Rea of the Year
From The Times
February 21, 1998
By Joanna Pitman

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; and me.

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 like saddlebags.

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?" way.

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 to prove.

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 bother.

"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 to.

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 comic.

"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.