“I suppose I was a ghastly show-off. And then I went into an adolescent decline. I was painfully shy. I never quite recovered from that. It never left me
WHATEVER WAY one looks at it, the movie Blackthorn has been a long time coming. An autumnal western charting the last days of Butch Cassidy, Gil Mateo’s Bolivian adventure picks up long after the point where Paul Newman and Robert Redford bowed out in a hail of bullets.
For Belfast-born actor Stephen Rea, too, Blackthorn is long overdue. A lifelong fan of the horse opera, he’s waited decades to get in the saddle.
“Nobody really does westerns nowadays. It has ceased to be a genre hasn’t it?” says Rea. “When I was a kid that’s what cinema was. As boys we played cowboys and Indians. That was how we dressed up and imagined ourselves to be. The movies were westerns. I also loved the Musketeers. And eventually I got to be in a Musketeer film but I was Cardinal Richelieu because the moment had passed where I could play a Musketeer. But that was quite good anyway.”
He suspects fashion will dictate that Blackthorn is “probably my first and last and only western”. But that’s okay, too. The sole oater on Rea’s glittering CV is special of its own accord. Rea and actor-playwright Sam Shepard have been firm friends since the 1970s when they first worked together in London. They’ve frequently collaborated during the intervening years and yet, Blackthorn marks their first onscreen buddy-up. Like we said: Blackthorn is a long time coming.
“Yeah,” nods Rea. “We’ve known each other since the early 1970s. We were both in London and very young. He wrote a play and directed me in it. Geography of a Horse Dreamer. About a guy who was chained to a bed with gangsters standing over him writing down the winners for horse races. Bob Hoskins was in it. I’ve worked with Sam quite a bit in the last few years but this is the first time I’ve ever acted with him in either theatre or film. And it was an entirely great experience, you know.”
The Blackthorn shoot was extreme. Onscreen the salt flats of Bolivia look so otherworldly they could be mistaken for an outtake from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“We were 15,000ft up and fighting to breathe,” says Rea. “I arrived to do a scene and as I got there a stuntman was being tak- en to hospital. He hadn’t fallen off a horse or anything. He’d just succumbed to the altitude. Sometimes it would take you 10 minutes to walk from here to that wall [He points to a wall no more than three metres away.] It’s more profound than catching for breath. You can’t sleep. You feel nauseous all the time. I woke up – this wasn’t even at the highest altitude – projectile vomiting. The Indians have different bodies to us. They’re shorter and they’ve adapted, I guess. Europeans never get used to it.” It was, despite the discombobulation, a dream job, he says.
“It was an incredible place. I guess it looks like Ireland must have done 70 or 80 years ago. It’s populated by people just subsisting on the land and what they have. It’s religious. But when you only have two llamas and your family I suppose you better believe in something. The Spanish have gone and they’ve stripped the place of silver and resources but they’re still there. It’s heartening. One does have a wonderful job that you get called up to make a movie in Bolivia and you get to see the place.”
Rea is a reliable collaborator. He first worked with playwright Stewart Parker in college. In 1980 a contingent including Rea, Tom Paulin, Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane, founded the Field Day Theatre Company. He has, perhaps most visibly, over the years, been something of a muse for director Neil Jordan. The pair has worked together on Angel, The Company of Wolves, Interview with a Vampire, The Butcher Boy, The End of the Affair, In Dreams, Michael Collins, Breakfast on Pluto, Ondine and The Crying Game, for which Rea received an Oscar nod.
Jordan wrote Angel for Rea having seen his range on stage. And yet both men seem to attribute the success of their work together to “turning up”.
“I don’t know,” shrugs Rea. “You learn something every time you do the job. I’ve been lucky to work with lots of great people over the years. Great writers. Great directors. I’ve been very privileged.
“Working with the great Robert Altman was an education in itself,” recalls Rea. “He was just an original.
“He had just had a heart transplant when I worked with him. He was appallingly thin for a man of his size. He couldn’t drink and lamented not being able to go out drinking in Paris. I ended up going drinking with his wife: she could drink for two. But he was so courageous, personally and professionally, you know. You learned something every time you watched him. He loved actors. If he saw acting he backed off and didn’t try to control it.”
Born into a working-class Presbyterian family, Rea, the son of a bus driver, had no