His miserable demeanour and bored expression
have become a bit of a trademark but, as found out, not
only is Stephen Rea an actor of extraordinary passion, he
has a lovely smile too. Portrait by Mitch Jenkins.
It is 3pm on January 28, 1998, in a converted church film
studio in Crouch End, north London. A bit of a bun fight
has erupted over space in a galley kitchen designed for
two midgets that is already half occupied by a dozen huge
tanks of drinking water rolling about on the floor. Squeezed
in there with them is metro 's photographer, Mitch Jenkins,
and his assistant, Graham, with their lights and other large
pieces of photographic paraphernalia. Then there is Linda,
the unit publicist for Stephen Rea's current film project,
Still Crazy; Morag, the make-up artist; Julian the
wardrobe master; Duncan the location manager; Ben the third
assistant, whose job appears to be to stay in touch with
the live set via a US Marines-style communications headset;
Into this mayhem wanders Stephen Rea, fresh from the set,
an explosive force of nature who has already produced some
of the most memorably tortured portrayals of Irish cinema
and theatre of the past 15 years. This kitchen is not big
enough for all this personality. Rea makes to leave. Linda,
Morag, Julian, Duncan and Ben make a rush for the exit,
too. Rea is left, pinned behind the door.
The rest of us smile and he looks down, embarrassed, at
his costume - he is kitted out to look like an ageing fortysomething
roue, still stranded in the past, circa 1974. He is wearing
a fraying green T-shirt, Cuban heels, earring, a crucifix
round his neck and an impressive fistful of chunky silver
rings. The style is loose, the face is loose and the hair
long and curly, which makes his heavily ringed eyes droop
He may resemble an unmade bed, but there is a sparkle in
his eye and he laughs at himself, savouring for a moment
his own awkwardness. Rea has often been accused of being
terminally morose. But that is nonsense. The man is giggling
inside. "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, ya know. It's just that it doesn't
come out right all the time." The famous deadpan expression
is evading him. That he is prepared to be photographed in
this kit says much for his self-possession.
Rea is here to talk about The Butcher Boy, Neil Jordan's
extraordinary film based on Patrick McCabe's novel of the
same name. Rea stars as a burnt-out shell of a drunk whose
malicious tauntings send his wife (Aisling O'Sullivan) to
the grave and his young son (Eamonn Owens) into the grip
of murderous obsessions. Rea's incarnation gives us a man
of few words, but one whose body portrays the broken passions
and visions, the pathetic childishness and selfishness of
this human wreckage lost in the loneliness of alcoholism.
"It's rather a wonderful book. An incredible book. I think
Neil said about it at the time that it blasted the Irish
novel into some new world. The prose that's coming out of
Ireland at the moment is incredible, ya know. Seamus Deane,
Dermot Healy. Really great, really staggering prose - wonderful.
And I remember being knocked out by The Butcher Boy.
My first experience of it was in New York when Patrick McCabe
read extracts from it. It was so exciting to hear him read
it, ya know..."
Rea talks literature with the passion and commitment of
a true Irishman. He has a ravenous appetite for poetry,
history, flesh and blood. But his drug of choice is acting.
And his director of choice is Neil Jordan.
Together they have made some startling films, beginning
with Angel in 1982 and followed by six more collaborations
including Company of Wolves in 1984, The Crying
Game in 1992 and Michael Collins in 1996. Jordan loves
him as an actor. "I'd seen him on stage before I did Angel
and I remember thinking he was like a movie actor, you know,
one of those grand and impassive stars like James Dean or
Robert Mitchum. I wrote Angel with him in mind. We've done
some very exciting collaborations and I write a lot of my
scripts with him in mind. He's got an extraordinary range
and he's always hugely intelligent in his work."
However, Rea has quietly amassed dozens of powerful performances
without Jordan: Ken Loach's Days of Hope for the
BBC, Mike Leigh's Four Days in July, Christy in Playboy
of the Western World at the National Theatre, and with
Kenneth Branagh in Nye Heron's film, Shadow of a Gunman,
to name a few.
But he still prefers working with Jordan. "I work with him
quite a lot but we don't talk about anything very much,
in a way. I never actually offer my services to Neil, ya
know. He knows I'm there. He doesn't exactly come to me.
He shuffles up to me and says 'Ya know. Whadda ya think?...Whadda
ya want?...Whadda ya want to be in Michael Collins?'
And I say 'I dunno, ya know'. And he says 'Well, ya godda
be in it, ya know'. So I say 'Yeah, yeah. I have to be in
it. For sure.'
"Every Irish actor wanted to be in it. And he thinks about
it and after a while he says, 'D'ya fancy Eamonn Broy?'
And I say 'Yeah, I think that's a good part...' So, you
see, it's always a bit like that. I love working with him,
so these parts are not things I debate over. We work well
and I don't question why. I know that his sense of narrative
is so highly developed. You don't have to tell the audience
anything. You just have to be there."
He says that they don't talk about much. But they do. You
can just imagine the two of them together, sequestered away
for long nights in Dublin pubs or passing weekends at the
races (they jointly own a race horse), trying to solve the
mysteries of the world, tackling vast ideas in their tentative
"ya know, well I dunno, for sure, well whadda ya think?"
Rea's awkwardness combined with his intelligence and his
elastic looks (he is 50) is sexy. He has hung on to his
adolescent curls and is unapologetic about cultivating a
redeeming innocence. So people like him. His much-vaunted
saturnine disposition is not a typical characteristic. True,
he can fall prey to Celtic melancholy. But on the whole
he shrugs and jokes his way wryly through life, proceeding
on the basis that people will like him. And usually they
do. But if they don't he doesn't waste time trying to win
them over - he is not the sort who feels he has anything
Taxi drivers and directors greet him with equal affection
because he has something more substantial than charm, a
"well, here I am" bumbling openness.
But he doesn't claim to have it all off pat. One week into
shooting Still Crazy, he is still not sure how funny
it is. His role is that of a condom salesman trying to get
a group of his mates back together to perform as the rock
band they were twenty years earlier. "The Seventies thing
is so funny with all these clothes. I wear extreme Cuban
heels. I never would wear them in life, ya know. They're
impossible to walk in. I was wearing that earring in the
photos too...I don't do that normally, it's all too much
"I think my part's comic...Well, I think it is. But it's
kinda nice, ya know. People who know each other, but never
really loved each other the first time round, getting together
again after they've all grown up a bit. It's a beautiful
time in life; I hope we get it right."
Once Still Crazy is in the can, he has another film
with Jordan lined up for this year, Graham Greene's The
End of the Affair. He has been asked to direct
a film based on Seamus Deane's book, Reading in the Dark
. He is directing a play and a documentary in Ireland and
there is another film in the pipeline, possibly for this
year too. "I work regularly. Sometimes I've only had three
days between films. I tried to stop last year. I said to
myself, 'I'm not gonna go out until the part is absolutely
perfect.' But the trouble is you go outta your mind."
For Rea, three months off would be a nightmare. He can nurse
his composure for only so long with omnivorous reading and
then he has to be back. He takes virtually no holidays and
the few he does take, with his wife and two young sons,
he can enjoy only if he knows he has a good part to go back
But he has had no trouble getting the parts ever since The
Crying Game played to packed cinemas in America, which
then sparked interest in him in Britain. As we all know,
a prophet is not honoured in his own country until he has
been honoured in America.
But as a Protestant born in Belfast and living in Dublin,
Rea will stir up controversy in his own country this year
when he directs a play in the North about the 1798 Irish
rebellion: "It was a wonderful moment, when there was some
kind of unity in Ireland. It was an enlightenment project,
not, as it has been intrepreted, a traditional Catholic
nationalist rebellion. The idea is to perform it in a Presbyterian
church just to shake up some cultural awareness that there
is a precedent for unity.
"This was the last united non-sectarian movement in Ireland,
and it occurred 200 years ago. We haven't moved on at all
since then. I think, with the horror of the past few weeks,
this is a good time to take another look at what these incredible
men and women did, believing not just in the rights of man,
but in the rights of minorities. It's time to remember them
with some respect."
In common with all actors, Rea would like his work to be
worthwhile , to achieve something enlightening on some level.
But not all his projects are didactic: "Well, Still Crazy
is just a bit of fun about getting another chance in life.
"I'm enjoying it, but I still don't know why I'm hooked
on acting. So much of movies is a mixture of boredom and
then extreme pressure. But it's my life and always has been.
It defines my life, ya know. I have other defining elements
in my life now too, with family and all that. But at the
same time, all my reflexes are to work."
When Rea married a convicted IRA terrorist in 1983, the
union, for a short time, threatened to end his career. Dolours
Price, one of two sisters convicted of the 1973 Old Bailey
bombing in which one person died and 175 were injured, was
freed on medical grounds in 1981 after serving eight years
of a life sentence.
Rea had managed to keep his wife and his sympathies well
away from public scrutiny, and his acting career ticking
over without touching any roles dealing with frontline contemporary
issues, in particular the Irish question. But after ten
years Rea was feeling confident enough to start playing
overtly political roles: an Irish journalist held hostage
in Beirut in Frank McGuinness's play Someone to Watch
Over Me; an IRA gunman involved in kidnapping a British
soldier in The Crying Game; now this memorial
to the 1798 rebellion.
Never involved in politics himself, he wishes to address
the issues of Ireland, not through simplistic moralising
but through the stories of individuals. "I am an actor and
that is what I can offer, to highlight for the Irish people
and for the rest of the world what is going on, the impact
on individuals." And that is the sum total of what he will
divulge on his political persona.
But he's happy to talk about acting for hours. Ever since
he was very young Rea has wanted to act. "No, there was
no one figure I admired. I think at that age, around six
or seven, kids don't recognise Laurence Olivier's acting
skills, they are just into the actual mechanism of a joke.
My kids act all the time and it's exactly what I used to
do. I was very extrovert. All through school and university
(he read English at Queen's University in Belfast) and then
at the Abbey Theatre School in Dublin I was the joker, the
"I think Neil has said it's a very well kept secret that
I can be funny. I'd like to do a comedy role in the theatre,
ya know. And some funny stuff in film too. I want to recapture
the comedy of my past, ya know, more Walter Matthau instead
of the Marlon Brando stuff."
The dark saddlebags under his eyes crease up and Rea lets
one of his half-hidden smiles escape. Of course the man's
a consummate actor, and the reluctant comic turn is possibly
all a show. But then again maybe we caught him in a good
mood. He certainly had a positive effect on mine.
The Butcher Boy was released yesterday across the
UK and Ireland.