Fran the man becomes Behan the borstal boy
A varied theatre career – including his new role as Brendan Behan – should save Peter Coonan from being typecast as a crook
Many actors are taught a method, others learn a technique, and some, like Coonan, above, discover what kind of actor they are on the job. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Gary Lydon and Peter Coonan: both men play Brendan Behan in Conall Morrison’s new staging for Verdant Productions, with Lydon as the elder Behan and Coonan the younger
Not too long ago, at a party thrown by Aidan Gillen, two actors fell into conversation without knowing they were up for the same part. “Has anyone ever said it to you that you look incredibly like Brendan Behan?” Peter Coonan asked. (It is not a question that everyone will take the right way.) Gary Lydon was not offended: “Yeah, yeah,” he said.
Coonan had been immersed in the life and work of Behan while researching a part for Quirke, the television adaptation of the Benjamin Black novels, in which he played a ringer for the Dublin author.
He hoped to play the actual Behan one day, and the two actors spoke about various attempts to put Behan on screen, such as a Peter Sheridan and Sean Penn project mooted in the 1990s. There was also the prospect of a Gaiety Theatre revival of The Borstal Boy, Frank McMahon’s adaptation of Behan’s famous memoir. The conversation ran into a hesitant silence. Finally, one of them broke it. “Listen, I’ve been f***ing offered it. Have you been offered it? Are you going to do it?”
Rather than a competition, it was the beginning of a collaboration. Both men play Brendan Behan in Conall Morrison’s new staging for Verdant Productions, with Lydon as the elder Behan and Coonan the younger. It is not difficult to find Behan in Gary Lydon’s face, sympathetically doughy and often askance. It’s harder to find a similarity in Coonan, the south Dublin born actor with green eyes and an easy smile. Then again, as Coonan’s relatively young career reminds you, there’s more to acting than looking the part.
The role Coonan is best known for is the violent psychopath Fran in Stuart Carolan’s RTÉ crime drama Love/Hate. Fran, who was introduced in the show’s second series, when the programme had already built up a head of steam, began as a low-level smuggler and loan shark with a nasty sideline in arranging dog fights, who was eventually duped and broken down by more senior players. After that, he became something more comical, a try-hard apprentice gangster with a nervy catchphrase: “Coola boola, Nidge. Coola boola.” More recently, however, his ferocity reasserted itself.
“This guy is a psychopath, 100 per cent,” agrees Coonan. “But he gradually became more of a psychopath as the story went on.” Fran’s violence found its most lurid expression in the most recent season, in a much-discussed scene involving the smothering of a hapless dentist with a plastic bag. Coonan thinks back on filming the scene with a mixture of excitement and horror: how does a person do something like that?
“I was relishing doing that,” he says, recalling tough encounters in his youth, people “threatening, bullying, putting ownership on a place”. At the same time, his first identification was with the victim.
“That was quite frightening to do, I remember. I needed to get into a dark place that day. I remember sitting on the stairs where it was the darkest in the house, sitting there and being scared myself of the scenario that was about to happen. Taking the fear of the victim and putting that into you to create this venom and menace. You never question it.”