the recon division of the fairy world’s Lower Elements Police (L.E.P.Recon). Since Short answers to Commander Root (Dench), McDonnell was, understandably, intimidated by the thought of working with an actor of Dench’s stature. However, Branagh devised a clever way to ease his female lead’s nerves prior to shooting with Dench.
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“Any actor who’s never worked with her before might just be a little intimidated because she is the legend that is Dame Judi Dench,” McDonnell tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I couldn’t believe she was standing in front of me, and I remember one of the ADs happened to hug me because I began to tear up just a little bit. After that, Kenneth Branagh brought us into a room where we made berry cakes with her. It was such a bizarre yet wonderful experience in that we got so comfortable with her. We were able to talk with her after making these berry cakes together. It was definitely a brilliant way of becoming more relaxed around her.”
As part of her schooling, McDonnell, now 16, gained her required work experience on the set of Branagh’s Death on the Nile, the follow-up to 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express. Branagh gladly welcomed her “passion, enthusiasm and interest” back to his latest set.
“I was so incredibly lucky that Sir Kenneth Branagh gave me the amazing opportunity to work behind the scenes of Death on the Nile,” McDonnell explains. “He allowed me the opportunity to gain an insight into the workings of each department. I have always had an interest in every aspect of filmmaking, and this has increased it tenfold. Just like on the set of Artemis Fowl, Ken creates an atmosphere where each and every person is treated equally; you’re like a member of the family. And to be included in this environment for a second time was such a privilege.”
In a recent conversation with THR, McDonnell discusses her nine-month casting process, why she reread the Artemis Fowl books twice before shooting and her fondness for fellow Irish actors Cillian Murphy and Saoirse Ronan.
What’s Ireland like right now with everything going on in the world?
It’s very quiet. It’s a very strange and unusual time for everybody. Like the rest of the world, I’m adjusting to the rules and regulations in trying to stay safe, but it’s definitely still a very unusual time for everybody. I don’t think anybody in this generation ever thought they’d be dealing with something like this; this is straight out of history books. So, I think everybody is adjusting to the new ways of the world.
Since the books were written by an Irish writer, Eoin Colfer, were you familiar with them growing up?
I was, actually! I absolutely loved the books growing up. I had read them when I was around 10. I absolutely love the books of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so Artemis Fowl was perfect for me. When I heard that it was going to be made into a Disney movie, I couldn’t believe I was getting the chance to audition for it. Even if I hadn’t been offered the role, I 100 percent would’ve gone to see the movie. That’s how much I loved the books.
Auditioning for Disney movies, including their various subsidiaries, is often a very lengthy process. Since your 9-month experience was no different, can you take me through the steps?
My agent contacted me and told me about the role, and I was completely over the moon. So, I went to an audition in Dublin, and I was lucky enough to be asked for a callback. Then, I traveled to London where I first met Ferdia Shaw (Artemis Fowl) and Sir Kenneth Branagh, which was an incredible experience. After that, I was asked to go to two screen tests at Longcross Studios where we filmed the movie. Then, I was offered the role, and I could not believe it. I cried, wailed and fell off the chair, and then I accused my mum of lying to me. I just didn’t believe she was telling me the truth. (Laughs.) I 100 percent did not try to play it cool. Definitely not.
Holly and Artemis’ relationship is quite important to the movie and book series. When you first read with Ferdia, could you sense a connection?
Yes, definitely. I remember when we first met that it was just kind of an instant connection. We had the same interests; we liked the same books, movies and subjects in school. So, little things like that just really helped us bond when we first met. Initially, we weren’t put together to read with one another, and then we were. I knew, personally, that he was going to be Artemis. He was just the perfect Artemis, I thought.
Once you started preparing for the role, did you revisit the books, or did you not want to create a conflict between the script’s Holly and the books’ version?
I definitely revisited the books. I’m a huge fan of being over-prepared, if anything. I reread all eight of the books, twice, just so that I could fully gauge Holly, who she was, her backstory, every single thing about her and the story in general. The book is the foundation for the film so I wanted to make sure that I knew as much as I possibly could. It’s such a beloved book series and Holly is such a beloved character that I wanted to honor her and do as much justice to her as possible.
Is this the first time you’ve drastically changed your appearance for a role?
Yes, it is! I used to have very long hair, and I chopped it all off and got a pixie cut in replacement. I was very happy with it. I also had elf ears for six months which isn’t something that I normally have. (Laughs.)
Speaking of the elf ears, did the prosthetics take considerable time each day, or did the makeup team find a way to streamline it?
When we were first putting them on, it was a very new process for everybody involved. The ears are tailored exactly to fit the person who’s wearing them, but over time, it definitely became a much faster process. I definitely got used to wearing elf ears. (Laughs.)
Since Kenneth Branagh is an actor-director, was his performance direction more specific than most directors? Would he use lots of acting jargon and whatnot?
Yes, definitely. Ken being an actor and working with us as a director was definitely a huge help. He knew what terms to use to get us in the right place to try out new things as the characters. He understood what it was like to be in our shoes, and he always made us feel as comfortable as possible. He created such a safe, creative environment for us so that we felt confident. He did an amazing job, and the film is amazing because of him. It was his creation and his vision; it’s beautiful.
Of course, you also got to act with Dame Judi Dench. Did you need a take or two to calm your nerves, or did she put you at ease before cameras rolled?
Oh my goodness. Getting to meet her, let alone work with her, was a complete honor. Any actor who’s never worked with her before might just be a little intimidated because she is the legend that is Dame Judi Dench. But Ken was very clever when he introduced her to Ferdia and I. I couldn’t believe she was standing in front of me, and I remember one of the ADs happened to hug me because I began to tear up just a little bit. After that, Kenneth Branagh brought us into a room where we made berry cakes with her. It was such a bizarre yet wonderful experience in that we got so comfortable with her. We were able to talk with her after making these berry cakes together. It was definitely a brilliant way of becoming more relaxed around her. On the day, when I did my first scene with her, I was a bit nervous, but having that experience really helped me relax and feel more comfortable.
Josh Gad is one of my favorite interviews, and he’s known for adding energy and fun to whatever set he’s working on at the time. Did you guys hit it off right away?
Oh, 100 percent. I like to think so anyway. (Laughs.) I’m a huge fan of his, and I’ve known his work since he did Book of Mormon on Broadway. I’m a huge musical-theater fan, and getting to meet him was so exciting. When I first saw him in person, I distinctly remember going bright red and losing the ability to speak. But he’s so funny. Like you say, he brings that amazing energy everywhere he goes, and he just lights up the room. He was so lovely and sweet to me, and I like to think of him as a good friend.
How did they shoot your fight with the giant troll?
That was probably one of the longest scenes to shoot in the film. There are so many different elements in the scene. At one point, I’m up in the air, and then I’m on the floor at another. So, it was a very long process because there were so many intricate details. For the troll, with the magic of special effects, there was a stuntman on stilts in a blue suit, and he would run around on the stilts, holding a stick with a troll head on top of it. So, that was definitely a new experience for all of us.
For the time-freeze moment at the wedding, did they shoot you in front of a green screen and then composite the crowd shots in later?
That was an incredible scene for me to shoot. It felt so dreamlike. All of the amazing extras and stunt performers actually did the freeze on the day. I’m sure that they fixed it in post, but on the day, they all froze in their crazy positions which was really fun to walk around and see all of it. They were very glad when cut was yelled. (Laughs.)
The emotional kitchen scene with Nonso Anozie comes to mind, but it looks like you did a lot of wire and harness work in the film. How did you take to it?
Oh my goodness, I absolutely adored it. Yes, when I flew down the hallway for the kitchen scene, I was in a harness and on wires. The flying scenes were a dream come true because it’s the closest I’ll ever get to actually flying. I was so lucky that I worked with an amazing stunts team, and they always made sure that I was safe, comfortable and in control when I was flying. I learned so many new skills through them. I not only learned how to fly, but I also learned gymnastics, kickboxing and self-defense. I even became a trained wire artist, and I loved being up in the air and getting to do all my cool tricks and twists.
Ken Branagh told me that you worked with him for two weeks on Death on the Nile. How was the experience, and what knowledge or perspective did you gain from it?
I was so incredibly lucky that Sir Kenneth Branagh gave me the amazing opportunity to work behind the scenes of Death on the Nile. I am eternally grateful for the experience; it was something I could only dream of. He allowed me the opportunity to gain an insight into the workings of each department. Every department is fundamentally important to the making of any film. I have always had an interest in every aspect of filmmaking, and this has increased it tenfold. Just like on the set of Artemis Fowl, Ken creates an atmosphere where each and every person is treated equally; you’re like a member of the family. And to be included in this environment for a second time was such a privilege.
You’ve now worked with two of the most well-regarded Irish actors in Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy. Who’s the next great Irish actor that you want to work with?
That’s a very good question. Saoirse Ronan has been such an idol to me for as long as I can remember, and if I was able to work with her, I would be incredibly honored.
I presume you loved her version of Jo March in Little Women?
Oh, I loved her in Little Women. I loved the book growing up, and Greta Gerwig’s take on it was just spectacular. The entire cast was just phenomenal. So, yes, I love Little Women.
Do you have a favorite story involving Cillian from The Delinquent Season, which I actually watched last night?
Oh my goodness, I was 13 when we shot Delinquent Season, so I was a lot younger. At the time, I hadn’t seen Peaky Blinders because I was so young, but he was so amazing to work with. One of my favorite memories is when we shot a very emotional scene, which was also the scene that I auditioned with. At the end of the scene, he hugged us, and it was just such a loving hug. Throughout the whole filming process, he always made sure that we were taken care of and that we never had to hear or see anything that we weren’t supposed to. He’s such a kind and lovely person, and it was such an honor to work with him. Later on, when I was older and able to watch Peaky Blinders, I just couldn’t believe that the person I had worked with — who had been this amazing father character — was bashing people up. (Laughs.) It goes to show how amazing of an actor he is.
Yes, on Peaky Blinders, he delivers the punches — or assigns others to do so — but in The Delinquent Season, he took the punches.
Oh, yes, he certainly did. (Laughs.)
Artemis Fowl is now available on Disney+.
by Graeme McMillan
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by Pamela McClintock