By Michael Martin
Playing Luis Bu'uel, the brash, homophobic classmate of Federico Garc'a Lorca and Salvador Dal', Matthew McNulty may be the odd man out in Little Ashes -- but he certainly isn't bothered. 'When I got the script I thought it was amazing,' he says. 'It pulls you into the story of this love between Dal' and Lorca -- into their friendship -- and then pulls you down with all the characters. It was such an important time in history for artists and young people breaking free from conformity.'
The 26-year-old British actor is used to breaking the mold. His father, a soldier, moved the family around the world before settling in Manchester when McNulty was 10. There, McNulty found an exit strategy from his working-class upbringing. 'The Manchester music scene -- Stone Roses and Oasis -- bred a real creative atmosphere, and I grew up with that,' he says. 'When I was younger I never thought I would be an actor, but I always enjoyed performance.' He soon started hanging around theater types and enrolled in drama workshops. Then, at 16, he was spotted in an actors showcase by a TV executive and recruited for See No Evil, the intense retelling of a real-life slaying spree that had rocked McNulty's hometown. Big-screen exposure followed with the 2007 indie drama Control, in which he played Nick Jackson, friend and drug buddy of Joy Division's tragic hero Ian Curtis.
Cast in Little Ashes only a few days before filming began last year, McNulty was whisked off to Barcelona to meet costar Robert Pattinson. 'I was a little bit nervous, to be honest,' he says. 'Before I went I'd heard a lot about Rob and thought, All right, he's really good-looking. When I knocked on his hotel room door, there was no answer, and I thought, God, he's with girls or something. But he was just sitting on the balcony with his computer and a massive Dal' book.'
Though he is not part of the primary tryst, McNulty's character -- a surrealist auteur who went on to become Spain's premier filmmaker -- works out his fair share of drama when he reacts to evidence of his friends' romantic involvement by staking out a cruising spot and beating up a guy who propositions him. 'You could easily label him homophobic,' says McNulty of Bu'uel (who collaborated with Dal' on the pioneering 1929 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou). 'But when you look into it, he's a very controlling person. The relationship between Dal' and Lorca was something he couldn't have control over.'
As it turns out, McNulty's older brother is gay. 'It was obvious for all of us in the family,' he says. 'We all knew, but it was so hard for him to come out and say it. We'd joke about it, and he'd deny it, and when he eventually did come out he couldn't believe that we all knew and that it could have been so much easier.' Trips with his brother to gay clubs helped him prepare for his next film role, as a teen dance champion (and future middle-aged burnout) in Ken
Loach's Looking for Eric, based on the life of soccer legend Eric Cantona.
McNulty isn't getting out much these days (he's married to his high school sweetheart and has two sons), but his name is starting to make its way stateside: He plays a cop investigating paranormality in Messengers 2: The Scarecrow, the prequel to 2007's clairvoyant-kids thriller. Meanwhile, when he's not in front of the camera McNulty runs a casting agency with his wife. 'It really put things into perspective,' he says. 'When I'd audition I used to spend all my time worrying about what people thought about me, not about the job. But I've learned that at the end of the day people just want you to be the best you can be.'