Theatre defined, shaped and saved my life - Brendan Coyle
A move to Dublin in his teens ignited Brendan Coyle's passion for acting. Now the star is back to the Irish stage for the first time since he found global fame as Downton's Mr Bates, in a role he has longed to do forever, he tells Meadhbh McGrath. Portraits by Conor Masterson
During preparations for Conor McPherson's The Weir, 21 years ago, Brendan Coyle went along to see another of the Irish playwright's shows. It was a monologue called St Nicholas, originally starring Brian Cox, and in the intimate surrounds of London's Bush Theatre, Brendan was spellbound. He decided there and then that he would make the role his own. "I saw it and I said, 'One day, I'm doing that'. It's been with me for a long time, and now I'm old enough to do it," Brendan (54) tells me during a break in rehearsals for the play, which comes to Ireland as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival on October 11. "It's sort of in my bones."
In St Nicholas, he plays a middle-aged Dublin theatre critic who follows a beautiful young actress to London and falls in with a group of vampires. It marks his return to the Irish stage since achieving worldwide fame as the valet Mr Bates on period drama Downton Abbey, a role which garnered Emmy, Bafta and Ifta nominations over the course of six seasons.
When I arrive for our interview, Brendan is studying a map of Dublin on the wall of the Donmar Warehouse's studio. Usually a rehearsal room, it has been transformed into a performance space for St Nicholas, accommodating 50 guests. Persian rugs cover the floor, and in the corner, a model of Dublin's Smock Alley Theatre shows a similarly cosy set-up. "You can help me!" he says, hovering over the map with a pen as he searches for his old haunts. He is taller than you might expect, and the Irish accent viewers know from Downton Abbey is tempered with a distinctly English tinge.
We retrace his life in Dublin from Harold's Cross, where he lived while studying theatre in the early 1980s, through Mountjoy Square, Clontarf, the Liberties and Sandymount, his homes during various spells in Ireland in the 1990s and Noughties. Now, he says he'll be staying put in the UK. "I've kind of settled in Norfolk, I bought a place there and I think I've stopped moving around now. I think!"
Downton came to an end in 2015, and in the years since, Brendan says he has been "trying to get back to something, which is great writing". This "craving" has seen him take parts in BBC horror series Requiem and a revival of Arthur Miller's play The Price, but now Brendan is set to tackle a one-man show, which he admits he was previously sceptical about.
"I'd never wanted to do a one-man show. I always thought they were real vanity projects, and also I thought the whole point of doing a play was that it was a real team thing. But this is a team, it's a proper team - the designers, the stage manager, Simon (Evans) the director - I'm going out on stage with all of their work. What you want to do is tell the best stories with the best material you can possibly get. For me, that's always been Conor," he says.
St Nicholas reunites the pair for the first time since The Weir in 1997 - which earned both of them Olivier awards. Brendan describes an "obsession" with Conor's work, originating with This Lime Tree Bower in 1995.
"His writing struck me in a way that no writing has ever before or since. I went to see it a lot of times, dragging people down there, trying to get to the root of why I was so profoundly affected by this guy's writing. It connected with me in a way nothing else ever had," he says.
While he's still convinced of the power of Conor's "heartbreaking and hilarious" script, Brendan had concerns about how the story of a man wallowing in a midlife crisis, written in the mid-1990s, would be received in 2018.
"I was worried when I read the play. It's a play about the human experience, but through the prism of a middle-aged man who is in complete downfall, whose attitudes are questionable at best, reprehensible at worst, in terms of his relationships with women and art and himself. I thought, who is gonna relate to or like or respond to this with anything but revulsion?"
However, once they started workshopping the play 18 months ago, he was pleasantly surprised by the reaction. "When we did it, with a whole cross-section of audiences, young, old, black, white - there's something about the human condition that everyone can relate to. It's very potent, very powerful, so it's that that makes it relevant," Brendan explains.
"I'm in my 50s now and I'm looking at my life based on where I'm at because of the decisions I've made. I'm reasonably happy with it, but you do think, 'Well, I'm here because of this.' You start to see the patterns, the consequences, the results, depending on how you look at it. I'm overall pleased with the results, but you do get more reflective, especially because this is a play about reflection."
One of the issues his character must contend with is how his alcohol abuse has affected his relationships, his family and his career. Brendan has sought treatment in the past for alcoholism, and while he is comfortable speaking about the theme of reflection in the play, he bristles when asked about his character's drinking. "It's just a part of the play, I don't feel anything about it. I don't think, 'Oh, this is a bit meta' or anything like that." He pauses.
"I have an understanding of it, and most people, I think, have an understanding or an experience of it, either in themselves or in family. We're very clear - he never uses that word - but we can see this man is fuelled by alcohol and his light is becoming duller as a result of that and his life is becoming more dissolute and reckless because of that. He doesn't want to make it about that; it's more complex than saying, 'This is happening because of that.'"
The character in St Nicholas is written as a Dublin native, but Brendan says he will draw on his family's northern Irish background for his interpretation. Born in Corby, Northamptonshire, to a Scottish mother and an Irish father, Brendan doesn't fly the flag for any country.
"Where I came from, everyone in my school was second-generation Irish or Scots. We were known as Mc-Macs, because you were either a Mc or a Mac, we were half-and-half. So questions of national identity didn't really come up, 'I'm Irish, I'm Scottish, I'm English', none of them really fitted. You supported Celtic or Rangers, that's how it was," he shrugs.
"Nothing sits comfortably with me - to be described as an Englishman is not comfortable for me, because it's not how I was brought up. To be described as Irish or Scottish, I feel like an imposter, that's not really me, but I relate really heavily, and it's not just being proud of it, but being very much influenced by it."
Those influences include his grandfather's upbringing in Donegal, and his father's in Tyrone, where his dad was raised before moving to England to set up a chain of butcher shops. "I was brought up in a freezer, so I'm immune to cold temperatures," he says, gesturing around the chilly studio space. "I hated it as a kid. From the age of 11 I worked in his butcher shop, and then when I left school my first job was in a meat factory. Now, I love cooking and I'm interested in husbandry and where meat comes from and whether we should even eat meat." (He does, although rarely - today he has a vegetable soup for lunch.)
In the 1970s, recession hit, and the family business went bankrupt. His father died shortly after, when Brendan was just 17. "I probably felt more Irish after my father died, because that was one of the reasons I moved to Dublin. It was around the same time as I decided I wanted to be an actor, and it was kind of a freak decision. It wasn't in my family, it wasn't in my school, we didn't do arts, it was just this instinct," he recalls. His mother told him about a cousin named Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy, who had set up the Focus Theatre, known for training students in method acting.
The young Brendan had recently attended his first play (a production of Richard III out of town) which he describes as his "corny bitten-by-the-bug" moment. As a teenager facing a career as either a mechanic or an engineer, it was life-changing, and to discover he had theatre royalty in Dublin was a great stroke of luck.
"I wrote to her and she very graciously said, 'Come over and check it out'. That saved my life, really, it defined and shaped my life," he says. "I was thrown into the deep end. The Focus was very intense, and I was working with people my own age who were really excited to be doing this. I had found this new religion."
Brendan lived in Harold's Cross with his cousin, and quickly found himself embedded in Dublin's bohemian arts scene. "It was a culture shock. It was like an open house, there were artists coming and going, producers, directors, musicians, all the time. There was a great energy about it all. It was eye-opening to me and very exotic," he says.
"My memories of that time are very, very vivid. I remember going to see All My Sons at the Abbey with Ray McAnally, it blew my mind. Ciaran Hinds was just exploding, doing a Sam Shepard play at the Project [Arts Centre] in the round - it was rock'n'roll. I was going, 'That's what it's like to be a heavyweight.' These were my sort of targets, and they've never been bettered for me."
He spent a year travelling the country with a theatre group as stage manager before applying to Mountview Academy, one of the UK's leading drama schools. For his audition, he merged two monologues from Philadelphia, Here I Come! in front of a panel that included Judi Dench. Looking back on it, he lets out a hearty chuckle: "I did that, I made her cry and I got a scholarship!"
Once he'd completed his studies, Brendan spent two seasons at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, and has been over and back between the UK and Ireland throughout his career - including a stint filming the RTÉ mockumentary Paths to Freedom in 2000. In it, Brendan played Jeremy, a disgraced gynaecologist who suffers a breakdown on release from prison following a sentence for drink-driving.
"Oh my God!" he cackles when I bring it up. "We were a bunch of idiots, and RTÉ just let us play."
He recalls meeting Michael McElhatton - who would play Jeremy's former cellmate Rats - on a BBC drama set during the Easter Rising called Rebel Heart, and receiving the Paths script six months later.
"I'm convinced it's still the funniest thing I've ever read. I'm not a laugh-out-loud guy, and I was pissing myself - pissing myself! - reading it, so I knew I had to do it," he says.
During our interview, Brendan can be very serious - about theatre, about keeping his private life private, about the "f****** vile" Margaret Thatcher - but he lights up when looking back on Paths to Freedom. The night before they started filming, the producer arrived at his home with a Michael Flatley DVD, Feet of Flames, and on his first day, he had to perform his own version of Lord of the Dance in a back garden in Blackrock.
"We just went for it, and it was so stupid and so funny, we thought, we've found our level now," says Brendan. "Every time I'm in Ireland, people mention Jeremy, I'm never going to shake that off, and it's fine. Unfortunately when Rebel Heart came on, no one could take us seriously because of Paths to Freedom: 'There's Jeremy and Rats pretending to be in the Rising!'"
The show was a hit in Ireland, but nowhere near the level of success Brendan would find with Downton Abbey. For six years while it was on screen, Brendan was harangued for selfies across the globe, but now he says fame "doesn't affect me hugely".
"I live in a very beautiful place on the coast and I go home and I do very little. I relax, I'm a beach bum of all seasons," he says.
He lives alone in Norfolk and says he spends most of his free time looking at dog gifs on Twitter, although he plans to adopt a pet once he can convince friends to dog-sit while he takes The Price to the US.
As Mr Bates, Brendan was frequently branded a heartthrob, capturing the hearts of audiences all over the world. "When it first came out, everyone kept waving about me being an 'unlikely sex symbol', there was a headline like that. It's pitched probably just about right - it's not on my passport, 'sex symbol'," he smiles.
Although he will be joining the Downton Abbey film, which started filming this month, Brendan says he doesn't miss the show.
"I never miss jobs. I love them when they're happening, I love starting a job and I love finishing a job. I love saying, 'Thanks very much, bye!'" he laughs, waving a hand. "I don't grieve over work. I've grieved over humans and dogs, not work. I've gone, 'Oh my god, I'm going to miss these people, I treasure that time we had together, but… sure, I'll see you next week for a coffee.'"
With St Nicholas taking up much of Brendan's attention over the next couple of months, his schedule doesn't allow a lot of time on the Downton set, but he promises he will be making an appearance. "I'm sort of out of the loop," he says. "Because I'm doing something else for the majority of the shoot, I don't know exactly how it's going to work. I won't be hugely involved but I will be involved. I'll be sticking the head in, kind of thing."
Aside from the Downton film, Brendan has a part in the upcoming Mary Queen of Scots, directed by Josie Rourke, former artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse. Brendan plays the Earl of Lennox, father-in-law to Saoirse Ronan's Mary.
"It's a thrilling thing," he says of the Oscar-tipped film, due for release in January. "We had a script by Beau Willimon who wrote House of Cards, so you have that political tension and intrigue, a very 21st-century sensibility brought to this medieval saga of blood-thirsty power struggles.
"It was helmed by the most amazing women - Saoirse, Margot [Robbie], Josie, [producer] Debra Hayward. Saoirse is phenomenal, really grounded and so talented. It was a powerful thing, and it was a really good experience. I hope people love it."
For now, though, Brendan is "living and breathing" St Nicholas, and describes himself as excited and nervous about bringing the play to Dublin.
"I feel the right sort of pressure, I feel the right sort of anxiety about it, because we really want to deliver on this," he says. "If people are moved and if people find this as dark and as funny and as poignant as we find it, then we'll have delivered. Hopefully actors will look at it and think, 'I'm doing that in 20 years'. That would be great."
'St Nicholas' runs at Smock Alley Theatre from October 11-20, with previews on October 9 and 10. Tickets from €25, see dublintheatrefestival.com