STACK chats with actor Michael Smiley about the darkly comic crime-thriller The Toll, and the benefits of appearing in independent films.  

There’s a small county in Wales called Pembrokeshire and “where people come to die” is graffitied on its welcome sign. Not a lot happens in this quiet place and sitting on the side of a road, amongst the moors, is a little toll booth operated by a mild-mannered man who passes the time with his head buried in books.

One morning, the operator’s past catches up to him when a stranger arrives and recognises his face. It would seem that a dark and sinister past had driven the toll operator to the far reaches of Wales and now the wheels are in motion for a twisted plot of murder and revenge. What follows is a quirky crime story told with a distinct neo-western flavour, taking cues from others while creating a unique brand of pulp fiction unto its own.

Lead actor Michael Smiley sat down with STACK over Zoom, while enjoying a buffet breakfast at a quaint English hotel. With a strong black coffee in hand, the Irish native discussed what it is that defines Welsh cinema.

“It’s everything that isn’t English.” he says with the driest of wit. “Wales has a very strong sense of being Welsh. Even in the Welsh language, you know, they have a word called hiraeth, which means a yearning for your homeland. And it’s something that the English language doesn’t have. A lot of people there are bilingual and they’re very proud of their history and they hold tight their traditions.”

With a career spanning three decades, Smiley has starred in films such as Shaun of the Dead, Perfume and The Other Boleyn Girl amongst others, and reveals how he came to be involved with The Toll.

“It was an offer and as soon as I read it, I wanted to do it. I found it to be a really interesting and quirky idea. And it was a low budget, independent film; I find that those stories can be really interesting because it’s all about the story, you know? I mean for any independent film to get funds, it has to be a good story.”

The Toll is directed by Ryan Andrew Cooper, making his feature debut, and Smiley explains the appeal and benefits of working with someone so fresh on the scene.

“He’s a really enthusiastic director who had a very strong vision. It can be more nerve-wracking for the director than it is for the actors. I think as an actor, your job is to tell the story to the best of your ability and if the director’s involved in the creating of the story, it becomes collaborative. What I enjoy the most is when [new directors] bring energy instead of turning their nerves into abject fear and nervous breakdown” he quips with a smirk.

“As a man, as an entity, I found him really interesting. He’s a massive fan of filmmaking and he’s a massive fan of cinema. And he knew what he wanted in a very certain way, and so I quickly trusted him and didn’t try to impose my views – his were a lot better.”

Being an Irish performer, Smiley is something of a wordsmith, eager to impart poetic musings on life and acting. Having discussed his experience working with Cooper, he offers a symbolic view of what it is to be an actor living a creative life.

“The whole thing about being an actor in the film industry, you’re starting an adventure together, aren’t you? You go on a little journey,” he explains with a smile. “You start on a little path in your shiny walking shoes and your brand new rucksack and you head off with a song in your heart and the wind in your hair. And by the end of it you’re like a Vietnam vet,” he adds with a laugh, “with holes in your shoes.”

The cast assembled for The Toll is more than impressive, with the ensemble comprising seasoned players including Paul Kaye (The Watch), Iwan Rheon (Game of Thrones), Annes Elwy (Little Women) and Julian Glover (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). While unable to elaborate on how Cooper and his producers managed to wrangle such talent onboard, Smiley looks to his castmates as validation for the project itself.

“To see that on the cast list, that you’re going to be in a low budget film, shows that people had faith in the story and faith in the director’s vision. People only do independent films because they want to do it. They’re not doing it because it means a big chunk of cash or to help pay off their tax, you know?”

In addition to The Toll, Smiley also appears in the recent action-thriller Gunpowder Milkshake, and it would be remiss of us not to ask about that film. He gladly obliges, speaking of the massive juxtaposition of being in a small indie film verses something big-budgeted from Hollywood.

“I think it can be jarring. I think a lot of it comes down to the waiting around. You do a lot more waiting around on those bigger productions. And when you’re left to your own devices it’s quite easy to build up the importance of it in your own head. And then you think, ‘Can I do this?’ and ‘I can do this, I can’t do this, I can do this.’ But on an independent film, you’re on set all the time and you’re more involved in it.”

As he takes his final sips of coffee, Smiley offers some final words about The Toll and why it’s worth making the time to see it in a cinema.

“It’s something that’s been made with love and intelligence, and there’s heart and soul in it. And it’s a quirky, interesting take on filmmaking. It’s a great story, it’s a lot of fun and there’s a lot of mental characters in it. It’s a great ride, and as a film buff you’ll see a lot of influences in it and you’ll enjoy the influences. So yeah, it’s got a sort of Tarantino vibe to it in that sense.”

The Toll is in selected cinemas on July 29