From US
March 1994
Top of His Game
By Juliann Garey
Photos Alan Strutt.

Stephen Rea has pulled out all the clothes in the tiny closet in his trailer - navy pin stripes, tropical wool blends, dark silky shirts - and he's displaying them with conspiritorial glee, as if it's all a mistake and someone might come in and take them away. "Three suits and an overcoat," he says, scrunching up the hound-dog furrows on his forehead and not quite trusting his good fortune. "I don't normally get good wardrobe." He ponders this for a moment and offers one of his quiet, wry pronouncements. "I usually play people from the non-wardrobe side of the tracks."

It was his stunning, Oscar-nominated performance as Fergus, the world-weary IRA terrorist in the surprise smash The Crying Game, that brought Rea to this trailer on a Hollywood studio lot squarely on the wardrobe side of the tracks. He's in L.A. to shoot Angie, a comedy-drama starring Geena Davis and directed by Martha Coolidge (Rambling Rose). After decades of work in a traveling Irish theater company and in small European films - including Danny Boy and The Company of Wolves, both directed by The Crying Game's Neil Jordan - Rea, 51, has been "discovered" in the States, and he and Hollywood are sniffing each other out like two unacquainted but friendly dogs in a park.

"America is a strange and wonderful place," says Rea. "And I suppose it can exact strange things, too."

What is exacted from him during the frenzy of press surrounding The Crying Game nearly put Rea over the edge. He was doing eight shows a week in the Broadway play Someone Who'll Watch Over Me when The Crying Game became the most talked-about movie of '92. "I don't know how I did it," he says. "I thought I was going to die by the time we finished." It was exhilarating - a film he cared deeply about, by a director with whom he'd worked twice before, was the toast of the town.

It was also infuriating, because Rea, who was born and raised in Belfast and still lives there, endured endless inquiries into his personal life, fueled by The Crying Game's subject matter (the IRA element, not the secret). More than 20 years ago, his wife, Dolours Price, began serving eight years for IRA-related car bombings. She and Rea weren't together then, and now they and their sons, Oscar, 3, and Danny, 5, live quiet, nonpolitical lives. But that didn't stop the questions. And Rea loathed dwelling on the subject. "The greatest thing about Angie," he says, "is, no one can ask me about the IRA."

On the soundstage where Angie is shooting, as Coolidge and Davis look on, Rea attempts to cram a six-inch stack of saltines into his gaping mouth. On what is supposed to be his last day on the set, they're reshooting the scene - originally filmed in New York's Metropolitan Museum - in which Rea, playing Noel, a lawyer with an artist's soul and a twisted sense of humor, meets a nauseated Angie (Davis), a pregnant woman from Brooklyn who opts not to marry her boyfriend. The crackers are Angie's, and she is about to get thrown out of the Met for eating, Noel rushes, unwanted, to her aid.

It's the sixth take, and the cracker tower has grown with each one. Rea angles the stack to clear his teeth and gets it in. But now he has to say his line. The first word sends a flurry of crumbs spewing onto Davis and the director into a fit of laughter. First Jaye Davidson and now this: Is there nothing Stephen Rea won't do for his art?

When he was first offered the part of Noel, Rea turned it down. "I liked Martha (Coolidge), and I like Geena. The problem was, the character (a yuppie Jewish lawyer) was only a function of the narrative," he recalls. "The part was very colorless and kind of insipid." But Coolidge and the film's producer, Larry Brezner, wanted Rea. "He's very honest in his work - very warm, innately funny, " says Coolidge. Screenwriter Todd Graff was willing to completely rework the role to suit him. "The part became much funnier, it got Rea-ified," Graff says. And in the end, they were happier with the script as a result of Rea's input. "Stephen brought us much more than we had, " says Brezner.

What they didn't quite expect was the intangible yet undeniable Rea sex appeal. Women love him; men don't get it. "I mean, look at him, he's not exactly...," says Brezner, throwing up his hands. "But no matter who you turn to on the set, women have this thing for him. He had his wife and kids visiting, and you've never seen such envy. I heard comments like, "I'd even live in Belfast.'"

Rea steps out of his cool, dark trailer into the brash L.A. sun and surveys the activity on the studio lot. "It's weird, Hollywood, isn't it," he says, squinting and raising one hand to shade his pale face. "All these people walking around in shorts with no brains." He's kidding, of course - sort of. Rea admits that though he loves America, he's had trouble getting a handle on L.A. "I can't find it," he says. "The thing I love about New York is, you walk out the door, and it's all right there."

As he joins the cast and crew for a barbeque, Rea tries to put his observations of America into perspective. After living in L.A. for a couple of months, he's learned the following: "Americans are different from any other people." Uh-huh. How? "They don't mind jogging. They let it all hang out." And here Rea tells a story about a man exercising on a Malibu beach. "He was doing this," he says, putting his hands on his hips and jerking his head to each side, his shaggy hair narrowly escaping the barbecue sauce on his plate. "I find it unnerving. After all, it's not your gym, it's the Pacific Ocean." Americans, he says, "eat so much." He indicates the huge and varied pile of red meat in front of him. "It has a lot to do with the land of plenty."

In Rea's case, the "plenty" has come in the form of endless work in American films. After Angie, he plays a journalist in Princess Caraboo, a period romance starring Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline. And he's about to start what he calls "Neil's thing" (a little project known in Hollywood as Interview with the Vampire, directed by Neil Jordan). He's playing the vampire Santiago, sidekick to Tom Cruise's Lestat, and his "wardrobe" this time is the tracks, but of the Other Side - less a question of clothing than of prosthetics. "I had a plaster cast made of my face," he says. "That gives you a certain amount of time to examine your conscience." Long pause. "I came out OK."

And after appearing as his first real villain in Interview, he'll go on to play a not-very-nice photographer in Robert Altman's satiric expose of the fashion world, Pret a Porter. "Yep," Rea says, and from his tone it's clear another of his pronouncements is on its way. "I'm going to be a s--- for Bob Altman."

After six hours of shoving saltines into his mouth, Rea has had about all the Hollywood glamour he can stand for one day. When he spots Brezner yukking it up with the crew, he assumes a quintessential pose - slumped shoulders, right hand tucked under his left armpit, left palm flat against his cheek - and walks over. He looks distressed. But then again, this is the way Rea always looks. "What happens if we don't finish today?" he asks. "Then we'll finish tomorrow," Brezner says. Rea clenches both fists, scrunches his face up and jumps into the air, throwing a cartoon micro-tantrum. His contribution to Angie was supposed to be quick; they're now midway into the 12th week of "quick" - "twice as long," Rea says, "as it took to shoot The Crying Game." But this is Hollywood, and as Rea has discovered, it's a different game entirely.