Dublin-born Colm Meaney is one of the prolific character actors working in Hollywood and beyond. He’s popped up in random blockbusters – a slimy DEA agent in Con Air, a corpse in Last of the Mohicans – as well as Irish and British classics including The Commitments, The Damned United and Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. On TV he’s had key roles in Gangs of London and, of course, 225 episodes of Star Trek.
In fact only one actor has more Star Trek appearances – Michael Dorn who played Worf, Starfleet’s first Klingon officer.
Last year Marina Sirtis, who played Deanna Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation told The Big Issue she’d most like to see a Star Trek series based around Worf. Would Meaney back that idea?
“Oh, absolutely I’d go for that,” Meaney says. “I love Michael.”
“How he got into that makeup every working day for all those years, I don’t know. I would come in the makeup trailer about three hours after he got there and sit down beside Michael. He’d say you’re just coming in here to get your bit of powder put on and fuck off again. [Dorn may or may not be as sweary as Meaney is telling this story].
“We had a very funny incident on Deep Space Nine. An episode came along, where Avery Brooks and I were to be medically transformed into Klingons to go on a mission [fifth series opener Apocalypse Rising]. Michael read this and was thrilled, absolutely thrilled, ‘Oh they’re going to make you a Klingon – great!’ He was relishing this.
“The first day into makeup, I’m sitting there. Fuck, it’s awful. They put this piece on my forehead and I’m like, ‘I can’t close my eyes, I can’t close my eyes!’
“Everything they put on I complained about. By the third day, Michael was saying, ‘Get him out of that makeup and never put him in it again, I can’t stand listening to him!’ It was the funniest thing. He was such a great character.”
Colm Meaney knows a lot about characters. He’s played plenty.
Currently Meaney has five films and a miniseries in the works, but in his latest release, Confession, the Irish actor plays a priest who goes to hell and back after a wounded gunman – Stephen Moyer – charges into his church. The pair undergo a reckoning in hope of redemption.
Meaney is Zooming in, with a Covid cough, from his home in Majorca.
How long has it been since your last confession?
“I’d say I was about 11. I quit Catholicism around that age,” he answers. “I’d been good up to that moment. When I was nine I was an altar boy, but I’d had enough by the time I was 11 or 12.”
Do you remember what you were confessing to?
“If you did something terrible you didn’t tell anybody. You made them up! Cursing or being mean to your brother. Things you knew that you’d get three Hail Marys or something like that for.”
Well, if there’s anything you want to get off your chest here…
“Thank you, Father; thank you very much.”
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Confession is effectively a two-hander played out in real time.
“I got the script and I was totally surprised. Nowadays finding a script where characters actually engage each other, where they really go at it emotionally, is very rare.
“Then we went to shoot and it was tough. We shot this in 14 days. Can you believe it? If you told me 10 years ago you can shoot a feature film in 14 days I would have laughed.
“I like working fast. But not that fast. The learning was brutal. But any actor will tell you: good writing is easy to learn. Emotionally it makes sense so ideas stick together more easily and that gives you the words.”
It goes without saying an Irishman playing any priest comes with a lot of history and baggage.
“The way Ireland changed in the last 20 years is extraordinary. The two pillars of Irish society were the priest and the doctor. You did what they told you. That doesn’t exist. There’s no respect for the clergy in Ireland anymore.
“That was building for many, many years. Everybody – everybody – knew what was brushed under the carpet for so long. It had to explode. And it did. In many places they are despised.”
Instead of religion, do you think that acting was your calling?
“I don’t know that I’d call it a calling. I mean, I never wanted to do anything else.”
That sounds like it was a calling.
“I guess. From the time I was 13 or 14 I knew what I wanted to do. There weren’t many pathways to this career in Ireland in the late Sixties. But I was fortunate I got into the Irish national theatre, the Abbey School of Acting. At the end of the two years, three of us were offered a contract and that got you your Equity card.
“In the old days the thing was you couldn’t get your Equity card without a job and you couldn’t get a job with- out your Equity card. That’s all gone since Thatcher destroyed the unions in Britain.
“When I work in Britain now, most of the actors are not unionised any more, which is shocking to me. They’re suffering as a result. Their wages and conditions – this is why so many big productions come in from America, because they can get people cheap. You can go 12 hours straight without a break. That to me is Dickensian. All because there’s no unions. Anyway, what started me on that rant?”
Whether acting was your calling. Assuming it was, how do you get from Irish theatre to Hollywood?
“Basically just following my nose. I moved to New York for a woman. I was based there for a couple of years working around regional theatre in America: Cleveland, Chicago, Washington. And then I went out to Los Angeles.
“I realised that if you wanted to work in film and television, at that time, you had to be in Los Angeles. New York was a theatre town, the only the only film work in New York was daytime soaps, which I did for a while. I didn’t one day decide I’m going to Los Angeles. It just happens in stages, gradually.”
Stars are playing themselves playing a character
You started getting small roles in big films in the early 1990s, including playing a pilot in Die Hard 2. Did you think one day you’d want to be a leading man like Bruce Willis?
“Bruce Willis, him? No, I never had that idea in my head. I had a mentor at the Abbey, a great actor who died a couple of years ago, Pat Laffan [Laffan may be most familiar as Father Ted’s randy milkman Pat Mustard]. Pat said to me when I was a kid, ‘Don’t ever worry about being a star, just be a working actor.’ And I always had that in my head.
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“Michael Caine said years ago: people don’t want to see me being the character, they want to see me being Michael Caine being the character. Stars are playing themselves playing the character. Whereas actors like me tend to subsume ourselves into the character.”
“When I was a kid, being a working actor was the most extraordinary achievement I could dream of. So the idea of being a star wasn’t really there.”
Recently, Meaney popped up in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as Charlie Day’s penpal/father Shelly Kelly when the gang travelled to Ireland and the pair share a scene in Irish language.
“The guys from Philadelphia are very connected to Ireland. They’re interested in the culture and the language so I thought it was great that they brought that element in,” Meaney says.
Were you helping Charlie Day with the lines?
“They had an Irish language expert. He’d been working with Charlie – but Charlie was very good, his pronunciation, which isn’t easy. It’s not a language anyone’s familiar with.”
The last project you finished was a new Philip Marlowe film starring Liam Neeson as the sardonic PI.
“I got to meet Jessica Lange, which is one of the ambitions of my life.”
And are there shades of Bogart, or does Neeson disappear into the role?
“Ah, he’s Liam, you know? That’s pretty bankable.”
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