Monday 23 October 2017

'I worked in Microsoft for 3 weeks - it was grim' - Peter Coonan talks journey from office job to Love/Hate to theatre

Deep water: Peter Coonan in Before Monsters were Made
Deep water: Peter Coonan in Before Monsters were Made

Maggie Armstrong

In November 1958, a bachelor farmer was strangled to death on his walk home from a game of cards in remote Co Kerry. There was only one suspect, a friend and farmer with whom he was caught in a land dispute.

A few years later a girl went missing in Ballina, Co Mayo, and was found murdered, leaving a wake of fear and mistrust in the torn community.

One of these murders happened, one didn't, I don't think. They are both the subject of plays about to open in Dublin - one old and long rehearsed; one new and tentative.

The Field, by John B Keane, was first staged in 1965 and now comes to The Gaiety, starring the interesting Michael Harding. Before Monsters Were Made is in The Project. This new play is by Ross Dungan, directed by Ben Kidd of the weird and gorgeous Lippy. Playing David, a married schoolteacher and a suspect, is one Peter Coonan. Love/Hate's Fran is making good as a stage actor.

Unusually, they are calling the play a thriller. "I think that's kind of brave and ambitious," says Peter. "The disappearance and death of the girl rocks the town and puts everyone into question. The rumour mill begins to turn."

We talked over coffee and split a croissant, Peter in a Nike cap and a loud red puffa jacket. His voice is a kind of roar, gravelly from being, perhaps, well, loud.

Peter was an unlikely discovery when he joined Love/Hate in his late 20s. His career set off normally. As a boy he attended Ann Kavanagh's Young People's Theatre, and did "a few Feises". His mother, Betty, acted on the amateur circuit. She died when Peter was 12. He remembers her "elegance" and her treasured advice as he was fretting before doing Blood Brothers: "If you're not nervous, you're in the wrong business."

At school in south Dublin (I knew him vaguely) he played sports but he definitely wasn't one of the rich ruggers. He was wild and a little Fran-esque. But a sweetie. He studied Arts in UCD, "six years, messing", and left in 2008 without quite finishing. "I was hanging around with reprobates," he smiles. Acting was "in the back of my mind" and he jumped in as understudy in occasional plays. He never had formal training.

Once, he had an office job. "In Microsoft, for three weeks. To be honest with you it was pretty grim. Sitting at a computer, I didn't really know what I was doing. I did a good interview, but all the stuff I said I could do, I couldn't do."

He had a shaved head from working on a film, Between the Canals. This looked "a bit weird" at work. "After a while I was politely asked to leave." From this he was spotted in a clip and Love/Hates most psychopathic villain was born.

Fran has become a kind of folk hero. When Coonan goes to the pub, as is his habit, he is hounded for selfies. "That's a nightmare," he says. "Not a nightmare, that's harsh. Sometimes you just want to get on with your day, or you're having a night out with friends - which are few and far between now." He has a one-year-old baby, Beth, with girlfriend Kim.

This is his first stage outing since playing a 16-year-old Brendan Behan in Borstal Boy.

"I've only done four plays in Ireland, I want to do more and more, The Gate and The Abbey. It would be ideal to be able to go away more, do film and television, do a bit of theatre, come back." But film breaks don't come easily.

"Certainly in Ireland I have a choice but outside of Ireland, for the moment, it's kind of putting yourself on tape, waiting to hear back. Which can be tough, kind of soul-destroying at times. You learn it well, you go in and shoot it with a friend and then you're waiting, and you don't hear anything." It means he can't be squished into the role of a thug again. "It's good as well, they don't know anything you've done, you're a blank canvas to them."

To the play. Before Monsters Were Made is "all about steering", says Peter. He mentions Gone Girl's hooks and twists. "It certainly will make you work. These days so much theatre is about being on your toes. You constantly need to be involved. It's not sitting back and enjoying the ride."

The Field opens April 28; Before Monsters Were Made opens May 2

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