Though now known internationally for his many screen roles, in the 1970s and 1980s through to the early 1990s, Irishman Stephen Rea was a frequenter of the London stage.
Amongst his many London productions were: Miss Julie, High Society and Comedians in the West End; The Shaughraun, Making History, Tales from the Vienna Woods, Strawberry Fields and The Playboy of the Western World at the National; Geography of a Horse Dreamer, Action, Captain Oates’s Left Sock, Doublecross, Endgame, Freedom of the City and Crete and Sergeant Pepper at the Royal Court; and at Hampstead Theatre, Saint Oscar, Kingdom of the Earth, Killer’s Head, Communication Cord, Translations, Buried Child and Ecstasy.
It was also at Hampstead, in 1992, that Rea appeared in Frank McGuinness’ Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, about three hostages – an Irishman, an Englishman and an American – held in a Middle Eastern jail. The three-hander transferred to the West End and Broadway, where Rea was nominated for a Tony Award.
In 1980, Rea co-founded the politically-inspired Field Day Theatre Company with Irish playwright Brian Friel and, over the next ten years, mounted numerous productions, such as Translations, Saint Oscar, Uncle Vanya, Making History, Pentecost, High Time, The Riot Act, Three Sisters and The Cure at Troy, several of which he also directed.
On film, Rea has enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with director Neil Jordan, appearing in eight of his films to date, including Angel, The Interview with the Vampire, Michael Collins, In Dreams and, perhaps most memorably, The Crying Game, in which he played an IRA kidnapper.
Amongst Rea’s many other screen credits are Prêt-à-Porter, The Good Shepherd, Control, Bloom, The I Inside, FearDotCom, The Musketeer, Still Crazy, Fever Pitch, Princess Caraboo, Life is Sweet, All Men Are Mortal, Copenhagen, Armadillo, Hedda Gabler, Saint Oscar, Citizen X, Fugitive, Shadow of a Gunman and The Plough and the Stars.
This month, Rea returns to the London stage and to the National, where he last appeared nearly 15 years ago, to take the title role in Edmond Rostand’s swashbuckling romantic classic, Cyrano de Bergerac, directed by Howard Davies as part of the National’s new Travelex £10 season in the NT Olivier.
Date & place of birth
Born 31 October 1946 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Lives now in…
I live in Dublin. When I’m in London, I stay in Maida Vale (west London). I’ve had a flat there for 20 years and just have never let it go. It means I can work here easily, although I haven’t done in ages. Friends tend to stay there when I don’t.
First big break
That’s funny. I don’t really think I had one. There were some big things, of course. The Crying Game was a big thing to happen, going to Broadway with Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me was a big thing. But I was already established by then. I think my career has mainly been a process of trying to keep working steadily and to the highest level.
My first film, Angel, which was with Neil Jordan – actually, I suppose that was a break. Doing The Playboy of the Western World with this company here at the National was a highlight. Doing a play about Oscar Wilde (Saint Oscar) and having his grandson, Mervin Holland, come to see it. Working with Samuel Beckett at the Royal Court was a huge thing. And so was taking part in a tribute evening to Beckett after his death. That was here at the National, in the Olivier, with many distinguished people on the platform: Harold Pinter, Peggy Ashcroft, Billie Whitelaw. Jean Martin, who was the original Lucky in the very first production of Waiting for Godot, also took part in the tribute. Shaking hands with Martin, someone who was part of the turning point in 20th-century drama, was incredible. Nothing was the same after Godot.
What prompted you to found your own company, Field Day, in 1980?
With Field Day, we set out to be more than a theatre company. It was a conscious intervention into the situation we had then in the North of Ireland. People tend to forget because we’ve had the ceasefire for so long now, but in 1980, things were really bad and the level of debate about the Troubles was very low. We set out to address that. And I think we did achieve something. It became possible to think about what was really going on.
Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
Besides those I’ve already mentioned, there was The Shaughran, which I did here at the National with Howard Davies. Brian Friel’s Translations, which inaugurated Field Day. We did it in Derry and I think we broke some ground there, there was a real sense of repossession. Another Field Day production, Double Cross, was also a favourite. And I have to include Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me.
I loved working with Jim Broadbent. We did a play with Mike Leigh called Ecstasy at Hampstead - Julie Walters, Ron Cook and Sheila Kelly were also in the cast – and that was fantastic. In film, Lauren Bacall. I had a couple of scenes with her in Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter. I love her enormously. She’s the heart – funny, salt of the earth and terribly attractive, no matter what her age. That film was packed with the most fantastic people, all-time greats like Lauren and Marcello Mastroianni. I was just happy to be in the same frame.
Neil Jordan and Robert Altman in film. In theatre, Howard Davies, Richard Eyre, Peter Gill and Mike Leigh. What makes them great? All these things are a mystery. I suppose, to start with, they’re personable types who don’t moan, they’re people you want to spend time with. Directors have to trust you and allow you to do your job as an actor. One definition of a good director is someone with whom you learn something every day – and someone you have a laugh with every day, too.
What attracts you to directing?
I’ve only ever done it by default – when someone else couldn’t. But I suppose I wanted to direct because I’m a bit of a nosey parker. I never shut up. Well, I can be quiet generally but not if I think something’s wrong. I’m not one of these who believes an actor should keep quiet and just do what they’re bid. I could never be a full-time, jobbing director, though I do hope to direct again. I’m working on a film script now with Billy Roche. To be precise, Billy’s working on it and I occasionally phone and talk to him about it. I plan to direct that, but again I wouldn’t make a habit of it. Movies need immense energy to get off the ground and I don’t usually have much of that.
Of those whose work I’ve performed, I’d say Brian Friel, Thomas Kilroy, Frank McGuinness, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter. They’re all obvious, aren’t they? Also Stewart Parker, who died unfortunately in 1988. He was a great writer, from Belfast, and I miss him dearly because I feel he’d be writing about today’s real issues in Ireland. And, of course, Tennessee Williams is fantastic. There isn’t anybody with more theatrical courage than Tennessee.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Cyrano was always big on my list so it’s great to do that now. Also, James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. There are other ones that are gone now. It’s too late for me to do a lot of the Shakespeares. I’ve never done any Shakespeare, but it doesn’t matter. What I’d really like to do is a brand new play with three people in a room, though not necessarily chained to a wall (as in Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me). Something aggressively funny.
What's the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
The Pillowman, which my friend Jim Broadbent has been doing in the Cottesloe. It was fabulous – scary, worrying, unsettling, just great. And the acting and direction was world-class. It’s theatre at a very, very high level.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
At this point, I’m so knocked out by the state of this institution (the National Theatre). It’s so impressive. Under the roof of this building, the most fantastic people are working at the highest creative level. I just hope the government is aware of the treasure they have in the National. As far as I’m concerned, everything that’s good about English society is in this building. It really is the best thing about Britain – its intelligence, its sensibilities. The National is giving so much to this country, and to the rest of the world for that matter. Having said that, actors are paid worse now than when I was here the first time round. Actors’ salaries are the first thing to go when there are budgetary cuts.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Oscar Wilde at some time when he was at his most brilliant and witty, maybe entertaining at the Savoy or at the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest. Let’s not have any slip-ups here. I don’t want to be Wilde on Clapham Common or in Reading gaol.
Favourite holiday destinations
County Donegal in Ireland. I’ve been going there with my kids every year since they were tiny. They’re 15 and 14 now and don’t ever remember not going there.
Ulysses by James Joyce. I’ve just done a film version of it (Bloom), but it was one of my favourites before that. It’s a desert island book. I also quite like the novels of Haruki Murakami, especially The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, which appeals to me because it’s not stuck in naturalism.
Favourite after-show haunts
I’m not much of a haunter, and I haven’t been in London for so long. I won’t know until I start having an after-show life here again.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
That’s so difficult. I’ve never done anything else, and there was never any possibility of doing anything else. Why did I choose to become an actor? I don’t know why – it chooses you, doesn’t it? I suppose some people don’t ever give up their childish exhibitionism. That’s me.
Why did you want to accept your part in this production of Cyrano de Bergerac?
Howard Davies and I had been talking for some time about doing something as a follow-up to The Shaughran (in 1988), so it wasn’t about accepting the part, it was integral to the notion of it all. It’s the heart of Cyrano de Bergerac that appeals, the courage of the character. And I like that there’s a lesson there: don’t conform. Maybe the characters and ideas are clichéd but Rostand so freshly mints them that it’s okay.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done to woo someone?
Got out of bed? I don’t woo. Does anyone woo any more? People text you nowadays, don’t they? But I’m so technically illiterate, I can’t read most of the messages.
What’s your favourite line from Cyrano de Bergerac?
It’s near the end when the nasty character, de Guiche, visits Roxanne in the convent and asks her if she forgives him. She replies: “We’re here to forgive.” That’s great.
What’s the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that’s happened during rehearsals of Cyrano de Bergerac?
I never know how to answer that question. In my experience, nothing funny, odd or notable ever happens in rehearsals. Maybe I’m just not paying attention.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m supposed to do a film in July – though I shouldn’t say what in case it doesn’t happen – and then I’m off to Donegal for my holiday.
- Stephen Rea was speaking to Terri Paddock
Cyrano de Bergerac - the first production in the Travelex £10 Season, for which more than two-thirds of the tickets in the NT Olivier are reduced to £10 – runs in repertory from 19 April to 24 June 2004 (previews from 10 April).