The man who knows who he is
SEAN McGinley agrees that no sane person becomes an actor. "I suppose I could have easily ended up sliding into teaching or being an alcoholic or being in jail," he says.
The Donegal-born actor shakes his head at the near misses, then smiles. It is days before the Dublin premiere of Empress of India, a play which Stuart Carolan wrote with McGinley in mind. In the Druid production, which has drawn criticism from some theatre-goers over its sex scenes and bad language, Sean plays the part of Seamus Lamb, a celebrated Irish Hollywood actor whose private life is crumbling. He is distraught and utterly lost. Lamb is so insecure that he lists his awards, and then comes out with the line, "Do you know who I am?"
In person, McGinley is the polar opposite. So humble is he about his work that his actor's biog includes only a fraction of his vast repertoire; many fine performances aren't mentioned. There was the pathetic bachelor stuck at home with his mother in Tom Murphy's A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer's Assistant, he was one of the hostages in Frank McGuinness's Someone Who'll Watch Over Me , and he was in Robert Falls's heart-wrenching production of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. There have also been films aplenty. He has worked with Martin Scorsese in Gangs of New York as well as appearing in Braveheart, The Field and The General, the last written and directed by John Boorman. Recently, he did a film with Richard Attenborough and he was reunited with Boorman for A Tiger's Tale. ("A master craftsman," he calls him.)
All that's before we even touch on his television work, which has included Making the Cut and Pure Mule - and, of course, he was Roddy Doyle's Charlo in Family.
When it is all listed on paper, McGinley's working life reads like a dream. Yet there was no master plan to act - or do anything, in fact. He found himself in UCG in the early Seventies, studying English and Economics simply because he could.
"Also, there was the sense that it was putting offthe inevitable."
The inevitable, in those days, was a sensible job in the civil service. His mother was a primary school teacher and his father worked for Customs and Excise, so Sean was expected to do the right thing - get the H Dip and then become a teacher. He got as far as the teacher training and qualified, but then fate intervened. He had been in a play in his final year in UCG - "just for the craic", as he says himself, "it was a mad thing" - when, shortly afterwards, a woman in a long grey coat with blonde hair stopped him in a shopin Galway.
"You're Sean McGinley. I saw you in that play. Would you like to come to audition for Druid?" she said. He went for the audition and the seed of his future life was sown.
The woman was Marie Mullen, the actress who is now his wife and the mother of their two children, Roisin, 14 and Mairead, 9. She and Garry Hynes, who had founded Druid, had been in the audience for his play. Theysaw that he had something. Many years later, I saw his spark too.
The first time I spotted McGinley on stage was back in 1989, in Brian Friel's Aristocrats at the Gate. The minute he came on stage, the air was charged. He had a real presence and there was something slightly dangerous about him. He played a cantankerous character with such rage that I wondered if it was for real. Afterwards, McGinley often played characters who were on the brink of explosion.
So does he have a temper?
"No more than anybody else," he says. "I remember with my younger brother Ciaran - there's only a year and a half between us - we used to beat the crap out of each other when we were small. We're pretty close. We played Gaelic football and loved it. I suppose the euphemism in Gaelic football is [that] GBH is a healthy challenge. I suppose in theatre we're allowed to access stuff that otherwise you'd haveto have a tight rein on. Maybe I seemed angry because I was young and single and staying up till four in the morningand going into rehearsals badly shook."
But the McGinley I meet strikes me as a more mellow man. For starters, he speaks so quietly that I almost have to strain to hear him. And all through our time together, he sounds grateful that his life has turned out the way it has. Not that he sounds like a Hallmark card, full of cheesy schmaltz, but he is content that he has found something that he likes doing and that he is good at and so he works hard to keep his career.
"The world doesn't owe me, or Marie, a living as an actor," he says. They immerse themselves in the work and give their very best. Their early days with Druid formed them. "It was like being part of a religious order. There was so much work to be done and we did it, and were happy to do it. The nature of Druid at that time was that everybody was doing everything - acting, directing, building sets, making costumes, publicity - for very little money. So we'd no social life as such."
He can't say when he first started going out with Marie. The lines are blurred, ashe didn't acknowledge therelationship for what it was for years. It had been a gradual thing.
"We all stuck together but I think that we were also very aware that it was such a close-knit bunch of people that you didn't want to go f**king it up by having a fling with somebody and then it could go nasty. It was kind of an instinct, as if it'd almost be incestuous. We were silly buggers for years, pretending that there was nothing - and then years later, when everybody else knew that there was something going on, we decided to acknowledge it ourselves. We were like a married couple so it's been greatever since."
McGinley and Mullen have managed the fine balance of doing good work and bringing up their girls. For the recent Synge cycle in plays such as The Tinker's Wedding and The Well of the Saints, as well as in John B Keane's The Year of the Hiker, Marie has been stunning in her versatility and skill, while McGinley just seems so right for everything he is cast in. But how does it work with two actors at home, two egos, two people who need to be up there?
"It's a tricky balance," Sean concedes. "We didn't necessarily think that the marriage thing would happen because we were together for a good few years before that. And then the last thing we wereexpecting to have was children. When we knew that there was a child on its way it was a terrifying thought, but then when Roisin was born, it was fantastic. You realise that you are geared to deal with this. It does turn your lifeupside down, but in agood way. Our lives didn't come to an abrupt end."
But has having the girls been good for them?
"I think we became a bit . . . well . . . if either of us could be described as organised, we became less disorganised. And in a funny kind of way, things became easier because we knew what our priorities were. We had Roisin, and five years later we had Mairead. Without sounding too sentimental, you decide to go with it and commit to it and it simplifies everything. Even though the work is absolutely important as well, the most important thing from my point of view is the girls;trying not to get in the way of [their]growing up as people and celebrating that they're with us at this moment and will be for a good few years. Learning from them and listening to them and dealing with tempers and tantrums and all the rest of it, all the normal part of growing up. It's a fantastic thing."
Although he's not so romantic that he forgets the struggles. He can still recall the early days when Roisin was a baby wailing through the night.
"Marie had been minding her and I was in a play at the time. I remember coming in at night, and Marie was ready to drop dead. I lay on the bed and put Roisin on my chest. I was expecting her to wake up again, but six hours later, I woke up and she was still fast asleep. I'll never forget it. It was like winning the Lotto - I got six consecutive hours' sleep. But everybody goes through that, and it was only for a few weeks. It was well worth it."
The life of a freelance actor is never easy, and both Marie and Sean have had their fair share of cattle-call auditions. ("There has to be some other way," Sean says.) There have been bouts out of work, over which they have no control. Ten years ago, they werelucky enough to buy a house in Sandymount, Dublin, but Sean still remembers all the years of moving.
"Fourteen years ago, just after Roisin was born, we moved from one rented house to another. We moved all our worldly possessions in two black rubbish bags. We hadno house, no money, but thatwas OK."
Chekhov once said that if you want to work on your art, work on your life. As I listen to Sean speak about his family life, it is clear that it has enriched him and his acting. Some say that becoming a parent lessens your ambition. Not McGinley.
"Being a parent has made me value my work more. In the past couple of years, I'm more responsible in terms of work, more focused. I concentrate better and prepare better. I know that when I was younger I used to faff around and not work as hard as I should have. Sometimes you'd get away with it, but you'd be found out too. There's no guarantee over this kind of work, but the thing I do have control over is how I prepare - and nowadays I try to do that as well as I can. I enjoy doing the work more than ever and I enjoy being with the girls too."
As our time comes to a close, Sean asks me if I can mention one thing. At last, I think, he is going to blow his own trumpet about his work, but no, not a bit of it.
Just as his mother was an inspirational teacher who brought drama and music into her classroom, McGinley feels the need to praise the principal of Scoil Mhuire, the Primary Gaelscoil in Sandymount, which Roisin went to and Mairead attends.
"Mary Price, the head teacher, is an extraordinary woman. It's a great school and she picks fantastic teachers. We're so lucky."
Sean McGinley is as far from his egotistical character in Empress of India as you can get. Becoming a husband and father has been the making of him because it's not just about him anymore.
"All of a sudden you feel you have a purpose. You're not just a blob in the world. You feel you have a valid reason for being here."
Empress of India by Stuart
Carolan is at the Abbey nightly at 7.30pm, as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival, until Saturday. For bookings, phone (01) 8787222 and for more information, visit www.