'We wanted to be artists - not just polite actors' - Stephen Rae
Stephen Rea tells Tim Auld why he's happy to play tough, controversial characters on both sides of this island's sectarian divide
'I've never heard such audible responses from the audience. Verbalised, as well, you know, because what happens really does take you by surprise. It has a visceral effect." Encamped on a chaise longue in a smart hotel in Dublin - his shaggy hair, crumpled features and casual style wonderfully at odds with his surroundings - the actor Stephen Rea is talking to me about his latest role in the controversial new play Cyprus Avenue.
Rea's voice is gentle, a laconic northern lullaby lilt. The subject matter of the production in question - which has just finished at the Abbey Theatre and is about to open at the Royal Court in London - is quite the opposite.
Rea plays Eric, a sixty-something loyalist, unreconstructed in almost every way, who is terrified about the survival of his tribe in Northern Ireland.
When he meets his new grand-daughter, instead of seeing a cute baby, he thinks he sees the face of Gerry Adams. It's a moment of absurdist comedy, but what follows is enough to make Martin McDonagh's murderous Hangmen seem like a walk through the daisies. It's right up there with the savagery of Sarah Kane's Cleansed.
I haven't even seen it yet, but when I read the script I found myself averting my eyes from the page in horror. This could be either one of the most powerful or reviled plays to hit the London stage in many years. Sick bags may be de rigueur.
I ask Rea, 69, how difficult it has been to play the role night after night.
"It's distressing but I'm not cracking up or anything, you know what I mean?" he says with a dark laugh. "It is a bit like King Lear, you know, in that Eric has misunderstood his world and now he can't cope with what's happening in it and he starts to destroy it."
Rea has never shied away from playing edgy, unappealing roles. Think of Fergus, the IRA terrorist in The Crying Game, the alcoholic father Da Brady in The Butcher Boy and most recently the Machiavellian figure of Kuragin in the television adaptation of War and Peace.
His genius is to make the unsympathetic ooze with sympathy. He is the master of ambivalence and conflicted morality. So it is no surprise that the play's author, David Ireland, who grew up among unionists in Belfast, wrote the part of Eric specifically with Rea in mind. If anyone can tease out the play's nuance, surely Rea is the man.
Provocative though the play is, it is not ill thought through. Opening just a few weeks before this weekend's centenary of the Easter Rising, it is a violent play about the pointlessness of violence, a painful parable about the cost of sectarianism and the refusal to break down barriers.
Rea certainly hopes that his performance will help to nudge the debate on, rather than further entrench attitudes.
Born to Protestant parents in Belfast, Rea seems to have spent his life trying to kick down barriers and defy categorisation. Professionally, he's as happy to play IRA terrorists as paranoid Loyalists. Personally, too, he has made decisions that demonstrate a determination to live life according to his own lights.
For two decades between the early 1980s and 2003, he was married to Dolours Price, who was given a life sentence for her involvement in the IRA bombing of London's Old Bailey in 1973, which injured 200 people and left one man dead from a heart attack. She was released after seven years on humanitarian grounds and shortly after married Rea, and they had two sons.
In 2010, she hit the headlines again when she claimed that Gerry Adams had been her IRA commander and that he was responsible for the death in 1972 of Jean McConville, the widowed mother of 10 who was accused by the IRA of being an informer.
Price had driven McConville to the place where she was killed. Price died in 2013 and Adams continues categorically to deny her claims.
This is all heavy stuff, which Rea usually declines to talk about, but today when I ask him whether he was made to suffer both personally and professionally for his decision to marry Price, he replies after a pause, haltingly, his voiced tinged with emotion: "No. I'll tell you. The people in my profession were enormously generous about it. I never, ever stopped working.
"But it meant certain things that I might say would be interpreted in a narrower way than I intended. And that's difficult if you're doing theatre or anything."
You're referring to reporters, I ask? "Always restricting, in a sense and I've always attempted to not be restricted by any label - a sectarian label or otherwise, you know."
And what about Price, did her tribe reject her for marrying a Protestant?
"No, not at all," he says. "No, I mean, when you say Protestant, I'm not a very self-conscious Protestant. In fact, I'm not baptised in any religion, okay."
This is as close to irritation as I sense in his voice, before he softens to a joke.
"So that makes it, 'Are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?' I'm not baptised in any religion and I had no connection to loyalist politics."
Rea's father was a bus driver, his mother a housewife. He describes the world he grew up in during the 1950s as a time of brief liberation before the sectarian walls came down again in the late 1960s.
"I grew up in a mixed area, with mixed neighbours and mixed friends and my father drank - rather a lot - with both sides because it was that kind of place."
He studied English literature at Queen's University, Belfast, and drama at the Abbey Theatre School before progressing to the Royal Court in London, then the Old Vic and the National Theatre.
In 1980, he and Brian Friel set up Field Day Theatre Company, which toured Ireland and encouraged a new generation of playwrights. Rea says that his own favourite playwrights are Sam Shepard, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, and, charmingly humble from an actor who could make claim to be one of the greatest of his generation, regards himself as "immensely fortunate" to have worked with them all.
He reminisces about a night in 1976 after he opened at the Royal Court in Beckett's Endgame. "Harold [Pinter] was at the opening night and we'd all sat in [the designer] Jocelyn Herbert's house in Holland Park, with Beckett playing the piano," then hearing the note of wan nostalgia in his voice brings himself back down to Earth, "Oh, please."
Rea has, of course, worked in Hollywood many times, but has never been tempted to move there. He says: "Hollywood made me laugh, you know, because they believe in it all with such intensity and careers are built on awards ceremonies and I just found it hilarious. It's all razzmatazz. I don't understand it."
The rise and rise of the TV series and box sets has served him well. Indeed, if you look at the most intriguing dramas of the past couple of years, the thing that links them all is Rea: Dickensian, Hugo Blick's The Honourable Woman, War and Peace.
And it is for his role in Dickensian that Rea has been nominated for this year's Iftas, in the 'best lead actor in a drama' category. He is up against powerful opposition, however, in Colin Farrell (for True Detective), Aidan Turner (Poldark), Dara Deveney (An Klondike) and Barry Ward (Rebellion).
He lets drop that there is another Blick drama in the pipeline and a possible spin-off for his character Inspector Bucket. He rarely takes a holiday, so leapt at the opportunity to travel abroad on location to St Petersburg for War and Peace.
Is he a loner on location or does he socialise with the cast? "There was a very convivial cast in War and Peace."
He talks with great gusto about the talent of the young actors with whom he found himself working: "Tuppence Middleton, Jessie Buckley, Lily James, remarkable, and they seem to me to be better than the actors we were when we were that age. More confident, more intellectual assurance."
But wasn't there also something more vital about the time Rea was coming to acting in the 1960s? It wasn't just about building a film career and making money, something more was at stake.
He stops to consider whether things were better back then. "It was people who had experience of rock 'n' roll and wanted to dress that way and didn't want to be polite actors. We wanted to be artists, you know. That was the release of the Sixties. You were supposed to live."