Thursday 13 December 2018

Interview with the vampire

Ten years ago Patrick Bergin, younger brother of Emmet, was touted as the next Sean Connery. After his role as Julia Roberts's demented husband in Sleeping with ...

Ten years ago Patrick Bergin, younger brother of Emmet, was touted as the next Sean Connery. After his role as Julia Roberts's demented husband in Sleeping with the Enemy, he looked set fair for stardom. The last decade has seen a mixture of arthouse and low budget. Barry Egan spent the weekend with Bergin in Budapest to find out what went wrong. Or not

PATRICK BERGIN saw his father the week before he went into St James's Hospital in 1991. Paddy Bergin was 78 when he had a heart attack of some sort. He smoked a packet of Player's every day of his adult life.

His son Patrick wanted him to hit 80. He'd tell him: "Another two years at least, Da." For once, his father wasn't listening.

A couple of years before he died, Paddy Bergin knew he had emphysema (cardio-pulmonary disease) and called his son into the room: "Do you know what emphysema is?"

His son hesitated. And once you hesitated with Paddy Bergin, you were gone. He'd jump in "Do you know or do you not know?"

"Well, no, I don't, Da," admitted Patrick.

"I do," chirped Mr Bergin. "I've been looking it up. In the Oxford English Dictionary. It says emphysema is 'shortness of breath'."

His father paused for theatrical effect and looked at young Patrick the 76-year-old to the 36-year-old.

"When you think about it , son," he muses, "isn't that what everybody dies of in the end?"

Paddy Bergin was a very erudite man who had studied to be a priest with the Holy Ghost Fathers in Blackrock. He instilled the spiritual dimension in his family.

Young Patrick Bergin, like his great mate Gabriel Byrne before him, thought about becoming a priest but bottled out. He loved going to church and looking at how high the ceilings were. He would often wonder why God needs so much space up there.

"It was to make young boys like you look up," the priest told him. It was Bergin's faith that got him through the sad passing of his father in 1991.

Bergin was shooting in the Arctic Circle when he heard the news. It was snowing outside. Forty below zero.

Blinded by grief, Bergin ventured out in the snow his eyes streaming tears for the father he had not said goodbye to properly. Not knowing where he was going, Bergin was soon lost in every sense.

"I ended up beside a Catholic church, believe it or not," he says. "It was basically a shack."

Patrick knocked on the door and went in. The priest was called. He told him about his father. "He just listened. He was wonderful."

On his way back that evening, Bergin saw the sun fall beneath the horizon. Before it vanished, the sun, he says, blinked three times. Bergin took a photograph of the star.

Emotional at this stage, Bergin gets up from the table in his suite at the Marriott and goes into the bedroom. He returns with the picture of the sun blinking that evening in the Arctic Circle.

"I took this picture the night after he died. That's the sun going down. The night after he died the sun pulsated three times. I'm quite convinced of that."

You felt it was your father's spirit saying goodbye for the last time to you?

"Exactly. But he's still around and I occasionally talk to him and he occasionally answers."

In life, Paddy Bergin was always there with all the answers for his sons (named after historical icons: Pearse, Emmet, and Patrick Connolly James Bergin).

In 1996, Patrick Bergin must felt like he didn't have the answers any more. He was, to all the world, a movie star whose day had come and gone. In 1991, he was the first Irish actor to star in a $100 million film; it was Sleeping with the Enemy. In 1996 he was what, exactly?

That year he describes as perhaps the lowest point in his career. The phone hardly rang. He is candid enough to admit that unless you are getting the phone calls for the movies that you think "usually wrongly" you should be doing, you "get a little disillusioned".

"I know quite a few actors who've gone through that in their careers. But that time for me was particularly disillusioning. My agents at the time were putting me under a tremendous amount of pressure to do a television series, because it pays a phenomenal amount of money and they don't have to work too hard," he says.

With some of the offers that came through television series mostly he told his agent he'd "frankly rather sweep the streets".

This is hardly surprising for a young idealist who, when he left Dublin for London in 1973, worked on building sites and then as a teacher before forming his own theatrical company because no one else would have him. For much of the Nineties it seemed like no one else in Hollywood would have Patrick Bergin.

So he made his own way. And he found his own voice (with such diverse films as a trilogy of Yeats plays; Morphine and Dolly Mixtures, for which he won a Welsh Best Actor Award, and Durango, based on John B Keane's novel; hosting TnaG's Silín Draíochta; narrating Patrick Cassidy's Famine Concert).

In 1991, he was being touted by Newsweek magazine as the next Sean Connery. It seemed as if he was about to swap Drimnagh's Mourne Road for Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard. But like an inversion of Gloria Swanson's famous quote in that movie, it was Patrick Bergin who got smaller.

He had had huge international hits with Sleeping with the Enemy and Patriot Games (1992). At that time, two Irish actors, Gabriel Byrne and Bergin, seemed destined for Hollywood top billing. Only Gabriel has, in part, achieved this. Bergin's career waned throughout the Nineties to the extent that his brother, Emmet, a mere soap actor, is probably better known than him in Ireland right now.

Patrick Bergin doesn't believe in regrets. He believes instead in destiny. And he never had a grand plan for his career. "If you just go with the flow and enter things in good faith," he says, "things will happen in a good way. I believe that what is meant for me will come to me."

To many, his huge promise remains scandalously unfulfilled. The fatal enemy of Bergin's promise in the end was, some said, his refusal to play the game. But Patrick Bergin was always an iconoclast.

You have to admire his brass neck. Who else would have gone on record to attack two of Ireland's most influential film-makers Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan? In his words, Jordan had "f***ed up Michael Collins" by underwriting the part of Eamon de Valera. (Bergin had spoken to Jordan about playing de Valera but was passed over for Alan Rickman.)

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. Ranting that there was a Jordan and Sheridan clique in Irish film, operating a closed shop, wouldn't have done him too many favours.

It would be too simplistic to say that he ostracised himself from Hollywood by his mouth. What's more accurate is that the idealistic nabob of gob was unwillingly to become something he felt uncomfortable with.

Patrick Bergin's years in the wilderness have not tamed his anger at the Irish film industry. He is highly critical of the refusal by Rod Stoneman, head of the Irish Film Board, to fund his Yeats project. "Stoneperson," as Bergin calls him, "says that 'Yeats's language is not appropriate for film.' Would he say that as an Englishman about Shakespeare?"

He recalls being at a dinner in Dublin not so long ago "with a group of people who I prefer to leave nameless. The intelligentsia of Dublin 4," he says. Their argument for the future of the Irish film industry was that Irish film-makers had to make more charming movies to please the Americans.

"I was appalled," he says. "It's like you're trying to find the product. We should all be selling peas this week instead of beans. It was all in order to make money there was virtually no passion in their conversation. I was amazed. And these were people who call themselves film-makers.

"Not every Irish film has to be about stupidity and 'f****** bollix' and 'get up the yard!"' he says. "I'd like to think that serious films in Ireland would be encouraged occasionally. Hopefully, you can create a body of work for future Irish film-makers to try and emulate, something that will help younger people when they're coming up through the schools."

Bergin admires the writer Roddy Doyle, but believes he seems to "get cheaper as he goes along. And people cheapen his work. We're not all howiyas. That kind of dumbing down is very popular," he says. "In a lot of films that have been made in Ireland recently the characters are parodies of exactly what I find abhorrent: the determination to make Irish people look stupid."

What about Father Ted and Ballykissangel?

"I mean, f*****' hell," he sighs. "Are we really like that? Well, if we are f*** it. Father Ted is an abhorrent pile of shite."

So who is Patrick Bergin in 2001? Like some great Celtic artist, Bergin wants to do everything and so he makes music, paints, writes poetry, scripts and acts in movies most of us never get to see. He calls himself "a jobbing actor".

The word "jobbing" is demeaning to you, I say.

"I'm not a genius like Gabriel or Pierce [Brosnan]," he says, "or a craftsman like Colm Meaney. I'm an actor for hire a liar and a chancer." (The liar reference is an allusion to when Bergin was a young teenager in Drimnagh and was asked on Hallowe'en night what his name was. "Bernard Maguire," was his reply. He went to school for six years with that name.)

Situating Patrick Bergin at 48 years of age, you have to remark on his honesty. You don't need a degree to work out where Patrick Bergin got that sense of truth from. His father was national campaign organiser of the Labour Party. The Bergins lived for years above the party offices at 20 Earlsfort Terrace before moving to Drimnagh.

A Labour senator in the 1950s, Paddy Bergin wasn't a dour socialist. He kept a copy of the Kama Sutra alongside books by Yeats and other Irish poetry. His father would talk to him about "all the important things", remembers Patrick. "God, sport, politics, fishing, poetry."

He remembers with a smile that when his oul' fella went to Belfast it wasn't with the Tricolour or the Union Jack, it was with the Plough and the Stars.

"That was my father's message," he says. "That it wasn't a religious divide that was keeping the people without work and without decent housing; it was the way society was organised."

He also remembers his father as having a very strong and well-developed sense of social justice. Patrick can recall incidents where he saw him do things to right what he felt were wrongs.

It was no coincidence that Bergin reacted the way he did to the murder of a 14-year-old Tallaght boy, Ben Smyth, in August 1998. Ben was named after Bergin (his fictitious name of Bernard), who was a close friend of the boy's father. "We set up a special fund to sponsor young kids from Tallaght," he says. "Drimnagh used to be like Tallaght. Taxi drivers wouldn't bring you to Drimnagh when I was a teenager."

The Drimnagh Iconoclast has a home behind the Four Seasons in Hollywood. He treats it more like an office. He and his wife Paula have a castle in Tipperary (he married his long-term girlfriend in Trinidad six months after his father died). The 15th century establishment lacks a moat but more than makes up for it with turrets, herb gardens and orchards set on 22 acres of woodlands.

Patrick reads and writes poetry in the gardens and watches his five-year-old daughter Tea live the life of a real fairytale princess. He says he was "very, very proud" when he held new-born Tea in his arms for the first time. You don't doubt that moment made up for the years of being ignored or miscast or not cast at all. Fatherhood changed him, he says. "It made me more responsible humbled."

At times, Patrick Bergin's life has seemed as if he is constantly setting his face to the horizon - to the future. But step by step he has pared down his life to the two things in life he cares about most: his family and his work. He will see his wife and daughter tomorrow night in Dublin.

He has been based for the last two months in Budapest filming Dracula for an Italian television company and is looking forward to getting home. And then into more projects. In Prague. Or South Africa (he could be shooting a movie about a massacre in the Congo). To wherever the work is for this "actor for hire".

Like his father before him, Patrick Bergin is a workaholic. He has just finished King Lear in Mexico with Colm Meaney. Padding around his sixth-floor suite last Saturday night, Bergin is an uncontrolled tempest of emotion and ideas. For seven hours, his intense charisma is non-stop. I honestly don't think he knows when, or how, to stop.

He is up for the part of Stalin. There is a possibility of him playing Irish boxer Jack Doyle. Michael Colgan is interested in making a film about Sir AJF O'Reilly and wants Bergin to play the former Belvedere College uber-winger. He wants to play Elvis if they ever make a movie about The King.

He puts on I Just Can't Help Believin' on the CD player. We both sing along. He puts on some tracks he has recorded himself and is thinking of releasing before Christmas. Two of the songs, written and sung by Bergin, are emotive in the extreme. One is about watching his father fishing on the canal; the other tells the story of a woman Bergin was involved with years ago.

Her father, a pilot, died unexpectedly, and Bergin could never forget her lying in bed beside him at night crying for her lost father. "When you run away my lovely/ What do you think you'll find?/ Will you find someone to love/ With a love as deep as mine?/ Will he mind if in the darkest night/ He'll sometimes hear you cry:/ O Daddy! O Daddy! O Daddy!"

He is gentle and intuitive. Kind. Obsessive. Brilliant. Relentless. A beautiful nutter. We talk in a frenzy all night. (And all the following morning. I thought I was going to miss my plane. He even rang me in Dublin on Monday and Tuesday.) Pick a subject. Any subject. Life. Love. Death. Celibacy in the religious orders? He doesn't think priests should be celibate. Celibacy is neither necessary nor a good idea.

"It's obviously a device to keep property," he says. "Who's going to get the land when the kids come along?" He favours the Brehon system where women had a lot of say in how society was run. They could divorce a man if he was too fat, or if they didn't like him. The divorce courts would be jammed. "There'd be nobody bloody married in Ireland," he laughs.

His memory is pristine. He recalls his exploits as a 15-year-old working as a trolley boy "not a redcoat" in Butlins holiday camp. It was like That'll Be the Day with David Essex. "We had a lot of fun, collecting dirty dishes," and courting young wans.

The early 1970s in Camden Town were just as exciting a time. And for Patrick, Gabriel Byrne and Gabriel's girlfriend, the late Áine O'Connor, all roads led to The Mogadon, a late-night drinking den. Long of hair and wide of flare, Bergin was playing music in an Irish blues band called The Wild Bunch in a pub up the road, the Sir Richard Stewart.

Afterwards Byrne, O'Connor and Bergin would spend the money on drink. "And we drank outrageous amounts of drink," Bergin says. "It was called The Mogadon because that's what you felt like coming out of there at seven o'clock in the morning."

As the Hungarian night drew in around us, we talked about Patrick's years working with handicapped children in England. (My late uncle Tom, I had told him, worked with handicapped children all his life.) Bergin worked on project called Paradise. "Each day people would ask me where I'd been and I'd answer: 'Paradise'." At eleven o'clock Bergin is seeking paradise of another kind as he recites aloud passages from Buddha. He is passionately surreal and one of our greatest actors.

Anyone who saw his portrayal of the anal-retentive wife-abuser in Sleeping with the Enemy couldn't disagree. Bergin instituted a Hitchcockian reign of psychological and physical terror over his wife played by Julia Roberts whom he sees as both possession and servant.

He says that he's met people who, when they saw the film, found the courage to leave their abusive partners. The movie, he says, gave them an insight into their own condition. "One of the reasons I was so interested in Sleeping with the Enemy was because it was about domestic violence essentially.

"And when there's that amount of domestic violence around, a lot of woman start to attribute the kind of supernatural qualities that Dracula has: even though their husband was in jail 200 miles away, they were convinced that he was going to come in the window that night to get them."

Bergin believes that Dracula has many levels to it, not least the fear of female sexuality; and Stoker's adoration of Henry Irving, the actor, hints at a homosexual undertow. Bergin explains: "Dracula says to the girls: 'Those men will be mine. Get them for me'."

It is almost midnight. Time for 'Dracula' and me to see a bit of Budapest. We go for a drink on a boat on the Danube and then hail a taxi to The Beckett pub. Bergin's acclaimed Some Other Place, a compendium of three Yeats plays (The Cat and the Moon, Calvary, and The Countess Cathleen) will be one of the highlights at the Yeats Summer School on Tuesday night in the Gaiety Multiplex in Sligo. As Mr Beckett looks down on us from a painting on the wall, Bergin contends that Samuel stole the plot for Waiting for Godot from Yeats's The Cat and the Moon.

He gives me a quick synopsis. It is about two tramps going around the roads of Ireland. One is blind and the other is lame. The blind man is carrying the lame man. They are searching for a saint...

"There is no question about it that Beckett nicked the idea from Yeats," he says, laughing.

In Calvary, directed by his wife Paula, Bergin plays Christ on his bloody last steps to the cross where he meets Judas. Bergin believes there are so many levels to Judas's decision to betray Christ.

Judas was either fulfilling a destiny or was desperate for a place in society by doing something dramatic. He compares it to Mark Chapman's shooting of John Lennon in 1980. "'Let me be famous at all costs'," explains Bergin. "'I want to be famous!' And there is a link today with Judas..."

The morning after the night before. Patrick Bergin is painting watercolours in his blue silk pyjamas when I arrive at noon. We stand out on the sixth-floor balcony and look down at the Danube. He points to the giant hill overlooking Budapest. "That's where they tied their king into a chair, set him on fire and rolled him down the mountain," he muses.

At 48 years of age, Patrick Bergin one of Irish cultural life's great searchers has earned the right to be happy. His career is on the up. His wife rings from Dublin. "Hi, darling," he says, disappearing into the bedroom.

Returning with his trusty copy of the Buddha's teachings, he reads aloud a few pages. And then adds his own spin. "Until you know your intentions, in a sense of knowing what you want, and what you want to achieve, you are living a life of confusion," he says. "But if you know what your intentions are, you are on the path of enlightenment and Buddha."

And how far along that path are you? "I try to stay on that path. Some days are better than others. Sometimes you struggle and sometimes you fall by the wayside. Nobody is perfect."

How do your imperfections manifest themselves?

"I've got them all," he says. "Anger. Gluttony. Sloth. Sloth is a big one. But essentially you could be burning up energy but you're dormant in sloth because you're not really directing your energy properly. We talked a lot about Buddha last night. The Catholic church or our catechism are some pretty good guidelines if they are properly analysed and properly understood."

Actors like you and Gabriel Byrne are really just spoiled priests, aren't you?

"The Greeks said that actors had no souls and should not be trusted," he replies. "I have no soul."

And you'll only truly find your soul like your father said before his own death when you get short of breath and die?

"Exactly," he smiles. "My father was never wrong."

* Barry Egan travelled to Budapest as a guest of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.

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