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'Get out before it kills you'

TWENTY years ago, Liam Carney made a decision he now believes may even have saved his life. He changed his job. In other words, Carney left the Civil Service (where he was terrified he might become an alcoholic, and where, incidentally, many of his peers from those days have since died drink-related deaths) to become an actor.

But of course there is another side to this story. Because "loads of times" Liam has seriously questioned the wisdom of that move.

Such as when his first marriage broke up, partly as a result of the abysmally low-paid nature of his new-found profession. Or, indeed, during those periods of economic drought that persist in the life of this 45-year-old father of six (and are only periodically ended when he gets relatively lengthy or high-paying gigs in TV shows such as Glenroe, or movies such asThe Commitments or Gangs ofNew York).

Either way, Carney's acting career originally took flight when he teamed up with Paul Mercier in Passion Machine - the theatre company responsible for Studs, the first of many productions they'd do together.

This adds a certain circularity to the fact that not only does Carney appear in the film of the same play that opens the Dublin Film Festival on February 17, but is also currently acting at the Abbey, giving what has already been - quite justifiably - described as a potentially award-winning performance in Mercier's new play Homeland.

However, Carney, whose earliest memory of wanting to be an actor stems from the time he was 10 and saw James Dean on TV in Rebel Without A Cause, never evenmentioned that dream to hisfolks. Growing up in "a working-class area", he believed he was schooled for the Civil Service and didn't even think about a career as an actor. In fact, at first - like his dad - Liam worked on the buses, as a conductor.

"Then I was a clerical assistant for a month, but I became a Post Office clerk because that paid more and had more channels for promotion - but I hated it," he says, sitting in the Abbey Theatre.

"Yet I stayed there six years and whatever about the amount of drinking done in this [acting] business, man, in the f**king Post Office job, you were in work at10 and in the pub by 11! On your morning break!

"So I was on a hiding to nothing drink-wise, but I'll always remember this man I worked with. He'd only started drinking at 44 but was an experienced drinker by 50, and we'd be sitting in the Sackville pub and he'd be singing like Josef Locke, then he'd say to me: 'Get out of the GPO before it kills you.' "He had huge regrets - because he'd once had a dance band but had never really done what he wanted. I knew he was right andif I stayed in the Civil ServiceI'd either become an alcoholic,end up dead or one day, with a chip on my shoulder, saying to my grandchildren: 'I could have done . . . whatever.'

"I also remember that when I finally took the plunge into acting - after one of my younger brothers joined an amateur acting company, I went to the show, loved it, met the lads, asked if I could have an audition, then got a part in Strindberg's The Father - I felt: 'Well, if acting doesn't work out for me at least I'll know I tried.' But from the minute I stepped on stage I knew acting was what I wantedto do."

And so Liam subsequently appeared in "four or five productions" with the Laughing Gravy Theatre Company, then worked in plays like Stephen Berkoff's West in the Players Theatre at Trinity.

Not surprisingly, rehearsals in particular necessitated Carney "going sick from the Post Office" which in turn led to a suspension then him resigning - though he now readily admits he "manoeuvred this situation" to win his freedom in this sense.

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But, with all due respect, would Liam also readily admit he was hardly being a responsible husband or father when he later accepted that first gig with Passion Machine - even though it paid only £100? And not £100 a week, which is what Carney first thought, but for the entire two-month run?

"Obviously I wasn't a responsible father and husband, but at the time my marriage had ended," he says. I wonder if that marriage was adversely affected by his commitment to acting or perhaps his being "wayward" at the time.

"Probably a bit of both, to be honest with you. Certainly this business doesn't lend itself to keeping marriages together. Like, when you are away on tour or whatever, your partner is always going to have voices niggling away, making her wonder what's really going on.

"But we got married way too young. I was only 22, and even though it wasn't a shotgun wedding we had a honeymoon baby, born nine months later. Yetour marriage was over by 1986or 1987."

Did Liam stay on touch with his two children from that marriage? "Very much so," he responds, patently uncomfortable focusing on what he later almost apologetically describes as his "complicated" home life.

"And now I have another family - four more kids - and I'd be lying if I didn't say there were loads of times when the demands of raising a family made me want to say: 'F**k this acting lark.'

"But never once did I seriously think of giving it up. I'd just decide: 'I must get jobs that pay better and when I'm not working as an actor, do other jobs to pay the bills.' Because I'm basically a family man, who has to support a family - and that's incredibly hard inthis business."

Those difficulties obviously weren't helped by the fact that after Carney got his first high-profile TV gig, in Glenroe, he had to give up his job as a bouncer in Kentucky Fried Chicken on the corner of Abbey Street, because "no one would take seriously a fella from the telly!"

But on the other hand, as a fella whose childhood dreams were first fired by Hollywood icon James Dean, Carney still exhibits the same sense of boyish excitement - tempered by heartbreaking family realities - when he talks about the eight-month period he spent in Rome working with another icon, Martin Scorsese, on Gangs of New York.

And why wouldn't he? Liam had his own apartment and even got to bring his wife and three youngest kids "for a little break" to Italy.

"I missed the kids so much and was, basically, having a breakdown without them because before then the longest I'd been away was for a month," he recalls. "My family does mean that much to me and I wish I could provide for my kids the way my father provided for his family of nine - simply because the family also always meant the world to him and to my mother.

"That's why I knew he probably wanted to shoot me when I gave up the Post Office! Same thing when my marriage broke up, because they were really upset by that. But in time both my mother and father - who passed away last year - accepted the legitimacy of what I'd chosen to do with my life.

"In fact, one of my best memories is of my mother saying they were both holding each other laughing at the Passion Machine shows Studs or maybe Home. But as for working on Gangs of New York, it wasn't only me who was totally aware at every moment I was working with Scorsese, on something special. Daniel, Leonardo, Liam, we all felt the same."

Dontcha just love it? The boy from Ballymun who now so casually (and thankfully, in a manner that isn't even remotely boastful) can refer to the likes of Day-Lewis, DiCaprio and Neeson by theirfirst names?

He even had "a date with Cameron Diaz" during the shooting of Gangs of New York - and, yes, Liam's wife knows about this - when she brought him to a football match, admittedly as part of their own Gangs gang.

Sadly, such reveries were shattered soon after he came back to Ireland and realised that his dad's Alzheimer's had become progressively worse.

He'd "become a danger to himself," says Liam, his mother "couldn't look after him" and he had to be institutionalised. It "broke everyone's hearts" plus, left Carney at times wishing that his dad would die.

"Then you'd blame yourself for wanting him to die - which you longed for, not because you want to lose him but because you want him to be taken to heaven, or whatever he believes in. And because I just reckoned death would be better than where he ended up as aresult of Alzheimer's," he explains. "Yet I loved him very much, like I love my mother - even if I don't say it enough to her, maybe once a year - but it was so painful for her to have to sit with him, and to watch her ask: 'Do you love me still, John?' and to hear him say: 'Of course I do' - even though he wasn't sure who she was.

"So when he died it was like a cloud lifting off her and now she says she can talk to him, when praying, and he knows who she is."

It is telling and touching that Liam is more concerned about his mother's heartbreak than his own in this matter, and he absolutely agrees he should tell her more than once a year he loves her.

In the meantime, Carney is "blissed" to be playing such a central role in Homeland, Mercier's critique of Celtic Tiger Ireland, and just as happy to be "back on the Abbey stage" for the first time since The Hard Life 20 years ago.

"Being back at the Abbey is a kind of validation and a great moment in my career, but I'm not overawed by it because in four weeks this gig will be over and I don't know when I'll be working again" he says pragmatically. He adds that "everyone who worked on the movie of Studs got only half their fee" - and it'll have to make ?1.9m before they get the rest.

"But when it comes to Paul Mercier, he basically taught me my craft and I trust him 150 per cent - even though sometimes I don't agree with what he wants me to do - because he's a fabulous judge of what works in theatre. And he'll try something 100 different ways.

"That's what's brilliant about him as a director. I also think Paul, as a writer, is a modern-day Sean O'Casey and that in 100 years people will look at plays like Homeland and get a totally authentic snapshot of Dublin at a particular point in time. So I love being in this play, totally."

©Joe Jackson

'Homeland' is running at the Abbey. 'Studs' will be released nationwide on March 16

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