Colm Meaney sits outside a clubhouse at Rathmines Cricket Club, where he is rehearsing Enda Walsh’s play Bedbound with his daughter and costar Brenda Meaney.
We have a small bowling green near us. He didn’t realize that bowls was a working-class game in Ireland. The match was played here between a League team from Leinster and a Crumlin Bowls Club team. Crumlin!” He is interested in such details.
A baker’s son raised in Finglas, Meaney’s early career was in agitprop theater and his most famous roles, a working-class patriarch in the Barrytown trilogy and Miles O’Brien in the Star Trek franchise, were, in their own ways, quietly political.
Meaney recalls being a political youth. „I joined Sinn Féin when I was 13 or 14… I was very influenced by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Rudy Deutschke, all that,” he says.
“We decided to form a student union at O’Connells in ’69 [secondary school]As you can imagine, this went down very well with the Christian brothers… and there was a backlash from an organization I didn’t even know called the Archbishop Corp.
“It was still John Charles McQuaid time… They held a protest outside the school gates and they seized a lot of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Books and they burned them outside the school. It was on the front page of the Evening Herald. We thought it was funny.
Meany loved cinema and theater, but no one knows how he started working there. „I was a lounge boy at Parnell Mooney. Donal McCann was doing a show at the Gate and he was at lunchtime. I said…” his voice trailed off. „”I want to be an actor. And he said, 'Go to the Abbey School of Acting.’
Meaney did this, and after his studies, was asked to stay. He eventually moved to London, where he joined John McGrath’s agitprop theater group 7:84 (based on the fact that 7 percent of England’s citizens owned 84 percent of the wealth at the time). He loved it.
„We’ll do about three or four weeks, knocking out ideas for a show, political ideas,” Meaney says. „What’s the burning issue that we want to try and solve here?…And then John will go and write the play.”
King is very difficult to make unless it’s a Marvel comic
They would perform at working men’s clubs, theaters and art centers. They staged plays about unemployment and automation. Along with sister outfit Belt and Brace, Meany starred in plays about Northern Ireland and global capitalism. He recalls discussions between McGrath and another writer, Trevor Griffiths.
„John believed that the theater experience was an active experience, a participatory experience, and through that you could affect people very deeply,” Meaney says.
„Trevor, as a socialist writer, wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible. So he started writing for television and film… 'Where do I stand on this?’ I remember thinking that.
It was a particular era in British culture in which the British welfare state facilitated working-class artists, Meaney says. “Look Back in Anger is a play that lit the fuse. Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, all those guys came in with their natural accents. Richard Harris and…
„Working-class guys suddenly got grants to go to college and drama school – and then Thatcherism.” He sighs. „I’m working a lot in England now. Most of the British actors I work with are not members of Equity (the performing arts and entertainment union)… It’s King madness. Then they complain about working 12-hour days without a break. 'Oh boys, brilliant’.
Are the arts still open to all classes in England? „It’s become Oxbridge now,” Meaney says.
He moved to New York where he worked in theater for a while before moving to LA. „I started over. They didn’t care about theater… I remember talking to a casting director about a play I was doing, and I said I was doing it to bring in an audience. [without] Proscenium arch. 'What is a proscenium arch?’ she asked me. Yeek!”
Before landing the initially untitled part of Miles O’Brien on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Remington had small roles on shows like Steel and Moonlighting. At first they wanted to cast him as an American. „Rick Berman, the executive producer, sat me down and said, 'The whole point of this show is that it’s multiracial’… I reluctantly started casting him as Irish.”
I’d suggest that starring in Star Trek, a franchise about proselytizing, post-scarcity space socialists, isn’t a big leap from the political arena. Meany laughs. „I’m so glad you said that,” he says. „I’m not a sci-fi guy, but I’m starting to appreciate the genre. Because it’s set in the future you can talk about anything you want.” He recalls chapters on genetic engineering and homelessness. „I started to appreciate it more and more.”
Star Trek was good for him. He was given more time for other projects when his role was increased in the spin-off Deep Space Nine. „When I was shooting Con Air in 94/95, I was shooting nights in Vegas, taking an early morning flight to Los Angeles and shooting Star Trek during the day.”
Meaney also worked on Roddy Doyle’s adaptations of The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van. „I don’t think so [the Commitments] „It’s as big as it gets, but Alan Parker is special,” he says.
“Then after that win, Stephen Frears came along [for the other films] You know you’re in good hands… Working class people are often dismissed, but the complexity of their emotional lives in those books is amazing.”
We need to get these f**kers out – Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. A hundred years have lived between them
You never know how a project will turn out, Meaney says. One of his favorites, the Goran Paskaljevic-directed How Harry Became a Tree, was set to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival during the week of 9/11. „It’s completely lost…and then there’s people you don’t want anyone to see and everyone’s talking.”
Will he name them? „No!”
Pisces turns in interesting places. He played Francis I of France in the great Catherine de Medici play The Serpent Queen, and he recently starred in two episodes of the Irish-language cult comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. „I saw Danny DeVito in it and thought, 'I always have fun with Danny.’… I’d never heard of it. [that show].”
It’s very popular, I notice. „I know Now!”
He has developed ambitious projects, such as an adaptation of Albert Vigolis Thelen’s 1953 novel The Island of the Second Side, set in Majorca (where Meaney lives with his wife, Inez Glorian). „King is very hard to make if it’s not a Marvel comic,” he says with a laugh. „When did we all become 12-year-olds, we wish we could see that Comics? I am constantly being corrected. What’s the fancy name for the comic?”
Graphic novels. „Graphic novels!” He laughs.
Did Meaney expect to have the career he had? „I don’t think I ever had a sense of 'career’…. Pat Laffan, who took me to his side when I was in acting school, always told me, 'Don’t worry about being a star; be a working actor.
Let’s talk a little more about politics. He reads the Irish papers online every day and is appalled by the housing crisis. „The house I grew up in was built by Dublin Corporation,” Meaney says. “How come houses could be built then and they can’t be built now?… This is Thatcherism, Reaganism, neoliberalism and dodgy economics bought into by both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. [the idea] That the market will sort everything out. B***ocks.”
The fish itself is on the far left. He hosted Martin McGuinness’s presidential rally at the Mansion House in 2011 and played McGuinness in the 2016 film The Journey. When Sinn Féin split in 1970, he sided with official Sinn Féin (later the Labor Party), which took a more mainstream political path.
„It wasn’t until the late ’90s, the peace process, that I came around to supporting what Sinn Fein is now. They weren’t good enough for me, but they were at least left-wing,” he says.
„And their position on climate change worries me. But these are things we can work on. We need to get these f**kers out – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. They’ve had a hundred years between the two of them.
Enda Walsh’s play Bedbound also has a political edge to it. „It’s about this megalomaniac furniture salesman who turns everyone into steamrollers,” Meaney explains. „There’s a line in the play where he’s going to be the 'Michael Collins of the furniture world’!”
Theater is tiring compared to film or television, but she says she finds herself back on stage. „I’m constantly trying to stay away from the theater. And then you read the play and go, 'Oh, that’s it.’ good’… If you’re an actor you can’t avoid those challenges.
Meaney is also finding work in Ireland alongside her daughter. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m getting old and need to go back to the old pair. I don’t know if that’s it.” He laughs. „I don’t know if I’m still there.”
Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival Bedbound by Enda Walsh from July 14 to 29 at Galway International Arts Festival and August 8 to 12 at the 3Olympia Theatre, Dublin. See more Landmarkproductions.ie / GIAF.ie
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