Rea seems to relish playing glum anti-heroes on screen.
But, as he tells Geoffrey MacNab, playing a comic part in
the theatre, with the immediacy of a live audience, is more
Stephen Rea is mumbling in the direction of his feet: "They
do say this thing about me being . . . hangdog, melancholy.
It drives me insane."
Even as he complains about being typecast as the long-suffering
Chekhovian or Celtic anti-hero, he sounds ever more despondent.
"I'd like to do more comedy," he says gloomily, his countenance
clouding over. "I can't help it that my face is like this,
but Chekhov isn't depressive at all. It's very active. It
may be agonising, but it's also very funny. . . sometimes."
The Belfast-born actor is in familiar groove in his new
film, A Further Gesture. The very first shot of the
movie is a big close-up of Rea looking, as usual, careworn
and infinitely sad. His face is, as Martin Scorsese once
put it of John Garfield, "a landscape of moral conflict".
He plays Dowd, a long-term IRA prisoner. The part might
almost be a continuation of his role as IRA volunteer Fergus
in Neil Jordan's The Crying Game. Just as he ends
that film in prison, he begins this one behind bars. Just
as Fergus is displaced from Ireland to London, Dowd too
is forced into exile - this time, he flees to New York after
Ronan Bennett may have written the script for A Further
Gesture but the character of Dowd originated with Rea.
"I had the idea of a guy for whom an escape from prison
is not actually a release but a move into a further prison
or a move to suicide - a man whose options are pared down
to barely nothing."
Dowd, he explains, is a burned-up case: he retains the capacity
for violence, but has lost the idealism which originally
fired his involvement in politics. "It's to do with being
dead inside. It sounds so deeply, deeply pessimistic - and,
of course, it is," he laughs. "He has no possibility of
A Further Gesture does not attempt to make Dowd falsely
sympathetic. We see him pistol-whip a prison officer and
set about a New York drug- dealer's head with a fire extinguisher.
Nor does the film engage with the minutiae of "the troubles".
Instead, it deals with Dowd's predicament on an abstract,
personal level. Rea, an actor who has refined impassivity
into an expressionistic art, plays him deadpan. "If you
look at different takes," he says, "you see that the ones
in which you do least are usually the most effective. Stillness
is always more involving. I try to go into every scene not
with passive melancholia as the condition but active intellectual
intention. Provided you're thinking, the camera gets it."
With his wistful understatement, he has the knack of making
the most hard-bitten character seem vulnerable and ingenuous.
In A Further Gesture, in spite of everything, we
end up rooting for Dowd. Even so, Rea believes the very
fact that Dowd is ex-IRA is likely to put off British audiences.
Michael Collins, he argues, was easier for the Brits
to digest because an Irishman, De Valera, was chosen as
villain, and the emphasis was on the Civil War - "on how
bad the Irish were to each other rather than how bad the
British were to the Irish".
It is instructive to compare Dowd with Rea's saxophonist
Danny in his first movie, Neil Jordan's Angel (1982).
Like Dowd, the musician is destroyed spiritually by his
contact with violence. He ends up swapping his saxophone
for a machine gun as he seeks to avenge the pointless death
of a mute teenage girl at the hands of terrorists. ("I'll
teach you to sing," he mutters plaintively as he holds the
dead girl's crumpled body in his arms.) What might have
been a conventional action-thriller is turned by Jordan
and Rea into a poetic lament. Rea is the same mournful,
introspective screen presence as in A Further Gesture, and
even shows a similar line in fatalistic humour. He just
Still to suggest that he is only able to play saturnine
Celts is to underestimate his range. He was a bespectacled,
librarian-type in Michael Collins and a truculent
con-artist in Trojan Eddie. He has done comic turns
for Mike Leigh (Life Is Sweet, Four Days
in July), he has played wolves and vampires, and was
very funny as the middle-class, North London-based Irishman
negotiating a mid-life crisis in Les Blair's Bad Behaviour.
He stars in Neil Jordan's film version of Patrick McCabe's
novel, The Butcher's Boy (to be released early next
year), and was recently in Hollywood to shoot a cameo in
Jordan's new film, In Dreams, which stars Annette
Bening and is being produced by Spielberg. With Field Day,
the company he, Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel set up in
1980, he is also currently producing a feature-length documentary
to mark the bicentenary of 1798 rebellion in Ireland.
"It was a great enlightenment project, something that united
the whole of Ireland. After it failed, everything broke
down into Catholic nationalism and royalism. At this moment,
when Ireland seems about to break into something new, we
thought it was worth looking back at a time when people
seemed to have found a way out of the sectarian division
of the country."
Rea's filmography may be varied, but it looks distinctly
patchy by comparison with his stage work. As he acknowledges,
his best movies have all been with Neil Jordan. "Neil does
great stuff and I love working with him, but I can't just
rely on that."
After the success of The Crying Game in the US, Rea
tried a "couple of Hollywood-type things" he wasn't happy
with, but quickly lost heart with the quality of the material
the studios were pushing his way. He hasn't abandoned cinema
- he is shortly to start work on a US indie film called
Hacks - but he sounds more enthusiastic about theatre
than films. As he puts it, "I've never been in a bad play.
There might have been bad productions and I might have been
bad in them, but I've never been in a play that wasn't interesting
or worthwhile doing on some level. So much more can go wrong
with a movie, because the distance between the hand and
the mouth is so much greater. It has to go through so many
more processes before it can reach its public."
He thrives on the immediacy of a live audience. "With Field
Day, we'd often play places where they hadn't seen professional
actors in 30 years. Everyone in the community would come
and see you. That's very exhilarating. . . We were trying
to address what kind of country Ireland was; to address
questions of identity, the colonial experience and language.
We felt we were in a country moving from partial independence
into a post-colonial state."
Ask him about the trappings of show business and he seems
a little baffled. "That makes us sound like we're all very
frivolous. People are longing to get into the theatre and
movie world. Sometimes I think my attitude is far too serious.
A little frivolity wouldn't be a bad thing."
'A Further Gesture' opens next week.