'I had no time for them crying into their pints'
Colm Meaney looked to his past to play an Irish emigrant in London in his latest film, Kings. 'I knew guys like the guys in the film back then,' he tells Donald Clarke
Colm Meaney is only 54, but he seems to have been around since the 17th century. Who among you can recall the days when his broad, friendly face did not pop up in every second film and every third play? Never quite young when he was young, not exactly middle-aged now, Meaney is among the most reliably likeable character actors on the planet. He was noisy and irritable as the paterfamilias in the film versions of Roddy Doyle's Barrytowntrilogy. He was sound and dependable as a technical officer on two Star Trekseries. Now he batters his way into our cinemas as the most comfortably off of six aging emigrants in Tom Collins's excellent Kings.
This tough, elegiac picture - an Irish-language adaptation of Jimmy Murphy's play, The Kings of the Kilburn High Road- features a clatter of the nation's most distinguished actors. Given Meaney's ubiquity, it would, surely, have seemed improper for the director to proceed without inviting the Dubliner to join the likes of Barry Barnes and Donal O'Kelly round the table of pints.
"They sent me a script and there wasn't that much Irish in it," he recalls. "So, I thought, no problem. Then, after I'd agreed, I realised it was an English translation of the script. The shooting script had a lot more Irish than I thought. So I had gone in like a blind fool. That said, I was fascinated by the idea of doing a film as gaeilge."
Kingsfollows the six beery men, who emigrated to London in the 1970s, as they try to come to terms with the sudden death of the youngest member of their gang. The lads, raised in Connemara, long ago elected to continue speaking only Irish to one another and this decision helps illustrate their status as outsiders in both London and the new thrusting Ireland. Meaney's character, a successful building contractor, has, however, drifted some way from his roots and has come close to integrating into English society.
"That's right," Meaney says. "We made a decision - partly dramatic, partly because I was unsure about my Irish - that, especially when losing the head, my character would start speaking English. He makes it clear that he has a thing about them still speaking Irish. 'Would you ever get over it and speak English!'"
BORN AND RAISEDin Glasnevin, Dublin, Meaney would have seen many of his buddies drift off to London to work in the building trade during the 1970s. As a young man, after service in the Abbey Theatre, he too made his way to the city and now admits that he shared some of the views of his gruff, insensitive character in Kings.
"Oh yeah, I knew guys like the guys in the film back then," he says. "I have to say, with the rashness of youth, I had no time for them crying into their pints about Ireland. I used to think: get down to Euston Station and get on a train if you miss it so much. You will be home in the morning and it will cost you about two quid. Of course, I was there by choice and didn't really understand. Now I appreciate the reasons they couldn't go home: the sense of failure, the disappointment in their lives."
Before making that move to London 30 years ago, Colm Meaney had already been in and about the business for a decade. After securing a place in the Abbey School of Acting, he proved talented enough to graduate to the theatre's stock company. Spells in such well-remembered spaces as the Focus followed and then, finding his options limited, he set out for the world (and later, in Star Trek, the universe). He has admitted that his dad, who drove a van for Johnson Mooney & O'Brien bakers, would have preferred him to get a proper job.
"He was a bit nonplussed by it all at first and didn't take it seriously," Meaney says. "But when I got into the company at the Abbey that made all the difference. He thought: if the Abbey think he's all right then he must be all right. He never actually said he was proud of me, but I think he was."
Meaney snr would, no doubt, have been happy to note how rarely his son found himself out of work. There is always a job for an actor with a singular face and a voice that makes you pay attention. In his early days, Meaney toured with 7:84, the left-wing English theatre company, played a character role on the legendary television show Z Cars and, eventually, made his way to Cleveland, Ohio, with a mind to playing Shakespeare. There he made an important contact. "The first few years in America were kind of tough," he says. "But I was fortunate. I went over to do a season with Vincent Dowling at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival." And married the boss's daughter, Bairbre Dowling? "Yes. And married his daughter," he laughs. "So that kind of guaranteed me a job for a while. But there was never a period of two years not working. There was, from time to time, two months without a job, but I could always make my own living as an actor."
Still, it must have been pleasant when, in the early 1990s, he eventually landed a steady job in Star Trek. The progress of Miles O'Brien from "that man in the background" to fleshed-out character is a peculiar story. Briefly considered for the role of Data, the pistachio cyborg, Meaney first appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generationas long ago as 1987, but was not actually granted a name for some years. In the initial few series, Meaney anonymously operated the transporter controls while, no doubt, praying that his character could avoid being eaten by a lizard with many heads or absorbed into some gaseous collective intelligence.
"I read for the series and they liked me, but didn't quite know what to do with me," he says. "I would do a couple of episodes as 'The Transporter chief' and then would go off to do a play. Whenever I was in town they would stick me in an episode. Then they started to develop the character.
"One day I got this script and the Transporter Chief was suddenly called O'Brien and, before I realised what was going on, I was shocked. Hang on! I'm the Transporter Chief. Who's this O'Brien?"
WHEN STAR TREK : Deep Space Nine began in 1992, Meaney suddenly had something like a nine-to-five job. Before beginning that series, he received an assurance from the producers that they would accommodate his desire to appear in plays and films, but, somehow, Meaney still managed to clock up 225 episodes of Star Trek.
Trekkers - fans of the series greatly object to being called Trekkies - are a famously dedicated bunch, but Meaney, who attends the odd convention, has never found them overly obsessive or fixated.
"Yes. I am afraid I am boring that way," he explains. "I have always found the Star Trekfans to be terrific. I have no funny stories to tell. There are nuts out there, but there are nuts everywhere. I find them to be very polite. They introduce themselves; they say what they want to say and then they leave you alone. The average drunk in a bar is much more hassle."
His association with the series has done his career no harm. Long resident in Los Angeles, Meaney has recently finished a Broadway run alongside Kevin Spacey in Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegottenand, later this year, will appear on US television in a transatlantic reinvention of the BBC's time-travel cop show Life on Mars.
His domestic arrangements are also on an even keel. Divorced from fellow actor Bairbre Dowling in 1994, Meaney married his long-term girlfriend, Ines Glorian, earlier this year. How did she talk him into taking the plunge again?
"Well, she's French and she's beautiful," he laughs. "We have a daughter who's two-and-a-half and it just seemed like time."
The couple, who have a house in Spain to add to their home in California, must find it difficult to manage normal family life while Meaney jets about the planet.
"They travel with me pretty much everywhere," he says. "Three weeks is the longest I have been away from them. Since the baby was born she wants to be at home more, though. I had over 12 years of bachelorhood, which was fine, but this is a wonderful time in my life. It's wonderful, at my age, to be offered a second chance."
Kings is on limited release