Friday 17 January 2020

'My parents secretly knew that was going to be my job for life' - Gerry Ryan's son Rex on life, death and redemption

Rex Ryan talks to our reporter about life, death, redemption, heartbreak, pain - and how his late father taught him to be true to himself

Rex Ryan says his parents got him into acting because he was a hyperactive kid with too much energy. Photo Damien Eagers
Rex Ryan says his parents got him into acting because he was a hyperactive kid with too much energy. Photo Damien Eagers
Rex pictured with his mum Morah and clan Elliott, Babette, Bonnie and Lottie
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

On April 29, 1957, when Daniel Day-Lewis came into the world his father - the Poet Laureate of England, Cecil Day-Lewis - wrote a poem for him entitled The Newborn, the second stanza of which ends:

'This speck of clay/

And spirit shall begin/

To feed on hope/

Rex pictured with his mum Morah and clan Elliott, Babette, Bonnie and Lottie
Rex pictured with his mum Morah and clan Elliott, Babette, Bonnie and Lottie

To learn how truth blows cold/

And loves betray.'

On November 27, 1989, when his speck of clay, his first son came into the world, Gerry Ryan didn't pen a poem to help him understand the world better. His gift to his newborn son was a name, says that son 28 years later, "that he thought would look nice on a poster: 'Rex Ryan'. He gave me the confidence to go after acting".

Rex's acting and off-stage personality betrays the high-octane intensity and idealism of the aforesaid Daniel Day-Lewis. For my benefit, sitting opposite him in The Westbury last week, Rex does one of Daniel's monologues from the Gangs Of New York movie.

The young Dub has become one of the most compelling actors of his generation. His performance in Mark O'Rowe's Made in China had the critic at the arts website Nomoreworkhorse rhapsodising thus: 'Ryan is astonishing, capable of extracting a laugh and breaking your heart in the one line' while The Examiner was also impressed: 'Ryan is riveting…a wonderfully nuanced performance.' Rex was 18 years of age when he watched Street Car Named Desire in the front room of the family home in Clontarf and was transformed. "I was rocked by Brando, Rex says. "He was a poet actor."

Despite the intensity, he is funny with it all. Ask Rex Ryan what makes him laugh and he doesn't say reading Albert Camus's The Plague in the original French, or Beckett in the bath.

He says he roars with laughter at "videos of Oliver Reed drunk calling men cowards and saying he has big tits". In terms of other emotions, Rex "cried a lot during Saving Private Ryan and The Gigli Concert by Tom Murphy. A shattering play," he says of seeing it at the Gate in May 2015.

Where did his artistic side emerge from?

"Both my parents put me into acting as I was a hyperactive kid with too much energy who was good at doing voices. From there they sort of secretly knew that was going to be my job for life."

Rex lives with his girlfriend of a year in Portobello. He describes himself as "horribly romantic" but equally private. He doesn't want to discuss his girlfriend. He will say that he cooks her a mean monk-fish at home. Any goldfish, or cats or dogs, in the house? "I've no pets. But I grew up raising reptiles of all sorts. Bearded dragons, turtles and my favourite was an Amazonian Horned Frog named Pancake. I got to perform a poem about him on Arena on Radio One, which was a life-long mission."

His earliest childhood memory is being three years of age and "sitting on tractors in Rush". A year later, he can remember sitting in a hospital in Dublin city centre. Rex drank an entire bottle of Brasso cleaner when he was four and was rushed to Temple Street. The doctors gave him a shot of liquid to make him sick. Rex, being Rex, asked for a second cup because he liked the lime flavour.

"Mum and Dad had to leave me there overnight," he recalls of Gerry and Morah.

"They then received a call in the middle of the night asking to take me from the hospital as soon as possible as I had rounded up a group of boys and girls on drips, severely ill, moderately sick... and we started a rebellion through Temple Street. Guns in hand, chanting, sticks, robbing crutches, singing. Dad collected me and said 'Well done. You made those sick children happy tonight'.

"For some reason," Rex says, "this story sticks with me".

His childhood was, he says, "a lot of fun. Great friends. Dressing up as English policemen and women. Acting and dancing in the National Performing Arts School with Eamon Farrell for years from the age of seven," says Rex, who went on to train at The Gaiety School of Acting in their full-time course and graduated in 2013 "Watching Robocop. St Anne's park for football. Huge adventures and more Pokemon. I read a lot."

"Clontarf was gorgeous," he adds, "I grew up in St Anne's, on Dollymount Beach. It's a special place. We had amazing adventures. I remember, age 14 to 16, being just so completely primal and wild. Awakening sexually, the rage of a young man all countered with trying to make sense of the whole s**t show. What a ridiculous adventure. It's a miracle we make it through that period sane and alive, I think."

I ask Rex when did he have his heart first broken and what did he learn from the experience?

"My heart was first broken when a child psychologist told my parents that I had to stop watching RoboCop. That night, myself and dad sat down to a helping of RoboCop. But really, probably once a week when I was younger. I felt too much in a lot of early relationships, like any young man, I suppose. It taught me that life goes on. Despite you. With you. After you. So try to have a bit of fun, don't be a dickhead. And find something that you are good at that might change the world. And if not the world, make someone's day or night a bit brighter."

The high-profile, almost public break-up of his parents' 26-year-long marriage in the mid-noughties can't have been a particularly bright time for young Rex?

"How did I deal with it? As someone does. For whatever reason, this 'thing' ended. You deal with it. I'm still here. There are much worse things in the world than your parents breaking up. I dealt with it in my own way.

"I am, like everyone, a bag of contradictions," Rex says with the ragged honesty, the seeking of truth that characterises his work and his life. "I think I'm honest, at least. I love my friends, I hate bulls**t, I love my family, I love the theatre and deeply believe in it. I like Anime and am a nerd. Movies are a huge part of my life. I don't go out much unless I'm working."

The traits Rex feels he inherited from his parents are, he says, "my dad's hustle and ambition. He taught me to be myself, to be true to myself. My Mum gave me stillness". He says of his beloved Morah: "My mum countered this energy by helping me slow down, enjoy the process, [helped me] believe that I could make a career from something I love. She reminded me of important things so many times when I was just powering through everything and not enjoying the trip, the journey, the adventure of it.

"Dad gave me a huge fire," he adds. "A giant passion. I can't do anything half, I must go 100pc," Rex says. "So I'm lucky in a way that all that energy can be channelled into the theatre, especially at the level I'm at where you do almost everything yourself! I work all day and all night.

"At the moment, myself and Jimmy Murphy text each other on Sunday nights with pictures of character costumes and interest links that might help the play he's writing for my company," Rex says, referring to his theatre company Glass Mask's first play - Idlewild by Jimmy Murphy - which opens at Smock Alley Boy's School on July 30 for two weeks.

"I love working with people like that. I just love being around genuine people who believe in something. I like people who know the rulebook but aren't afraid to f**king dive in and do their thing and stand behind it. That's what I love about people like Jimmy, or Philo," Rex says, meaning Cavan writer Philip Doherty who wrote the one-man-play Pilgrim, in which Rex will star in at the main space in Smock Alley on Exchange Street Lower, Temple Bar, from April 23 to May 5.

"I really believe in things," Rex says, "and I try to put myself fully into the thing and not have any excuses by the end". This much is obvious to anyone who has ever seen him act (or indeed met him.) "Rex Ryan is a tour de force," wrote The Edinburgh Reporter reviewing him in Pilgrim at the Edinburgh Festival in 2015. Rex is, of course, returning with Pilgrim in two weeks.

"The initial draw to Pilgrim," he says, "was actually the imagination and beautiful madness of the writer of the play," Rex says of Mr Doherty. "It started as a chat we had in his van after we finished our first play together, The Birthday Man, which he wrote and directed at the Dublin Fringe," says Ryan, neglecting to mention that he was nominated for Best Actor in the 2013 Dublin Fringe for his performance in The Birthday Man.

"It was my first professional job out of drama school and my second time working with Philo. We hit it off. We said we wanted to do a one-man show, he asked me was I willing? I said, hell yes, and we went from there. We hardly had an idea."

Asked how he prepared for the role of Christy in Pilgrim, Rex says, "because it's one man, it differed in how you would prepare for a straight play. I needed to do accent work as I play loads of characters in it, so I did things like accost people from Newfoundland on the streets of Dublin and drag them into pubs to make them record my script. I watched some movies that I thought were similar to the tone Phil was going for. I did a lot of physical work to just simply be fit enough to stay on top of a 90-minute one-man show. I also slept a lot. And ate a lot of nuts and bananas and litres of black as night coffee".

In Pilgrim, Christy is trapped for three days in Newfoundland after his plane is directed there after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. What's more Christy is forced to go on an inner pilgrimage of maturity and of his heart where he has no choice but to become a man. I ask Rex was he forced to take a similar inner pilgrimage when his Gerry died. "After my dad died I took care of business for a while, as you do when someone dies. Then I went to Thailand for six weeks," says Rex, who was 21 years old when his dad ascended into the great radio studio in the sky on April 30, 2010.

Christy's story is also one of personal redemption. Is there any of that in him?

"I hope so. As a man, as a human, you're sort of always chasing some existential redemption. From what? I don't know." How close has Rex come to catching the existential redemption he chases?

"Redemption? I'm not sure. Someone once said to me that we are all chasing immortality. What's immortality? Maybe the stories people tell about you and how long they tell them for. Redeemed from being average, weak, proud, arrogant. Life is trying to redeem all our human flaws, maybe. Of course, we'll fail but the living is in the attempt. Again hugely condensed philosophical stuff here, but I don't want to talk about the Kardashians and I'm sure you don't either. So finally, we are probably trying to redeem ourselves from being human. From being flawed. And, maybe, that's living the best flawed life you can."

Does he believe in God?

"Sometimes," Rex replies. "I wonder does He believe in us?"

And does God believe in us?

"Does God believe in us? I just like that question, perhaps. People are always pleading to a God of sorts asking for things, and I just have an image of all the Gods sitting up in heaven and saying 'We gave you enough chances!'... It's really a way of saying God will manifest to us, maybe if we stay true to who we are, follow passion and leave the world somewhat better than we entered it. God can come in many forms, I think. White Bearded vision... Money bags... The roar of a crowd... A Chicken Nugget."

Rex says he is at his happiest at the moment, saying: "I would like to hope now, today. Some moments on stage when I'm connecting with the audience, too." He also says his favourite rock song is The Rain Song by Led Zeppelin. "I love the sense of longing in it. It's a visceral song."

You could argue that Rex Ryan is a visceral young fella, with a philosophical longing for something he can't quite put his finger on.

"I would like to see myself in 10 years, alive," he says. "That would be the first success. Then I would like to be a father and husband that takes care of business and is there. Then I would like to be doing exciting work with my company Glass Mask, I would like to be doing theatre work with companies I admired."

What can the theatre do? "The theatre can awaken a dormant part of your soul and remind you we are flawed giant contradictions just trying to go through this world with some purpose. So if I was to get the chance to run a theatre and control the artistic direction, I would put on plays that responded, impartially, un -preachy and with empathy to the times. The theatre is my only real place to be political because I think there is a lot of noise on social media with absolutely no action."

You can see why Rex played the title role of Hamlet in 2016 at the New Theatre in Temple Bar. "I would have been 26," he says. "But all the greats didn't attack the Dane until their forties so I still have another shot."

I mention how Daniel Day-Lewis once revealed that he saw his father's ghost when playing Hamlet at London's National Theatre in 1989. How would Rex react if he saw the ghost of his father?

"If I saw my dad on stage, actually hallucinated, I'd obviously be completely freaked out, and probably scared."

'Pilgrim' with Rex Ryan at the main space in Smock Alley on Exchange Street Lower, Temple Bar, from April 23 to May 5


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