Born in England to an Irish father and Scottish mother, actor Brendan Coyle launched his career in Ireland, where he did his early training and toured as a stage manager before winning roles in productions including Over the Bridge, All Souls Night and Playboy of the Western World, in which he starred as Christy Mahon at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast.
He went on to appear in many other Irish plays, both in Britain and Ireland. For his role as barman Brendan in Conor McPherson’s multi award-winning play The Weir, Coyle won the 1999 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actor. Following its West End run, the Royal Court production transferred to New York where he also won a Theatre World Award for Outstanding Broadway Debut.
Coyle’s many other stage credits – at the National, the Royal Court, the King’s Head, the Tricycle and elsewhere – include The Bear, Dead Eyed Boy, Battle Royal, The Changing Room, The Silver Tassie, The Plough and the Stars, September Tide, A Love Song for Ulster, Philadelphia Here I Come!, Pygmies in the Ruins, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, Judgement Day, Force and Hypocrisy and Elegies to Angels, Punks and Raving Queens.
On screen, Coyle has been seen in McCready and Daughter, Rebel Heart, Rockface, Thieftakers, Jericho, North and South, Shameless, Omagh, Jericho, Amnesia, Waking the Dead and The Bombmaker on television as well as films including Tomorrow Never Dies, Conspiracy, Offside, The Jacket, Mapmaker, The General and Last Bus Home.
Coyle’s last London stage appearance was in Matthew Warchus’ 1994 revival of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1978 play Buried Child at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre. He has now returned to the work of Shepard to star alongside Andrew Lincoln in the European premiere of the American dramatist’s 2000 play The Late Henry Moss. The production opens this week at the Almeida Theatre, directed by Almeida artistic director Michael Attenborough.
Date & place of birth
Born 2 December 1963 in Corby, Northamptonshire.
Lives now in
I have a cottage on the east coast in Norfolk.
My father was Irish and my mother is Scots so I’m this mongrel. I don’t say I’m British or Irish, I don’t fly a flag, but I do have very strong Irish ties. My cousin, Mary-Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy, is a theatre director in Dublin. At the time, she was running a theatre called the Focus Theatre with an Irish-American woman called Deirdre O’Connell who had studied at the Strasberg Institute in New York. She’d brought over all these ideas and principles to train actors at the weekend at the Focus Theatre. That’s where I started training. Then I toured Ireland as a stage manager and then I got a scholarship to go to the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London.
First big break
I suppose there have been three or four big breaks and they were all in theatre. The first was The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist directed by Stephen Daldry way back in 1987. Prior to that, I’d just been doing pub theatre and fringe. That was a big one because it was a great part and a great tour. It kind of bedrocked me as an actor. My next one was getting the part of Christie in Playboy of the Western World at the Lyric in Belfast which set me up to do a number of plays and get really rooted there. Irish plays, that was my bag, I ploughed that field. The next one I suppose was a Brian Friel play at the King’s Head round the corner here, under the late great Dan Crawford. He directed Philadelphia, Here I Come!, which transferred very joyfully into the West End. That was a big elevation for all of us. The Weir, of course, had such an impact. That was a big.
Career highlights to date
Being in all those plays! I mean, getting an Olivier Award (for The Weir) was great but not as great as walking on stage and doing that play every night. Broadway wasn’t such a highlight because I actually think London is the best theatre city in the world. I’m very very lucky, I’ve worked with great directors, I’ve been at the Court, the National, the Almeida, doing quality work. Oh, I know one. I met Kris Kristofferson last year! We were doing a film in Glasgow and we went up to Dublin and watched him in concert. He’s just a gem, one of the nicest men on the planet. We would sit there drinking whiskey in the hotel and listening to him tell us about Johnny Cash. Great.
There was a production I did at Hampstead with the fantastic Nicola Walker called Dead Eyed Boy. That was good. Sometimes you do these productions and they don’t get quite the same amount of attention as something like The Weir or Buried Child. But they’re still highlights when you’re working with an actor as great as that and you’re just flying. I’m pretty sure The Late Henry Moss is going to be a favourite too.
Nicola Walker again. I’m loving this cast, too - and I’m not just saying that because we’re talking about this production. It’s a really, really tight ensemble. Andrew Lincoln’s my brother in this and he’s beautiful, really strong, very tight. M Emmett Walsh, Big Emmett, from Buried Child. He’s a contrary old git, he scares the hell out of everybody, but I didn’t take his shit. I gave as good as he did and he liked that. Abusing each other was some form of affection.
Michael Attenborough is a joy. Matthew Warchus is a beautiful, brilliant director. And the same with Ian Rickson, Stephen Daldry, James McDonald, Howard Davies…. Just check out that list. It’s great. I’ve been very very lucky to work with all of them.
Sam Shepard is in my top three, along with Conor McPherson and Brian Friel. No, that’s horrible, I need a top ten. You’ve also got to put in Frank McGuinness and all the other Irish boys. Also Harold Pinter. Okay, he’s not Irish, but he worked there for awhile, you know, he toured Ireland as a stage manager. God, wasn’t Pinter’s Nobel lecture fabulous? Michael Attenborough came into rehearsals the next day chanting, “one Harold Pinter, there’s only one Harold Pinter”!
What roles would you most like to play still?
I’d like to do Brian Friel’s Faith Healer. And, of the Shakespeare canon, Macbeth is the one I’d love to do. They’re the only two real stand-out ones.
What's the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the first?
The first play I saw was Richard III when I was 15 or 16. It’s what made me want to become an actor. I was studying English Literature at school and we were reading Richard III. We had a very good teacher who took us to the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. Seeing Barry McCarthy do Richard III, the play made sense for the first time, but also I was struck by, “god, what a great thing to do - acting on the stage!” It literally was as corny as that. The last thing I saw was The Hypochondriac here (at the Almeida), which I thought was a blast.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
It’s not just as simple as more subsidy. I wonder if there shouldn’t be some sort of cultural tax whereby profits from film, TV and theatre can be pooled in order to create a more even-handed network. They talk about the Royal Family attracting tourism, but theatre in London attracts a huge amount of tourism and revenue. It’s part of the cultural life of Britain. It should be nurtured and cared for more meticulously.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Probably some rock star, just to live that life for one day, go a bit barmy then go out and do a gig. I think every actor wants to be a rock star to a certain extent.
Favourite holiday destinations
New York City. Even though they have inferior theatre, as a city you just can’t beat it for me.
Favourite after-show haunts
Round here (in Islington) at the weekend, it would be to watch a band at my old stomping ground, the King’s Head. I’m a big supporter of the King’s Head. I’ve done three plays there. And I love live music.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I thought I was destined to be a butcher because my father was. I used to go and watch him at work in his shops at a very young age, but I hated it. One of the reasons I wanted to be an actor was, I naively thought, it would beat working for a living! Actually, if I could do anything else, I’d be in a band. I don’t play any instruments. I’d be Bono, wouldn’t I? But I don’t have a great singing voice - that’s why I’m an actor!
Why did you want to accept your part in The Late Henry Moss?
I’m a huge Shepard fan, always have been. One of the first plays I ever saw was Curse of the Starving Class when I was training in Dublin and it had a profound effect on me. I thought, “that’s the kind of theatre I want to do”. The first time I had a chance to be in a Shepard play was Buried Child and then this came up again. I didn’t know if it was the right thing to go straight into doing another Shepard, but when I read it, met Michael Attenborough and knew who else was in the cast …. Well, you just can’t say no to an offer like that.
How would you describe your character?
Earl is a man in denial of his past. He has come back, along with his brother, to bury their dead father. There’s a huge incident that broke this family up, and they’re dealing with it in very very different ways. Ray wants answers, he’s very upfront and open, whereas Earl wants to put it all behind him. So he tries to bury his pain and his grief with an ease and a moving-on. But he’s forced very brutally to confront who he is and who he’s become as a result of what happened and how he handled it. It’s a brutal depiction of a broken family.
How would you compare this new play by Sam Shepard to 1978’s Buried Child, which won the Pulitzer Prize?
I’m loathe to make comparisons, but there are classic Shepard themes in there: a brutal past, the way of dealing with that past, the destruction of alcoholism, the damage done by a violent father, the brothers. And how Shepard writes, the way he has of introducing magical realism to what could be a very brutal domestic situation, that’s the same. He goes off into dream states. And there’s great colour, very vivid characters. So thematically and tonally, there are lots of similarities, but this is a very different play. In fact, this play was a work in progress probably around about the same time as Buried Child. Sam thought, “I’d better have a look at the family”, because it was one hell of a family, one hell of a story. And he’s been exorcising those demons through a number of plays over the years, including Buried Child and The Late Henry Moss, which I think will be the final one along those lines. I think this is a more lucid play. There isn’t an obscure mystery at the heart of it, it’s very clear. What’s intriguing is everybody’s different version of a series of events.
Do you have a favourite Sam Shepard play?
I don’t know. It’s like having a favourite band and saying, “what’s your favourite song of theirs out of all these great anthems?” I love them all. I think it would be invidious to differentiate between them. Okay, if I had to, I’m going to say this one, goddammit.
What’s the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that happened during rehearsals?
It’s a very funny bunch of people so there’s a lot to choose from. There’s an extremely violent episode in the play where Andrew Lincoln is beating me. When he’s in character, he’s flying, very intense. He was really in the moment and he hit my stomach and my hand then hit my rib-cage quite hard. It hurt! At the end of the fight, he just bent down and said, “are you alright, darling?” I thought that was very sweet. The atmosphere that Michael creates is very conducive to doing good creative work and enjoying it. It doesn’t have to be painful and difficult. This is a very demanding piece, but it’s done in a relaxed atmosphere. We’re all very proud of it.
What are your plans for the future?
Settle down. I’ve been moving around a lot. I was based in Ireland for a while and I’ve moved back here now. Will I return to the stage? Oh God, you have to. If I went any more than two years without doing a play, I’d start to get really jittery. Theatre is so much more the actor’s medium, that’s where you can really get your stuff out. But beyond that, I don’t make too many plans, I’m not a plan guy. I haven’t a clue what’s happening after this. It won’t be until the last two weeks of this production that I’ll sort something out. I hate not being employed. Actors get very nervous when they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s taken me a long time to get to a position where the fear of never working again has sort of gone away. I don’t have that rabid paranoia anymore that it’s all just going to vanish. Believe me, that’s a very real fear for a lot of young actors and it’s horrible. I’m more calm and confident now.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Come and see The Late Henry Moss. It’ll leave you reeling, it’s a rock and roll show.
- Brendan Coyle was speaking to Terri Paddock
The Late Henry Moss opens on 19 January 2006 (previews from 12 January) at the Almeida Theatre, where its limited season continues until 4 March.