Yale Bulletin and Calendar

February 9, 2001Volume 29, Number 18

Irish actor Stephen Rea (center), who was nominated for an Oscar for his role in "The Crying Game," talked about his career with Luke Gibbons (left) and Kevin Whelan.

Famed actor Stephen Rea tells of his loyalty to Irish identity

Long before Stephen Rea earned international acclaim for his portrayal of an Irish Republic Army (I.R.A.) kidnapper in the film "The Crying Game," the actor had made a point of never hiding his Irish identity.

In fact, even though a British director once told him that he could take any dramatic role he wanted to if he "changed his voice," Rea has, for the most part, "insisted" on portraying all of his stage and film characters in his own Belfast accent, he told the audience at the Whitney Humanities Center during an informal discussion on Feb. 2.

Rea came to Yale to participate in "The Theater of Irish Cinema," a symposium featuring lectures, discussions, film screenings and a theatrical performance, sponsored by the Film Studies Program and the Whitney Humanities Center. He discussed the theme "Acting Irish at Home and Away" with two Irish studies scholars from Notre Dame University, Luke Gibbons and Kevin Whelan.

The Belfast-born actor reflected on his early career at the Abbey Theater in Dublin and his later stage work for the English National Theatre, his founding of the Field Day Theatre Company with playwright Brian Friel in 1980 and his many collaborations since then with Irish film director and novelist Neil Jordan. Rea was nominated for an Oscar for best actor for his 1992 role in "The Crying Game," which Jordan wrote and directed, and has had leading roles in virtually all of Jordan's other films, including "Michael Collins," about the founder of the I.R.A., and "The End of the Affair," an adaptation of the Graham Greene novel by the same name.

Rea decided to become an actor because he was "drawn to the theater of ideas," he told his audience. However, after starting his career, he realized that the theater in Ireland had been "moribund for 40 or 50 years." That sad reality, he said, led him to the English National Theatre, for which he said he had "tremendous regard." He admitted, however, "In England, I always felt I was preparing myself to come back [to Ireland]."

He also recalled how one of the best moments of his early stage career came while working with the Irish Absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett on Beckett's "Endgame." While playing the slave Clov, who repeatedly says to his master "I leave you," Rea asked Beckett whether Clov was merely saying he was "going to the kitchen" or that he intended he was "going for good." Beckett replied, "It is always ambiguous," recalled Rea.

"For me, everything began at that moment," Rea said. "Everything is ambiguous; everything has to have more than one meaning."

Rea went on to describe the satisfaction he received while touring Ireland with the Field Theatre Company, saying, "It was immensely stimulating to see the response of people in different towns." When asked whether he thought the theatrical company functioned as a national theater for Ireland, the actor responded, "That opens up the questions: What is a national theater? What is a nation?" The theater company, he added, "was about opening up new ideas," and "building up Irish theater," which was then lacking in his country, Rea said.

Later in his career, when cast as Leopold Bloom in a proposed film adaptation of James Joyce's "Ulysses," Rea recalled approaching the director to complain that the actor chosen to portray Stephen Dedalus was British. "I think Stephen Dedalus should be played by a Dubliner," he told the Whitney Humanities Center audience, noting that he found dramatic characters most convincing when they speak in their native tongue.

"I've always found it funny to see Kevin Kline doing Shakespeare in an English accent," Rea told his audience. "I think Americans should do Shakespeare in an American accent, which is actually closer to Elizabethan English."

Of his work with director Neil Jordan, Rea said that he gets along well with the director because Jordan "doesn't have to tell me too much. I'm not a good listener."

He also praised Jordan's scriptwriting skills."He's brilliant at narrative; he tells a great story," Rea explained. "That makes everything easier. You don't have to make the story work; you just let the story tell itself." He added that his own style of acting is to avoid getting between the audience and the material.

"When somebody is acting up a storm, I can't bear to watch," Rea commented.

Asked why he has avoided "the easy life" of a Hollywood movie star, and kidded about whether it is because "he's a stubborn Belfast git" [slang for "idiot"], Rea quipped back, "Is it too late?" Then, more seriously, he answered, "I don't know. You have to do what interests you. I grew up in Belfast in a particular time. Yeah, I am a stubborn Belfast git."

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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