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Getting down to the real dirt

Notorious by reputation, Joel Thomas Hynes stars in the adaptation of his novel Down to the Dirt



When we first see him, Joel Thomas Hynes is lying in a large puddle of water. He's broken, bruised and bloody. And drunk.

But, hold up. It's not actually Hynes. At least, not literally.

It's Keith Kavanagh, a character he's playing in Down To The Dirt, the film version of Hynes' celebrated novel of the same name. It's a coming-of-age story, where n'er-do-well Keith, the scourge of a Newfoundland outport town, finds some redemption in poetry and love with a girl named Natasha, played by Mylène Savoie. She and Keith escape to the big city, St. John's, and eventually to Halifax, running afoul of their own demons, as well as some external evils, including an unpleasant fellow named Renny, played by the ever-menacing Hugh Dillon.

The big change from the printed word is that Keith is between 19 and 21 in the novel, while the author who essays the role of his lead---some say semi-autobiographical---character in the film, is more than 30.

"We changed the age of the character in the novel. We really wanted Joel to play the part," says Hynes' friend and creative associate, Justin Simms, who directed the film and adapted the novel into a screenplay with Sherry White. Simms has respect for Hynes' work bringing Keith to life. "It was a pretty daunting challenge, in the film adaptation of a novel in a role more or less about yourself," he says. "He tried to inhabit the character and not think about the big picture."

It makes a certain amount of sense that the author of the story would be a good choice for the lead in the film adaptation, especially when the author in question has plenty of experience performing on stage and working in film and TV. He's played Keith before, in The Devil You Don't Know, a stage play adaptation of a chapter from the book, and helped write and performed in the gut-busting CBC comedy series Hatching, Matching and Dispatching. "There comes a point you walk on set and leave everything behind. You stop being the novelist," says Hynes.

But how much truth of his personal experience is contained in that story? Hynes indicates the parallels are there, but many of the details have been changed.

"I've had people ask, 'What was it like to play yourself?' And that kind of hurts, you know? By the time the book came out, I was 27, at that point I was a highly functioning father of a little boy," says Hynes. "Pretty white-knuckle sober lifestyle, with a writing career and an acting career. I was very, very removed from Keith's lifestyle, attitudes and personal mythology even. Yes, I wrote about real things that happened in my life, but it was more the biography of a dead friend, you know?"

Simms backs up Hynes' freedom from any slavish loyalty to the book or to what may or may not have happened in his life, that they weren't "chained to the source" at all.

But revisiting those emotions and that behaviour couldn't have been easy. The performance is huge and authentic, right to the grime under the fingernails, and the decaying relationship between Keith and Natasha brings bleak and unforgettable scenes, exacerbated by substance abuse.

"I can't deny getting a little bit caught up in it and a little bit lost. Maybe during the filming I hurt some of the people around me. I've worked with other characters on stage and TV and stayed with them on the weekends. This one in particular...I did slip back into some old ways. I had to get in touch with some old devils I thought long-since buried, and when you do, you realize they're not buried that deep after all."

Hynes admits there is safety in working, especially in working on a feature based on your own work. He felt he could relax in some ways, not have to worry about his own life and potential issues.

"But when it wraps, it wraps. Life hits you right there," he says. Though, he adds, hopefully, "You've got to find ways to keep a handle on it...I've learned to reign in what's good about being alive."

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