Actor Con O'Neill made a big impression with one of his earliest jobs. Cast at the age of 22 in Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, his performance as doomed Liverpudlian twin Mickey won him the 1988 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical in the West End and a Tony nomination for the Broadway transfer.
More recently, he was nominated for another Olivier, this time for Best Actor, for actor-turned-playwright Nick Moran’s debut play Telstar. That drama, in which he played Joe Meek, the UK’s first independent record producer, also earned O’Neill a Best Actor nomination in the Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards. He followed it up with the premiere at the National Theatre of Sam Adamson’s comedy Southwark Fair, which earned him another Whatsonstage.com nomination, for Best Supporting Actor in a Play.
O’Neill’s other London stage credits over the years have included Mark Ravenhill’s Mother Clap’s Molly House (National and West End), Featuring Loretta, The Awakening, The Fastest Clock in the Universe and The Flight into Egypt (all at Hampstead) and A Tribute to the Blues Brothers (which he wrote). Elsewhere, he has starred in Ridley Walker (Manchester Royal Exchange), Woyzeck (Hull Truck) and Midnight Cowboy (Edinburgh Fringe).
On television, O’Neill has had roles in My Hero, The Stepfather, Ultimate Force, Murder Squad, The Illustrated Mum, In Deep, Trial and Retribution, Waking the Dead, Always and Everyone, Heartbeat, Inspector Morse, Macbeth, Peak Practice, Soldier Soldier, Tom Jones and Wycliffe. His film credits include The Last Seduction II, Cider with Rosie, Bedrooms and Hallways and A Perfect Match.
O’Neill is now starring as Aston in Sheffield Theatre’s revival of Harold Pinter’s three-hander The Caretaker, which runs at north London’s Tricycle Theatre until 14 April 2007 as part of a regional tour. In a seedy west London flat in the 1950s, brothers Aston (O’Neill) and Mick (Nigel Harman) have their lives disrupted by a bad tempered tramp named Davies (David Bradley), who they take into their home after Aston meets him in a café. Uncomfortable, then bewildered, then furious at the politely overbearing atmosphere in the house, Davies triggers psychological power games that are both funny and menacing.
Date & place of birth
Born in 1966 in Weston-Super-Mare.
Lives now in
First big break
Blood Brothers, definitely. It was my first big audition and it was in front of Bill Kenwright. I hadn’t met Bill before but I had read somewhere he was an Everton fan, and so was I, so I mentioned that as soon as I could. Then I just had to sing “Sunday Afternoon” - he cast me purely on the fact I could sing the song and I was an Everton fan. I was 22 and it was the greatest buzz.
Career highlights to date
All the work I’ve done at the National I’m very proud of. And Telstar. To get the Olivier nomination for that was a big highlight, not just because it was nice and I was in the same category as Derek Jacobi and Richard Griffiths, but because Nick Moran who wrote the play is a friend of mine and I did the first read-through of it about ten years before it was put on with Jude Law and Kathy Burke. We were reading these lines that a mate had written and then over the years there had been several attempts to get it done and then to have it received that well… I was very proud of Nick and I think he deserved a lot more acknowledgement for that, to be patted on the back a bit more. Had he not been a well-known actor, he would have been more appreciated as a first-time writer.
I loved working with John Dove on The Awakening at Hampstead and I’ve really enjoyed The Caretaker. I have an office in my house with four posters on the wall of my favourites: Mother Clapp, Blood Brothers, The Fastest Clock in the Universe and A Tribute to the Blues Brothers, which I wrote.
I’m going to be in so much trouble for leaving someone out! I love the guys I’m working with now, Nigel Harman and David Bradley – this is one of the best companies I’ve worked with. And Linda Robson is great to work with, and Roland Manookian who was also in Telstar. And Deborah Findlay.
Jamie Lloyd, Nicholas Hytner, John Dove. A good director is someone who can communicate his ideas and allows his actors to be fearless but can also bring them back when they’re being too fearless. They also need to have a good sense of humour.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
The Cut at the Donmar blew me away. I’m a huge fan of Mark Ravenhill, I think he’s a f***ing genius. He writes theatre so well. It’s always an experience seeing one of his plays.
Well, Mark Ravenhill… Philip Ridley, Patrick Marber, and Willy Russell. I can’t wait for Willy to write another play. I still think Blood Brothers is the most phenomenal musical, you can’t help but be moved by it.
What made you want to become an actor?
I fell into it by accident. In the back of my head, I had wanted to act since I was about two, but I was brought up in Wigan, which was a big mining community and my choice was really to either do incredibly well at school or go down the mines. When I approached my careers adviser at 15 and said I wanted to be an actor, she said “Are you sure you don’t want to join the army?” A while later I was given these envelopes and in them was the address of RADA and an interview with Felicity Kendal in a Sunday supplement about winning Rear of the Year. So I had no touching point as to how to become an actor, really. I went to Liverpool and started working as an usher and got in a pop band. We were quite good and toured the cabaret circuit playing songs by Duran Duran and the likes. The Everyman was doing a play called You’ll Never Walk Alone, and there was a part in the play of a singer in a band. I went along and got the gig, and that’s how I became an actor. Acting was never a plan specifically, but it was on my A list next to being an astronaut.
What advice would you give to aspiring actors?
Read loads of plays, see loads of plays and stay away from mirrors! If you rehearse in front of a mirror, you become insular.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Someone asked me this a while ago at a dinner party. I took ages to think about it while all the people round the table were coming up with people like Tony Blair. I thought my answer would sound really smug, but I honestly feel I wouldn’t want to be anyone other than me because I feel really comfortable and happy with my life right now.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.
Favourite holiday destinations
I just went to Brazil after we finished The Caretaker in Sheffield. I had never been before. We were about 40 miles south of Rio and it was fantastic, I would really recommend it. The place was absolutely beautiful, it was idyllic and the food was wonderful.
Favourite after-show haunts
I go to Joe Allen’s. It’s always friendly and fun there. I also go to Century now and then, but I’m not a big socialiser really.
Other than porn?! I’m not a big surfer, actually. I’ll Google people I’m going to meet for work and things, but that’s really it. Oh, and of course Whatsonstage.com!
Why did you want to accept the part of Aston in The Caretaker?
It’s a bit of a long story – how long have you got?! Last summer I was rehearsing Midnight Cowboy for the Edinburgh Fringe. Personally, I don’t like to audition for something else while I’m in rehearsals, but this came up. The Caretaker was a play I was aware of because I had seen it as a student in quite a bad production. When I was asked if I was interested in doing it, I was a bit hesitant and so I didn’t meet Jamie the director. But then Jamie came up to Edinburgh and we went out for a drink and we read a bit of the script and chatted. I think what swung it for me was Jamie – he’s incredibly bright and confident and communicative. I felt, if you were going to attempt to do this, you needed a director who could communicate what he wants from you. There’s a lot in every Pinter play that isn’t written - all the pauses have to be informed and they are all so full of unwritten history so you really have to be very precise. With Jamie it’s all in the detail so I felt confident working with him. He asked me to do it at that meeting, and after he’d left, I realised I’d never felt so sure about doing a job before - especially considering I was not very sure before I met him. Because I didn’t train as an actor, I’ve often felt like I was missing something, like there was a secret book somewhere that would inform me about all these pauses. I thought they only give you this book at drama school, so I felt a bit stupid and ignorant in the process of rehearsing Pinter previously. I was a huge fan of his work but never felt that I could tick all the boxes. I didn’t know what I was going to bring to the table to fill out these characters. I was in awe of Pinter and a bit frightened. When Jamie said he felt the same way – and yet he has this amazing confidence - that got me on board.
Tell us something about your character.
Aston is the elder bother of Mick. As a teenager, he was a bit of a dreamer. The best thing about Aston is he wouldn’t edit himself - if he had a thought in his head, he would say it, so he was outspoken. In those days, what tended to happen to these people is they would get taken into hospital for electric shock treatment, and that’s what happened to him. Some time has passed and he has become a recluse. One day he picks up an old tramp off the street and brings him into his room and creates this relationship with him, much to the confusion and annoyance of his brother. The play is really about the relationship between the brothers and how this tramp affects it. My sister is a nurse and I tend to play a lot of characters that have some sort of ailment. For this role, I called her and talked in depth about electric shock treatment to look at how it would have affected him and inform the way I play him. In rehearsal, I like to throw all my toys out and play with all of them and then decide which to use. Some directors get nervous about that, but Jamie was incredibly supportive. We’ve all been allowed to explode if we want to.
How has the audience reaction been so far? Have you had any feedback from Pinter?
So far the audience seem to be loving it - as does Harold. When he came up to see it in Sheffield, we had a chat afterwards. I think that was one of the greatest moments in my career, sitting at a table taking to Harold Pinter about The Caretaker. It was immensely awe-inspiring - I turned into a teenage girl, I’m afraid! Harold hasn’t been involved in the production as such, but he has been very interested in it. He’s famous for not appreciating music or transitions being added into his plays, but Jamie has added some in to The Caretaker and he said he liked the way we had done it. He also thought we had the relationship between the three characters incredibly clear and that we brought it into the 21st century. He was very thrilled with the production and very animated about it. We’ve been doing this for a long time and worked really hard on it. We know it’s a good production, but having his approval was the cherry on the cake.
Pinter plays are regularly revived, especially since his Nobel win. What do you think makes him such a popular playwright?
He’s just got incredible elegance to how he writes. His plays are complex and funny and nuanced and moving and they can mean completely different things to different people – audience members come up to me with completely different takes on the play and none of them are wrong. His plays challenge an audience, they have to engage and make up their own minds. It’s very liberating to be involved with text that’s so precise. Most of my career I have done new plays where there are constant re-writes. To do a such a precise, published play felt restricting initially, but once you get on top of it, it suddenly becomes this amazing thing and you just fly. It’s like riding a wave. It’s so empowering to be surrounded by beautiful dialogue. It is the most naturalistic play I’ve been in now that I know it. With a new play, you never know what it’s going to be like until you get it out there, but with this you know it’s gold and it’s about whether you really shine it or not. You have to be on the ball. You can’t think about your shopping, because if your mind goes off it for a second, you’re screwed.
How has the production changed between Sheffield & London?
It has been interesting on tour because it’s changed quite a lot. The Crucible is a thrust stage, but many of the theatres on tour are proscenium arch so there are certain elements that had to be changed. It feels as though we’ve come home to the Tricycle because we’re all very comfortable and the play works very well here – although the audience is practically on our laps, which can be a bit unnerving! With this sort of play, it’s so honest that, to adapt to a more intimate theatre, it’s not a matter of turning down the volume but reconnecting to the lines and making the meaning subtle but clear.
What’s the oddest/funniest/most notable thing that’s happened in the run to date?
We all said at the start of the run we didn’t want to know when Harold Pinter was coming to see it because we would get too nervous, but unfortunately Sam West had gone to the loo while we were having this conversation and he came back in and said “Oh, by the way, Harold’s in on the 21st”. Then the theatre decided to do a Q&A with him on the night, so every night leading up to it they announced over the Tannoy “Harold Pinter will be doing a Q&A on the 21st”. So each day we could feel it getting nearer and nearer, and it became a bit of a carry on.
- Con O'Neill was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
The Caretaker continues at the Tricycle until 14 April 2007.