‘Any­body who keeps their word for seven min­utes is f***ing rare’

Colm Meaney on Hol­ly­wood val­ues, ‘Dr No’ and play­ing Martin McGuin­ness

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Don­ald Clarke

When he men­tioned that, I got an in­sight into Pais­ley that I never had be­fore. Some­thing clicked in my head His mother would say: ‘You’ll be walk­ing with­out a sole on your boot. I see them all the time, these ac­tors’

Here’s Colm Meaney, look­ing much as he has looked for the past 30 years. He still has that mat of Ir­ish curls. His face is no less lived in. His voice still rum­bles across the lower oc­taves.

The Dubliner is or­gan­is­ing his bits and pieces in a ho­tel not far from St Stephen’s Green. It’s re­mark­able how little decades in Los An­ge­les have al­tered the outer Meaney. “We split the fam­ily be­tween Los An­ge­les and Spain,” he ex­plains as he set­tles. “My missus is French and she doesn’t like Los An­ge­les. But she likes the house. When I say I’ll sell it, there will be this cho­rus of fe­males say­ing: no, no, no.”

So is life com­pli­cated? “Ah, yeah. But if you com­plained about it, peo­ple would give you a slap. It’s a good com­pli­ca­tion to have.”

Fair enough. Meaney, now 63, is back in town to talk about his role as Martin McGuin­ness in Nick Hamm’s The Jour­ney. It’s a pe­cu­liar sort of project. The film fol­lows McGuin­ness and Ian Pais­ley – played by a dis­con­cert­ingly slight Ti­mothy Spall – as they drive to Ed­in­burgh dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly tense pe­riod of the 2006 St An­drews ne­go­ti­a­tions. The film sup­poses con­ver­sa­tions that al­low the two men to find un­ex­pected com­mon ground.

I had wrongly as­sumed that Meaney knew the late deputy first min­is­ter well. The actor has long been a Sinn Féin sup­porter and cam­paigned for McGuin­ness in his run for the Ir­ish pres­i­dency in 2011. “No, I didn’t re­ally know him that well. I only met him once. I sup­ported the cam­paign and I em­ceed his fi­nal rally at the Man­sion House. That’s where I met him.”

He doesn’t ap­pear to be at­tempt­ing an im­per­son­ation in the film. “Not at all. The few times I have played real peo­ple I have found that way is death,” he says. “With iconic char­ac­ters who are well known, you have to look just a bit like them. You have to make that ef­fort or peo­ple switch straight off. But it’s more to do with find­ing the in­ner essence of the man.”

McGuin­ness v Dr No

Colin Bate­man’s script ap­pears to be ar­gu­ing that Pais­ley was more re­luc­tant to em­brace com­pro­mise. As the politi­cians drive through the Scot­tish coun­try­side – stop­ping off for a walk around an aban­doned church – it is McGuin­ness who is urg­ing Dr No to­wards agree­ment. None­the­less, the film does al­low that both men had to shift their ground.

“I had a mo­ment where Tim is in the church talk­ing about the Protes­tants mar­tyrs,” Meaney says, re­fer­ring to Protes­tant re­form­ers who were ex­e­cuted for their re­li­gion dur­ing the 16th cen­turies, be­gin­ning un­der the reign of Henry VIII. “We used to talk about this in the 1970s – about peo­ple wan­der­ing around slaugh­ter­ing Protes­tants. There were sec­tar­ian atrocities com­mit­ted by Catholics. When he men­tioned that, I got an in­sight into Pais­ley that I never had be­fore. Some­thing clicked in my head. That’s where it comes from.”

So what fi­nally per­suaded the two men to move to­wards one an­other? “I think it was a slow drip, drip. But what re­ally changed it was be­gin­ning to see each other as hu­man be­ings. They’re just talk­ing about bis­cuits and so on. Ha ha.”

Meaney is keen to stress that the film does not claim to be any­thing like a doc­u­men­tary. One slightly un­easy in­no­va­tion finds an MI5 of­fi­cer, pos­ing as a driver, be­ing fed ques­tions by his su­pe­rior via a con­cealed head­piece. Ian Pais­ley Jr was, how­ever, suf­fi­ciently for­giv­ing of the tweaks to screen The Jour­ney at the House of Com­mons.

“It was screened i n the Speaker’s rooms. I know he was happy with it. I haven’t heard a lot of re­ac­tion apart from that,” Meaney says.

Pais­ley Jr showed an im­pres­sive de­gree of ma­tu­rity in his re­marks fol­low­ing McGuin­ness’s death. It seems some among the next gen­er­a­tion un­der­stand the im­por­tance of hon­our­ing the shifts in at­ti­tude that un­der­score The Jour­ney.

“Un­for­tu­nately, I don’t think Ar­lene Fos­ter is one of them,” Meaney says wryly. “Though Clin­ton’s per­for­mance at the f uneral was mas­ter­ful. Shame­less. Men­tion­ing Ar­lene twice? At the al­tar? Bril­liant.”

He goes on to tell amus­ing sto­ries about meet­ing the Clin­tons when per­form­ing opposite Kevin Spacey at the Almeida The­atre in Lon­don. Our Colm has come a long way.

Fam­ily his­tory

There’s no great the­atri­cal his­tory in the fam­ily. He does not come from money. His dad drove a van for John­ston, Mooney & O’Brien. His mother ( who is now 93) was slightly ap­palled when, de­spite a sharp brain, he de­cided to go among ac­tors. There were some proper jobs out there.

“Oh she’d say: ‘You’ll be walk­ing around with­out a sole on your boot. I see them in town all the time, these ac­tors.’ She’d quote names of peo­ple she’d seen with­out a sole on their boot. Ha ha.”

Meaney can’t re­mem­ber any lengthy pe­ri­ods of un­em­ploy­ment. He trained at the Abbey The­atre and then moved into its com­pany. He took the first of two big leaps when he trav­elled to Eng­land and wound up work­ing for John McGrath’s left- wing com­pany 7: 84. He later made a lunge for the US and found him­self with Vin­cent Dowl­ing at the Great Lakes Shake­speare The­atre in Cleve­land. He mar­ried the actor Bair­bre Dowl­ing ( who, sadly, died last year), the boss’s daugh­ter, and set­tled in for an­other pe­riod of ad­ven­ture.

“I was for­tu­nate. The train­ing at the Abbey was very good,” he re­mem­bers. “It was al­most like an ap­pren­tice­ship. We would play small parts. We would have classes. It was all there. But what re­ally de­vel­oped my craft was work­ing with John McGrath on 7:84.”

Flex­i­ble actor

Meaney proved to be the sort of flex­i­ble char­ac­ter actor who can find a place in some part of al­most any scene. Even­tu­ally, di­rec­tors be­gan to push him to­wards the front of the frame. His per­for­mances in three Roddy Doyle adap­ta­tions – The Van, The Com­mit­ments and The Snap­per – ce­mented his rep­u­ta­tion in this cor­ner of the world but, among cer­tain in­ter­na­tional cadres, he will al­ways be iden­ti­fied first as Miles O’Brien, sup­port­ing player in Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion and star of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

“It is funny that,” he says. “In Amer­ica, it is al­most as if I had two dif­fer­ent ca­reers. I had this ca­reer in Star Trek and the Trekkie fans knew me from that. In Ire­land, I had done The Van and so on. But there were peo­ple who only know me from fea­tures and have no idea I was in Star Trek.”

The Trek ad­ven­ture pro­gressed in an ir­reg­u­lar fash­ion. You could ar­gue that he was backed into those un­usual lev­els of job se­cu­rity for an actor. O’Brien was ini­tially an un­named trans­porta­tion of­fi­cer. Then he be­came a re­cur­ring char­ac­ter. Even­tu­ally the of­fer came to star in a spin- off se­ries. “Ini­tially, I was very re­luc­tant. But I had a con­ver­sa­tion with Rick Ber­man, the pro­ducer, and he said: ‘ If there’s some­thing else you re­ally want to do, bring me the script and, if I agree with you, then I’ll let you out to do it.’ I liked Rick, but I felt, in this busi­ness, any­body who keeps their word for seven min­utes is pretty fuck­ing rare. But he did.”

Meaney’s ca­reer duly surged. He and Dowl­ing di­vorced in 1994 and he mar­ried cos­tume de­signer Ines Glo­rian in March 2007. One of the many up­sides to be­ing a char­ac­ter actor is that age does not much wither op­por­tu­ni­ties. He was great as the mad an­tag­o­nist in Alan Par­tridge: Al­pha Papa. Look out for him in up­com­ing Ir­ish film Ha­lal Daddy. It’s been a happy ca­reer.

“I wish I had some fuck­ing sto­ries of degra­da­tion,” he cack­les. “I re­ally wish I had. But I don’t. It’s ter­ri­ble.”

MAIN PHO­TO­GRAPH: MAARTEN DE BOER/ GETTY PORTAIT

‘What re­ally changed it was be­gin­ning to see each other as hu­man be­ings’: Colm Meaney, as Martin McGuin­ness, and Ti­mothy Spall, as Ian Pais­ley, in The Jour­ney.

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