Colm Meaney: ‘My missus doesn’t like Los Angeles. She’s French’
The actor on working with female directors, hating social media, and Thatcher’s legacy
Colm Meaney: ‘So much of Britain was destroyed in the ’80s.’ Photograph: Walter McBride/WireImage
Colm Meaney may have flown in from the Irish Post Awards in London – having been before that in Majorca at one of his homes – but sitting in a Dublin hotel, he is as self-deprecating and local as you’ll find anywhere in the city.
He jokingly apologises for the mural of his Barrytown character I have to pass at Kilbarrack Dart station and he does lovely, fond imitations of friends and family members, including his wife, the French costume designer Inés Glorian.
“My missus doesn’t like Los Angeles, ” he smiles. “She’s French. So the house there is always empty. She’s like: ‘But it doesn’t matter; we never work in Los Angeles anyway.’ And it’s so true. In the past year we’ve started seeing a few units around the streets because California is giving some tax breaks. But even though everything originates there, you usually end up shooting in Vancouver or Newfoundland and everywhere in between.”
The past year has required a lot of shooting. The 66-year-old actor will appear alongside Kristen Stewart next month in Seberg; he has recently wrapped on the historical TV series The Singapore Grip, and will appear in George Nolfi’s The Banker. He still manages to squeeze in smaller Irish films, including the Belfast-based revenge drama Pixie and Aoife Crehan’s road trip dramedy The Last Right, in which Meaney plays a Cork-based detective chasing a runaway coffin – it’s a long story – to Northern Ireland.
“I’ve got an agent in London; I’ve got ICM in Los Angeles and then my manager is in New York, so I cover all the bases that way,” says Meaney. “I don’t particularly look out for Irish scripts but sometimes . . . one comes along. Nowadays I don’t think about it much, but in the early days in particular, I was very careful not to do too many Irish projects. Especially when I was working in the UK. If they had an idea that you were an Irish actor, they would not let you play anything else and that’s very limiting for an actor.”
He’s particularly pleased that The Last Right allowed him to work with director Aoife Crehan: “She’s a talent, you know? I have worked with women in television; we had a few women directors on Hell on Wheels . . . [and] on Star Trek. But it’s ridiculous how few women directors I’ve had the chance to work with. It’s slowly improving. But it’s still terrible.”
Meaney jokes that he got to do a “garda” accent in The Last Right. He’s fond of mimicry and has, over a four-decade career, had plenty of opportunities to perfect different accents, having essayed Martin McGuinness in The Journey, a frontier US politician for five seasons of Hell on Wheels, not one but two former English soccer players in Don Revie (The Damned United) and George Raynor (Pele: Birth of a Legend) and everything in between. But what’s more impressive is that the actor has built an international profile while often sounding more or less like himself, including his 225 episodes playing Chief Miles O’Brien on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
“People often ask me if I got bored with it,” says Meaney. “But not really. I haven’t looked at it in years. But the standard was very high. The usual network output is 22 episodes a year; we did 26 on that show. And to keep the standard as high as we did over 26 episodes over seven years was really some achievement.”
He is aware of the popularity of Roddy Doyle’s Star Trek memes but is positively phobic regarding the platform that spawned them.
“People have shown me on the phone once or twice but I hate Facebook, ” he says. “I hate Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. I had the same manager in New York for 30 years and a few years ago he died; then a new manager came in. So of course he said: Colm, would you not think about social media? I just want to stay far away from it. Look at the amount of data Cambridge Analytica had on 200 million Americans. And the extraordinary part is that people are giving this information voluntarily. When I was growing up we were concerned about our privacy. So I have a problem with it. I really do. And now actors get cast based on the number of followers they have. F**k sake. Come on. You could be a wonderful influencer but can you actually do the job?”
Meaney, who grew up in Glasnevin, has no idea were the acting gene came from. His dad drove a van for Johnston, Mooney & O’Brien. His friends, when he told them he wanted to be an actor, scratched their heads and assumed he would “be reading poetry and that”.
“It was completely random,” he recalls. “My father used to take us to the Irish Panto at the Peacock Theatre every year. Maybe that planted a seed? But by the time I was 13 and 14 I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was working as a lounge boy in the Parnell Mooney and I walked up to Donal McCann, who was doing a show at the Gate. And I asked him: ‘How do you become an actor?’ He told me to go down to the Abbey School of Acting.”
He took evening classes on Harcourt Street and trained at the Abbey for two years before graduating into the National Theatre.
“I literally walked in off the street,” he laughs.
He regarded himself as an “intimate actor” until he moved to the UK and joined John McGrath’s left-wing theatre company 7:84. (The name derived from contemporaneous statistics revealing that 7 per cent of Britons owned 84 per cent of the country’s wealth.)
“John was the nearest thing to a saint I’ve ever met,” says Meaney. “He really made me as an actor. We had a standing company of six and we do a workshop and we talk about the issues we wanted to talk about. And then John, this genius playwright, would go away and write characters specifically for you.
They get away with murder in England. You can be asked to work 12 hours straight
“My older daughter went to Yale drama school and she called me up and said: ‘Hey dad, I’m studying you and 7:84 in theatre history class.’ It is history, I suppose. And it’s a shame there’s no equivalent nowadays. Apart from the fact that we took on issues. we went out of London and went into working men’s clubs and it really made a difference. For an awful lot of people, it was the only theatre they ever experienced.”
Meaney remains politically engaged and is disappointed by younger actors’ lack of interest in bigger issues.
“It’s Thatcher’s fault,” says Meaney. “So much of Britain was destroyed in the ’80s. When we started on Deep Space Nine, Alexander Siddig, a British actor, came over and joined the cast and I asked him about Equity meetings. Because when I was in London we used to go to Equity meetings for the ferocious battles. On one side, there was Vanessa [Redgrave] and the WRP [Workers Revolutionary Party] faction and then the right-wing [faction] led by the appropriately named Marius Goring and Olivier. They were amazing political debates but they were really entertaining. So I couldn’t believe it when Sid said: ‘I don’t know; I’m not a member of Equity.’
“And still today most of the actors you meet in London are not members of Equity. If you’re not a member of a trade union, how can you have a political perspective on anything? And as a result they get away with murder in England. You can be asked to work 12 hours straight. It’s Dickensian.”
Meaney’s mother once cautioned him that, as an actor, he “would end up walking the streets without a sole on your boot”. In fact, he has seldom been out of work, even during his earliest, leanest years in the US in the late 1980s.
“Around 1986/87 I did The Dead and I did a lot of those kind of shows like Remington Steele and Moonlighting before Star Trek came along. It was around that time I managed to buy my first house. Suddenly, I felt slightly respectable.”
He laughs. “Only slightly.”
The Last Right is released December 6th