A face in the crowd

 

DURING the shooting of his stark and powerful new film Nothing Personal set during a previous IRA ceasefire - the one in 1975 - director Thaddeus O'Sullivan agreed on an evening's pub crawl through Belfast's Shankill Road area.

It would be a useful experience for his two English actors, James Frain and Ian Hart, both of whom play members of a loyalist squad. John Lynch, born and raised in South Armagh, did not need any introduction to the complex politics of tribalism. "It's not that I felt I had lived it - though I did live there between 1969 until 1981 - I felt I had lived of it."

But he went with them, and O'Sullivan's little outing was overseen by two minders, local Protestant men in their late forties. "It was about this time last year, says Lynch "and despite the cease-fire the pub had security grills over the windows and video cameras. The place was empty when we arrived but it slowly began to fill up."

While the others continued their research, Lynch became the centre of attention for some loyalists, who began taunting him, calling him a "Republican bastard" and worse. "They recognised me as someone who has played characters on the fringes of Republicanism. It was very grim. Like a Western. Like Nothing Personal."

Even while many were celebrating the ceasefires, others refused to relax their old hatreds. "The older men, the minders, Davy and Clem, just wanted peace. They were sick of the killing and wanted something better for their children. But it was the younger ones who seemed to want it to go on, as if they needed it." Nothing Personal is bound to be subjected to political as well as cinematic scrutiny.

The film, which premieres next week in the Dublin Film Festival, is not Lynch's only film in the festival. Also included is the internationally acclaimed Australian film Angel Baby, for which Lynch has already won an Australian Film Institute award. Directed by Michael Rymer, it tells the story of a tragic romance between two schizophrenics who meet while undergoing treatment. John Sayle's mythical fantasy The Secret Of Roan Inis - featuring Lynch and his sister Susan - will also be screened during the festival.

Even off screen he looks worried. Slight, pale, wearing the expected battered black leather jacket, Lynch seems haunted, intense, but perhaps he is merely apprehensive. He is certainly very serious. Quietly edgy, watchful, he smokes from an endless store of little rolled-up cigarettes. With his large brown eyes, blue-black hair, and melancholic unease, he personifies the bewildered romantic. The soft Northern accent does the rest. His entire approach to acting is based on its being an examination of the way people live.

"It's also about the impotence of many situations people are often powerless. Such as the couple in Angel Baby, or Liam in Nothing Personal. As for the role of the actor: "The actor is another rewrite, his interpretation takes the process a stage further." While improvisation is more possible in film than on stage where the text is sacrosanct. Lynch believes there is always a certain flexibility about performance.

Up till three weeks ago, Nothing Personal may have been received as merely a fine film and an exciting piece of recent history. Now, however, there is an ugly irony about its enforced topicality. While he has his own feelings about the North and seems to be quite neutral, he says: "I would tend towards nationalism" and points out that he is only half Irish (his mother comes from Southern Italy).

In a career which began in 1984 with Pat O'Connor's film version of Bernard MacLaverty's novel Cal, Lynch has featured in several films about Northern Ireland, playing Paul Hill in In The Name Of The Father, and Bobby Sands in Terry George's No Greater Love which will be released later this year - it was shot under the working title of Some Mother's Son. Lynch remarks that George sees Sands as the emotional core of the time. "I play him as a character, but there is an awareness of his being a central symbol."

Nothing Personal, Daniel Mornin's adaptation of his novel All Our Fault, must be acknowledged as simply the best, most honest movie made about the conflict euphemistically referred to as "the Troubles". The film comes very close to explaining the tribal fears and mutual distrust which sustain the situation, and for Lynch as an actor it presented a major challenge. Playing the part of Liam, a working-class Catholic who has come home from England, Lynch's almost passive role as a single parent is balanced against big, volatile performances from Frain and Hart as psychotic killers. Hart in particular takes to the mindless violence of his character with a Dennis Hopper-like gusto, treating murder as a wonderful game. Lynch noticed this when first reading the script.

"I was worried about Liam appearing too whingeing - after all, he seems to spend the entire film getting beaten up. I wanted to play him as a man who didn't want any part of it, just a person interested in living his own life. It takes greater courage to live that way." Liam is a character who has been battered by life, his wife has left him, he doesn't seem to have a job, he is shocked by what he sees around him. Again, Lynch brings his characteristic watching quality to the role. And it also takes courage to deliberately downplay a part in the face of Frain and Hart's performances. This same understated quality gave his Paul Hill a strong presence. Looking at his career, he has more range than he is credited with.

JOHN Lynch was born in December 1961, in Corrinshego, a townland outside Newry. His father Finn worked in a local factory. Lynch is the eldest of five. His youngest sister Susan also went into acting and is now well established in Britain. As a schoolboy at St Coleman's College, Violet Hill, he played a lot of soccer, and quickly took to acting thanks to an energetic English teacher, Sean Hollywood. "He was larger than life, very flamboyant. We did " One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest."

Lynch also performed in Irish.

"We toured around the country, competing in festivals and the like. Sometimes I think I didn't know the half of what I was saying well, I did. I did speak Irish but I've forgotten most of it." He left school without taking his A Levels, sure enough of what he wanted to successfully audition for the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. "I remember I did Shylock, Edmund from King Lear and something from Friel."

In London in the early 198Os, being from Northern Ireland gave him some novelty value. "The other students were aware of it alright, but I was there at the time of the GLC and the Falklands." Watching Britain at war proved an unsettling experience for him: "there was a lot of self-justification going on. They seemed to for get who was doing the invading." As a second-year student, Lynch was cast to play opposite Helen Mirren in Cal. It was an intimidating experience. He was 22-years old and had never been before a camera in his life. Mirren was famous and had just played Lady Macbeth. "When I saw myself on the screen for the first time, I got sick - well, it may have been something I'd eaten, but I didn't feel too well."

Whatever it was, Lynch agrees was an exposing experience.

After the film was completed and the experience of going to the Cannes Film Festival, he returned to drama school and life as a student, holding only a temporary Equity card before "I graduated or whatever it is that drama student does."

From Cal he moved on to a year-long West End run in Charles Sturridge's production of Chekhov's The Seagull, playing Konstantin in a cast which included Vanessa Redgrave as Irina Arkadina, Jonathan Pryce as Trigorin and Redgrave's daughter Natasha Richardson as an inspired Nina. "It was a long run, far too long. I think three or four months is the maximum you can sustain something like that. I also played it in an English accent - that was exhausting because of the demands it puts on your concentration.

From this success, Lynch moved on to the Royal Shakespeare Company and a year's run as Smike in Nicholas Nickleby, a production which moved from Stratford to Newcastle, Los Angeles and New York. At the National, he appeared in Nick Ward's The Strangeness Of Others. But his most exciting stage work to date has been in Electra and Hamlet. Directed by Deborah Warner in Electra, a production which moved from London to Paris, Bradford and Derry, Lynch says the four nights performing in a gym in Derry were unforgettable: "There were people from both sides, some of them didn't want to go home. The theme of revenge and blood lust, warring factions, struck a cord. We thought we could ignore it but we couldn't."

Fiona Shaw's bold directing of Hamlet was another major career step for him. "We saw the play as a metaphor for the badness of the world, for society as something horribly corrupt. Some audiences loved it, others had problems with it. But we were trying to do something different."

Lynch's sexuality lies in it's apparent vulnerability, and he has a distinctive face; striking but anonymous, one that blends into crowds. Lynch has been living in Dublin for the past 18 months, "but no one recognises me". It is that sort of face - he could play an ailing Chopin resigned to a slow death from tuberculosis, or a French revolutionary, or even Christ. But no one recognises him. Even the photographer waiting in a Dublin hotel this week phoned the film distributors looking for him, only to be told that John Lynch was standing right beside him. Later the photographer remarked, "we even walked into the hotel together and I'd seen his movies."

Though not a natural talker, Lynch has a very deliberate approach to questions. Angel Baby is certainly a triumph for him, yet he is disturbed by the voyeuristic aspect of making a film about mental illness. "We spent a lot of time in a drop-in centre in Melbourne. It isn't easy looking at people as if they are laboratory specimens. It was very upsetting. I didn't like the voyeuristic aspect of it. I remember going outside to have a cigarette and one of the older women sat down beside me and said `Hello, I'm Elizabeth the first. What do you say to something like that? You also have to respect their privacy, while at the same time trying to get a sense of their lives and whatever is going on in their lives."

In Angel Baby Lynch's character Harry meets up with Kate (Jacqueline McKenzie). He has been living with his sympathetic older brother and his family. With alarming speed, Harry finds himself becoming totally besotted with Kate, who appears to draw life plan from clues provided by a TV game show. The couple move in together, he bluffs his way into a white-collar computer job and Kate announces she is pregnant. Once they decide to abandon their medication, their delicate routine disintegrates.

In one of the many powerful scenes, Lynch, having lost his job, has a complete breakdown. Shot in a men's room ("it was actually a lift"), Hairy is crucified by the pressures of an ordinary life he cannot handle, and suffers an internal explosion. Wary of discussing the scene, Lynch says: "It was the last day of shooting. Although the scene comes near the middle of the picture, I suppose I was aware of a feeling of `this is the end', I don't know really."

There remains something of the bewildered young boy about him even as he approaches 35. "I think it will just wear off," he says. Yet it is interesting to note that in his first scene with his screen daughter Kathleen (Jennifer Courtney), Lynch could as easily have been the elder brother as the father. "I was with Jennifer in Secret of Roan Inis she had to sit for a day while I acted eight pages of a story to her. I was gutting fish, so I smelt. After something like that you have a good rapport."

Having worked continuously - and he will have featured in six of the year's new movies by the end of 1996 Lynch now thinks it is time for a rest. As long as his anonymity lasts he will continue disappearing into crowds or cycle around the city, appearing to anyone who is interested as just another thin, longish-haired young fellow on a bike, ever on the lookout for a casual game of football.