Declan Conlon: an accidental actor
Declan Conlon’s career got off to a wobbly start, but now, as he begins a run of Arthur Miller’s version of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People in Dublin, he is one of Ireland’s most prolific stage actors
Big role: Declan Conlon in An Enemy of the People. Photograph: Peter Rowen
Meaty part: Declan Conlon with Caoilfhionn Dunne in a 2008 production of Tom Murphy’s The Sanctuary Lamp. Photograph: Anthony Woods
Declan Conlon is more than an hour late. I call his mobile phone and leave a message. He calls back within five minutes, half asleep and full of apologies. “Please forgive me . . . inexcusable.” His rich, deep voice restores confidence that he will appear. He promises to be with me in 20 minutes, and he is, smartly dressed if slightly bedraggled.
It has been an intense few weeks for the actor, who has been rehearsing Arthur Miller’s version of Henrik Ibsen’s mammoth play An Enemy of the People at the Gate Theatre in Dublin while completing a run of Drum Belly at the Abbey.
An Enemy of the People is still previewing when we meet, and he is anxious about being ready for opening night.
“We only had four weeks’ rehearsals,” he says, “and when you are playing in something at night, apart from learning the play, it is difficult to find the time to think and process the next part.” This is the vital subconscious work, he says, that allows an actor to “relax and breathe on stage”.
Unlikely as it seems for one of Ireland’s most prolific stage actors, Conlon’s career has been a matter of “accidents”. “I never decided anything,” he says. “I wish I was able to make decisions, but I just drift.”
He came to acting via a Fás course, when he was one of “six kids taken off the dole to go to old folks’ homes and do one-act plays”.
He had been involved in a few musicals at school, but “growing up in Lough Rea, going to school in Tuam, the idea of being an actor was ludicrous. It never would have crossed my mind”.
The Fás course led to a stint of “appalling school Shakespeare” tours; eventually he moved to Dublin to study drama at Trinity College, which had recently started offering a diploma in performance.
Even then, however, Conlon’s career path was not clear to him. Indeed, he almost got kicked out of drama school three times in his first year. The reason – and he acknowledges the irony, considering our false start this morning – was lateness.
“When I started,” he says, “I just didn’t understand discipline. I didn’t understand that you needed to be somewhere on time. On our very first day I didn’t show up until 2pm, and the teacher had kept the whole class sitting in a circle all morning, not doing anything, just sitting there waiting. When I came he shouted at me, gave me hell, but I didn’t get it. I just thought, Well, I’m here now; can we do some work?”
“The last time I was kicked out,” he continues, a natural raconteur, “I was coming in on my bicycle and I knew I was late. I knew I was gone, so I pretended I had been hit by a bus. I called in to my aunt in Fairview, and she gave me a bandage for my leg and I hobbled into class and gave my excuse, and all day people were asking me was I okay.
“It was the best bit of acting I did in drama school, but they still wanted me to leave. I didn’t even know it then, but I must have really wanted it, because I begged to get back in.”
Conlon admits he didn’t enjoy drama school. “But even though it wasn’t a pleasant two years I learned loads. Of course, now I understand why it’s so important to be disciplined, to have focus.”
After graduating he set up a company with Alan Gilsenan and Jane Snow, and they “did a few shows together for absolutely no money. Steven Berkoff, Beckett, things like that.
“We were just schlepping around in a car with set in the boot, and it was good fun. When you are starting off you just want to work. You don’t really mind about not getting paid or staying in sh***y B&Bs, or that the set is on the roof of the car.”
When he was cast in a play at the Abbey by a visiting English director, however, Conlon really began to make progress. “She brought me over to a show with her at the RSC and I ended up playing through five seasons. Then she moved to the National and brought me in there. So I was going over to England to do a play but ended up staying 10 years.”
Conlon’s return to Ireland was equally unplanned. “I came home to do the Murphy season in 2001, and I started getting offered more interesting work here, so I ended up moving home.”
There was nothing nostalgic about it. “All an actor wants is the meatier roles, otherwise you don’t grow, and it was easier to get those roles here. I didn’t mind where I lived; I just wanted to get bigger parts.”
The decision has certainly stood to him. An Enemy of the People offers him one of his biggest and most difficult roles yet. He plays Dr Stockmann, the figure at the heart of Ibsen’s political drama, which pits a lone voice against the hypocrisy of the masses.
He is not too proud to admit the challenges, “drying on the first preview, and having to call for the first time in my life for a line”. In the bar afterwards he met an audience member and apologised, but the woman, sitting in the first few rows of the theatre, hadn’t even noticed. The mark of a true professional.
An Enemy of the People is at the Gate Theatre in Dublin until July 13th