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August 30, 2008

Stephen Rea: straight from the horse’s mouth

Stephen Rea finds it easier to act alongside a dead horse than talk about his personal life

Stephen Rea as Hobart Struther in Kicking a Dead Horse

Have you ever turned up to meet someone for a cup of tea and a chat, only to discover you’re the latest target in a vendetta? Let’s just say it isn’t nice.

Here I am at a theatre in downtown Manhattan, waiting to meet the actor Stephen Rea, and the press representative is trying to explain that our man may not be on top form.

Is the timing wrong? Rea has got to be on stage shortly for one of the final nights of Kicking a Dead Horse in New York. It’s the latest offering from the actor and playwright Sam Shepard, which opens at the Almeida Theatre in London this week, and Rea carries the whole play on his own. He is Hobart Struther, a washed-up New York art dealer who has recently fled to his old haunts out west only to find that the land that once gave him hope has lost all its charm. Is Rea also just a little jaded?

No. The problem is a recent thorny encounter with The New York Times. What occurred during this conversation I don’t know, but as a result his personal life is definitely not up for any sort of discussion.

This is a shame, since there’s potentially so much to discuss. The son of a Protestant bus driver from Belfast, Rea studied at Queen’s University in the city before moving to the Abbey Theatre School in Dublin. His talent showed early enough to attract the interest of the two directors who have given him his best roles: Shepard first wrote a play for him, Geography of a Horse Dreamer, in 1974, and Neil Jordan gave him his first lead in his own directorial debut, Angel, in 1982. He then cast Rea in his Oscar-nominated role as Fergus, the prevaricating IRA man in the 1992 film The Crying Game.

Off screen, Rea’s life is no less intriguing. He married Dolours Price, who served seven years of a life sentence for her involvement in a series of car bombings in London in 1973. They have two sons, but divorced in 2003.

Rea himself has been a champion of peace in Ireland: he was instrumental in founding Derry’s Field Day Theatre Company, which throughout the 1980s brought theatre to venues across Ireland. He has also played the Republican Ned Broy in Michael Collins, Neil Jordan’s 1996 biopic.

Finally, Rea arrives. His looks are famously hangdog: a thatch of dark, springy curls shadowing a roomy face. But Rea has lost weight, and, despite his 58 years, he looks youthful, in jeans, T-shirt and jacket.

His mood is less than sunny and I therefore tuck away the personal questions for later, and ask how an Irishman like him steps into the role of a Yank out West. I’ve read somewhere that his father once considered emigrating to the US, and I wonder, for a moment, if I should ask whether that lent any resonances. Best not.

His reply focuses on the quality of the play. He says it’s about a kind of theatre Shepard loves and Rea understands – Beckett, certainly, with flavours of J. M. Synge, perhaps, and powerful grave-digging imagery redolent of Hamlet. When the curtain goes up we encounter a Beckettian black comic scene: a horse lies dead on the stage, before it is its grave, and earth is spraying out of the hole by the spadeful. Eventually, Hobart Struther emerges.

The play is about the loss of American myths, but its themes stretch out wider and, eventually, when it seems Rea might actually be warming to me, he concedes that the work might indeed have a personal interest. “As Sam has said, the Irish were the first people through the Cumberland Gap [the main route west through the Appalachians]. The language Sam uses relates very much to a North of Ireland mode of speech. I think any of us can understand the sense of a loss of history, a loss of a sense of certainty about the mythology that sustains a society. That’s the kind of crisis that Hobart is embodying. He finishes up talking about the destruction of the buffalo, the top soil of the prairies being eroded.”

It’s a criticism that zeroes in on current concerns. “It’s about advanced capitalism,” Rea says, “about using up resources as fast as you can. And to sustain the lifestyle, you’re then moving on to invade sovereign nations. It’s also personal to Sam because he’s explored his own identity through the West before. He’s asking – what is this authenticity? And we all have those things, those mythological supports. We’ve got to reinvestigate them – certainly in Ireland we have to. I find that it’s an enormously brave play for that reason.”

Next year Rea is not only scheduled to perform in Ages of the Moon, another Shepard play, which will open at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, he’s also going to be in a Sebastian Barry play, Tales of Ballycumber, also at the Abbey.

Theatre used to be Rea’s forte, but the success of The Crying Game changed all that. “The size of its success completely surprised me. People still talk about,” he says. But he seems weary of contemplating it. “In many cases it’s the only thing that people remember me for over here. It was a cult classic, and how many of those can you be in?” He has said, of the difference between acting in theatre and on film, that they’re related, “like hurling and football”. He can sound, though, as if film pays his bills and theatre feeds his soul: “I’m doing more acting tonight than I would do in six movies. But it’s a different kind of acting . . .”

As soon as he’s finished in New York, he is off to West Cork to do some scenes for Neil Jordan’s new film, Ondine. Very much in Jordan’s vein, the film blends grit and myth, with a fisherman (Colin Farrell) netting a mermaid, Ondine, who then comes to inhabit the local town and shake up lives. “I play the priest,” Rea says. “The fisherman is an alcoholic, and there’s no Alcoholics Anonymous, so he comes into confession to talk about his condition.”

Rea says this small task will cost him only five or six days. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Rea crops up regularly on our screen. In fact, he may be appearing in so much that he can’t remember what he’s just done. Several websites report that he is starring in an adaptation of Rick Moody’s book Purple America, which is supposedly for release next year. He’s never heard of it. “I forget things though . . .”

Of course, that might also be one of the evils of web misinformation. And I mean evil. The question about Purple Americaalready has him suspicious, and when I ask him if, as one internet fount of untruths currently has it, he was born Graham Rea, he finally sees red. “No, no, no,” he moans. “It’s untrue. I have no idea where these things come from. They say I went to a school I didn’t go to, they say I have a daughter – I haven’t got a daughter. Where does this stuff come from?”

A cooling pause ensues, a little tentative smiling, and then I think, to hell with it. “Stephen. I wondered if I could ask a question about your personal life?

“I’m not going to talk about my personal life,” he says (and a few other things best left unprinted).

A few minutes later, after some efforts at repairing the mood, we say our farewells. Rea gets up, shakes my hand – he even smiles – and then he bolts out the door like his life depends on it.

Kicking a Dead Horse, Almeida Theatre, London N1 (www.almeida.co.uk 020-7359 4404), Fri-Sep 20 2008

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