Since Adrian Dunbar left his native Northern Ireland to train at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he has been a regular presence on British stage and screen.
On film, Dunbar is perhaps best known for 1991’s highly acclaimed Hear My Song, which he also co-wrote, earning a BAFTA nomination. His other films include My Left Foot, The Crying Game, Widow’s Peak, A World Apart, The Near Room, The General, Richard III, Shooters, Jonjo Mickybo, Kidnapped and Eye of the Dolphin.
On television, Dunbar featured in the first-ever episode of Cracker, as well as the likes of Whistleblowers, Child of Mine, Quartermass Experiment, Suspicion, Murder in Mind, Murphy’s Law, Tough Love, Growing Pains, A Woman’s Guide to Adultery, Force of Duty, The Englishman’s Wife, The Fear and Reasonable Force.
On stage, Dunbar’s credits include Saved, Up to the Sun and Down to the Centre, Pope’s Wedding, Ourselves Alone (all at the Royal Court), Ghosts (Young Vic), Real Dreams, Danton Affair (RSC), The Tower (Almeida), Who’s a Lucky Boy (Royal Exchange) and, most recently, Exiles in the UK. In Ireland, he has appeared in The Shaughraun (Abbey, Dublin) and Conversations on a Homecoming (Lyric, Belfast) and, in 2003, made his directing debut with a tour of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come!, on which he worked with the author.
Dunbar is now making his West End debut in Matthew Warchus’ hit revival of Marc Camoletti’s Sixties sex farce Boeing-Boeing. He’s taken over from Roger Allam as Parisian architect Bernard who, with the help of his put-upon housekeeper Bertha, must cope with the demands, and timetables, of three air hostess fiancées. When old school chum Robert arrives, Bernard relishes the chance to show his wide-eyed friend his first-class operation at work. Unfortunately, schedules change, flights are delayed and a new turbo-charged Boeing aircraft is introduced, causing chaos.
Dunbar is joined in the current cast of Boeing-Boeing by Elena Roger, Amy Nuttall, Doon Mackichan, Neil Stuke and Cheers’ Rhea Perlman.
Date & place of birth
Born 1 August 1958 in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.
Lives now in
Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
What made you want to become an actor?
It was something I found I had a talent for and I thought, I could do this, if I could make living at this, it’d be pretty nice. That’s how I felt. The idea that you could get paid for doing something you liked and were good at was all the spur I needed.
And, subsequently, why did you want to write & direct as well?
Most actors all go through the same process. You start off and do really interesting work, especially in theatre, work that means something to you. Then you get successful, you move into television and you kind of lose your way doing series. Things make less sense after awhile, and you think, I’ve got to get back to doing something that gets me going creatively. Branching out into writing and directing is a way of doing that - and so is going back to theatre. I’ve done all three in the last five years. I always liked writing when I was at school. It’s a sort of lonely place but also very liberating as well. You’re really having to search within yourself for ideas and solutions. At the moment, I’m working on a couple of stage plays and a couple of screenplays.
What else do you do to get your creative juices flowing?
A bit of music now and again to spice things up. I write songs and play with my band, The Jonahs. We play mostly in Ireland. Our website is www.daracu.ie, which takes its name from a lake around the corner from where I live in Ireland. The local people believe in a strange thing that lives in the lake, a cross between a hound and an otter. It’s kind of spooky. The three guys I play with have been playing together for some time. We play country stuff. We only get together now and again, but we have good fun.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I may have ended up in music, but it’s hard to know. I think I would have somehow found my way into the creative arts through some door. Some door would have opened and I would have stepped through. But of all the places I could have started, I think acting was the best place. Actors have proved they can move through these other disciplines. So many have done so successfully. You don’t very often see it happening the other way, with directors or writers becoming actors.
First big break
Just getting into drama school in London and getting out of Northern Ireland. If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be here today.
Career highlights to date
Writing and making the film Hear My Song was a fantastic experience. Directing Philadelphia, Here I Come! with the input of Brian Friel was amazing. Being in a production of Tom Murphy’s Conversations on a Homecoming in Belfast with Conleth Hill and Frankie McCafferty was really exciting. The Bond season at the Royal Court, that was special. And doing Ghosts with Vanessa Redgrave and Tom Wilkinson, directed by David Thacker and relaunching the Young Vic.
There are two or three films that it was great to be in: My Left Foot, A World Apart and a little movie by David Hayman called The Near Room. It’s all good, as the kids say these days. Different skills and techniques are required for the various forms and that becomes part of the challenge. I’ve been lucky to do the things I’ve chosen to do. Even down to doing the first episode of Cracker, directed by Michael Winterbottom. I seem to have done a lot of things that people remember for really good reasons.
Gary Oldman, Lesley Manville, Joaanne Whalley. Also people like Brendan Gleeson, Mia Farrow, Jon Voight. So many over the years. Then there are all those who are still such close friends that you don’t include them in these lists anymore because now they’re just your friends. Loads and loads and loads.
John Boorman, Jim Sheridan, Danny Boyle, Max Stafford-Clark. I think you have to be able to do a number of things to be a good director, but the most important thing for me is to keep yourself out of the work. If you want people to really see into what you’re doing, you have to stay out. I’ve learned a lot from all of the directors I’ve worked with. By and large, they’re very meticulous. They do a lot of preparation and they work on casting and surrounding themselves with very good people. That especially applies when directing in cinema. A film is the work of a lot of people, it’s hugely collaborative, and you need to get everyone wanting to do it for the right reasons. That’s a skill in and of itself.
Brian Friel, Tom Murphy, Edward Bond, Arthur Miller. I like playwrights who are really good constructers. I’m not interested in plays that are just issues monologues. Plays should move and shift over an evening. That’s why I like Friel particularly. He not only works with the story but also with theatre convention. He constructs his plays in a way that gives excitement to the audience, just by how they’re built. Also Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Sean O'Casey and Ibsen.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Hugo Chavez (currently president of Venezuela). He’s one of the most enlightened individuals on the planet.
I’m reading Colum McCann’s The Dancer at the moment. Another of his I like is Zoli. Either of those will keep you going. They’re very good.
Favourite holiday destinations
I tend to like places that are kind of empty, where you can walk and be on your own. There are some great places in Australia, like Fraser Island. The Himalayas are great too, Kathmandu. And there’s some great walking in Italy and on the west coast of Ireland. I love the mountains. I like the coast as well but the mountains are special.
Favourite after-show haunt
I’m a member at Ronnie Scott’s. It’s been refurbished recently and is now run by Leo Green. It really is the best club in town because it’s actually doing something. All the others are just places you go and drink. But Ronnie’s is a working club.
I like Youtube, I like looking at all that crazy shit on there. And Arsenal.com. I’m a big fan. Now that we’ve lost Thierry Henry, it’s crazy to justify to yourself paying huge amounts of money going to see the gang, but I still do.
Why did you want to accept the part of Bernard in Boeing-Boeing?
I went to see it and thought, this looks really good fun. I’ve never done a farce before. It’s a very different style. I thought, if I’m going to do one, it might as well be one in West End one that’s as good as Boeing-Boeing. My last stage play was James Joyce’s Exiles. That was an extremely complicated and different journey emotionally and intellectually, and very open to interpretation. It definitely was not an exact science. Boeing-Boeing is all about being definite and precise. It’s a complete contrast. I’m extremely pleased that I can actually do it, you know, get in there and drive the car that fast.
What’s the trick to getting farce right?
Farce has to be very quick because, if it was done slowly, you simply wouldn’t believe what was going on. The speed is something you have to get used to as an actor. You’re moving very very fast. I now have huge admiration for people who do farce. I remember standing outside the Comedy one night and seeing the great actor Alec McCowen walking along. I told him I was about to start in Boeing-Boeing, and he said, as far as he was concerned, farce was the hardest thing he’d ever done. He’s right. It’s very demanding, but when you have 700 people roaring their heads off laughing, it’s hugely worth it.
Why do you think this revival of Boeing-Boeing has been so successful?
As well as the fact that it’s a well-written farce and is really funny, there’s something else here. When you go see Boeing-Boeing, you’re reminded of a time when men and women both knew what the game was that they played together. The game was very non-politically correct. The game meant that the guys could treat the girls as if they weren’t as clever or as astute, and the girls allowed the guys to think that but then in the end, they won the game. Political correctness came along and stopped us playing that game. We spent a couple of thousand of years learning the rules, and then we threw it all out. I think most people really wish life could still be like that. I certainly do. That’s another reason I wanted to do this play.
What’s your favourite line from Boeing-Boeing?
“Say that again.” My favourite moment is the end with Neil (Stuke, who plays Bernard’s best friend Robert). I’m getting the champagne out and I ask, “Do you think they’ll forgive us in the morning?” He says, “It’s not impossible.” And I say, “Say that again.” It’s probably not the funniest line, but there’s a huge bonus for us because we know then we’ve got through to the end. It’s very satisfying.
What are your future plans? I’m contracted to Boeing-Boeing until the end of August. Then, if I’m lucky, I’ll start work with a friend on a low-budget feature film we’ve been trying to put together in the northwest of Ireland. It’s called Here Comes the Summer. It’s a coming of age story based on a short story by Colum McCann. It’s a very beautiful, gentle, lyrical and sometimes dark film. I’m directing it, but not appearing in it. If all goes to plan, we would start to shoot at end of September.
Anything else you’d like to add?
The Canton Chinese restaurant is keeping us alive. We eat there all the time. It’s very good food and not very expensive. I recommend it.
Boeing-Boeing is at the West End’s Comedy Theatre, where it’s currently booking until 20 October 2007.