Aidan Quinn's ode to Ireland of the Seventies
A successful career in movies, stunning good looks, marriage to the beautiful Elizabeth Bracco -- life has showered Aidan Quinn with blessings. But he has also had the challenge of looking after his autistic daughter. Here, he confesses to Barry Egan about grave-robbing, losing his virginity and his new coming-of-age movie
For the women of Farmgate in Middleton, it is not enough to observe Aidan Quinn. Their stares penetrate the US movie star as if there were a mysterious, ancient truth concealed inside him.
The star of Michael Collins and Legends of the Fall has the Cork matrons in a fluster as he makes his handsome way across the restaurant. (Aidan is bit flustered himself. He lost his car keys and was stuck in Fota Island. He is only half an hour late.)
The drooling mavens look upon his loveliness with a sense of Co Cork wonder. You imagine that one look from his big baby blues -- as Premiere magazine once memorably described Quinn's eyes -- and several of the ladies might faint face-down into their mid-afternoon puddings. The waitress comes over and gazes at him with such intensity as she takes his order that I am starting to fear whether she will remember my order at all.
The woman at the opposite table with the crying baby apologies and offers to do her best to quell the sprog's shrieks. She needn't have bothered.
Once his lunch arrives -- plaice with potatoes -- Aidan makes such a racket mashing up the spuds into the fish like a bog man having his first meal in a month that all cries of a baby nearby are soon drowned out.
He really hoors into the food all right. "You don't remember, do you?" Aidan says as he downs another mouthful of mashed-up spuddies. I haven't a clue what he's on about. "We sat together on a plane coming back from LA in 1993. We talked about art and film and books all the way to Dublin."
I am mortified that I have no recollection of any such plane journey, however artistic, with the mighty Quinn. His memory, as it turns out, is much better than mine. As he finishes the last of his potatoes, he tells me how he got into acting: during an epiphany-cum-daydream in high school in his mid-teens. He suddenly thought, "Maybe I'll take an acting class." When he walked into the actual class at college, however, he saw all "the theatre people" and drew back in anxiety and was gone as quickly as he came in. When Aidan was 19 he took another acting class and was, he once said, "very much smitten with it." The public, particularly women, were soon smitten with Aidan and his baby blue eyes in his breakthrough role in Desperately Seeking Susan in 1985. The following year the kid from the Windy City played Felipe Mendoza opposite Robert de Niro and Ray McAnally ("Ray was amazing to work with", he recalls of the late Irish genius) in The Mission. One of his first major roles was the part of an man with Aids in An Early Frost, believed to be the first film ever made about the condition. Asked about accepting what was a controversial role at the time -- the mid-Eighties -- Aidan told the LA Times: "Some bigger names turned it down, which I didn't know until afterwards. But for me, it was never even a choice. I was offered a great script with great actors, a terrific director, about a subject I felt deeply about. It would have been so asinine to consider not doing it because I was playing a homosexual." Since then, he has been acclaimed for his comedic talents opposite Johnny Depp in 1993's Benny & Joon, and more importantly, his depiction of Harry Boland in Neil Jordan's 1996 flawed epic Michael Collins ("I loved working on every minute of that picture", he says); to say nothing of his composure opposite Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins in Legends of the Fall in 1994. The mid-Nineties were something of a golden time for the actor. Sadly, it soon got cloudier for the owner of the big baby blues.
Born in Chicago 49 years ago, Aidan ended up coming with his brothers and his sisters to live in Birr because it was where his mother, Theresa, and father, Michael, came from. His father was a professor of English Literature at Rock Valley College in the Chicago suburbs. You couldn't walk a few steps in the Quinn household, Aidan says, without tripping over Beckett, Yeats or Synge. (Aidan's first acting role was playing the little boy in Beckett's Waiting For Godot at the college where his father taught.) Mr Quinn was obsessed with Irish literature. He was also obsessed with an Irish education for his children, who would be sent back to Ireland to be taught. They stayed with aunts and uncles or with granny Quinn in Birr or Granny Agnes McCabe, who lived 12 miles away on a farm. "The best thing about living in a small town in Ireland was, the things you end up doing.
"At one point, a friend, and I were 13, we did a terrible, an awful, thing ... " He looks ashen-faced with guilt.
I'll be your priest, Aidan.
"The old graves had the slab on top and the sides were open," he begins. "The grave of a 10th-century monk ... it was in the centre, down the Church Lane. We were youngsters and one night, myself and Johnny decided to go in there, dig around and find some bones. And we did. We found a femur, a leg bone, and we would go all around the town beating each other over the head, terrifying the girls and telling them where we got the leg from!" he laughs. Still on the subject of final resting places, Aidan says to this day he cannot get his parents (who went to America from Offaly in the mid-Fifties and are staying in Dublin at the moment on a holiday) to answer him where they want to be buried: Ireland or America?
"They're in their late 70s. It is a big decision between the States and here because you have got the coffin over here and people over here for the funeral and you have got to find the spot where you want to be buried." Whatever about his mother and father, Aidan will be buried near his home in upstate New York. "I know the graveyard, but I haven't picked the actual spot."
The Quinn childhoods was certainly colourful. One story his mother told them growing up inspired Aidan's brother, Paul, to write This Is My Father: about a man and a girl she knew when she was a little girl, involving a curse.
In the Vintage Week in the Birr of his youth, Aidan remembers there were wild parties every night. That week Aidan told his parents that he was going to sleep over at his friend's house and his friend would tell his parents that he was going to sleep over at Aidan's house. And they would go off in the country "with tents and cook ourselves feasts and have the girls over".
Hardly surprisingly, Aidan lost his virginity during that week at the age of 13. "I still remember her, but I don't want to talk about her name. "It was a medieval city," he adds, changing the subject, and looking out across Middleton. "We'd get bored and climb over the castle walls and get chased out of the castle grounds. History was everywhere. You were seeped in it. And all we complained about was how boring it was."
He says that when he thinks of the things he did in the few years he lived as a teenager in Ireland they are stronger in his imagination now than they were then. He would like to write a film script or a play "a ways down the road".
His wife, Elizabeth Bracco, is already a way down the road to the airport. She is flying home to America with their 10-year-old daughter Mia while her husband stays on to talk-up 32A, the new movie written and produced by Aidan's sister, Marian, and in which he plays a starring role.
"I guess more than anything, 32A is about remembering a time in one's life. I've had a lot of women say, 'that was me' or men say, 'I was the guy on the doorstep'. I've even heard of a guy apologising to a woman whom he stood up when they were teenagers when they met after the screening of 32A! It's my ode to girls and Ireland in the Seventies," Marian tells me on the phone before I met her famous brother.
"It is about four girls who are best friends in Raheny," Aidan tells me in person. "It is a coming-of-age movie. It is their first bras. Their first boyfriends. Their first sneaking out of the house. Their first getting drunk." I knew Aidan had a 19-year-old daughter, Ava, (and a 10-year-old one) so I innocently asked what were his own memories when a boyfriend knocked for the first time on the door at home to take his daughter out.
"I never had that," he smiles. "My 19-year-old daughter is autistic. She doesn't speak."
I say I'm sorry.
"That's OK," he smiles. "But she does have a guy that she grew up with, that she's very keen on and they are very keen on each other. And they do give each other ... it is delight seeing them together, these two autistic adults now. And when they are together, the way they eye each other out of the corner of their eyes and laugh at each other. My daughter doesn't really speak. So sometimes you're guessing at what's going on." His daughter understands energy more than the specific building blocks of what a word is, he believes.
It must have been extremely difficult for yourself and your wife to cope with.
"Oh yeah, yeah. It is a blessing and a curse. It has its blessings as well."
It is a testament to his marriage that, he says, "it survived; without a doubt. Because I think the divorce rate in autism parents is some horrendous figure like 75 per cent. If you get through the first five or six years with autism that's the most difficult part," he says.
The salt and pepper beard makes him look a bit like Roy Keane (with a bit of Jeremy Irons) today. You could understand how the years of bringing up the child might have given his beard the greyness. He says that the autism of their child probably deepened his and his wife's attachment to each other: "that we had to be together to survive for each other and for our daughter. I am a very lucky man. My wife is extremely private."
He talks about the enormity of trying to deal with the first realisation that his daughter's immune system is "breaking down and she is crying uncontrollably and in pain and nobody can tell you what to do to help. And there is nothing showing up on any of the tests." He pauses. "But you know your daughter is in pain," he says, adding, "the strain that puts on a marriage. That was the tough part". But it wasn't the toughest part. The toughest part, he says, was knowing that their child's autism came from as a result of a vaccination. "So we had a normal child that was walking, talking, doing everything way faster than she was supposed to. Then, after an MMR, she got a 106° fever and turned blue and woke up the next day with dark circles and not knowing who she was. And uncoordinated. And her arm lifted up. Of course the doctors are all saying, 'Oh, that's normal.'"
The industry Aidan plunged himself into so many years ago didn't turn out to be altogether normal, either. It has been one fraught with pain and rejection along the way. When he didn't get the leads in the Coen brothers' Raising Arizona or Miller's Crossing, he said in an interview with the LA Times, "Don't ever ask me to audition again because I won't. It's too heartbreaking." He has seen roles go to other actors because he was not considered "box office".
"I still absolutely love the unadorned creative part of it -- sitting around with actors and working with the director and when the cameras are rolling. The other aspects of the business get tiring and ridiculous," he continues. "The fighting to get a decent part; having directors love you for a part and then the studio saying No."
I ask him when was the last time that happened to him. "All the time. Constantly," he says. "I make my living doing independent films because the interesting roles that I want to do in the bigger studio films are of that list of six or seven guys. It has always been a struggle for me. Even for Legends Of The Fall, I had intercession from Brad Pitt. I also had intercession from Meryl Streep to get me in the movie. I am more well known in Ireland than I am in the States."
He mashes his dessert like a bog man.
"Michael Collins didn't do well in the States," he says of the Neil Jordan movie he starred in with Liam Neeson and Julia Roberts. "And Song for a Raggy Boy was never even released in America. When you think of all the crap films that get released, that is shocking. I am disillusioned but I am not going to stop, you know. To see Marian's film, 32A -- with 10 years of persistence -- finally coming through," he says, "and there again, there are so many frustrations about no Irish distributor. They are distributing it themselves. My sister and her husband from their little cottage are doing it all themselves. It is unbelievable. Here's this film that won the Fleadh, it won Galway. It is about women. It is doing really well, so persistence does pay off."
He has a nice way about him, a decency. You can see why Meryl and Brad would have had their people have a word with the studios on Aidan's behalf. He is the kind of man you'd want to help. The kind of man you'd want to sit on a plane with for nine hours chatting about movies (even if you can't remember.)
He is also the kind of man, he tells me, who goes playing golf at dawn on his own. "I got a hole in one in Washington one morning at 6am, " he recalls. "It was surreal." So was the way he met his wife. He met Elizabeth in 1984 in a restaurant frequented by actors and writers called Cafe Central on 79th Street right across from the Natural History Museum in New York. Aidan was eating alone having come from an audition in some "forgettable movie" when his future wife walked in with another woman. The other woman, as it happened, Aidan had read with at the audition earlier in the day. When she suggested that they join Aidan, Aidan's future wife at first wasn't particularly impressed at the prospect of sitting with a male actor. "An actor? I don't think so," she said, rolling her eyes.
"I think she might have had a bad experience with an actor beforehand," Aidan says, now with a chuckle. "I was very attracted to her friend, " he remembers, "but I knew her friend was going out with Joe Pesci so I thought that is maybe not a good place to go. Then I looked over at my wife and it is such a cliche, but things slowed down and her face looked so familiar. And we have been together since that night."
In1987,he married the woman who many of us will know as Marie Spatafore, wife of Vito, in The Sopranos. That same year he landed his big role playing opposite another gorgeous American-Italian Catholic girl: enter Madonna. Ironically, Elizabeth was given the script of Desperately Seeking Susan by actress Rosanna Arquette because "Rosanna thought Elizabeth would be good for Madonna's part because they looked alike. They could be sisters."
"You know it's funny," says Aidan. "Madonna had just started and I hadn't been keeping up and I didn't know who she was. I bumped into her in the hall and I said to her, 'So, come here, someone told me that your name is Madonna? And they say that it's your real name?'
"I told her that I had never heard of her. I was kind of well-known as an actor then. And she turned to me and said, 'I've never heard of you either'."
I bet the matrons of Middleton could fill her in now.
Directed and written by Marian Quinn, 32A is currently on release nationwide. For further information, see www.32amovie.com.