The Stranger
From Irish Tatler
April 2000
"A man unknown to himself let alone his audience, Suzanne Power meets the enigmatic character behind the face of Stephen Rea - muse of Neil Jordan's prolific cinema career."
Photo by Clodagh Moreland.

In the emphatically sumptuous Merrion Hotel even Rennies are delivered on silver platters. A packet is carried with self-conscious pomp and ceremony by a young waitress to the room of one Stephen Rea. The whole landing has been taken over by film stars from an Oscar hopeful. It is hot stuff.

A receptionist offers to walk me up to the landing personally. I admire her dedication and consideration. Then I remember, Ralph Fiennes is on this landing somewhere.
Security are discreetly everywhere, minding the desirable one, "Mention us," Darragh, dressed in a black suit, shirt and tie says with a friendly smile. "Security never gets a mention and all the work we do."

Mention made Darragh. Darragh is minding the big jewels - Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore who have jetted in for the premiere of The End of the Affair and are now jetting out. I come in a the tail end of the proceedings. The afternoon of the morning after. The hangover sandwiches are gone, the cafetieres are drained.

Everyone is talking about being in hospital last night. Kilmainham Hospital. That is where the post premiere party happened. "Wasn't it great?" everyone is saying. There's an anti-climatic sensation. The time to go home has long past. All celebrities have left.

Except Stephen Rea, who doesn't have security and won't be needing it, is still doing interviews. The other stars turned down half of their requests. Too busy. Stephen Rea is off down Grafton Street afterwards to do a few things. The other stars are safely housed in limousines, couched in celebrity, shadowed by rottweiler agents and jack russell assistants.
That is the nature of the movie industry and the ones it polishes up to be stars. They glimmer at a distance and cannot be reached. Stephen Rea could be a star, but he's too busy being an actor.

He is the real thing, one who acts professionally in all instances.

"What's in?" he asks the photographer, referring to how the show is framed. "I like to know."
"Everything", the photographer says. Stephen Rea adjusts himself accordingly.

"I hate having pictures done," the down-turned features reach further towards the ground. "At least when you're acting you can be someone. In front of the camera you have to be yourself. And who am I?"

He is recognised among all and many as Ireland's most gifted stage actor and a gift on screen too. He has worked with some of the memorable ones - Beckett and Friel on stage. Jordan on film. He is known to be brilliant. But he hasn't a clue who he is.

He does know he has indigestion from eating scrambled eggs.

"They were lovely at the time," he sighs, "I'm paying for them now."

Photographs taken, we retire to a room the size of an entire Section 23 flat to talk about film and his role in it.
He plays Henry Miles, the man whose wife Ralph Fiennes character, Bendrix, falls hopelessly in love with. Henry, for want of a better is a dry shite. English, a diplomat, a tea cup clinker. Certainly in Graham Greene
's novel he is nothing to write home about. He and his wife Sarah, played by Julianne Moore, "Lay like two figures in a tomb".

In Neil Jordan's script he is humanised, given insight, something which Graham Greene's rival for the affections of a real life woman was not seen to have, but had in spades.

On the day that his wife Catherine died, Harry Walston wrote to Graham Greene, the man who had a passionate affair with her and based the book The End of the Affair on it. The letter was in answer to the one Greene had written to him expressing condolences and remorse.

"Most difficult to answer. You shouldn't have remorse. You gave pain - and joy - but you gave Catherine something no one else did. It would not be right to say it changed her life, it deepened it in many ways. You gave her a love of reading that deepened her.

I find that I have omitted the ostensible purpose of this letter - to thank you for writing. I do."

Neil Jordan and Stephen Rea worked to give the man who had this ability to love his wife, the depth of character Greene denied him of in the novel.

"Greene was a monster," Rea states baldly. "He spent so much time in brothels. I have never been to a brothel. I don't think I could go into one."

He goes on to defend the character he plays:

"You alway forget the cuckold is actually in love as well. We're caught up in the action in the old bed, having fun with the rompers. But the other guy, Henry in this case, is loving too, more selflessly than the man she had fallen in love with.

"That is true love and it is very moving. He is more loving in the movie than is in the book, audiences are touched by that, by his concern.

"The End of the Affair is a good movie because it about things, things that really matter. Love, sex, death. Have you ever seen romance?"


"That's another movie about something real. You see real sex and it can be quite unnerving. I think sex is handled well in this movie. Sarah is seen as a spiritual person, but also a sexual one."

This puts paid to the presumption that spirituality is from the head up and sexuality is from the navel down, the two can intertwine, Stephen Rea believes.

When did he first meet Neil Jordan, the man he has collaborated with on almost every film the two of them have ever made?

"We disagree on this. He thinks we met in London in a pub run by a man called Jeremiah O'Neill, who was also a novelist. He had a room out the back which he called Sugan Theatre where expats gathered. I don't remember that."

Does he remember what he thought of the novelist soon to be film director?

"He was very quiet and I was very quiet. So there wasn't much conversation going on. I can guarantee you that. Then he came up to me and said, 'I'm making this film, would you like to be in it?' It was like a bolt from the blue. I always wanted to be in movies but could never figure out a way of getting into them. There were none being made in Ireland at that time.

"Angel was the first Irish feature film. Neil's first movie and my first movie."

Did he keep his shiny suit?

"No! Great wasn't it? I had total respect for him as a character, the mad lad I played."

He has to have respect for all his characters and worked hard to have it for Henry.

"You tend to believe what other characters in the script say about yours. So when Sarah says Henry wouldn't know what the sound of her having an orgasm is like, well, I didn't want to do the part at first, " he says in earnest. That's why he and Neil worked on it, to make him a man Stephen Rea would want to play.

Did he have a sense that he would be lauded as Ireland's finest stage and screen actor?

"I had a destiny. I had some sense of it. I was in a house once and someone looked at my palm and said I was going to be successful, but it would take longer than I'd like. It did take longer than I would have liked."

He was in his forties before The Crying Game came along with its famous willy shot. It, coupled with Rea's reaction, will surely go down in history as one of the great cinema moments. That film saw him onto an international platform, but not before he had made his name as a theatre actor. He took the newly formed National by storm in the late eighties with his performances in Playboy, then The Comedians and The Shaughran.

He formed Field Day along with Brian Friel and others. He had worked with Beckett who referred to him as the best there was.

Don't forget he also had a fabulous role in that great post war epic - Crossroads, he was not averse to taking silly telly roles to pay for Field Day's productions.

"People often refer to my career before The Crying Game as something which led up to that point. But I was very fulfilled in what I was doing. I did a lot of work in England and here. I was locked up in a room with Samuel Beckett, Donald McQuinney who was directing and Patrick McGee who is a truly great actor, for four weeks. I was with those guys. That was formative.

I've sat around in rooms with Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, Seamus Deane, Tom Paulin. It was a modern day salon of ideas. They were ordinary lads, but they said some profound things."

Beckett gave Rea a pearl to play with for his acting career.

"I was trying to ask what a particular line meant in a part and he said 'It is always ambiguous'. That was the beginning of modern acting for me. You don't have to tell a camera everything. It gets bored if you do and wants to look elsewhere."

He is protective of his private life. There are some documented facts. His wife is Dolours Price, who along with her sister was convicted for their part in the 1973 Old Bailey bombing. It is something he never talks about it, with every good reason. They have two children who he clearly adores.

"I would be on my feet in the night even before they started crying. When I tell women that they are amazed. They thought it was only a women's instinct. But I have had it too."

He is Belfast born and bred, a Protestant with a patriot's heart in other direction, he is a Nationalist. He did not wish to discuss politics in this particular interview. He did refer to one friend, a doctor, who has moved his very successful practice to Dublin from America.

"That is a act of patriotism. If you are allowed to have those anymore."

We talk about love which involves total surrender to another. Has he ever felt that?

"I have felt that for my kids. There is nothing like being a parent. Everyone I know who has resisted it, when it happens to them, feels the same. They should have done it years ago. They really should have. I have one friend who it has happened to - over the moon with it.

Has he ever felt that for another adult?
He thinks.

His saturnine face has earned him a reputation as morose. He would have dark times and a thin skin, but he is more than morose. His laughter is warm and real. He is attractive and looks 20 years younger than his age - 53. When he was 20 years younger he probably looked 20 years older.
He has attended four funerals in the past four weeks:
"Two of them were very old people. I am afraid of death, scared by it. I already don't know whether I exist or not. So dying really terrifies me."

It alarms him in much the same way as parties do, for similar reasons. We have a discussion about how gruelling parties are.
"You have to know who you are, if you don't you have nightmares. I remember going to one and being so terrified that I walked in and hugged the wall of the room, walked around the room and walked out again. Terrible."
He avoided the millennium scourge:
"I was in Belfast and my kids and all were there. I wished them all a happy new year and drove to Dublin. I just wanted to be on my own."

He is, by his own admission, a stranger to himself. If he doesn't know himself at all, how does he view himself?
"Through acting I suppose. Acting is way of making yourself exist."

What is the most important thing he has learned about love in his life?
"Oh God, I just cannot answer that. I think that in life you can move to a position of unconditional love and that is what my character in this film had for his wife. I would find it very difficult to allow someone I love to have a relationship with someone else, because I could not satisfy them."

He believes men have changed with regard to sex.
"They have changed with regard to satisfying women. But there is still some truth in Richard Pryor's line about orgasms: "I got mine baby, now you get yours?'"

Moving swiftly on, from sex to spirituality. What is his sense of it?
"Again, I don't know. But I would like to think there is something. I was in Belfast recently and I had to do this very difficult thing. An old woman said "I'll say a prayer for you'. I could feel the power of that prayer when I went to do the difficult task. I really could."

He has tears in his eyes as he recounts this.

When he leaves Stephen Rea will walk down Grafton Street, bodyguard-less. Some might recognise him, some might not, he doesn't mind.

"I could not imagine being without the freedom to go where I want and do what I want. I should say this but I do take some pride in not behaving in a star-like fashion. I believe some people in this business suffer from fame because they behave in a famous fashion.
"It's not my place to say it, but I don't want to act like that."

For such a distinctive face he does not get recognised all that often, when he does in Dublin, he does not shy away from it. He even likes it, for the simple reason that people react in a very different way.
"I was on a yellow box and a lorry let me out, the driver leaned over his wheel and pointed twice in my direction. A lot of people do that here. It's a great reaction. I've no problem with that."

The lack of bother and hassle from the general public comes down to this. If Stephen Rea is a stranger to himself, why should anyone else know who he is?
It seems to work, outside of office hours.