Colm Meaney on playing Martin McGuinness: 'Even the most seemingly irreconcilable characters can come together'
He plays Martin McGuinness in a new film about the brokering of power sharing in Northern Ireland, and since the politician's sudden death finds himself forced to defend his legacy. Is Colm Meaney considering going into politics for real
Portraying Martin McGuinness in new film The Journey, Colm Meaney inadvertently finds himself a representative for the late deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. Inspired by the events of the St Andrew's Agreement, writer Colin Bateman's movie presents a rose-hued fictionalisation of the crucial deal brokered between McGuinness and Dr Ian Paisley, which led to devolution and the establishment of power sharing in Stormont.
While actual events leading to that fabled handshake took place behind closed doors, Bateman uses heavy artistic licence, teleporting the political titans into the claustrophobic confines of a car - forced together on a physical and emotional path to lasting peace beyond. It's in essence a brave play on Hollywood's mismatched 'buddy road trip' formula. And naturally, historians are baulking at these 'alternative facts' surrounding the men who would go on to be dubbed the 'Chuckle Brothers'.
Sadly, Martin McGuinness passed away at 66 after a short illness mere weeks before the film's release. And while publicising the film, which also features a noteworthy performance by Timothy Spall as the late DUP leader, Meaney not only finds himself having to defend the Sinn Féin political leader, he now has to protect and preserve his memory and legacy. "To be referring to him in the past tense, it's very shocking and sad. I suppose I've always defended Martin because there are revisionists on both sides of the Irish Sea who continue to snipe away," Meaney says, citing overwhelming divisive opinion, spliced between McGuinness' dual roles throughout life as paramilitary and peacemaker.
"He's a recognised, international statesman and in some ways he doesn't need any defending except from small minds who hark back to his very early years. People seem to think the north of Ireland was some sort of utopia in the 1960s. It was an apartheid state and when people tried to change that through civil disobedience, they were beaten off the street. Martin's point was: he didn't create this situation, he reacted to it. He would have been ashamed if he didn't defend his community from attacks from the forces of the State."
One doubts that the families of the victims of the IRA's campaign on violence, who pushed McGuinness to reveal the truth about his role during the Troubles and to apologise for his actions, would consider themselves to be 'small minds'. Pushed on McGuinness' denied, often contested, paramilitary ties right up to his passing, Meaney's resolve is admirable, vexing - and moderately rehearsed. "I just found the whole revisionism of the last 30 years to be ridiculous, to the point where we got to 1916 and you were considered weird if you celebrated the Easter Rising because they were terrorists. Anybody who resisted the British Empire was a terrorist all of a sudden. Any liberation struggle, any anti-Imperialist struggle, has a period of violence because empires don't give up without a struggle."
It's a highly personal project for Meaney, who won an IFTA for his work in the film last month. A former member of Sinn Féin in his late teens, he threw his celebrity sparkle behind McGuinness' bid for the Áras in 2011. "Martin was the most qualified candidate. He'd proved himself as a statesman, as a minister of education, as Deputy First Minister. He had negotiated on the world stage during the peace process. How he can be controversial when he brought the peace, as did Dr Paisley? Even though we had [Belfast-born] Mary McAleese, I thought it would be a unifying gesture to elect somebody from north of the border to be President of Ireland. And in case anyone gets their knickers in a twist, I was a member of Sinn Féin way back - it would have been late 1960s and I ceased to be a member around that time, before the split. I was too busy trying to be an actor."
The Journey is, indeed, the latest entry in a colourful career. The Finglas actor moved to the States in the early 1980s, scoring bit parts on Moonlighting, Remington Steele and MacGyver. His role as beleaguered 'Da' Dessie Curley in Roddy Doyle's The Snapper - which earned him a Golden Globe nomination - remains his most recognisable performance, alongside his part as transport engineer Miles O'Brien on the starship Enterprise. "I always get Star Trek; it has the loyallest fans. But when I'm in Dublin, always The Snapper. I'll always hear 'Georgie Burgess, snip snip.'"
Married to Inés Glorian, mother of Ada, 13 - he also has a grown-up daughter, Brenda, from his first marriage to the late actress Bairbre Dowling - he splits his time between LA and their home in Majorca. Coming off a five-year run of frontier saga Hell on Wheels, the 63-year-old is set for a summer stint on the West End with Sienna Miller in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The bulk of his upcoming work - Conor McDermottroe's Halal Daddy and another costly US series, Will, based on the early activities of young Shakespeare - will see Colm stationed on this side of the Atlantic.
His life and his legacy remain in the US, fortunately unaffected by Trumpism in the past months. "Obviously, the buffoonery, and the nonsense is dangerous; it's beyond Kafka almost. But here in California, Governor Jerry Brown is still there and the sanctuaries cities are being supported by the state government. He won't roll back environmental laws, so we haven't seen any real effect on the ground."
Meaney holds dual citizenship but admits the changing state of immigration laws is a cause for concern. "I'm sure if he wanted to, Trump could take it away from me," he snorts. Meanwhile, relocation back home has little appeal. "The cranes are coming back, the prices are sneaking up. I'd hope they're smart enough to not let that happen again. I would love to see politics change. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael: both parties represent the same thing.
"It'd be great to see real politics emerge out of left and right. I think there's hope for that with People Before Profit and I would hope that they would maybe consider Sinn Féin. A broad left alliance could lead to innovation and progressive solutions."
Has Meaney ever considered a political career,? He chuckles. "I have three brothers and I always remember my mother saying to my father, 'Well, at least none of them are politicians.'"
For now, Meaney will have to settle for playing one. Critics have diced and carved "the farcical contrivances" within The Journey's invented dialogue between McGuinness and Paisley. It's an absurd, sometimes laughable, wildly convenient reimagining of a pivotal moment in Northern Irish history. But it's also engaging and evocative, thanks to meaty, profound turns from Spall and Meaney, whose combined force and talent elevate the drama from lazy caricature, an initial concern for the actor.
"It could have been so easy to slip into impersonation but the writing had such a wonderful, beautiful observance of the characters and their relationship. It felt real and truthful to who they were, to who Martin was. I only met him once [during his presidential campaign] and it was a gift, having that insight into who he was and how he behaved. He was a much more subdued character than Dr Paisley: he didn't really have any glaring mannerisms that you can hook onto. What I got was a wonderful presence and a charisma about him, a wonderfully wry sense of humour. The script captured that essence beautifully and delivers a special, hopeful message that even the most seemingly irreconcilable characters can come together."
His comments are fitting, considering the current state of flux of the Stormont Executive. "I'd hope this could stand as a reminder that where Martin and Dr Paisley came from was a far wider gulf than the parties now." Perhaps current opposition leaders Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill should sit together through a private screening?
"Indeed" he rumbles, "indeed."
The Journey is in cinemas now