The Arts Show returns with a special conversation with actor Colm Meaney about his life and career, which includes roles in The Commitments, Star Trek and The Journey.
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I've come about the ad.
In a career spanning 30 years,
Colm Meaney is a man for all screens, large and small.
He's appeared in over 65 films -
but it could all have been so very different.
"Do you really want to be a fisherman?"
Like, "Absolutely, Dad, yeah,"
and I'm, you know, lying through my teeth.
He speaks frankly about his politics...
My politics that started to form in my teens were very much left-leaning
and very much of... I mean,
I actually was a member of the Internationalists.
..and gives us his personal take on playing Martin McGuinness.
You know, iconic figures like that, people...
You know, you have to make an attempt to look like them
and you have to make an attempt to sound like them,
but the important thing is getting the character right,
the inner...you know, the inner person.
That's the first time you've said "we".
Colm was born in Dublin in 1953.
The third of four boys,
he grew up in a post-war housing estate in Finglas.
I think we moved to the house the year I was born
so it was one of the, you know,
the housing estates that were built after the Second World War,
built by the Corporation and... You know, my dad...
It was what they call a purchase house
so he was paying kind of rent towards the...
I remember many years later when the house became his, he was so happy.
-It was a big deal.
-Yeah, it was a big deal.
So where did it start? Where did the acting bug begin?
Oh... Early. Very early.
Like, in my teens, early teens,
I kind of had this inkling that I wanted to be an actor -
and in Dublin, in those days, you know,
there weren't many opportunities,
so it was kind of hard to figure out how to go about it.
And what were those days you're talking about?
-Late '60s, early '70s.
And what kind of household were you coming from?
-Was it a theatre household?
-No, no, not at all.
I mean, we'd go to the theatre once a year, usually.
My dad used to take us to see the...
The Abbey used to do a pantomime sa Ghaeilge
in Irish, every year
and we would go see that.
That was about the extent of our theatre-going.
-And what did he do and what did your mum do?
-He delivered bread.
He was a bread man for Johnston, Mooney and O'Brien.
It was the big bread company in Dublin.
And what did he make of you becoming an actor?
He was completely baffled by it, you know. It was like, "What?"
But I'd kind of baffled him a few times before that.
I was number three, you know, and I think he just sort of saw me as,
"This guy's going to break me," you know?!
Cos I... In secondary school...
I had got into a little bit of trouble, political trouble,
because we'd tried to form a secondary school students' union.
Because the Christian Brothers
didn't take kindly to, you know, Communist propaganda in the school
so they were expelled.
I was in fifth year, they were in sixth.
The sixth years were expelled
and I knew if I stayed I would be expelled.
So I kind of pre-empted that
by one day seeing an ad in the paper for...
The government had set up a fishery training school
in Moville in Donegal.
I remember sitting there with my dad, late at night,
the fire going down, you know, and saying to him...
I always remember him saying to me, "You what? A fisherman?
"Do you really want to be a fisherman?
Like, "Absolutely, dad, yeah,"
and I'm, you know, lying through my teeth.
-So you became a trawlerman?
-So I went off to be a fisherman, yeah.
I just went to the school,
and then I'd fish for about ten minutes in Howth, you know,
before I went into the Abbey School.
In 1971, Colm's acting career began
with a place in the Abbey Theatre School.
I was in the school for two years,
and in the course of that two years you also did, you know, small parts,
walk-on parts, ASM - assistant stage manager - doing the props,
all that sort of thing, on the main stage productions
and the productions in the Peacock.
So it was more like kind of an apprenticeship,
as well as going to school.
It was actually a really, really good system.
It doesn't exist any more, cos they moved to the school out
to...initially Trinity, and now I think it's The Lir -
but they're much more kind of academically focused.
So it was a really good learning experience
and a really good way to come into the business, I feel -
and I was very fortunate,
cos I went from the Abbey School into the Abbey Company.
I was offered a year's contract in the Abbey Company.
So it immediately solved my Equity problem -
I immediately became a member of Equity.
So, it was theatre.
-That was very much theatre that you were focused on then?
And then more theatre in London?
Yeah. Yeah, I moved to London.
I worked... I actually found...
I really feel I found myself as an actor
when I was working in London
cos I got involved with a company called 7:84.
7% of the population own 84% of the wealth.
So it was a touring company based in London,
and there was a Scottish company, as well.
They were quite radical, weren't they?
-They were... Radical? Socialists.
Is that considered radical nowadays?
Well, yeah, we were socialists.
Yeah, it was a left-wing touring theatre company.
Wonderful work, and it was like...
The idea was to create a theatre
that you could bring into, like, you know, working men's clubs
or theatres, or - it could go anywhere,
and always with music.
And John McGrath founded that company
and was the writer of that company, and John McGrath was a genius.
You know, he was an amazing writer, wonderful writer,
and a wonderful man.
I had the privilege of spending a number of years there with John
as a member of the company.
What we'd do is we'd research an idea to do a show,
a subject to do a show about
and then we'd knock it round for a week or two
and then John would go away and write the play.
So we had a standing company of, like, six actors and four musicians.
But prior to that, John originally did Z Cars, as well.
In his previous incarnation he was a film and TV writer.
Originally plays, but became films.
The Bofors Gun.
You're a disgusting, obscene pig, Featherstone.
Likewise all cockneys.
I never knew one who had a ha'p'orth of taste.
The Reckoning, Nicol Williamson.
So, John was a hugely successful writer
before he decided to give all that up and just concentrate on this.
And then you went the other way -
cos your first break, then, on the TV was Z Cars.
Yeah, well, the first...
It was one of the first TV jobs I did in England.
It was the final episode of Z Cars. Yeah.
-The very final...!
-That's a bit unfortunate.
No, no, John just wanted...
He just got everyone in the company to be in the final episode.
God giveth and he taketh away. Isn't that so?
You have the ultimate theological argument - a knife.
Look, I'm bursting. Do you mind if I...?
So, he's given us something and he's taken it away from you.
So, Z Cars kind of kick-started...
-Did it kick-start a kind of love of TV?
-No, no, no. Very little.
I did probably... I don't know what year that was.
It was maybe '79 or '80,
but I did maybe two or three more TV jobs in England before...
Then I went to New York in '82.
Making the Big Apple his new home,
he married Dublin-born actress Bairbre Dowling.
What age would you have been then?
-I was about 27, 28, something like that.
So was it just that sense of,
"There's somewhere else I want to go to"?
Well, I was visiting New York and I had friends in New York,
going back and forth for about three years before I actually moved.
And also my first wife was living there at the time,
so I was back and forth visiting her.
And then we decided to get married, which we did in '82,
and then the move to New York
seemed like a natural thing to do, you know.
I never really had a plan.
I never really had... and in this business,
if you do have a plan, you're mad, you know,
cos as soon as you decide to turn left,
something will make you turn right.
You know, so I never really had a plan in my head.
No, I went to New York to continue working in the theatre.
You know, if TV or film work came up, great.
But after five years, no film offers came his way.
Theatre and occasional television roles were the only work available.
But in 1987, one TV show would change his fortunes forever.
These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.
I never watched Star Trek before I did it.
I mean, I'm sorry... I was...
Even back in William Shatner's day?
No, no. I was never... My dad was a huge science-fiction fan. I wasn't.
To boldly go where no-one has gone before.
But you started off in Star Trek,
-was it as a kind of unnamed character?
-And then found yourself...
-Really involved, yeah.
-..as part of the crew of the spin-off, Deep Space Nine.
And that's... That's an amazing achievement.
You can't go sneaking up on someone like that, friend!
It's an Alpha Quadrant rule.
No, I, well, what happened was... I mean, I... I was... We were...
young, knocking around, doing auditions,
and I auditioned for the pilot of Next Generation,
and they liked me and wanted to use me,
and were thinking about me for, you know, a lot of various parts.
Living and working in capitalist America
didn't change his socialist convictions,
nor his support for Sinn Fein,
which he feels is sometimes misunderstood.
I always felt...
..and this is, this is something I find hard to explain to people.
Because people automatically assume,
because you're for Sinn Fein, you're a nationalist.
I'm not really a nationalist, I'm an internationalist.
You know, I've always been an internationalist.
My politics that started to form in my teens
were very much left-leaning and very much -
I mean, I actually was a member of the Internationalists
in Trinity College, as well,
and they were a Maoist organisation, you know?
I wasn't... It was very brief, but, I mean,
they were interesting guys at Trinity College in the late '60s.
So I always felt... I mean,
I always felt internationalism was the way forward,
and as a leftist, I joined Sinn Fein in the late '60s -
and the split, I mean, if I had still been a member
at the time of the split, I probably...
I'm sure I would have gone with official Sinn Fein.
Because that would be my... That's where my sympathies lie.
That's... That was my politics.
And so when I went to England, when I went to America, I didn't...
I never really gravitated towards the emigre community.
You know, not... I mean, it wasn't a choice,
it just wasn't something I actively pursued,
to find, you know, Irish guys and Irish pubs
and to...make it like it is at home.
I wanted to explore where I was, you know?
I wanted to be, like, I'm in a different place,
a different country, I want to live like...
people live there.
That's not to say I wouldn't want to go and see
the all-Ireland final, or I wouldn't want to, you know...
Certain occasions were very special, that you try to keep...
keep a part of your calendar, or whatever.
But I was very much wanting to be...
to explore the world.
And I suppose, because of that,
that may have given me a different perspective on Ireland.
Having left Ireland, that I kind of looked...
at Ireland, then, through that lens. Through the lens of...
you know, someone who has experienced a different culture
and a different country.
Even though you're an Irish actor,
you have been able to be in many different films,
and many different genres of films, from big-budget Die Hard 2,
to something very intimate like Parked.
I've nowhere else, either, except me car.
Glad to meet you, Fred.
I didn't want to be considered the "Irish actor", you know?
I want to... I'm an actor. And I think it's great that today,
you have much more fluidity in that, you know what I mean?
Except, I have to say, in the UK.
The UK still, you know, I mean...
I've been involved in projects where I've...where I've...
you know, played English accents.
They don't, they're very...
very unsure about it, you know what I mean?
-They... "But he's Irish!" You know?
-I mean, I've heard that so many times.
Whereas in America,
a foreign actor playing an American accent is not a problem.
I mean, you see, like, so many English actors
are playing American, you know,
Daniel Craig, Tom Hardy, all these guys.
No problem. Sure, play American - and the same for me, it was...
I mean, that's one of the reasons I liked and wanted to be in America.
I did find that at the time, if I'd stayed in England,
I would have been the "Irish actor",
whereas, when I went to America, I had more...
-"The land of opportunity!" You know.
SHE LAUGHS Good American accent, as well!
-She sure is beautiful.
Sunsets are beautiful. Newborn babies are beautiful.
This, this is fucking spectacular.
-But you've been in some of my favourite TV programmes.
-With Pierce Brosnan.
-With Pierce, yeah, yeah, yeah.
The painting's been hanging in the Moscow museum
for the past 300 years, mate.
I had... That episode, that episode of Remington Steele,
I remember we were at the bar, I was playing, I was a baddie again.
Anyway, he's... We're having a conversation and it turns nasty.
Me and Pierce. And the script was that I turn and smack him.
-And I thought...
-That beautiful face?
-Yeah, I know.
-You can't smack that beautiful face!
Beautiful Pierce, yeah. I know.
Yeah, yeah, he took a beating very well. But...
I decided that, you know, in a crowded public bar,
that you wouldn't...you wouldn't swing at a guy, you know?
You'd probably just nut him, you know?
So I decided to head-butt him, and...
Being a young actor, and not realising
that by the time the day was over, I had done that...
about 86 times.
Cos, you know, filming from the wide,
coming in over my shoulder and then over his shoulder, so I'm going...
-Mm! Mm! And pulling it...
-And are you making physical contact?
Oh, no, so I was thinking about Pierce. It's you, sorry.
-Pierce was fine!
So, you know, I'm pulling it all the time.
So I'm just going like that, you know.
And I woke up the next morning and I couldn't,
I felt like I had glandular fever or something,
I couldn't move my head, my neck was killing me.
And so I... That was a lesson learned, you know?
Don't come up with good ideas like that about head-butting people.
If I'd thrown a punch it would have been fine!
You didn't do what I asked.
Do you feel that, if you look at your career,
have you been typecast?
When I say someone's finished, they're finished.
You know, when I first started on Star Trek,
there was... There was a danger.
I mean, you always feel that there's a danger,
with such a high-profile show like that,
that you're going to be, you know, just that.
But what actually ended up happening was quite interesting,
was I became these, like, two different people.
I had two different careers.
I was like, I had my, you know,
Star Trek fans who knew you from that show
and you did that show,
and then, you know, I was doing other, you know,
films independent of that, and people who knew those films
didn't even know you were in Star Trek.
# For goodness' sake
# I got the hippy hippy shakes... #
In 1991, the first of a series of films about life
in working-class Dublin brought him back to Ireland.
He's obviously been a huge influence in the work that you've got
and the character of Jimmy Rabbitte Sr, that you inhabited.
"Have you got soul?
"If so, the world's hardest-working band is looking for you.
"Contact J Rabbitte. Rednecks and Southsiders need not apply."
Was that, again, one of those moments where you were aware
of Roddy Doyle's work, you were aware of the Barrytown Trilogy,
-No. No, not at all.
-.."This is something I can do"?
And I...you know, it's one of those things that could very easily
not have happened at all, because...the...
I, the year before we did The Commitments,
I worked with Alan Parker in Los Angeles.
We did a film called Come See The Paradise.
It was about the internment of Japanese-Americans
during the Second World War. It's a beautiful film.
While we were doing that, Alan said to me
that he'd just got the rights to this book
that hadn't been published yet.
It was set in Dublin, it was called The Commitments,
and he said he loved it and he really wanted to do it,
and, you know...
You kind of hear these things in this business all the time.
You know, this is going to happen, that's happening, you know...
-And then it goes nowhere.
-Various things are going to be made,
and then they never happen.
So you always take it with a grain of salt, you know?
And even from Alan, I kind of said, "OK, Alan,"
and thought, "Yeah, we'll see."
And within six months, he had it up, he had it set up.
And he brought me back to Dublin to do it.
And Alan was very adamant that he would only use people
from Dublin, who lived in Dublin, who...
I mean, he didn't want any names in the film at all.
And you already had traction, though. I mean, you...
Yeah, so I was surprised that he brought me -
but I was the only one who, that he was prepared to do it for.
Which was very nice of him.
And what that did for me was it kind of...
Cos I hadn't worked in Ireland -
at this stage it was, like, more than 10 years
since I'd worked, since I'd spent time in Ireland, even,
like, any length of time.
So it was lovely to come back and do that.
It was just, I mean, it really reconnected me with Ireland,
and, you know, then, you know...
The Snapper after that, which was Stephen Frears,
a different director.
Stephen did the last films, The Snapper and The Van, then,
and, you know, I think without The Commitments,
I probably wouldn't have done The Snapper, you know?
Yeah. Yeah, two arms, two legs and a head. Right!
-And the dialogue is so whip-smart...
Roddy's a genius.
There's a scene where you're in the pub, with two pints and a man
and they're talking about a baby...
Oh, the baby's just been born, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Is that a turkey or a baby?
It's a baby!
-That's a good-sized baby.
-It is, but, isn't it?
Small turkey, though.
So many movies.
Are there favourite, standout moments for you?
Well, you know, the...
The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van were...
That was a great period of time for me,
because, you know, to get the chance to play the same character
in three different films, even though he had a different name
in each film. That was because of legal and copyright things,
or something, I don't know.
-But he was Jimmy Rabbitte Sr to all of us.
-He was really... Yeah.
-Are you Mr Rabbitte?
I've come about the ad.
You normally don't get to play the same character
three times in a film, unless it's, you know,
an action-adventure, comic book, or something like that.
So this was... It was kind of a unique opportunity for me -
and there were so many great moments in those films, you know?
Because Roddy's writing is just peppered with, you know, gems.
-I've only got £2.
Did you see what he done?
One I always remember was from The Commitments,
was when I'm asking...
when I first meet Joey The Lips.
Unforgettably played by Johnny Murphy.
Tell me something, Joey.
In all the time that you were in Graceland,
did you ever...?
Did you ever see Elvis
messing around with drugs?
I knew it.
I always said...
and you, you malignant little bastard!
The choice of those words was just...
masterful, you know what I mean? And that's Roddy, you know?
He's just... It's just...
His choice of, of...
of descriptive words and swear words are always immaculate.
Suppose a ride is out of the question?
Hang on till I get this line done.
And what about a romcom?
Shall we get you in a romantic role, romantic lead?
People just don't see me that way, I'm afraid.
I'd love to do a romcom.
You know, it's interesting, I mean,
I've always been a character actor, even as a kid, I was like...
I wasn't considered the, you know, the juvenile lead.
You know, I was the character guy, always,
and there's great satisfaction in that, in some ways.
His most recent characterisation
has been Martin McGuinness in The Journey.
And this is Martin McGuinness,
former chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army.
Were you apprehensive at all about playing Martin McGuinness?
Not... People have asked me this a number of times. Not really.
I mean, I met Martin, just the once.
I supported his campaign for president in 2011 and...
you know, spent a good part of the evening with him,
and it was delightful.
I mean, he was a delightful man, wonderful company,
and you do stop to think,
when you're asked to play a real-life person -
the only time I've done it before was,
I played Don Revie in a film called The Damned United,
and that was a bit of a...
You know, cos people, you know,
iconic figures like that, people, you know...
You have to make an attempt to look like them
and you have to make an attempt to sound like them,
but the important thing is getting the character right, the inner...
you know, the inner person.
For Leeds to win the First Division title,
and me to be named English Manager Of The Year
really is a dream come true.
When you come to a film, a drama,
an impersonation isn't what you're looking for.
I mean, impersonation is fine for three or four minutes, you know?
But to tell the story, which is a drama,
which is, you know, fiction, it's invented,
you have to go for the emotional...
13 innocent people, shot in the back, most of them!
The next day, we had so many volunteers, we couldn't cope.
They were queueing round the block to join us.
-And you had your licence to kill.
-We were fighting a civil war!
If it hadn't been well-written, I would have had problems,
you know, I would have, you know, I would have had to sort of...
really kind of dig deep to find who this man was.
Would you still had taken the part,
-if you hadn't liked the script as much?
My initial reaction was it might be a slightly kind of dry,
political treatise, you know?
But once I started reading it, I sat down to read it,
and I couldn't put it down.
I just read it straight through in one sitting, you know? And it...
You know, made me laugh,
and by the end, it had me in tears.
It was just a beautiful piece of writing, and...
about, you know, such a significant event
and extraordinary characters.
It was a very clever device, in the first place,
to put the two guys in the car together
and have the outside eye on them, as it were.
We had a civil war.
And this is our only opportunity
for both sides to walk away
with heads held high.
To build something that will last at least for our lifetimes.
-When you were making the film, Martin McGuinness was alive.
He has passed away now,
-so he hasn't had the chance to see the finished film.
put the film into a different light for you?
Well, no, just, it's a real regret for me, personally,
because I'm sure he would have had
some very, very wry, funny comments to make about it, you know?
Which I would have appreciated very much.
So, just from a personal point of view, it's a real...
..shame, that he didn't get to see it.
You know, as far...as far as the...
I mean, I'd love to have...
I mean, from a personal point of view,
but also from a political point of view,
I'd love to have known his thoughts on it, you know?
It would have been... It would have been extremely interesting.
-Because... Did that journey actually happen?
So it's entirely fictional?
Well, it's not entirely fictional.
It's an imagining of what could have happened.
I mean, basically, because...
The issue in the picture is,
how did these guys get from where they were to where they got to?
We say never!
You know, the stakes were very high.
I mean, for me personally, it's...it's...
You know, I care deeply about...
..the characters and the country.
And, so, yeah, it was...I felt that.
When we made this film, it was kind of like,
this is something that happened in '06, and it was amazing -
and look at these two figures who were, you know, polar opposites,
managed to travel that distance to be able to work together.
Not an inch and no surrender.
And it's an inspirational story for...
for any conflict situation, you know?
And we sort of saw it as...
Hopefully, that would make it universal,
that it would be for conflict situations
around the world, you know?
That if it could be done here, it could be done anywhere, you know?
So, you know, without wanting to sound pretentious or presumptuous,
you would hope that a film like this, that actually kind of...
..is, you know, is in praise of compromise,
you'd hope that would have some influence on...
on the players who are here today.
How can we even contemplate doing this?
That's the first time you've said "we".
And long may it continue...
..to be a character actor.
Colm Meaney, it has been a pleasure talking to you.
Thank you for your time.
Same here. Thank you so much.