After decades of waiting to get in the saddle, Belfast-born Stephen Rea is finally getting his chance to ride off into the sunset – and Butch Cassidy fans will be pretty happy too, writes TARA BRADY
WHATEVER WAY one looks at it, the movie Blackthorn has been a long time coming. An autumnal western charting the last days of Butch Cassidy, Gil Mateo’s Bolivian adventure picks up long after the point where Paul Newman and Robert Redford bowed out in a hail of bullets.
For Belfast-born actor Stephen Rea, too, Blackthorn is long overdue. A lifelong fan of the horse opera, he’s waited decades to get in the saddle.
“Nobody really does westerns nowadays. It has ceased to be a genre hasn’t it?” says Rea. “When I was a kid that’s what cinema was. As boys we played cowboys and Indians. That was how we dressed up and imagined ourselves to be. The movies were westerns. I also loved the Musketeers. And eventually I got to be in a Musketeer film but I was Cardinal Richelieu because the moment had passed where I could play a Musketeer. But that was quite good anyway.”
He suspects fashion will dictate that Blackthorn is “probably my first and last and only western”. But that’s okay, too. The sole oater on Rea’s glittering CV is special of its own accord. Rea and actor-playwright Sam Shepard have been firm friends since the 1970s when they first worked together in London. They’ve frequently collaborated during the intervening years and yet, Blackthorn marks their first onscreen buddy-up. Like we said: Blackthorn is a long time coming.
“Yeah,” nods Rea. “We’ve known each other since the early 1970s. We were both in London and very young. He wrote a play and directed me in it. Geography of a Horse Dreamer. About a guy who was chained to a bed with gangsters standing over him writing down the winners for horse races. Bob Hoskins was in it. I’ve worked with Sam quite a bit in the last few years but this is the first time I’ve ever acted with him in either theatre or film. And it was an entirely great experience, you know.”
The Blackthorn shoot was extreme. Onscreen the salt flats of Bolivia look so otherworldly they could be mistaken for an outtake from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“We were 15,000ft up and fighting to breathe,” says Rea. “I arrived to do a scene and as I got there a stuntman was being taken to hospital. He hadn’t fallen off a horse or anything. He’d just succumbed to the altitude. Sometimes it would take you 10 minutes to walk from here to that wall [He points to a wall no more than three metres away.] It’s more profound than catching for breath. You can’t sleep. You feel nauseous all the time. I woke up – this wasn’t even at the highest altitude – projectile vomiting. The Indians have different bodies to us. They’re shorter and they’ve adapted, I guess. Europeans never get used to it.” It was, despite the discombobulation, a dream job, he says.
“It was an incredible place. I guess it looks like Ireland must have done 70 or 80 years ago. It’s populated by people just subsisting on the land and what they have. It’s religious. But when you only have two llamas and your family I suppose you better believe in something. The Spanish have gone and they’ve stripped the place of silver and resources but they’re still there. It’s heartening. One does have a wonderful job that you get called up to make a movie in Bolivia and you get to see the place.”
Rea is a reliable collaborator. He first worked with playwright Stewart Parker in college. In 1980 a contingent including Rea, Tom Paulin, Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane, founded the Field Day Theatre Company. He has, perhaps most visibly, over the years, been something of a muse for director Neil Jordan. The pair has worked together on Angel, The Company of Wolves, Interview with a Vampire, The Butcher Boy, The End of the Affair, In Dreams, Michael Collins, Breakfast on Pluto, Ondine and The Crying Game, for which Rea received an Oscar nod.
Jordan wrote Angel for Rea having seen his range on stage. And yet both men seem to attribute the success of their work together to “turning up”.
“I don’t know,” shrugs Rea. “You learn something every time you do the job. I’ve been lucky to work with lots of great people over the years. Great writers. Great directors. I’ve been very privileged.
“Working with the great Robert Altman was an education in itself,” recalls Rea. “He was just an original.
“He had just had a heart transplant when I worked with him. He was appallingly thin for a man of his size. He couldn’t drink and lamented not being able to go out drinking in Paris. I ended up going drinking with his wife: she could drink for two. But he was so courageous, personally and professionally, you know. You learned something every time you watched him. He loved actors. If he saw acting he backed off and didn’t try to control it.”
Born into a working-class Presbyterian family, Rea, the son of a bus driver, had no thespian precedents at home. He read English at Queen’s before decamping to Dublin and The Abbey Theatre school.
“I suppose I was lucky,” he says. “Young people still say to me they don’t know where to start. I got to do Shadow of a Gunman with the great Jack McGahern only weeks after I first arrived in London. The thing is mostly to have the tenacity to keep doing it.”
Was it tricky being Irish in London back then? “Yes. It was very strange to explain to English actors the difficulty of transplanting yourself to London. Of course somebody from Surrey would say the same thing. But they didn’t quite get it, you know?
“I said to the actress Dearbhla Molloy once: ‘when we go to London we’re five years behind the English actors’ and she said ‘No, it’s 10’. I don’t think it’s as hard now. The ability to move backwards and forwards is much greater.
“When I went to London first you were gone. Now you can bounce over and back. Culturally we’re more adaptable and culturally we’re more acceptable. Now its possible to have a film career. It used to be Richard Harris really. And that was it. I turned up for Blackthorn in Bolivia and Pádraic Delaney has a great role. And Dominique McElligott has a great role.”
He laughs: “But I suppose when you’re older you probably always think it’s easier for youngsters coming up. It probably doesn’t feel that way for them.”
Where did he get the idea to act? “I was told that I always did want to act,” says Rea. “I think it’s an instinct beyond choice. I guess probably everybody has it but in most people it dies. I suppose I was a ghastly show-off. And then I went into an adolescent decline. I was painfully shy. I never quite recovered from that. It never left me.”
Did taking on different characters become a means of hiding in plain sight? “No. I don’t see it as a mask in that way,” says the actor. “It gives you a licence to do things that you wouldn’t otherwise do. But it is a conscious art. It’s not just a psychological tic. And there comes a moment that you decide you’re going to pursue that art. You have to be fascinated by it. You have to be fascinated by the great actors. You couldn’t do big writing – the writing of Beckett or Shepard – if it was just pretence or make-believe.” He laughs: “But that sounds pretentious as hell.”
A jolly sort whose youthful demeanour and appearance seem at odds with his trademark hangdog presentation and chronological years, Rea is happy to double as an ambassador for his profession.
“I never had poncy notions about it,” says Rea. “But I wanted nothing more than to live an artistic life. I don’t know how healthy it is for the people around me. My kids used to always say when they were little, when I was hanging around the house with surges of performance coming out of me, ‘help, somebody get him a job quick’. But it has been a healthy life for me. I think the unhealthiest thing is being stuck in a job you hate. It took me a long time to realise that I have spent my life doing exactly what I wanted to do. It might sound like a luxury. But it’s a luxury we should all be aiming for.”