Colm Meaney is sitting outside a clubhouse at the Rathmines Cricket Club where he is rehearsing Enda Walsh’s play Bedbound with his daughter and costar Brenda Meaney.
Beside us there’s a little bowling green. He didn’t realise, he says, “that bowls was such a working-class game in Ireland. There was a match here between a league team from Leinster and the Crumlin bowls club. Crumlin!” He’s interested in those kinds of details.
The Finglas-reared son of a breadman, Meaney’s early career involved agitprop theatre and his most celebrated roles, a working-class patriarch in the Barrytown trilogy and Miles O’Brien in the Star Trek franchise, are in their own ways, quietly political.
Meaney recalls being a political teenager. “I joined Sinn Féin when I was about 13 or 14… Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Rudi Dutschke, I was very influenced by all that,” he says.
“In ‘69 we decided to form a students’ union in O’Connell’s [secondary school], which as you can imagine went down really well with the Christian Brothers... There was a reaction to it from an organisation I didn’t even know existed called the Archbishops’ Corp.
“This was still John Charles McQuaid time… They held a counterdemonstration outside the school gates and they got hold of a lot of little red books by chairman Mao and they burned them outside the school. It was on the front of the Evening Herald. We thought it was hilarious.”
Meaney loved cinema and the theatre but had no idea how anyone started working there. “I was a lounge boy in the Parnell Mooney. Donal McCann was doing a show at the Gate and he used to be in at lunchtime. I said…” His voice drops to a whisper. “‘I want to be an actor.’ And he said, ‘Go down to the Abbey School of Acing.’”
Meaney did this and, after his studies, was asked to stay on. He eventually went to London where he ended up joining John McGrath’s agitprop theatre group 7:84 (based on the fact that 7 per cent of the UK’s citizens owned 84 per cent of the wealth at the time). He loved it.
“We’d do about three or four weeks, knocking around ideas for a show, political ideas,” Meaney says. “What’s the burning issue that we want to try and address here?... And then John would go away and write the play.”
It’s so hard to get sh*t made unless it’s a f**king Marvel comic
They’d perform at working men’s clubs, theatres and arts centres. They did plays about unemployment and automation. With a sister outfit Belt and Braces, Meaney was in plays about Northern Ireland and world capitalism. He remembers heady debates between McGrath and another writer, Trevor Griffiths.
“John believed that the experience of theatre was an active experience, a participatory experience, and you could affect people much more deeply through that,” Meaney says.
“Trevor, as a socialist writer, wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible. So he began to write for television and film... I remember wondering, ‘Where do I stand on this?’”
It was a particular era in British culture in which the British welfare state was facilitating working-class artists, Meaney says. “Look Back in Anger was the play that lit the fuse. Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, all those guys came through with their normal accents. Richard Harris as well…
“There were suddenly grants available for working-class guys to go to college and to drama school – and then Thatcherism.” He sighs. “I do a lot of work in England now. Most British actors I work with are not members of Equity (the performing arts and entertainment trade union)... It’s f**king mad. And then they complain about working 12 hours without a break. ‘Hey boys, wise up’.”
Are the arts still open to people from all classes in the UK? “It’s back to being Oxbridge now,” Meaney says.
He went to New York where he worked in theatre for a while before moving to LA. “I was starting all over again. They didn’t give a f**k about the theatre… I remember talking to a casting director about the play I was doing and said I was doing it in the round to bring the audience in, [without] the proscenium arch. ‘What’s a proscenium arch?’ she asked me. Yeek!”
Meaney got roles in shows like Remington Steele and Moonlighting before landing the initially unnamed part of Miles O’Brien in Star Trek: the Next Generation. He wanted to play him as American initially. “Rick Berman the exec producer sat me down and said, ‘The whole notion of this show is that it’s multiracial’… I reluctantly started to play him Irish.”
I suggest that starring in Star Trek, a franchise about proselytising, post-scarcity space socialists, isn’t that big a leap from political theatre. Meaney laughs. “I’m very glad you said that,” he says. “I was not a science-fiction guy, but I started to appreciate the genre… Because it’s set in the future you can address any subject you want.” He recalls episodes about genetic engineering and homelessness. “I started to appreciate it more and more.”
Star Trek was good to him. When his role was beefed up in the spin-off Deep Space Nine he was still given time off for other projects. “When I was doing Con Air in 94/95, I was shooting at nights in Vegas, getting an early-morning flight to Los Angeles and shooting the day on Star Trek.”
“And then after the success of that, Stephen Frears came on [for the other films] and you knew you were in good hands… Working-class people are often dismissed but the complexity of their emotional life in those books is brilliant.”
We’ve got to get these f**kers out – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. A hundred years they’ve been at it between the pair of them
It’s impossible to know how a project is going to turn out, Meaney says. One of his favourites, the Goran Paskaljević-directed How Harry Became a Tree, was to screen at the Toronto film festival the week of 9/11. “It got completely lost… And then there’s the ones you want nobody to see and everyone’s talking about.”
Would he name those ones? “No!”
Meaney turns up in interesting places. He plays Francis I of France in the excellent Catherine de Medici drama The Serpent Queen and he was recently in two episodes of cult comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, in which he speaks Irish. “I saw Danny DeVito was in it and thought ‘I always have fun with Danny.’… I’d never heard of [that show].”
It’s hugely popular, I observe. “I know that now!”
He has passion projects he wants to get made, like an adaptation of Albert Vigoleis Thelen’s 1953 novel The Island of Second Sight, set on Majorca (where Meaney lives with his wife Ines Glorian). “It’s so hard to get sh*t made unless it’s a f**king Marvel comic,” he says, with a chuckle. “When did we all become 12-year-old kids that all we want to watch is comics? I keep being corrected. What’s the posh name for comics?”
Graphic novels. “Graphic novels!” He laughs.
Did Meaney expect to have the career he’s had? “I don’t think I ever had a sense of ‘career’…. Pat Laffan, who took me under his wing when I was in the school of acting, he always said to me, ‘Don’t worry about being a star; be a working actor.’”
We talk some more about politics. He reads the Irish papers online every day and is appalled by the housing crisis. “The house I grew up in was built by the Dublin Corporation,” Meaney says. “How could we build houses then and can’t build them now?... It’s f**king Thatcherism, Reaganism, the neoliberals and the trickle-down economy that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael both bought into, [the idea] that the market will sort everything out. B***ocks.”
Meaney is very much on the left. He hosted Martin McGuinness’s presidential rally in the Mansion House in 2011 and played McGuinness in the film The Journey in 2016. When Sinn Féin split in 1970, he sided with Official Sinn Féin (later the Workers Party) who took a more mainstream political path.
“I didn’t come around to supporting what is now Sinn Féin until the late ‘90s, until the peace process…. They’re not left enough for me, but they are of the left, at least,” he says.
“And their position on climate change worries me. But these are things we can work out. We’ve got to get these f**kers out – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. A hundred years they’ve been at it between the pair of them.”
Enda Walsh’s play Bedbound also has a political edge to it. “It’s about this megalomaniac furniture salesman who just steamrollers over everybody,” Meaney explains. “There’s a line in the play where he says he’s going to be ‘the Michael Collins of the furniture world!’”
Theatre is exhausting compared to film or television, he says, but he keeps finding himself back on stage. “I’m constantly trying to stay away from theatre…. And then you read the play and say ‘Oh, it’s so good’… If you’re any sort of an actor you can’t duck those challenges.”
Meaney also keeps finding himself working on projects in Ireland, this time alongside his daughter. “I sometimes wonder is it that I’m getting old and I want to get back to the old sod? I don’t know if it’s that.” He laughs. “I don’t know if I’m quite there yet.”
Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival present Bedbound by Enda Walsh at Galway International Arts Festival from July 14th to 29th and at 3Olympia Theatre, Dublin from August 8th to 12th. For more see Landmarkproductions.ie / GIAF.ie