Salvador Dali, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Luis Bunuel all had an enormous impact on culture not only in their native Spain but around the world — what many don’t realize is that the painter, the poet, and the filmmaker were also hugely influential on each other in their early years when they attended the same Madrid university.

Their friendship forms the basis of the film Little Ashes, directed by Paul Morrison. Starring Robert Pattinson as Dali, Javier Beltran as Lorca, and Matthew McNulty as Bunuel, Little Ashes examines how their time together in the 1920s helped to shape them both as individuals and as artists.

McNulty found out three weeks before the start of shooting that he was going to be playing Bunuel, and though he leapt at the chance to portray the legendary director he had a hard time seeing himself in the part.

“I don’t look anything like Bunuel,” the 26-year-old Brit admitted to CityNews.ca in a phone interview from his hometown of Manchester. “Physically, I’m nowhere near him, I’m probably the opposite. I’m a skinny, sort of, little weakling to be honest, and I thought, ‘How can I play this Spanish icon renowned for being athletic and physical?’ It was a shock but at the same time I was relishing the challenge in it.”

McNulty notes that his knowledge of Bunuel’s work was limited before he made the movie, and he learned as much as he could about the Surrealist filmmaker, responsible for Un chien andalou, Viridiana, and Los olvidados, from the crew on set.

“A lot of them were, moreso than Dali and Lorca, they were passionate about Bunuel and they had a lot to say about him,” he explains, adding that his main concern was what people watching the film would say about a Brit playing the Spaniard.

Part of his preparation for the role was learning Castilian Spanish, which most notably comes across in the pronunciation of a soft ‘c’ as a ‘th”. For example the word Barcelona would be pronounced ‘Barthelona.’

McNulty says he didn’t want his accent to come across as too severe in the film – it doesn’t – and when asked about Brit actors’ seemingly-limitless ability to do accents, he suggests it’s because they first have to learn the wide variety of accents found in their own country.

“In England there are so many different accents,” he says. “I never get to play my own accent. I’m a Manc and I’m always doing different versions of the English accent in any production that I do. I think the diversity of accents helps you adapt to the different accents around the world.”

Of the three main characters, Bunuel comes across as the most independent, which McNulty puts down to the burgeoning closeness between Lorca and Dali. In the film the painter and poet share an intimate bond, one that Bunuel seems to feel threatened by.

“I think he needed to be (independent), because maybe it got to a point during the time at the Residencia where they probably became too close and that’s what triggered Bunuel’s aggression,” McNulty offers. “Maybe a sense of claustrophobia as well, the fact that it was getting too intense, the relationship that was blossoming between Dali and Lorca sort of made him realize that maybe it’s not a good thing for them to get so close. The way things were going between the three of them, he no longer had control of (his) friendships.”

Bunuel arguably goes through the biggest transition in the film, as he’s the only one who hasn’t discovered his talent, whereas Dali has already begun to paint and Lorca’s poetry has already been published.

“I think once Bunuel grew up, he did his own thing and realized who he was, and a lot of the story is about that, finding out who they really are. At the time Bunuel was the only one who hadn’t found his niche. That’s part of the frustration as well is that there’s a bit of jealousy involved,” McNulty says.

The 26-year-old Brit said he was knocked out by the landscapes he saw in Spain, notably the area around Cadaques, where Dali is from.

“It was the first time I’d seen Spain in its true light. It was beautiful, and that’s a great thing about our job is we get to see parts of the world through the eyes of the locals. The locations we were shooting in were amazing. It helps you get into the story,” he describes. “I went to Cadaques with the crew, I wasn’t shooting there but felt like I should go and see where Dali grew up and got his initial inspiration from. I’d never been anywhere like it, because there’s one road into Cadaques, I think it’s about two hours from civilization and the rock formation, just because of where it is in the Mediterranean, it’s almost volcanic and it looks really creepy, and you get a sense of where Dali’s ideas came from just by looking at that.”

Little Ashes opens in theatres on Friday, May 22.