Brief Encounter With … Con O'NeillDate: 15 May 2011
Best known for his portrayal of Joe Meek in the stage and film version of Telstar and for his Lawrence Olivier Award-winning role of Mickey in Willy Russell's Blood Brothers, actor Con O’Neill is appearing at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. Here, he talks to us about his break into acting, playing Eddie Carbone and why he’s more a groin man than a head man.
How did you get started as an actor?
I was 17 or 18 and in an 80’s covers band in Liverpool called Strike and as we were splitting up, the Everyman (Theatre) were casting for new musical, You’ll Never Walk Alone. In it was a band and one of the characters was a singer so I went along to audition. I audaciously wrote my own audition speech. It was based on a true story about a boy banned by his parents from watching Coronation Street when the Deidre/Ken/ Mike love triangle was a major storyline so went on the rampage with a hatchet. I wrote a sadomasochistic monologue about that. Got the part.
And you’ve been known for your intense performances ever since, including Blood Brothers?
I knew Bill (Kenwright) was an Everton Fan and I walked in the audition with an Everton hat on or something truly naff like that and sang "Sunday Afternoon." After I sang Bill and I chatted and a few days later he offered me the part. He’d never seen me act. I think he must have just got a feeling from me. The song I sang is a cracking song to show your emotional range.
So that was it? After that you thought, yes, this acting lark’s for me?
This is going to sound so untrue but it’s probably only in the last five years that I’ve gone, this is what I do for a living. Prior to Telstar and going through the whole journey of doing the play and then the movie, I always felt I was going to get caught out. Like they were going to say, "he can’t act or sing."
You have covered all three but do you prefer Film, Television or the stage?
Always stage. I love doing film and TV but they don’t rehearse anymore and I don’t understand why. The problem with so many of those productions is there’s a lack of bravery, there’s a pressure to be mundane.
What is it about A View From The Bridge and the part of Eddie that attracted you?
I was blessed to go and see Brian Dennehy in Death of a Salesman and very soon after, Ian Glenn in The Crucible; great productions. Then I went away and read Miller. It’s like gold in your mouth. There’s no fat, no excess, he’s very precise. You can’t read this play and not want to do it? Not this part. It’s mental. I also get this thing when I read something; if it’s not going to challenge me or frighten me I really don’t see the point in doing it. It’s not for the money.
Some actors want the safer path, what is it that drives you to take on the difficult roles, to be challenged as you do?
I feel blessed to be in this job and if I didn’t challenge myself I’d feel like I was copping out on my responsibility as an artist. There are so many traps you can fall in to by playing a certain role for a long time that people won’t accept you as anything else. But that’s not me judging soap actors, for example. I think some of the best actors in the world are in our soaps, especially in Coronation Street. There are some phenomenally talented actors playing huge characters. They’re big but believable. But for me, I need a beginning, middle and end. I don’t think I could do a long run. This is six weeks which is perfect.
You’re a well regarded actor but who do you admire?
Anyone who just does their job well. Luckily, I work with good people. The whole immediacy of fame today is giving young people the wrong idea about an industry that’s built around personal and daily rejection. They’re being taught there’s no room for failure, to make mistakes, which in turn, means no room for growth and improvement. Being taught unless they succeed from the first moment, that’s it, it’s over is nonsense and infuriating.
Are there any roles you haven’t played yet that you’d like to?
I didn’t train so I always thought the classics were beyond me - a secret that I wasn’t party to. And then I did the Caretaker with the brilliant young director, Jamie Lloyd. He was the first person I felt brave enough around to say, "I don’t understand the play." Jamie said, "no one understands the play. We just find the truth and make it ours." So now, I’d love to have a stab at the Scottish Play. I’d love to play Shylock and Richard III.
I’m not a Hamlet man. I think actors are either Hamlets or Macbeths. Hamlet’s in the head, Macbeth’s in the groin. God, what does that say about me?
Con O'Neill was speaking to Lucia Cox.
A View From The Bridge runs at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre from 18 May - 25 June.
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