On the Fringes... actor Rex Ryan
The son of the late - and beloved - broadcaster Gerry, Rex Ryan does not want to trade on his father's name. Instead, the 25-year-old has been quietly building a reputation as a talented theatre actor. Now, as he makes his Edinburgh Festival debut, he talks about hard work and ambition. Photographs by Colin Hattersley
Published 23/08/2015 | 02:30
For someone who says he never reads reviews of his own work, Rex Ryan appears to be very excited by the one that the Edinburgh Reporter has just given to his one-man show.
Five stars are much coveted at the city's world-famous Fringe Festival which runs until August 31, and the Dubliner bagged one for Pilgrim - a 75-minute tour-de-force in which he plays 27 different characters. He tweets a link to the glowing words and he has the show's producer email me a copy. Ryan's visceral performance is singled out for special praise.
It's a fortuitous break, and it comes just a few days after his arrival in the city. It leads to the small team involved with Pilgrim to hightail it around the grand Georgian streets of New Town pasting five stars to the fly posters for the show.
"There are about 3,000 different shows here," he says, "so a five-star review really helps you stand out from the pack." And those who stand out from the pack in this most celebrated of arts festivals are more likely to get those all-important breaks to lift them up several rungs on the career ladder.
But there's little fear of him getting carried away. "I met a well-known Dublin actor a couple of years ago who said it was best not to pay attention to either good or bad reviews because both might affect the way you approach a character. It's best to stay true to yourself and follow your instincts and not get caught up in anything else."
It's not just Rex Ryan's first time at the Edinburgh Fringe, it's his first time in the beautiful Scottish city itself, and he can't get enough of the place and the bountiful number of shows on offer.
Maybe that's why it's so hard to nail him down: arranging this interview hasn't been easy and a snatched phone call here and a more relaxed FaceTime conversation there give the impression of a young man in an awful hurry.
But when he pauses to catch a breath there's no denying that he has the same sort of roguish charm his father, the late Gerry Ryan, was renowned for.
Now 25, Rex looks uncannily like the broadcaster did at that age, except with a more flattering haircut and the sort of short beard that David Beckham is rocking at the moment.
I ask him how supportive his father was of his fledgling interest in acting and I'm struck by the fact that he refers to Gerry in the present tense. "My Mum and Dad are always very supportive and they are to everyone in the family," he says. "They would never get in the way of anything. You really feel like they believe in you. That's a priceless thing when you're going into any industry with any degree of risk."
But when I press further, he clams up. "I don't think," he says, slowly, "I'm going to talk too much about Dad today. I think I'm going to leave the sort of deeper questions you might have about him. I understand why you're asking. It's part of the whole set-up - you need a hook. But I don't want to go there. There's nothing new for you and I to explore today."
He was much more forthcoming on The John Murray Show on RTÉ radio back in May, especially when the presenter mentioned that he thought about his own deceased father every day. "I don't think it ever leaves, it sticks with you," Rex said. "If you had a good relationship it's easy to just be happy for what happened and what you had together. There's not too much wallowing in misery.
"Dad said that he named me Rex Ryan because he thought it would look nice on a poster. He gave me the confidence to go after [acting]."
It's easy to understand his reticence to talk about his father, five years on from his untimely death at just 53. As one of the country's best-known and most-loved radio stars, the media pored over every last detail of his final hours. Much of the coverage was fixated on the two women in his life: girlfriend Melanie Verwoerd and ex-wife Morah, and his five children with Morah found the spotlight turned on them during the rawest stages of their grief.
But you sense, too, that Rex Ryan is finding it liberating to be performing in a city where his background is not known - or written about.
Pilgrim was well received at the Dublin Fringe Festival last autumn, and still several reviewers looked for echoes of Gerry in his larger-than-life performance. No matter how close one is to a parent, living or dead, such constant reminders are bound to become tiresome.
Rex has been acting professionally for two years, following an intensive 24-month course at the Gaiety School of Acting (the Dublin drama college attended by Colin Farrell among many others).
"It was great, I don't have a bad word to say about it," he says. "This might sound like a first-world problem, but it was really full on. You had to work very hard and that's a really good grounding for this sort of career, because it's important to keep yourself as busy as you possibly can."
Pilgrim, he insists, is the most exciting thing he has done to date. "As an actor, you really need to get psyched up for it because it's so quick and energetic. It's about this guy who's in California on a J1, and is behaving pretty offensively, and he has to come home to the girl he got pregnant. But the day he flies out is 9/11 and his flight is routed to Newfoundland - which really happened for people flying that day - and he has to stay there out of his comfort zone for three days and that makes him think about his life and choices he's made."
It was written by young Cavan dramatist Philip Doherty and it's the third time he and Rex have worked together. "I think Philo is a really great writer who has a lot of interesting things to say," he says. "The journey we've gone through with Pilgrim is crazy. There have been loads of ups and downs. I've worked my arse off and I'm privileged that people would pay 12 quid to come and see me."
After our interview, he emails to ask if I would mention that the play will be staged in the Viking Theatre, Clontarf, from September 14. As someone who grew up in the northside Dublin coastal suburb, it brings a whole new definition to backyard show. "It's being billed The Homecoming - by me," he jokes. Rex says he is under no illusions about what a precarious profession he has chosen, although he insists he has had enough work over the past two years "to pay the rent".
He has just made his film debut in a low-budget Irish feature called Monged, alongside John Connors of Love/Hate fame and he is still buzzing from the experience. "The support cast were great too," he says. "There's a girl named Clare Dunne, who plays my girlfriend - and she's just a beautiful, beautiful actress."
Although he comes across as serious about his craft, he's not above poking fun at naval-gazing actorly talk and he says that at this stage in his career, he can't afford to be too choosy about the parts he gets.
"Ask any Dublin actor and they'll take what's going," he says. "At the end of the day, bills have to be paid and you have to live, but of course you want to do the very best work you can."
He says he got a bartender job to fund his time at the Gaiety School of Acting and wouldn't hesitate to pull pints again if the work dried up. "It's part and parcel of the business," he says. "Most actors have to do something else to supplement their income."
All except one of the Ryan children look set for a career in showbiz. Eldest child, Lottie (28) is already well on her way, having hosted her own early morning weekend show on 2fm for the best part of two years. Rex admits never being up early enough to hear it live - she is on air at the ungodly time of 6am - but he does listen to podcasts of the show. He is convinced that she has what it takes to make it in the competitive world of broadcasting.
Another sister, Bonnie (22), is trying her luck in an even more cut-throat industry - pop. "She's been writing songs and she's got a really beautiful singing voice," he enthuses, "but she knows how difficult it is to get noticed. It's about so much more than mere talent."
Youngest sister, Babette (15), is on the books of a Dublin modelling agency and has shown an aptitude for acting. "Babs is incredible," he says. "I think she'll have the pick of a few potential careers. Never rule out anything."
The only one to buck the showbiz trend is Elliott (19). "He's studying commerce in UCD at the moment," Rex says. "He might be the only one of us who isn't completely nuts because he'll get a stable job that will allow him to go on holidays every now and again."
Rex "coasted" through a three-year business degree achieving "average grades" and knew in second year that he had to pursue his latent acting ambitions. He says he never had ambitions to be a broadcaster like his father. "I think I always felt subconsciously that I wanted to be an actor and I always felt that radio was sort of Dad's gig and I suppose I must have said to myself, 'I'm not going there'."
The closest he has got to RTÉ was his role in a radio play, Jumping Hedges, last November. It was an experience he says he adored. "One of the good things about acting is the number of different media that you can work in, whether it's theatre or film or radio plays. Each brings very different demands."
He says he found the pace of filming Monged to be challenging to adjust to, especially after the mad-cap energy that Pilgrim requires. "I was rehearsing for Conor McPherson's Port Authority at the time and so whenever I had downtime in the film I used it to learn lines for the play."
As a freelance, he says it is important to ensure his days are well structured. "I'm up early and get to work on a screenplay, or rehearsals for something I'm doing, or just getting to the gym - one of the things about doing a one-man show is the importance of breathing well and that only comes with keeping fit." There's no time, right now, for a relationship and he's happy to be single for the time being.
"I feel I'm very lucky," he says. " You get to do what you love in front of an audience and although there's obviously a sense of insecurity about it, it's exciting not to know what opportunities or challenges might be just around the corner.
"For now, though, it's about knuckling down and working hard."
His inability to sing:
"I'm the most horrible singer. I'm not being modest, I don't have a note in my head so musical theatre is out for me, unless it's something like the Enda Walsh opera, The Last Hotel, which I saw here in Edinburgh. Mikel Murfi is in it and he didn't have to sing at all - that's something I could do."
The moment he knew he wanted to be an actor:
"It was when I saw the movie version of A Streetcar Named Desire. How cliched is that? After I watched it, I was sitting there thinking, 'Why did I love that so much and why did it have such a weird effect on me?' And it was Brando. He was just mesmerising in it."
The Irish actor he most admires:
"Michael Fassbender is ridiculously brilliant. Shame is one of my favourite films because Steve McQueen made it and Fassbender was so raw and honest [in his role as a sex addict in New York]. It was the same with Hunger [also directed by McQueen and with Fassbender playing the part of hunger-striker Bobby Sands]."
Early forays into acting:
"I used to do youth theatre when I was very young but left that when I was about 13 because, as you know, it's not cool to be dancing around the stage in skirts when you go to secondary school. It was self-preservation. But by sixth year, acting was something that I kept thinking about."