Taking one breath at a time
Once touted as the new Sean Connery, Patrick Bergin instead followed his own path after initial Hollywood success -- with no regrets. And now, still acting, plus singing and running a drama school, what's left to do, asks Barry Egan. Keep breathing ...
A fur hat on the table in the Westbury Hotel catches Patrick Bergin's eye. It reminds him of the night his father died in 1992. Bergin was in the Arctic Circle shooting a film. Although it was 40 below zero outside, he trudged out into the elements. The tears in his eyes were almost frozen.
The first Irish actor to star in a $100m film -- as the anal-retentive abuser of Julia Roberts in Sleeping with the Enemy in 1991 -- walked in his coat and big, fur hat for 15 minutes until he came, by accident, to a a ramshackle, corrugated-iron Catholic church.
He knocked on the door, went in, and told a priest that his father had died. The priest just listened as he talked and cried. He told Bergin to go home and be there for his mother in her time of need. Walking back to his accommodation, Bergin saw the sun dip towards the horizon.
Before it vanished, he recalls that it "blinked three times. The night after he died, the sun pulsated three times. I'm quite convinced of that".
Patrick was also convinced that it was his father's spirit saying goodbye for the last time to him. He took a photograph of the blinking sun. "I still have it safe," he tells me tonight in Dublin, as we go out ourselves into the icy cold, leaving the Westbury for Grafton Street, with all its Christmassy splendour of lights and shoppers. "I bought a church in Lough Derg 15 years ago," he says. "It is a lovely church." He also owns a 15th-Century castle "near Cloughjordan".
He remembers the afternoon some years ago he and his wife Paula Frazier (she was his long-term girlfriend, and they married in Trinidad six months after his father died ) returned home to the castle after being away for months in Los Angeles on a film shoot. "My wife and I were sitting in the kitchen," he recalls. "This look of horror came over her face. I turned around and there was a rat, which had walked into the kitchen and was on his hind legs and was looking at us like, 'What the f*** are you doing here?' He looked like the size of a hare."
Bergin had a plan to get that fat rat, he continues as we trudge around Stephen's Green in the cold. He bought night-vision goggles. Later that night, the world-famous actor sat up until dawn in his night-vision glasses, with a pellet gun and a half bottle of whiskey, waiting for the rat to return.
"He never came back," he says, laughing. We make our way to Residence, where we secure a table by the window. Bergin is a big bear of man wrapped up in a coat that wouldn't have looked out of place on a Russian soldier. He takes it off to reveal a big woolly jumper underneath. He orders soup and a Caesar salad. Every eye in the place seems to be on him. It is all a performance for Bergin, it seems.
The first time he performed was at school, he remembers. "I played a shepherd with a crook," he says. When he went to London at the age of 18, the first thing he did, he says, was to form a theatre group. That year, he also went to see the Rolling Stones play that free concert in Hyde Park as a memorial to Brian Jones.
"I was a mad Stones fan," he says. He met Mick Jagger the night before the Oscars seven years ago. There was a wonderful party up in the hills, with Johnny Depp and Jack Nicholson among many others. Bergin was chatting away when out of the corner of his eye he saw Jagger "angling towards our group because we were having more fun than anyone else. He was raising money for that movie Enigma at the time. He came over to me and said directly, 'Who are you, what do you do?'"
When he heard the word actor, he started to walk away. But before the Rolling Stone could do so, Bergin told the notoriously mean-with-money rock star that he owed Jagger money. That did it. Jagger stopped in his tracks and turned around. "How do you make that out?" he asked. Patrick replied: "I used to busk outside the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and I made a lot of money out of Honky Tonk Woman. I was just wondering if buskers had to pay royalties. Jagger laughed, and shook my hand and said: 'I'll look into it'."
Equal parts Renaissance man and Beckettian tramp on the existential boulevards of life, Bergin, from Mourne Road in Drimnagh, Dublin, is a mystery. In 1991, Newsweek magazine talked of him as the next Sean Connery. It didn't quite work out like that, but he doesn't seem any less fulfilled artistically for not being a Hollywood A-lister after the success of Sleeping with the Enemy promised so much. He has no regrets. He followed his own path. And more power to him for it. "It's a struggle being an artist, don't you find?" he says. "It's a tough road to take, because it is not clearly defined. I'm thinking of writing a novel."
I ask him how his wife would describe him. "She likes me when I'm being myself. I know that is a very easy kind of answer to give in a way, but it's not." Is it difficult to be yourself? "It is. I've got a lot of pressure. I'm under a lot of pressure." Is that pressure you put on yourself? "I do. I'm away too much. That's for sure. I'm on the road a lot."
He says his wife knew what she was getting involved with when she married him. "But the main thing is, she paints and has her own artistic world she inhabits, and that's sometimes successful."
He can be all at once jaunty and funereal; forthright and evasive. He can be endearingly curmudgeonly when you press him on anything he doesn't want to be pressed on. Yet he pokes fun at himself. He isn't trapped inside the aspic of his own legend as some stars are. There is something in Bergin's demeanour that dares you to write him off. Time after time, he refuses to be written off.
Hollywood, the acting capital of the world, is, he says, "a tough place. I get asked a lot by what you might call young actors, 'Should I go to Hollywood?' I always say if you want to go, go. LA is a great city for all sorts of reasons. It is pretentious with lots of ambitious people. People are hungry. It's creative. It is deeply shallow; wonderfully, deeply shallow. You meet people at their best and at their worst. Professionally, it is a private party, and it is invitation only. You can try to gatecrash, but very few people get in."
Does he feel he gate-crashed Hollywood with Sleeping with the Enemy? "Oh, no," he says. "That was invitation, very much so. I was invited for sure. I got invited because of Mountains of the Moon [his epic 1990 portrayal of 19th-Century explorer Sir Richard Burton]." If you have some kind of success in your own territory, you have a calling card. I think that is important for an actor not to dream and just go there and just, you know, land the big role. No matter where you are -- Kerry or Wexford or Derry -- be the best there for it and then you'll be invited to Dublin or London or New York. You can't just take the giant leap. Or maybe you can," he says with a belly laugh.
He has a huge, hearty laugh, which echoes around Residence. And a huge heart. That is probably why Bergin is not as big a star in Hollywood or movies as he should be: he is not enough of a ruthless me-me-me schemer. "Maybe you have to be ruthless to get places," he says. "I don't know."
Do you have to be more ruthless to be successful in Hollywood? "Maybe. I was watching All About Eve [Joseph L Mankiewicz's 1950 moody classic about ambition, with Bette Davis and Anne Baxter] on the plane coming over last night," the jet-lagged star says. "That movie kind of suggests that you do have to step on people to get on in Hollywood, doesn't it?"
He has kept the flame of idealism burning with a body of work that includes: a trilogy of Yeats' plays, one of them being Calvary, directed by his wife, where Bergin plays Christ on his bloody last steps to the Cross; Durango, based on John B Keane's novel; hosting TnaG's Silin Draiochta; and narrating his friend Patrick Cassidy's Famine Remembrance concert.
He doesn't like to stick to any particular pattern for too long. I spent three days with him in Budapest in 2003, while he filmed the lead in Dracula. We sat up all night in his suite talking about death and God, and all kinds of things. He is gentle and intuitive, charming and combative; mouthy. (Bergin believes that Samuel Beckett stole the plot for Waiting for Godot from Yeats' The Cat and the Moon; Neil Jordan had "f***ed up Michael Collins" by underwriting the part of Eamon de Valera. Jim Sheridan, meanwhile, had, in Bergin's words, ruined Ireland's greatest play, The Field, and allowed Richard Harris to turn it into his King Lear.)
Bergin is also tortured, but in a good way. You don't imagine him staying still for too long. There's a restlessness to him, certainly. "I am constantly thinking of things to do," he says. "That's for sure. I consider myself lazy and an underachiever, but I suppose I do quite a bit all the same."
In fact, Bergin has just released a Christmas record with singer Eleanor Shanley, a double A-side with My Angel alongside The Drunken Sailor. He translated My Angel from the traditional African folk song Malaika. "It's got a very beautiful melody -- very Irish sounding -- and it has always haunted me," he says. "I researched the song itself and then did an interpretation. I always thought a woman should sing this song rather than a guy. Anyway, I talked to Eleanor and I knew her voice was perfect for it."
"And there's a romping version of The Drunken Sailor," he says. "So, the CD is the sacred and the profane."
Is that Bergin, the sacred and the profane? "Yeah, I think so. It's a bit of everybody, isn't it? Make me a saint but just not yet, as Saint Augustine said."
Bergin was born on February 4, 1951. Does life get easier or harder with age? "I think we all know the answer to that -- it's harder." He talks about just finishing the movie A Kiss and a Promise in LA in January and having to fly back to the Philippines to shoot scenes for Dance of the Steel Bars.
Bergin has an acting school for young kids. There is no money in it. He does it because he wants to do something for kids who don't have much going for them in their lives.
He talks proudly of his late father: "He had a lot of moral and physical courage." He claims he did not inherit that trait from his father. "I am an absolute coward -- morally and physically a coward. Aren't we all? I think that's what's wrong with the bleeding world -- we're all physical and moral f***ing cowards. We're just selfish, horrible, generally.
"I'm talking of the moral spinelessness of what's become of our generation, really. You very seldom meet people who you have any moral respect for. It's mostly bullshit. And I'm not blaming anybody. You have to bulls*** to fertilise the world. You asked me about my mother and my father. I miss having people around me like my father, who one felt had a moral integrity and a truthfulness that was inspiring. Have I inherited it? I have certainly inherited the mantle of it; whether I live up to it is a different matter. I try my best. I am a reasonably good person. I don't think I have done many people that much harm."
He is spending Christmas in England with his wife and 14-year-old daughter Tea. Asked where does he consider home, as he also has homes in LA and in Ireland, Bergin says: "I probably am a gypsy."
What is he like as a dad? "I do me best. I'm pretty good, some of the time. We do a lot of music together," he says, adding that they used to live in Brighton before relocating to Worthing. In Brighton, he bought a recording studio from the guy who wrote Blame It on the Boogie for Michael Jackson. "I recorded about 20 songs recently. Tea listened to them and said, 'Take it from a teenager -- with a little tweaking, this could be number one, dad.' That was very encouraging. It is important to get a bit of encouragement in whatever you do. My dad was always encouraging people."
His father Paddy Bergin, a Senator in the Fifties, was national campaign organiser of the Labour Party. Before moving to Drimnagh, the Bergins lived for years above the party offices at 20 Earlsfort Terrace -- just around the corner from where Patrick and I are now slurping soup. He named all his sons after historical icons: Pearse, Emmet, and Patrick Connolly James Bergin. "I remember asking him once, 'What's your definition of beauty, dad?' He didn't think for more than five seconds. 'Symmetry.'"
What's your definition of beauty? "Symmetry," Bergin answers. "When I see my daughter Tea, absolutely. Life is beautiful. When I rang her from LA to ask her what would I bring her home, she said, 'Just come safely'. That kind of thing is beautiful."
Bergin says that a couple of years before his father died, he had tried to tell his son he was dying. Paddy knew he had emphysema and called his son into the room, asking: "Do you know what emphysema is?" "Well, no, I don't, Da," admitted Bergin. "I do," chirped Paddy. "I've been looking it up. In the Oxford English Dictionary. It says emphysema is 'shortness of breath'.
"And when you think about it, son, isn't that what everybody dies of in the end?"
His Caesar salad and soup are gone.
I ask the famous actor and musician what is he doing later. He pauses for a second before answering.
My Angel and The Drunken Sailor by Patrick Bergin and Eleanor Shanley is available from HMV nationwide and to download on iTunes. It is released by Sonny and Skye Productions