Profile: Stephen Rea
The London Times Play section, June 22 - 28, 2002
Article by Ian Nathan

Photo by Mitch Jenkins

"Hangdog, sullen, saturnine, terminally morose and an unmade bed are but a handful of terms used to describe the slack-jowled face of Stephen Rea. It is an unforgettable phizog, oozing character and a crumpled vulnerability. If ever a real-life version of Deputy Dawg is filmed there would be little need for special effects. Right there in the saddlebag eyes and thoroughbred creases dwells the screen persona of one of Irish acting's most unsung treasures, the Celtic melancholy that has poured truthfully through the likes of Angel (1982), Interview with the Vampire (1994) and Michael Collins (1996). It is also a mug highly adaptable for a spot of Euro-villainy; Rea most recently donned a Catholic smock to play Cardinal Richelieu in The Musketeer.

Except he is not at all miserable. Rea likes to think of himself as happy, sauntering his way through the acting career that he always wanted with a shrugging wryness and an easy smile. It is something that the camera lens refuses to acknowledge.

'People ask me to smile for the camera, but somehow it always comes out gloomy,' he says. 'Hangdog's the word people use. I do smile, you know. It's just that it doesn't come out right all the time.' He would love to remind us that he has done comedy quite successfully - Bad Behaviour (1993), the sad rockers reunited silliness of Still Crazy (1998) - but it is the gender-warping IRA drama The Crying Game (1992) that sticks out on his CV.

Neil Jordan's film was a small, highly unusual love story that became the chattering point of dinner parties from Preston to Poughkeepsie. Rea gained an Oscar nomination and 'hangdog' was suddenly the in-look for Hollywood, launching him on to a whole new stage. It signalled a coming-of-age both for him and his director of preference Jordan.

The pair are nigh-on inseparable. They have made eight films together, with Jordan utilising Rea's talents as everything from a loquacious bloodsucker (Interview with the Vampire) to the cuckold of the excellent The End of the Affair (1999).

'I'd seen him on stage before I did Angel', Jordan has said of his favorite actor, 'and I remember thinking he was like a movie actor, you know, one of those grand and impassive stars such as James Dean or Robert Mitchum. I wrote Angel with him in mind. He has an extraordinary range.'

The stardom of The Crying Game provided a rude jolt for Rea. He was an actor not a star, a quietly spoken Belfast-born dreamer who read English at Queen's University and, lubricated by a pint of Guinness, was happy to wax for hours on literature, poetry and history. While he could drift through the inevitable procession of meet-and-greets the cocktail parties, it was the sudden press scrutiny over his private life that was so difficult to deal with.

The Protestant Rea is married to Dolours Price, who served seven years of a life sentence for participating in the IRA car bombing outside the Old Bailey in 1973 and was released in 1981 on medical grounds. This is a reality that ran uncomfortably close to the subject matter of the movie he was busy promoting. He had to learn quickly and has maintained a fierce silence over all matters relating to his family.

As much as he wearily protests that his is just an actor, this is an actor who had gone from Belfast to train for the stage at Abbey Theatre School in Dublin and then to films teeming with political content. There is no denying that the Troubles have cast a long shadow over his work and he has recognized this fact. 'I am an actor and that is what I can offer.' runs the party line, 'to highlight for the Irish people and for the rest of the world what is going on, the impact on individuals.'

The self-confessed workaholic rarely takes holidays and cannot bear those long thespian lay-offs that can drift into months. So he doesn't stop, directing documentaries between movies and picking up many varied roles between Jordan's regular output. They always lean toward the Irish sensibility, naturally; he has just completed the small-town drama Evelyn for Pierce Brosnan's Irish DreamTime and, if they can get clearance from the estate, there is talk of him playing Leopold Bloom in a screen version of Joyce's Ulysses. And if anyone could carry that role off Rea can. It's written all over his face."

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