Rea life

 

ACTING may come naturally to Stephen Rea, but that doesn't make it easy. Live theatre is, he says, "like being mugged", and he hasn't missed its physical demands while he has concentrated on film in the past five years.

Yet he relished the challenge when offered the male lead in Harold Pinter's Ashes To Ashes for a Royal Court production in London last year which will feature in the Gate Theatre's Pinter Festival next month. "It's the first Pinter play I've done so it's nice to do a new one directed by him." He regards. Pinter as essential for any English speaking actor likewise Beckett, with who he worked.

"Pinter is in some ways Beckett twin but I don't want to over emphasise their affinity. There clearly is an influence of Beckett on Pinter but it is not a plagiaristic thing. Pinter took writes in that modern sort of poetic way, he doesn't tell you things, you have to find out. He's got the confidence to make the audience come to the play." The two hander play reunites him with Lindsay Duncan, his, co star in the romantic comedy film Loose Connections (1985).

"I always felt that if you did a Beckett play, even if you weren't very good in it, you would always be a better actor afterwards. I feel the same about Pinter. He does stretch actors to the limit because you're never working from something you have experienced. There's no hiding place in Pinter, there really isn't, nor in Beckett, nor Chekhov ...

For Rea, the feeling that you can act but you can't hide ripples out beyond the stage. Wary of self revelation and of misunderstandings, he is reluctant to give interviews and stopped altogether for a while after a particularly painful experience some years ago. Frankly, he says, most interviews involve some degree of humiliation.

Yet, sitting in the hospitality room of the Gate Theatre in Dublin, he appears remarkably laid back. Without the camera induced tautness in his features, his trademark, troubled look is confined to those rather mournful brown eyes, accented by the bloodhound bags under them. Dressed in black trousers, black wool turtleneck jumper with a subtle grey fleck, grey socks and black canvas mules, his non flamboyant appearance is perfectly in keeping with his quietly understated but complex performances as an actor. And today his neatish, dark brown curls hardly live up to the title of "the most unkempt hair in Equity".

"It's a very strange thing to be in a world where your acting isn't enough, where they want to know if you are a womaniser, or whether you take drugs, or whether you just came out of an alcoholics' clinic." But he is amused by the fanfares of fame which are part of the baggage of any Hollywood success.

"It's so gross, I just laugh a lot." As if to rest his case, he cites Hugh Grant and his infamous encounter off Sunset Boulevard. "It didn't damage his career at all, it confirmed him as a major star. Give me a break!" drawls the actor. Rea refuses to confirm his age - "I don't want you to even speculate"

but is probably 52 this year. And he fakes horror at the idea that it might be a gym which helps to keep his five foot 10 inch frame in good shape: "Oh please! I can't stand the smell of male sweat. Slightest hint of testosterone and I'm out.

Although he eschews the Hollywood lifestyle, to work in America requires playing along with the celebrity carnival. The absurdity of this struck him as he arrived for the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles in 1993 where his nomination for best actor was one of six notched up by The Crying Game.

"People were banked up in seats, like they do at golf matches," he recalls. "They were baying your name, `Stephen'," he says, raising his arms in self mocking adulation. "They didn't know your name three weeks before and they won't know it three weeks later either. It's not like that here, obviously."

No, neither the frenzy nor the fickleness. Through two outstanding collaborations in the 1980s and 1990s, with Brian Friel and Neil Jordan, the Belfast born actor has become one of the most respected practitioners in both Irish theatre and cinema. "You should choose your company well and if I have any talent I have chosen my company well," he says of not only Friel and Jordan, but also Seamus Deane and Seamus Heaney of Field Day, playwrights Beckett, Pinter and Chekhov ("they don't even have to be alive") and the writers of his two latest films, both shown in the recent Dublin Film Festival: Billy Roche (Trojan Eddie) and Ronan Bennett (A Further Gesture)..

"It's the writer to whom I owe everything as an actor," he says. "I can't think of anybody in the world I admire more than writers."

An Oscar nomination for The Crying Game, a Tony nomination in 1993 for his performance in Frank McGuinness's Someone Who'll Watch Over Me on Broadway, and in January this year a Golden Globe nomination for a US television drama about the Lindbergh baby case, have underlined. Rea's versatility. "The problem is having the right thing to do. If the script is interesting enough, it doesn't matter what medium it's in.

Early in his career, Rea did nothing but theatre. After graduating in English from Queen's University, his first professional job was with the Abbey. "It didn't really work out," he says. "They didn't know what to do with me really. I suppose I was a bit gauche," he concedes - but it's clear he feels the institution did little to nurture his talent.

Instead, theatre in England, principally Hampsted, and later the National, became the training ground for the actor who now says that he forgets why he went into acting. "It's so long ago," he says, to dispose of a question he clearly regards as crass. But then he mutters about having an instinct to do it.

Touring theatre in his native land was the fruit of Rea's great collaboration with Friel and others when they formed Field Day in 1980. And he is (rightly proud of Field Day's theatrical achievements, quite apart from what it was trying to do in terms of cultural politics.

"We were very easily categorised as a bunch of Northern nationalists. But we wanted to be a unifying influence, he stresses. "It was in no sense that we wanted to say that the nationalist experience was greater or more interesting than anybody else's experience. We wanted to talk about the areas that had contributed to us arriving in the situation we are in."

For a decade, Rea's energies were consumed by this mission. He brought not only Friel's emerging masterpieces to school and parish halts, but also great classics adapted by Irish writers, such as Tom Paulin's version of Antigone and Derek Mahon's adaptation of Moliere's School For Husbands. "And people queued around the block to see them," he says triumphantly.

REA has never talked publicly about why he and Friel, regarded as "bloodbrothers" by some, parted ways in 1994.

And he politely but firmly declines, yet again, to comment on whether Friel's resignation from the company was the result of a row about the playwright offering Dancing At Lughnasa to the Abbey rather than Field Day, or whether that was simply a public manifestation of growing friction between them.

"When friendship is very closely tied up in a working relationship, when one fades, maybe the other one fades as well. I don't ever anticipate having that kind of friendship again with anyone that I work with. I work very closely with Neil Jordan but it's not an intense friendship. I don't see that happening again."

Rea has appeared in six of Neil Jordan's films, from Angel in 1982 to his adaptation of Pat McCabe's novel, The Butcher Boy, due to be released later this year. Having seen a "final" version of The Butcher Boy, which is still being worked on, Rea enthuses: "It's brilliant. The spirit of the book is in the film which is an amazing achievement."

He believes it's Jordan's writing talent which makes his films distinctively good. "It's the skills of constructing a great narrative, that is Neil's great strength and the directing one comes out of that. That's why people in America really like his work because it's something they've actually forgotten."

Deciding some years ago that he would have to stop doing theatre if he wanted a film career, Rea says he was lucky the film he had waited for was The Crying Game. It was the breakthrough for both him and Jordan - and the luck worked both ways.

But such was the impact of his performance, Rea the actor instantly became typecast to many as the thinking, troubled terrorist. "There's such an assumption that I've done all these things about the Troubles and I really haven't." But A Further Gesture, based on Rea's idea, will inevitably reinforce the typecast. He plays an escaped IRA terrorist who can't settle in Ireland so he goes to New York where he gets involved with a trio of Guatemalan activists plotting an assassination.

"It's just about the whole conundrum of people whose lives are a gesture," he explains. "It gives you great strength in a way if your life is a gesture because you're not afraid of death, because your death is acceptable if you're living for a cause." He says the film intended to deal with the tragedy of the man trying to get back to living but being unable to cope.

Brought up in a city which has spawned many tragedies, Rea remembers the Belfast of his childhood as "bleak". He was born into a Protestant family, one of four children his father was a bus driver and they lived in "a mixed area that was very neighbourly".

Society in the North was "deeply oppressed", he continues. "I know the Troubles are bad but they had to come. It was like like lancing some terrible . . ." he trails off.

His mother wouldn't have TV in the house, so the huge influence in his upbringing was the three books from the library each week. One generation on very different for the two children, Danny (8) and Oscar (6) he has with his wife, Dolours Price.

"There's two televisions in our house and nothing maddens me more than if you go in a room and the television's on and nobody's watching it. I want to throw it through the window. But what can I do? I'm not bringing them up in that way."

Although Rea spends a lot of time in the US, away from the family home in Malahide, Co Dublin, he wanted the children brought up here. "Your childhood is longer and children are very cherished here."

He believes fatherhood has enhanced his acting. "The Crying Game was about a guy who decided to take responsibility for the people around him. I wouldn't have understood that so well if I hadn't had kids. You take on a real responsibility, where you say `yes, I would die for those people'."

That, he says, brought a greater depth to his performance. "Nobody may see it but me but then nobody has to see it."