Saturday 24 August 2019

The gospel according to Love/Hate star Peter Coonan

Peter Coonan
Peter Coonan
Peter Coonan and Kim O'Driscoll
Peter Coonan as Fran in Love/Hate
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

He became famous as Fran in 'Love/Hate.' As Peter Coonan prepares to play the young Brehan Behan in 'The Borstal Boy', he tells Barry Egan about the death of his mother, becoming a dad and his life as an actor.

He's heard the word Coolaboola - the onomatopoeic catchphrase his character Fran in Love/Hate bequeathed to the nation - more times than he's had hot lunches.

Today over a toasted sandwich and fizzy drinks in a hotel around the corner from where he is rehearsing the Borstal Boy (which opens in the Gaiety on September 11th and which marks the 50th anniversary of Brendan Behan's death), Peter Coonan is a tempest of emotions to be around, even for an hour for a casual luncheon.

I imagine the young Gabriel Byrne, or even the young Marlon Brando, was just like this at that stage of their lives. Speaking with a self-searching vigour of both the aforementioned thesps in their pomp, this 30-year-old Dubliner, full of furrowed brows and complexity, is a sensitive soul. He is an intriguingly analytical person, and lovely with it.

Discussing the process of playing young Behan for the Borstal Boy, Peter says "you have to bring it life. It just comes out of you. That's the hard part. I was talking to [film director] Jim Sheridan about this, because he played the part 30 or 40 years ago, and I asked him: "When you played it, do you keep it in your mind that he is 16?

Because you're obviously a 30 year old playing a 16 year old. How you account for that? Or do you let the story be told through you as someone playing the part, as opposed to inhabiting a 16 year old?' Because I don't think that's what the story is about.

I think the story is about that he was 16 and he was thrown into this world, this brutal world, in the prisons anyway. So I'm not sure playing him as a 16-year-old would help because the story needs to be believable." (He played an approximation of Behan in BBC/RTE's TV series Quirke, lest we forget, and is looking forward to getting his teeth into the Borstal Boy.)

Without being too luvvie about it, Coonan says he tends to be "intuitive" in his acting. "I find that during the process somewhere along the way you are picking up nuggets and at some points it just clicks and starts to form. You read a bit about Behan but you also have a life that happens," he says meaning his girlfriend Kim O'Driscoll and their new baby Beth, who arrived into the world, in May of this year. "You got to get home to your family."

Peter says he was "drifting through" life until, when he was 28, that drift suddenly ended. "I remember it was the night after the IFTAs two years ago, when I didn't win!" he laughs. "I was nominated but I didn't take home the gong; Andrew Scott deservedly did. But you know, not all was lost when you meet a beautiful girl a day later."

It would have been truly tragic had you won the IFTA and not meet Kim. "Exactly," he laughs, "and gone to a different party!" His eyes dart around sometimes when he's talking, lost in thought or some painful or even happy memory from long ago. Or, to be precise, 18 years ago when his mother Betty died of cancer. "I was 12. It happened when I was in Coláiste na Rinne," he says of the Irish boarding school in Ring (An Rinn), county Waterford he attended at that time. "It was so... big," Peter says, haltingly, meaning the unimaginable magnitude of his dear mother's death and him so young. "You are just starting to develop," he says, "and become something more than just a boy."

Did his mother's death bring out his sensitivity? "I was always quite a sensitive person," he says. "I was always a very open person. That's what helped me deal with it. I didn't bury it. In times since then, I have probably buried stuff and dealt with it differently, but with that, it was something I was very open about. If I felt like crying, I'd just cry. It probably helped my dad and my brother a bit," he says referring to his big brother Michael, a lawyer, and his father Martin, a principal at a primary school in Sandymount "for about thirty years."

"At 12 years of age you don't really. . . " he says and stops. "There were times after she died that were very, very low. And then subsequently from that, when you got back to school, you know? Because I was in in boarding school when she passed."

I ask him was it a phone-call he got to tell him his mother was dead. He shakes his head. "I got brought home by a friend of hers, of my mum's. She just said that: 'You need to come home.'"

And you knew? I say to him. "I did, yeah," he says. "I knew she was on the way out. And I knew my dad being a teacher wouldn't just pull me out of school for nothing!" he laughs. "Do you know what I mean? But, yeah, it was tough going back to school, to secondary school after that - coming home to an empty house," he says of the family home in Sandyford.

"That was the real f**ing killer. And not having anyone there. I remember that. That was a lonely time, because dad would still be in school and Michael [his brother] would be in Gonzaga College and would be playing sport or something. And I'd come back to an empty house. That was a real shock to the system." Peter adds that he was probably only an hour and a half in the house, "but it felt like f**ing ages."

In the eternity of those terrible 90 minutes, young Pete would look around the family home and think to himself that his mother would never set foot in the house again. "Big-time, yeah," he says, continuing that a friend of his, whose mother died last year, told him last week that he dreamt his mother was in the house. Peter said to his friend that he still has those dreams about his mother.

"I had a vivid one after she died. I was chatting to her on the phone. I was saying to her, 'Where are you going? Where are you going?' She said, 'Listen, I'm fine. Don't worry about me. Just get on with your life.' I remember waking up after that. It's mad. The connections are still there. They're still there with you in some way. I'm not like madly religious but I do think the bond that you make with your parents is such a strong bond that it can't just finish. It doesn't just end," he says philosophically.

"It wasn't sudden," he continues, talking about the most traumatic moment of his life. "It was long - prolonged. She was in and out of hospital from when I was about 10. She used to go in and get the Chemo and stuff. So, yeah, it was a kind of a long, downward slope, unfortunately."

He stops and thinks for a second. I can see his mind going faster than the speed of light. "Ah, sure, listen, I've got good memories," he smiles. "And she was quite a character. So she left a legacy. She was a lot of fun. She really enjoyed life." Did she give him any advice about life? 'You've only got one walk through the valley', I say.

"Big time," he smiles. "That was her ethos. She was the life and soul of everything she did, from all the drama groups she was in. She was full of life. She'd do party pieces - 'If I were a lady , I'd wear a hat,'" Peter recites. "I remember when I was about 10 doing Blood Brothers for the Feis Maitiu. We were in the car to go to the Feis Maitiu hall and I was quite nervous. I was like, 'I don't know if I'm going to do this!' I was trying to get out of it.

"Then she pulls up the car in the middle of the road, pulls me out and says, 'Go on. Go home. Get out.' I was like, 'What?' she said to me, 'If you're not nervous, you're in the wrong business.' We won the Feis - which was great!" he smiles at the memory of how right his mother was to push him to be himself on stage even at that age.

Peter was infected with the acting bug at a very young age by his mother, who was an amateur actress of some note. Attending the Anne Kavanagh Theatre school when he was 4 or 5, Peter grew up, he says, going to festivals around the country with his beloved Betty, and watching her perform on stage. He was only a kid when he saw his mum first perform.

"I can't remember I was that young. But I remember the last time I saw her onstage it was in Marina Carr's The Mai in the All Ireland Drama Festival. She played an auntie." I say to Peter that I remember watching him being interviewed on the Late Late Show with the rest of the Love/Hate team last year; I add that he must have been thinking that 'I wish my mum could see me now'.

"Oh, stop, man," he says. "It happens all the time. At the IFTAs this year. All the time. Even the Love/Hate thing - she would have been f***ing over the moon, do you know what I mean? You wouldn't be able to hold her back!"

I suppose your job now is to look after baby Beth and Kim, I say. "Big-time. New journeys," he says. "The baby has come at a nice time as well. My mother's name was Betty," he continues with a big grin. "So luckily I got the opportunity to pass on that name to my daughter four months ago. So that was quite amazing."

Is Beth like his late mum?

"She could well be," he says quick as a flash. "She is only 4 months. She looks like her mum," Peter says meaning Kim. "Beth is having a great laugh already. It is pretty amazing. A system builds in your head where any little budge from her and you're hearing it. Your sensor. But it is quite remarkable, amazing, the best feeling in the world, being a father." Asked if it has changed his life, Peter says, "it has changed my outlook, in that I am not the most important person. I don't rule the roost, everything has to go through her," he smiles, "which is great."

He says holding Beth for the first time last May was "probably the most amazing feeling you can ever have. Kim said that her family wouldn't be as emotional the way that our family would - and wear our hearts on our sleeves, you know. Yet then the two of us were just like . . . [his face indicates an overload of joy and emotion courtesy of the new arrival] . . . and then we called her Beth as well," he explains. "It was just a whirlwind of emotion, but in the best sense possible. I don't think any kind of hurdy-gurdy or any kind of roller-coaster you can get on can give you that feeling, or any alcohol."

His father, he says, is "good. It took a while. But he's happy now. He's got a girlfriend." He says since his mother died he got to know his father "a lot better, obviously." Peter says both his parents were quite the characters to be around growing up. "When they argued, they argued, but when they loved they loved," he says. "There was no hiding away from it. It was a real house, you know?" he says lovingly. Sitting out of context in a hotel restaurant off Camden Street, Peter is so surreally recognisable from the Love/Hate character he made his own - a lovable psychopath with a cheeky smile that the country took to their hearts. He says he doesn't mind the attention when he goes, nor the thousands of times people shout Coolaboola like it is most original thing to say to the actor who plays Fran or even that it is the first time he has heard it.

Almost forty years since Robert de Niro played Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, people are still saying to de Niro "You talkin' to me?" The sense of ownership of Peter Coonan for Irish people is deepened because Fran seemed like an ordinary Dublin guy, albeit with pronounced nutjob tendencies, that you could probably get on with over a pint until you said the wrong thing and he smashed your face in.

"People are funny. Someone came up to me a while ago and said: 'Listen, do you mind if I get a photograph. If you were Brad Pitt, I wouldn't do it but, like, I know you!'" he laughs. "People always say famous people go to Ireland because they can be anonymous. Whereas when it is something like Love/Hate, they see you in their living room six Sundays in a row once a year, they immediately think they know you, I suppose. But it's grand. I mean, it would be worse if people were shouting abuse at you. It's all positive stuff."

How many times has he actually heard Coolaboola? "Oh, for f**k's sake!" he hoots. "Too many! Too many!"

When Peter is not working, he likes to watch football (he supports Liverpool) and watches films to relax. Unsurprisingly, he likes actors' actors like Gary Oldham and Philip Seymour Hoffman. "I just watched Capote after he died. Amazing actor," Peter, something of an amazing actor himself, says of the late Seymour Hoffman. He says he met Jim Sheridan recently and he told him that In The Name Of The Father was one of the best films he's ever seen. "I just like a good story, told well, and with a level of honesty; that you can believe it."

Acting is not exactly an easy career path. It comes with a lot of ups and downs, months when an actor might be waiting for the phone to ring with the offer of the next bit of work. "Do I ever worry about the uncertainty?" he ponders. "Of course I do. There are times when I wake up and you say to yourself: 'Oh f**k! I need to get better opportunities. I need to start progressing.' And other times you wake up and you go: 'Now listen, hold on. Stuff is going really well at the moment.' It is a hard one," he says.

"My brother," Peter says of Michael who is a lawyer now, "was an actor, a very good actor. He did a play at The Gate when he was in college, studying law. He did the it [acting] and then afterwards, he was like, 'You know what? It's not for me.' Because that whole thing about the idea of uncertainty and not knowing where your next job is coming is going to get scarier in a few years when you have children and you can't get work. But I think I am able to deal with that. It is something that I don't get too worried about now. I have been lucky. This year has been great. This year has been my busiest year yet," he adds, "and last year I had three months where I did nothing."

Decidedly not doing nothing, Peter stars in the movie The Guarantee - playing a certain banker by the name of David Drumm - which comes out on October 24, followed by the return of Nidge and Fran and his mates in Love/Hate on RTE. Next year, Peter is starring in another film, whose main theme is about emigration and two friends who have ideas about going over to London and making it. "Alex, my character, gets a girl pregnant and he has to make a decision on whether he is going to run away from this or else deal with it face on."

Is that a bit like you when you were 12 and your mum died and you had to decide whether you run away from it or you face it?

"Yeah, it is similar enough. It's funny because you make connections to everything you do to your life. And even now with Behan, you start looking at things, and make a connection somehow with your life."

"It's harder to make connections with Fran!" he chortles.

For the first time in 25 years, Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy returns to Dublin's Gaiety Theatre from 11 September for a strictly limited engagement. Starring Peter Coonan and Gary Lydon as the younger and older Brendan Behan.

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