Like father, like son: Actor Rex Ryan on his 'unashamed' ambition
A self-confessed old head on young shoulders, at just 28 Rex Ryan is a married man with a fledgling theatre company and a residency in Smock Alley. Now, with the support of playwright Jimmy Murphy, he's setting his sights on shaking up the Irish stage, he tells Maggie Armstrong. Photography by Frank McGrath
In the past two weeks Rex Ryan has been told six times that he has "an old head on young shoulders".
"Six times. What is it? Do I give a vibe off of a pensioner?" asks the actor, sitting in a cafe outside Dublin's Smock Alley Theatre. He is suntanned, sporting a well-maintained tash, a gold knuckle-duster and the taut T-shirt of an elite athlete (he was a champion kick-boxer at one time), sipping an iced coffee.
It's just that he seems older than 28. He nods understandingly. "I feel older. That's why I hang around with Jimmy. He's my bud. He's in his 50s… and Tom Hickey. He's in his 80s."
"That's not," he adds, "to say I'm not capable of incredible immaturity. The stage allows you to go places you can't go in real life, in case you get arrested."
Rex is only partly joking about all of this. He considers Pat Kinevane and Mikel Murfi his "peers" in acting. I break it to him that they are not his peers, they are 20, 30 years older.
But Rex is moving fast considering he was born in the 1990s. He has recently appointed himself artistic director of Glass Mask, the new theatre company he runs with his friend and fellow actor Ruairí Heading. Jimmy Murphy is their playwright-in-residence here at Smock Alley, where the company is based for 2018/19. Their vision is to put on "electric theatre" that commits to the work of the playwright, and to find a new audience for the theatre through youth outreach and free previews.
Glass Mask will run a season of Jimmy Murphy's plays, branded 'The Price of Life', beginning with the opening of a new play, Idlewild.
Is Smock Alley going to provide the setting that will make theatre cool again? "Oh I hope so," says Rex in a pining and wistful tone.
Before this, Rex ran the Corps Ensemble from the Viking in Clontarf, where indeed, the veteran actor Tom Murphy was their mentor. (He has parted ways with the Corps, "still buds", he says.)
It is a boiling hot day in the heart of the city and Glass Mask is in rehearsals. The Liffey is shimmering and many Dubliners are wearing no shirts.
Rex first met Jimmy Murphy when he played a Mossad sniper in What's Left of the Flag, Jimmy's play about two Palestinian Mossad agents, at PalFest (a festival demonstrating Irish solidarity with Palestinian people). "I loved that play," says Rex. "It was very subtle and human, the politics were ambiguous. Everyone seemed to be sort of locked by it.
"I felt Jimmy's passion for theatre the first time I met him. We talked after the play, and he ended up becoming a really close friend. He started sending me his other work."
Last March, Rex emailed the playwright as a "shot in the dark" and told him that he had a new theatre company and a theatre.
"That was all I needed to hear," says Jimmy.
The author of 13 plays has felt adrift in recent years, unsure where to stage his new work. Andrew's Lane Theatre is closed. Theatre Upstairs, where he has staged a number of plays, is very small. Fishamble doesn't have a theatre space. Many small companies, including Red Kettle who produced his very successful play The Kings of the Kilburn High Road, were lost in what he describes as "the cull" of theatre companies that began with cuts to funding in 2007.
Jimmy gets up and writes from 7am - as a member of Aosdána, he is paid to write every day, as he sees it. But until he was approached by Rex, he didn't know who, or where he was writing his plays for. "The Abbey and the Gate are both going through, not an identity crisis, but an attempt to re-imagine themselves. For writers, we're stuck in a kind of no-man's land."
The two theatre men, with Ruairí Heading (an actor on the rise since his turn as Tony Gregory in Colin Murphy's Haughey-Gregory in the Abbey), are now close collaborators. "It's like I've found myself washed ashore here now and it feels good. I have a home again," says Jimmy.
They look completely different. Rex, suntanned and clean-shaven. Jimmy, not shaven, and with the pallor of a man who happily spends 12 hours at his writing desk when a play is going well. ("When it's not working, it's hell and you can't even look at your computer, but when it's going well it's brilliant.") And the glint in his eye of someone not unaccustomed to late nights. (He talks about a kind of golden age, when poets and artists mingled in Grogan's bar late into the night. "That's all gone, I'm the only one left…").
Rex and Jimmy do sound alike however. Though from two distinct communities, Rex from leafy Clontarf, north Dublin, Jimmy from a "south Dublin working-class" background, they are both Dubs. Not all Dubs sound like Dubs, but these do.
They both took profoundly different routes into theatre, with Jimmy's perhaps the more scenic. Rex had showbiz running through his bloodline, from his grandmother's family the Burkes, who worked in costume design. And with the late Gerry Ryan for a father, he was never going to be short of contacts - or media attention. He and his four siblings attended the National School of Performing Arts, and he studied at the Gaiety School of Acting, right next to Smock Alley.
He wanted to be a movie star, or, "I wanted to be Mr Pink in Reservoir Dogs." Then he went with his mother to see A Whistle in the Dark by the late Tom Murphy in the Gaiety. "My mind was blown, my mind was changed. It was a wild experience. I've really tried to articulate that through work in the last few years."
Conversely, "I came off a building site," says Jimmy, who left school at 15. Though it wasn't even that straightforward.
Having trained as a painter and decorator, Jimmy harboured ambitions to write plays. He had seen Philadelphia, Here I Come and while Ballybeg didn't mean anything to him, he realised that he could write about his own streets in Ballyfermot. Over nine years he wrote three plays, all of them rejected by the Abbey. He was hanging around Grogan's in the 1980s, beginning to get frustrated, when fortune took him into the Abbey: his boss had got a contract to paint the theatre. He was alone, painting the script department, when he found his name among the rejected scripts in a filing cabinet.
So he went rummaging in the forbidden files of the national theatre?
"I think I was moving the cabinet, and the door opened," he says (so that settles that).
He pulled out his most recent script with a letter clipped to it. The letter, from the Abbey's reader, said: "This writer should be encouraged." It gave him the "energy" to keep writing for the next year. He read every play he could, attended every preview he could (cheaper tickets), and signed up for the National Writers' Workshop taught by then Abbey boss Garry Hynes. He wrote Brothers of the Brush, which the Abbey produced on the Peacock stage in 1993. It won 'best new play' at the Irish Theatre Awards.
He was 30, and his first child, a daughter, was born while they were in rehearsals for that show. He left the theatre to be with his wife in the Coombe. "And the Abbey f**king docked me half a day's per diem. A tenner."
Playwright and actor are both married. Jimmy, who wed Mary in 1987, has two children. Rex got married in May to Miglé Ryan (nee Jasiene). Originally from Lithuania, Rex's wife is also a member of Glass Mask.
"She is the literary manager. So she is reading a lot of plays, and dealing with Jimmy's playwright mentorship scheme. She'll liaise with playwrights and foster them through the company."
It was a small ceremony in a registry office, with few family present, though they are planning a barbeque for their families and friends this August. "It was lovely. It was a very special day," says Rex shyly. "And from someone who said a year ago that they'd never get married, it was an uplifting thing to do it.
"I'm so happy. I'm so happy. I really am. You know. You're in love, aren't you? It's a great weight off your mind, that someone has said you're not psychotic! That you've been accepted."
Is it correct that he is also now a stepfather to Miglé's young daughter? A long, chilly pause. "There is a little four-year-old, in my life, that I'm responsible for."
He is fiercely private about his relationship. "I made a promise to myself not to talk… I just need one thing in my life that's sacred."
Because he wants to protect the person he is with?
"Spot on. She's not involved in the business, so I don't want to drag her into that." Is the importance of privacy something he learned from having a well-known father, Gerry Ryan?
"You know I always thought I was lucky to have a well-known father in Ireland. To me he was just that dude. We played with soldiers together and watched Saving Private Ryan together. He cooked me steak. He was Dad. But people seemed to love him, and that uplifted me.
"We don't have a paparazzi culture. We never really got too much s**t. I moved through the world relatively unscathed. Perhaps if we were in America I could be affected very differently. A lot of my favourite actors - Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger - I think celebrity culture killed them."
Both Jimmy and Rex are pure theatre animals. They share a blazing passion for the stage, listing the same playwrights they revere and constantly return to for instruction. Tom Murphy, Brian Friel, Marina Carr, Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill, David Mamet, Caryl Churchill, Sarah Kane. "You know the way people are always saying theatre is dead? It's sort of bulls**t, isn't it?" says Rex.
They share an old-fashioned taste for straight, traditional plays. As associate playwright with the company, Jimmy will teach a playwriting mentorship programme. He hopes "to bring back the classical structure of writing a play. Two hours long. With four, five, six characters, talking about things that are happening now."
Because, you see, Jimmy Murphy doesn't like any of the new plays he sees on the stage. "There hasn't been a great play for 10 or 15 years," he says. "It's like there's been a famine."
A lot of new writers, instead of holding a mirror up to society, are "holding a mirror up to themselves. A lot of it is just: 'My weekend at Body & Soul'."
Ouch. How about those promising writers who emerged in the past 10 years? Stacey Gregg, David Ireland, Phillip McMahon.
He shakes his head (apart from David Ireland, whose Cyprus Avenue he admits was "brilliant"). He is looking for "a new Marina [Carr]", or "a new Conor [McPherson]".
What about the form-twisting theatre of Enda Walsh or companies like Dead Centre, ANU and Theatre Club? "It's exciting that people are now deconstructing the form of theatre, and there's room for so much of that," Jimmy concedes.
Rex, similarly, isn't terribly moved by post-dramatic or devised theatre. "For me I've always been drawn to a playwright giving you something that they've toiled over, and crafted."
He likes the spelling of the word 'playwright'. "A play is 'wrought'." He makes a gesture as if wringing out a wet cloth. "Arthur Miller is measuring beats of the script. Caryl Churchill, the crafting of her plays is unparalleled."
When I first interviewed Rex in 2014 he described what reading plays has done for him. "When you read great art it's like a hand of a complete stranger reaches out to you and takes your hand."
He writes a little himself, though would only write a play if given six months off work to really 'wright' it.
One thing is clear: both playwright and actor have a sterling work ethic.
Rex describes himself as "unashamedly ambitious. I like overreaching".
Jimmy talks about a decade of "hard slog" before he had a play produced. "Theatre doesn't come easy. It shouldn't come easy."
As two men, did the Waking the Feminists movement surrounding gender equality in Irish theatre make them reflect on their privilege?
Jimmy was one of the nine men. The nine men, that is, who made it into the Abbey's 'Waking the Nation' programme in 2016, with his verbatim play Of This Brave Time.
He was "mortified" when the "nonsensical programme" was released, listing one female playwright out of 10. "How hard could it have been? I suppose it was good, because what followed has been a watershed."
He realised about 10 years ago that there were not enough strong roles for women over the age of 24. "I remember being aware of friends who were out of work, realising that I was playing a role in this. I love alpha males on the stage. But there are alpha women as well."
That prompted him to write The Hen Night Epiphany, a play with an all-female cast that talks about domestic abuse. That play and a new play, the female-led The Seamster's Daughter, will be next in Glass Mask's season at Smock Alley.
As for Rex, he has always been drawn to playing outcast soul-searching males, from Hamlet to the gullible rogue Kilby in Mark O'Rowe's Made in China.
"Something I am very interested in is the male condition, because I am one. And I am very interested in mining our insecurities, our weaknesses, our strengths."
Before we part - Rex has to direct an in-house production in the Gaiety School of Acting, and Jimmy has a bet going on a few World Cup games - a word on the play the boys are currently plugging, Idlewild, written and also directed by Jimmy, starring Rex and Ruarí.
The two-hander is billed as a "gangland tragedy". Set in a graveyard, it centres on the broken friendship of two rival gang leaders, Donnie and Anthony, as they meet to perform a grim task. There are parallels between these fictional characters and the Kinahan and Hutch gang members.
Idlewild should explain his moustache anyway. Rex will play Anthony (aka The Rev), a foul murderer. Jimmy Murphy is asking us to see the humanity in the worst of humans, says Rex.
"Just like Arthur Miller asks us to love Eddie Carbone, an incestuous man; just like you're asked to sympathise with James Tyrone - an alcoholic, abusive to his wife, but in the end you cry for that man. That opens up your heart as a human. That means you could practise forgiveness, and realise that we're all f**ked up. To practise forgiveness, wouldn't it be a magic thing to come out of the theatre with that?"
"Irrevocably f**ked up," he adds. "I thought, if I can have the audience empathise with this guy, that would be an achievement."
Rex will have to age a few years to play this inveterate crime kingpin. Which shouldn't be too difficult for him anyway.
'Idlewild' opens July 29 with a free preview at the Boys' School in Smock Alley Theatre, see smockalley.com