Denis Conway tells Michael McDonagh about his Manchester Irish heritage, touring with a young Graham Norton, giving up teaching to act at 30, and starring with Poldark’s Aidan Turner in The Lieutenant of Inishmore
Although becoming a professional actor later in life than most, Denis Conway has established an illustrious career and his list of credits runs like a directory of male roles in the history of drama. Notably he won the 2002 Irish Times/ESB Theatre Award for Best Actor, playing the title role in Richard lll and he appeared as the Irishman in Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert, for which he won a second Irish Times Best Actor award.
We have also seen him on TV in numerous shows like Casualty, Ballykissangel, and the role of Fr. Anselm in Quirke. His film roles include such acclaimed feature films as Michael Collins, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Tiger’s Tail, Alexander, Garage and with Saoirse Ronan. He will soon be opening alongside Poldark’s Aidan Turner in the Michael Grandage revival of Martin Mc Donagh’s challenging black comedy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, at the Noel Coward Theatre.
I caught up with him at their Southbank rehearsal base. I made it clear straight away that I am not related to the playwright Martin McDonagh who has an uncanny ability to write with such imagination remarkably natural Irish dialogue.
Denis agreed and said: “I suspect that both his parents were Irish speakers. He is like (J M) Synge () as he writes English as a direct translation of Irish and I presume that’s the way they speak. I have never met him or them but I think that is what gives it that rhythm, which you hear in Inishman, which I have been to, and Inishmore, which is my favourite place ever.
The play is bloody and violent, to say the least, and are you going to take your shirts off?
“I think we are all going to take our shirts off – except Aidan! No I don’t, I’ll be in a vest cutting up bodies at some point. I’m playing Donnie, the father of The Lieutenant and we have made a collective decision to say ‘Lootenant’ not ‘Lieutenant ‘by the way. I personally would say ‘Lieutenant’ but the Irish are influenced by the American, so we took a decision to say ‘Loo-tenant’ and are going with that.
“The basic story is that my son the Loo-tenant was too violent for the IRA to take him so he is in the INLA, that’s the craic. This is Martin McDonagh, of course, and he is basically ribbing his own people. Martin would be a diehard Republican in the proper sense of the word but would be against the armed struggle and violence but would believe in a Republic.
“He was writing this play and he said you know it is very easy to take the p**s out of the English, its too easy, everyone is doing it. We need to take the p**s out of ourselves. So that is what he is doing here”.
Even by Martin McDonagh’s standards this is a really bloody play but it is also very funny. Does it lessen the horror if played as farce and isn’t there a risk that Aidan Turner’s Poldark audience from the telly might be taken unawares?
“It is not easy. The challenge for us is that this is a play about violence, Irish violence, Irish terrorists and the stupidity of it but what we have to do is play it for real but at the same time let the audience know that they can laugh, laugh their hearts out. We have to let them in without making it farcical so it is farce but not farcical. That’s the hard part.
“So this lunatic alpha male, all bravado, falls to pieces…over a cat.”
Its bonkers, like, but it is funny, very funny. McDonagh is very funny. Sometimes in rehearsal I have to say ‘It’s too dark lads, we have to let them in.’ That is the challenge, really.
“Aidan is the main character, he is the madman, away abroad, bombing chip shops because they are easier to bomb than an army barracks and he has left his beloved cat with his father.
“The play opens and the cat is dead, a car has supposedly knocked it down but actually it has been shot. The father has to call the son and the son comes home for the cat and all hell breaks loose. When he gets the message he is torturing drug dealers, who have sold cannabis to Catholics but it is all right for them to sell it to Protestants, madness.
“Aidan is playing a character totally different to the guy in Poldark and, firstly, that is good for them and if it brings people to the theatre who would not normally go to the theatre it is only a good thing because a percentage of them will come back.
“The other thing is – he is Irish, he is a good actor and he is perfect for the part, so there is nothing cynical about it and any actor worth their salt will tell you, particularly if they have come from a theatre background as most Irish actors do, is that they love to go back to theatre when they come off the back of a big film or TV success.”
Do you have a thing for gory roles, you were in King Lear at Chichester Festival, one of Shakespeare’s most violent plays?
“Indeed, I played Gloucester so I had my eyes taken out I was also in The Walworth Farce, another very bloody play. I hadn’t thought about it actually but is cutting off somebody’s nipple here any worse than poking somebody’s eye out in Shakespeare?
“It is the same thing and The Walworth Farce was particularly bloody and it was very funny. I think, and I speak for myself, but if you look at the great Irish plays and say look at Tom Murphy’s plays, there is violence in all of them and I don’t think Irish people are ever very far from violence.
“Drunkenness and violence are very close and you can’t write about Ireland without addressing those things.”
Do you speak Irish?
“I’m an Irish speaker and I have been to Connemara a few times and I had a very good teacher and where I grew up it was a Gaeltacht school. So everybody spoke Irish and we speak English as we speak, so I love McDonagh and Synge and the language is very rural.
Where are you from originally and how did you decide acting was for you?
“I was not always an actor, I was a chemistry teacher in Zimbabwe until I was 30, so had an interesting life before I came to this.
“My mother, a Walsh, is an Irish immigrant and was born in Manchester. Her family were Mayo people. Irish people are funny, you will get pockets of Irish people. The street that they lived on in Irlam was completely Irish as there was big steelworks there where her father worked.
“That whole street, was not only Irish but it was specifically Mayo, Sligo and Galway and Roscommon, all from the West of Ireland.
“It was a great community. When my mother was getting married, her father was dead so she went to one of the ‘uncles’ down the road, not blood relations, neighbours but she grew up calling them ‘uncles’ and ‘aunts’.
“So, she called on her uncle John, said she was getting married and asked him to give her away. He said: ‘I’d be delighted Mary, what’s the man’s name?’ ‘Kevin Conway,’ she says. ‘Oh what a lovely West of Ireland name, where is he from?’ She told him ‘Cork’ to which he replied: ‘Jesus Christ Almighty, Mary there are 32 counties in Ireland, why do you have to marry a Cork man? He’ll begrudge you every penny he gives you.’
“She married him anyway. He was one of 11 – and I was one of 13 – proper Catholic families, and she was one of five, as she had four brothers. All my father’s sisters, eight of them, had emigrated to England. That is what it was like in the forties, fifties and sixties. But then my parents went back (to Ireland) and we lived near Blarney.
“In hindsight, I knew when I was 9 that I wanted to be an actor. I was in a normal primary school in Ireland in Whitechurch near Blarney, which was very rural but we had a great teacher and we did a lot of musical stuff.
“I remember in one production I had a small cane wrapped in aluminium foil and I was singing Under the Old Lynden Tree and I remember playing the accordion with a girl sitting on my knee singing The Red River Valley and thinking I like this. So I think somewhere in my guts I knew but being a professional actor was not a realistic option where I grew up.
“My mother and her brothers were all involved in the Catholic Club in Manchester and they did all the plays there. My mother had a brother called Jim who went to America and married a woman called Catherine and she opened a theatre in Albuquerque in Mexico.
“My mother went over when she was 21 to stay with another brother but ended up acting in that theatre alongside professional actors from Hollywood and she has a review back home, when she played alongside James Olson (a popular film and TV character actor throughout the 60s and 70s) and she got a great review and he got an alright one. So that is her pride and joy. So acting is in the genes.”
But you became a teacher?
“I went to University and studied Chemistry. I was handy academically and my best subject was Latin and things that were mathematical. People said do Chemistry, as you will get a great job with it. You would think at University I would have joined the amateur dramatic society but the love of my life at that time was Gaelic Football and I played with the local team and we went training and I took it very seriously.
“In my fourth year a guy called Jack Healy said you know you should be an actor.
“I asked how did he know and he said he just did – so I took a part in Philadelphia Freedom with Jack.
“A group of people from that time, including Jack, formed a theatre company that group took a play around the gymnasiums in Germany. Graham Norton and I played alongside each other but he was called Graham Walker in those days. Then Graham went over to the Central School of Speech and Drama but I didn’t go on to drama college.
“I ended up teaching in Zimbabwe and I was about 30 when I came home and did some part time teaching but joined a theatre company in Limerick. It was like being a professional actor except for not getting paid but it was a start.
“After a couple of years I was offered a full time teaching job but made the decision to give acting a go and moved to Dublin. The first five years were the hardest. I was playing the seventh soldier from the left, nobody knew me, I had not been to drama school and I was older. Then there was a fallow period, which was really tough. I began to think I am not doing this any more.
“Then I got the part of Richard III when I was 40 and I got the Best Actor award.
“It was then that it came good and it was a brilliant career change but it had been a big commitment for 10 years.
Do you have a preference for the stage over TV or film?
No. I’ll tell you if I had my way I’d do two plays a year, one TV and two movies and I’d do the movies for the money but I’d always do a play though because with a play you actually get to go through the journey.
“I admire actors in TV and film who can immediately produce a huge emotional performance when the director shouts ‘Action’ but in a play you have a chance to let it build. I have enjoyed every single movie and TV role I have played even if they were just small parts.
“Recently, and it has not come out yet, I played (former Taoiseach) Brian Cowen and I loved it. Acting is acting but it is slightly different in front of a live audience, as you are getting the feedback while you are on the journey.
“I’ve been in bad plays and I’ve been in bad productions of good plays. There is nothing worse. On film and TV, unless you are the main role, you are getting well paid with a day here and a day there and it is done. If you are on stage it is live and you are a fair target, it can be rough.”
How do you learn all those lines?
“That is my favourite part of the job and I love it. It comes from boarding school. I went off to a Presentation boarding school in Cork City, as my mother wanted me to be a priest. I remember we would get up at half-past-seven and it suits me still.
“I walk from Notting Hill to this rehearsal room south of the river every day through the parks and I don’t care about the time it takes, it is beautiful. At school we would have about 40 minutes and we did what was called ‘walking the circle’ – a path around two playing fields and we had to walk around learning poetry off by heart. I got used to this as a kind of meditation and I loved it, so I find that’s how I learn my lines.
“I was told that there might be a production of Richard III coming up and I might be considered, so I thought I’d get it ready. My son was born and my wife had gone back to work so I would take my son into the park.
“We lived near the beautiful Memorial Park in Kilmanhaim so I would walk my son around saying the lines out loud and I started to fall in love with that method of learning lines and it is my favourite time, on my own, in a park, or by a river, saying the lines. I got the part and I was ready as I had it all off and I won the award and my career changed.