The prayers of Saint Patrick
As he prepares for the Abbey and Albert Square, Patrick Bergin spoke to our reporter about therapy, recovery and why he kept turning down lunch with Julia Roberts
Patrick Bergin has a magical and unexpected knack for making even the comical seem coolly menacing. On the day we meet he's been hobbled by a fall and the walking stick, ankle brace and huge overcoat give him an air of Richard Harris by way of Christian Grey. It is a suave, imposing, craggily handsome impression which belies the actual cause of the accident: he slipped on a cow pat in a field in Tipperary. I'm mewing my sympathy, while suppressing a laugh, but Patrick lets me know I needn't bother. "Just make sure you specify cow," he deadpans. "I don't do bulls**t."
Oh it's a line, but well worth it, even if a cracked tibia was the price, and Bergin's ability to find fun and dignity in embarrassment is surprisingly central to his whole story. Rewind 25 years. After a few years playing music on the highways and byways of Europe, he has accumulated a little theatre and TV experience and starred in his first movie. Agents are murmuring that he may turn out to be a bigger star than Gabriel Byrne or Liam Neeson. This in turn has led to him being summoned to Hollywood by Joe Roth, the then-chairman of 20th Century Fox, with a view to starring in the studio's forthcoming blockbuster, Sleeping With The Enemy, opposite Julia Roberts. Roth had apparently asked his PR girls if they fancied Bergin, which, being human, they obviously did, and that casual endorsement had apparently put the actor in line to be Hollywood's next leading man. To say he was nervous would be putting it mildly. The casting process did not go as planned. "I was trying to impress with a nine piece suit," he recalls. "I met the whole team of eight people and they were all firing questions at me and when I was leaving I was so nervous that I walked into the broom closet and afterwards he told me that they thought I showed so much composure putting myself back together after something so embarrassing that they knew I was the actor they wanted."
Even now, it's easy to see why Bergin stumbling into someone's cupboard had more sinister intensity than another actor steeling for all they're worth. The secret, he says, has always been to make himself a canvas for the audience's own emotions. At one point he challenges me to a staring contest - or as he puts it "just look at me and do nothing". It's surprisingly difficult but Bergin shows me how it's done with a laser-like glower. I feel as though my image has been burned into the wall behind me. His performance as the towel obsessed, silkily sadistic husband in Sleeping With The Enemy still ranks as one of the all-time great Hollywood villains, and he says that to get the note of malevolence just right, it was important to keep his co-star at arm's length. "Pretty Woman had just come out. She was with Kiefer Sutherland at that time, which added to the attention as well. She used to invite me to lunch but I wouldn't go a lot of the time and that wasn't just me being moody because I didn't want to get too friendly with her because I had to hate her. If you don't wanna like someone, it's a little tricky to do that if you've been s******g them five minutes earlier. I'm exaggerating, but I did the method thing a bit with her."
The movie, of course, went on to become one of the top-grossing films of the 1990s and Bergin was suddenly one of the most sought after properties in Hollywood and one of the most famous hunks in cinema - he had "my fair share" of female suitors, he concedes. Newsweek called him the next Sean Connery. His next big project was the Tom Clancy adaptation Patriot Games, alongside Harris and Harrison Ford. Bergin had already taken great pride in altering a long and wordy passage in Sleeping With The Enemy to make it more punchy and memorable and he did the same on Patriot Games, albeit for different reasons - he disagreed with the political "right wing" tone of parts of the script. The film was another huge success - it made nearly $200m worldwide and the money he earned was "fabulous" - but it also seemed to mark something of a downturn in his fortunes as an actor. His next film, Robin Hood, alongside Uma Thurman, had the misfortune of going up against the inferior but far more successful Prince of Thieves version. The late 1990s were shot through with TV movies and more forgettable projects. Not that this bothered him. "I worked constantly," he explains. "I never felt I had the Tom Cruise level of fame and I wouldn't want that anyway. This is not a cane, it's a magic wand to get rid of people."
Bergin met his former wife, Paula Frazier, a British woman of Afro-Caribbean descent, in the early 1980s. They married in Trinidad and Tobago in 1992, and have a 21-year-old daughter named Tatiana, who is in her last year at university. He once said of Frazier: "I loved her before I even knew her name," and previous interviews were suffused with references to their relationship. The only part of my barrage of journalistic nosiness that he baulks at is the question: "Did you ever fall in love again?"
Now, living alone in a 15th-century castle they once shared on the border between Offaly and Tipperary, he once attributed the split to a mixture of "a breakdown of communication" and "being away a lot" working on movie projects, but they remain on very good terms and he speaks warmly of her. "Half the population of Trinidad are Irish anyway, she's a very formidable and social creature. I dare say she may have experienced racism once or twice but she was well able to handle it. My daughter has one more year in university. I wasn't always there (when she was growing up) but I was there as much as I could be. It's an interesting journey: fatherhood of course, but life too."
He has been linked in recent months to Helen Goldin, widow of hypnotist Paul Goldin. "Helen is my music manager, of course I love her," he explains. "And occasionally we can mix business with pleasure."
Bergin was born in Carlow, where his family were based until they moved to Dublin in the 1950s. His father Paddy Bergin, a senator, was national campaign organiser of the Labour Party. Before moving to Drimnagh, the Bergins lived for years above the party offices on Earlsfort Terrace, which was "quite middle class, with a tennis court out the back - that sort of thing". His father ran a theatre group and both Patrick and his brother Emmet got into acting. Was there ever a rivalry between them?
"Ah, I'm sure a bit, yeah," he laughs. "But not really. I always thought he was the good looking one, but I was wrong about that!"
Bergin's mother worked in the Green Room at the Gaiety Theatre, which meant "the idea of acting was always there. And politics is a kind of theatre too."
He was born to perform - for years he even developed a "stage name" which the teachers in his national school thought was his actual name - and says that much of this flowed from "a separation I felt between myself as a child and the events I saw going on around me". His mother, he says, was a "secretive" woman, which maybe gave him the sense that different identities could exist in one person. As central as acting was to his life, he talks even more fondly about his other passions - music, sport, poetry - than he does about acting. He was an accomplished footballer and musician and says that playing with teams and in bands taught him how to work with other people. He still plays with his band, Patrick Bergin and the Spirit Merchants (his song, The Knacker, gave them a controversial hit here a few years ago.)
His conversation is peppered with references to Kavanagh and Behan and tonight he will take to the stage at the Abbey to read poems by WB Yeats and WH Auden. Colm Toibin and Ingrid Craigie will also do readings.
"The poems were chosen for me but I feel a great connection with them", Patrick explain. "I have produced a trilogy of Yeats' plays into films. The Auden poem is set in 1939. He was 32 when he wrote it - a huge achievement. Reading it made it realise the truth of Shelley's line, that poets are the unacknowledged legislators."
If poems have a healing affect on him, so does prayer. "Poems can have a healing effect I think. So do prayers. I do a thing called Saint Patrick's Prayer Breastplate. I had played Saint Patrick in a movie once and read everything about him that I could. The prayer goes something like "Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ within me, Christ to my left'' and so on. And if you do the movements for that you are essentially doing a kind of yoga. It makes me feel centred and honest and good. I think we have to fulfil our responsibilities in life, but at the same time, to make ourselves feel good we need a personal ritual and that's what that is for me. Some people do it by having a few pints."
Did he try that route too? "Yes, sure, to excess. I was a hippie, we used to all smoke the dope, but it destroys people physically and mentally. I don't know what's in it now, they're talking about chemical skunk where people are comatosed in five seconds.
"I was never really caught up in the drug scene but I did talk to someone about my drinking. I haven't had a drink in three years now. I sort of did the 12 steps, I didn't really understand them all, but I did my own versions. I have the medals. I have a bag of medals: football, javelin, fishing - and AA."
Recovery has also presumably given his career a new energy. He was on TV3's Red Rock before its cancellation and in the last few days he has been cast as a 'charismatic villain' on EastEnders, a move that has vaulted him back into the headlines.
"I'm apprehensive and excited - it's a big show. I never thought I would do a soap and actually I'm calling it a weekly drama like my brother used to. I used to watch Dirty Den back in the day. Anyway they haven't had a decent Paddy on the show in ages."
And won't his enormous ankle cast and walking stick need some explanation? There aren't too many cow pats in the East End after all.
"Would you believe my character actually walks with a stick - that was already written in," he smiles. "Accidents sometimes have a way of working out."
The Josephine Hart Poetry Hour: WH Auden starring Patrick Bergin, Angeline Ball, Ingrid Craigie and Colm Tóibín, and produced and directed by Shevaun Wilder, is at the Abbey Theatre tonight, 7.30pm. Box Office : (01) 8787222 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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