Colm Meaney: ‘In this business, anybody who keeps their word for 7 minutes is pretty f**king rare’

The Irish actor discusses Hollywood values, playing Martin McGuinness and what it taught him about 'Dr No' Paisley

New movie 'The Journey' is a fictional account of the relationship between two former enemies in Northern Ireland - firebrand DUP leader Paisley and Sinn Fein politician Martin McGuinness .

 

Here’s Colm Meaney, looking much as he has looked for the past 30 years. He still has that mat of Irish curls. His face is no less lived in. His voice still rumbles across the lower octaves.

The Dubliner is organising his bits and pieces in a hotel not far from St Stephen’s Green. It’s remarkable how little decades in Los Angeles have altered the outer Meaney.

“We split the family between Los Angeles and Spain,” he explains as he settles. “My missus is French and she doesn’t like Los Angeles. But she likes the house. When I say I’ll sell it, there will be this chorus of females saying: no, no, no.”

So is life complicated?

“Ah, yeah. But if you complained about it, people would give you a slap. It’s a good complication to have.”

Fair enough. Meaney, now 63, is back in town to talk about his role as Martin McGuinness in Nick Hamm’s The Journey. It’s a peculiar sort of project. The film follows McGuinness and Ian Paisley – played by a disconcertingly slight Timothy Spall – as they drive to Edinburgh during a particularly tense period of the 2006 St Andrews negotiations. The film supposes conversations that allow the two men to find unexpected common ground.

Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney in ‘The Journey’.
Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney in ‘The Journey’.

I had wrongly assumed that Meaney knew the late Deputy First Minister well. The actor has long been a Sinn Féin supporter and campaigned for McGuinness in his run for the Irish presidency in 2011.

“No, I didn’t really know him that well,” he says. “I only met him once. I supported the campaign and I emceed his final rally at the Mansion House. That’s where I met him.”

He doesn’t appear to be attempting an impersonation in the film.

The late Martin McGuinness with Colm Meaney at a rally in The Mansion House, Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
The late Martin McGuinness with Colm Meaney at a rally in The Mansion House, Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

“Not at all. The few times I have played real people I have found that way is death,” he says. “With iconic characters who are well known, you have to look just a bit like them. You have to make that effort or people switch straight off. But it’s more to do with finding the inner essence of the man.”

Compromise

Colin Bateman’s script appears to be arguing that Paisley was more reluctant to embrace compromise. As the politicians drive through the Scottish countryside – stopping off for a walk around an abandoned church – it is McGuinness who is urging Dr No towards agreement. Nonetheless, the film does allow that both men had to shift their ground.

Clinton’s performance at the funeral was masterful. Shameless. Mentioning Arlene twice? At the altar? Brilliant.”

“I had a moment where Tim is in the church talking about the Protestants martyrs,” Meaney says. “We used to talk about this in the 1970s – about people wandering around slaughtering Protestants. There were sectarian atrocities committed by Catholics. When he mentioned that, I got an insight into Paisley that I never had before. Something clicked in my head. That’s where it comes from.”

So what finally persuaded the two men to move towards one another?

“I think it was a slow drip, drip. But what really changed it was beginning to see each other as human beings. They’re just talking about biscuits and so on. Ha ha.”

Meaney is keen to stress that the film does not claim to be anything like a documentary. One slightly uneasy innovation finds an MI5 officer, posing as a driver, being fed questions by his superior via a concealed headpiece. Ian Paisley Jr was, however, sufficiently forgiving of the tweaks to screen The Journey at the House of Commons.

“It was screened in the Speaker’s rooms. I know he was happy with it. I haven’t heard a lot of reaction apart from that,” Meaney says.

Paisley Jr showed an impressive degree of maturity in his remarks following McGuinness’s death. It seems some among the next generation understand the importance of honouring the shifts in attitude that underscore The Journey.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think Arlene Foster is one of them,” Meaney says wryly. “Though Clinton’s performance at the funeral was masterful. Shameless. Mentioning Arlene twice? At the altar? Brilliant.”

He goes on to tell amusing stories about meeting the Clintons when performing opposite Kevin Spacey at the Almeida Theatre in London. Our Colm has come a long way.

Family history

There’s no great theatrical history in the family. He does not come from money. His dad drove a van for Johnston, Mooney & O’Brien. His mother (who is now 93) was slightly appalled when, despite a sharp brain, he decided to go among actors. There were some proper jobs out there.

Meaney proved to be the sort of flexible character actor who can find a place in some part of almost any scene

“Oh she’d say: ‘You’ll be walking around without a sole on your boot. I see them in town all the time, these actors.’ She’d quote names of people she’d seen without a sole on their boot. Ha ha.”

Timothy Spall, director Nick Hamm and Colm Meaney of ‘The Journey’. Photograph: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
Timothy Spall, director Nick Hamm and Colm Meaney of ‘The Journey’. Photograph: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Meaney can’t remember any lengthy periods of unemployment. He trained at the Abbey Theatre and then moved into that theatre’s own company. He took the first of two big leaps when he travelled to England and wound up working for John McGrath’s well-remembered left-wing company 7:84. He later made a lunge for the US and found himself with Vincent Dowling at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Theatre in Cleveland. He married actor Bairbre Dowling (who, sadly, died last year), the boss’s daughter, and settled in for another period of adventure.

“I was fortunate. The training at the Abbey was very good,” he remembers. “It was almost like an apprenticeship. We would play small parts. We would have classes. It was all there. But what really developed my craft was working with John McGrath on 7:84.”

Flexible actor

Meaney proved to be the sort of flexible character actor who can find a place in some part of almost any scene. Eventually, directors began to push him towards the front of the frame. His performances in three Roddy Doyle adaptations – The Van, The Commitments and The Snapper – cemented his reputation in this corner of the world but, among certain international cadres, he will always be identified first as Miles O’Brien, supporting player in Star Trek: The Next Generation and star of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

 “It is funny that,” he says. “In America, it is almost as if I had two different careers. I had this career in Star Trek and the Trekkie fans knew me from that. In Ireland, I had done The Van and so on. But there were people who only know me from features and have no idea I was in Star Trek.”

The Trek adventure progressed in an irregular fashion. You could argue that he was backed into those unusual levels of job security for an actor. O’Brien was initially an unnamed transportation officer. Then he became a recurring character. Eventually the offer came to star in a spin-off series.

I wish I had some fucking stories of degradation,” he cackles. “I really wish I had"

“Initially, I was very reluctant,” he says. “But I had a conversation with Rick Berman, the producer, and he said: ‘If there’s something else you really want to do, bring me the script and, if I agree with you, then I’ll let you out to do it.’ I liked Rick, but I felt, in this business, anybody who keeps their word for seven minutes is pretty fucking rare. But he did.”

Meaney’s career duly surged along on several parallel paths. He divorced Dowling in 1994 and married costume designer Ines Glorian in March 2007. One of the many upsides to being a character actor is that age does not much wither opportunities. He was great as the mad antagonist in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. Look out for him in upcoming Irish film Halal Daddy.

It’s been a happy career.

“I wish I had some fucking stories of degradation,” he cackles. “I really wish I had. But I don’t. It’s terrible.”

The Troubles on film

The Northern Irish Troubles inspired a few clunkers such as A Prayer for the Dying and The Devil’s Own. But there has also been a lot of thoughtful work.

Hidden Agenda (1990): Ken Loach returned to the limelight after a quiet decade or so with an investigation of the British government’s shoot-to-kill policy.

The Crying Game (1992): The conflict is background noise in most of Neil Jordan’s singular thriller concerning an IRA man fleeing the law and his old comrades in London.

Bloody Sunday (2002): Paul Greengrass’s kinetic take on the massacre was made for TV, but received a limited theatrical release. It emerged almost simultaneously with Jimmy McGovern’s equally strong Sunday, a more grassroots treatment of the same material.

Shadow Dancer (2012): Terrific thriller featuring Andrea Riseborough as a Republican volunteer who agrees to spy for the British. Riseborough’s Belfast accent is uncannily strong.

71 (2014): Filmed in Sheffield by a Frenchman with no Irish money, Yann Demange’s pursuit movie still offers a convincing impression of Belfast in the titular year. Jack O’Connell is the British soldier trapped in enemy territory.

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