If things had worked out the way he originally planned and actor Seán McGinley had become a secondary school teacher, he would merely have had to fix unruly pupils with one of his trademark menacing looks to command instant obedience. After all, this is the guy who played alcoholic, wife-beater, Charlo, in the Roddy Doyle series, The Family, disgraced paedophile priest, Father Jensen, in The Fall, and IRA enforcer Tony in Love/Hate, all to chilling effect.
"It's obviously something to do with the default setting in my face," he laughs, over lunch at The Gibson Hotel. "It mustn't be inviting. On a personal level, I'm quite shy, and I remember being so anxious and nervous during school plays that I couldn't function. I have played bad guys and good guys, although I find the good guys harder work. When you're playing a bad character, you get to do stuff that you would otherwise be arrested for, but I don't put on a persona with acting. It's more like taking away your own persona because you are projecting a character through yourself that someone else has written, and it's all about the storytelling."
In person, Seán is gentle and quietly-spoken, which might come as a surprise to those who saw him play intense and dramatic roles in Braveheart, The Butcher Boy, Gangs of New York, Michael Collins, The Wind That Shakes the Barley and The General.
He came in the middle of three boys, and his family lived on the main street in Pettigo, Donegal, and then moved to Ballyshannon when he was five. His dad was a customs man, and his mum Margaret got a teaching job at Seán's school.
"Mum was a great teacher, but it must have been hard for her being a mother 24 hours a day," he says. "She taught music and tried to teach us piano at home, but then she snapped and gave up. There was certainly no favouritism with Mum teaching us, and everything we got we deserved. The plan for me was to become a teacher too, as people in my generation didn't really know what they wanted to do, so going to college was a way of postponing life for a few years until something magically dropped out of the sky."
Seán's mum passed away in 1998, and his dad died in 2006. He was close to both, and says that while he's told that he looks like his father, he gets his love of music from his mum.
"We had a difficult situation because my parents weren't on the best of terms for a good part of their lives," he says. "Eventually my mother bought a house on her own when she was vice principal of the local school, which was a brave thing to do at that time. They were both decent people, but they were better apart, and my brothers and I got on well with them individually."
After school, Seán went to University College Galway, where he studied English and economics, and followed it up with a HDip. He also enjoyed acting, and joined the college drama group. He performed in one of their one-act plays, and somebody from Druid Theatre Company happened to be at the performance. She met him afterwards on the street, told him she loved his performance and invited him to audition for a play Druid was staging. He went, and bang went his plans to become a secondary school teacher.
That woman was actress Marie Mullen, who would later become his wife. They were friends for a long time and it grew into something else. They met in 1977 and were married in 1990, although they lived together for years before that. So what made Seán fall for her?
"Marie was physically beautiful, and she was also maybe the greatest Irish actress of her generation," he smiles. "We would read plays and would all work our arses off, but she could walk in and do it brilliantly first time, while doing the accounts at the same time. She had an innate ability and an extraordinary talent, and we all looked up to her and learned from watching her. She would never admit that, but anyone who worked with her would say the same. We were friends for ages because we were working together so closely, and thought it was best to resist getting into a relationship. Actually, we didn't have time for relationships, because we were so busy rehearsing and performing plays as well as building sets."
Seán and Marie have two daughters, Roisín (23) and Mairéad (17), and he says they are gorgeous girls. Mairéad is still at school, studying for her Leaving Cert, while Roisín is in her final year of history at Trinity. Their dad admits that having daughters plunged him into a different world, as he had grown up in a household of boys.
"I'm surrounded by women, and have even been known to moisturise on occasion," he laughs. "Women are very powerful and I have a house full of them. Our daughters are both strong young women but they have very different interests. They don't have the acting bug, and I just want them to find something that engages them. I think they both look like their mother. Roisín is very into her college course, which is great, but what she will do after it? I don't know? Given the economic climate, education is probably the best way to go for the next year or two. Once they find enjoyment in what they do, I'll be happy enough."
Even though Seán and Marie are both very successful, acting is still a freelance career, and as such, is financially unstable. As we tuck into our lunch I ask Seán if he has ever regretted not taking the safer path of becoming a teacher. "An actor's life can be precarious at times, whether you are doing theatre, TV or film, and you sometimes might wish you were in a job with a pension," he laughs. "You get over that very quickly and I can't see any other way of living now. You worry about where the next job is going to come from, and while it can be tough, you have to trust and have faith. I am a person of faith, although not in the religious sense. When filming Republic of Doyle, I lived in Canada for six months of the year, and the only downside of that job was being away from home and never knowing if the series was going to be picked up every year. It was very well-received, thankfully, and it's great that it's finally available here on UTV Ireland."
Republic of Doyle is a Canadian comedy-drama television series set in Newfoundland, starring Allan Hawco as private investigator and former police officer Jake Doyle, and Seán as his father, Malachy. They partner as private investigators with Rose Doyle, Malachy's second wife, and their cases involve them in all sorts of capers, not all of which are on the right side of the law. The series ran for six series and Seán is delighted that it's airing here as everyone can see what he was up to while he was abroad.
Did Seán mind being away from his family during filming? "Marie and the girls would come over on school holidays, and I would go back three or four times so the gaps away weren't so long," he explains. "You do get lonely, and while you're treated very well and put up in a nice house, you are there alone. Human beings adapt to change, so they have to get on at home without me when I'm away, and they do. They're happy when I'm home, but they don't spend the rest of their time pining after me."
The other thing that keeps him from fretting about home is that the work is so intense, because an hour-long episode of the popular series takes seven or eight shooting days, and he has to keep up with constant script changes. "Memorising the scripts is like breaking stone for me," he laments.
"Some people do it no problem, but not me. When I started doing this show, it was a lot to deal with because I had never done anything on this scale before, in relation to how fast the turnover and process both are. You have to learn stuff fast because things change and are revised so often, but you adapt. The main relationship is between the father and son, and because of the culture, males of my generation would find it difficult to express emotion, especially to their son, so it gets distilled into a kind of jokey banter.
"We all had a dialect coach to teach us, and she was brilliant so I didn't have to worry about the accent. We were so close and like a little community, and that helped me stick it out and be away from home for six seasons."
Seán is currently filming a movie that is set in the North, and says that he doesn't think that men have it as hard as women in the acting industry as they begin to age.
"When you think of movies like High Noon, Gary Cooper was at least 20 years older than Grace Kelly, which may not be as acceptable now," he says. "A lot of female actors in LA get too much into the whole Botox and facelift thing because they feel they have to, just to stay in the game. I don't think men have that pressure, and although we are moving more towards equality, we still have a fair way to go. And as a father of two girls, I am very conscious of that."
Republic of Doyle, Sundays at 11pm, UTV Ireland
A LIFE IN BRIEF
BORN: 1956 in Donegal.
FAMILY: Married to actress Marie Mullen of Druid Theatre Company, Seán is dad to Roisín (23) and Mairéad (17).
HOBBIES: Likes to go to the library a lot to read scripts or just to think. Seán loves music, traditional music in particular, and enjoys going to his musican friends' gigs.
BEING A DAD: "I'm glad I was there at my daughters' births. It was really powerful, and you realise that from the moment they are born, they are little people, and it's your responsibility to look over them and take care of them."