TORONTO - The gritty streets of Belfast play a central role in the Irish Republican Army drama "Fifty Dead Men Walking," but for Canadian actor Kevin Zegers they also represent a pivotal stage in his acting career.

"I was in a pretty dark place being there," he recalled of filming in the Northern Ireland capital.

"The world didn't exist outside of Belfast for me, and I cut certain ties with a lot of people, and secluded myself. It was really one of the first times where I embraced the fact that I am an actor."

These days Zegers, 24, is closer to the Sunset Strip than Ireland, but he fondly remembers his experiences filming the fiery political drama, partly because it's helped secure his status as an actor on the cusp of super stardom.

The Woodstock, Ont.-born actor's performance has gained plenty of attention in recent months and probably helped him land a starring role alongside Hilary Duff in "The Story of Bonnie and Clyde," which starts shooting later this year.

It's almost easy to forget that Zegers lucked into the "Fifty Dead Men Walking" role, after struggling for years to breakout from comedies into more dramatic fare.

The film is directed by fellow Canadian Kari Skogland, who also helmed "The Stone Angel," which Zegers appeared in.

The two have been friends since Skogland directed him in a Swanson TV-dinner commercial, when he was young.

Skogland said she knew that Zegers was more capable than others might've thought, and that he could pull off a meaty character. She wanted to give him a chance to shine.

"I wanted someone who had that impish charm that he has. You know, sort of, great looks and yet have a dangerous edge," she said.

"I wanted to surprise people a little bit, and not kind of go for the obvious or expected."

Zegers admits his friendship with Skogland helped him land the job but he said he worked hard to live up to the part.

"This was never a role that I would've ever been able to get on my own, if I hadn't known Kari, so I felt an obligation to her to get it right," he said.

"I felt an obligation to myself to throw vanity and all that crap out the window."

"Fifty Dead Men Walking" is based loosely on the true story of former IRA infiltrator Martin McGartland, who is portrayed in the film by British actor Jim Sturgess from "Across the Universe."

Zegers plays McGartland's best friend Sean, a young scrapper who introduces the IRA into their lives. The two eventually become entangled in a dangerous situation when McGartland is recruited by the British police to spy on the IRA.

When Skogland offered him the role, Zegers jumped at the opportunity to leave his Los Angeles digs behind and race off to Belfast to prepare.

"I knew I needed to do a lot of work to get ready," he said.

"I wanted to put on a lot of weight, and to get the accent right, and sort of be as unrecognizable as I could to just blend in."

Last year, when the film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was met with objections from the real-life McGartland, who was given a new identity after being discovered as a mole.

He complained that the film, which is based on his autobiography, misrepresented the facts in several scenes, and placed him as a witness to situations that he never actually saw.

McGartland initially threatened to come out of hiding to protest the film's premiere, and launch a lawsuit against the producers.

But both sides reached a settlement worth $37,500, according to a report in the Hollywood Reporter.

The agreement made McGartland promise not to interfere with the film's release, while the film now includes a disclaimer which clearly states that some of the scenes and characters have been changed.

While the controversy over "Fifty Dead Men Walking" has been put to rest, Zegers's "Bonnie and Clyde" project is bound to get tongues wagging in its own way.

The original 1967 film courted controversy with its graphic violence, but its also fast-tracked the careers of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.

"I've been working with a couple people on figuring out how to make sure I'm not copycatting anything," Zegers said.

"It's obviously big shoes to fill."

"Fifty Dead Men Walking" opens July 31 in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax, Moncton, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton and Aug. 7 in Victoria.

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