Aidan Quinn's almost alien blue eyes pierce the screen, but nearly always from its sidelines. They hint at a burning intensity few directors have bothered to stoke. Since his breakthrough in Desperately Seeking Susan 20 years ago, the 45-year-old has had a strangely egoless Hollywood career. Often the under-written boyfriend, his frustrations have been more like an actress's than an actor's.
When he has played the lead, it has been as unshowily effective support to women on overdrive, like Madeleine Stowe in the thriller Blink (1994), or Annette Bening in Neil Jordan's In Dreams (1999). He's often been the unlucky one in romantic triangles, losing the girl to bigger stars like Brad Pitt, in Legends of the Fall (1994), and Liam Neeson, in Michael Collins (1996).
In the latter, playing the thwarted, betrayed IRA "minister for bloody mayhem" Harry Boland, Quinn showed what he was capable of. But what Hollywood would let him do was exemplified by the eye-candy boyfriend he played in his last studio movie to date, Practical Magic (1998). So he has spent the last half-decade in the indie underground, often making personal films which explore roots he's more tied to than many Irish-Americans, having spent his childhood being shunted back and forth to the old country by his father, who trained unsuccessfully to be a Jesuit priest.
His new film, Song for a Raggy Boy, explores the evils of the religion his father so unquestioningly backed, exposing the savage sexual abuse and brutality in a Catholic orphanage in the 1930s. It's a subject he touched on in Evelyn (2002) too, and one of which he has personal experience. "One of my earliest memories is of refusing to say my prayers when I was four, and being caned by the brother," he says, in his gently slurring brogue. "And I went to a Christian Brothers' school in Dublin at 13. And you were immediately told, through harsh joking that was full of jeering, always to stay away from this one brother. And you knew, even then, that it was serious. Fifteen years ago, when Sinead O'Connor started talking about sexual abuse in the family and the Catholic church, everyone wanted to burn her at the stake. But everything she talked about turns out to be true."
At an early age, Quinn began to rebel against authority, starting at home. "I tried to have strong intellectual arguments with my father; I condemned him as a hypocrite," he says. "I saw the Father tear out an old man for being five minutes late at church, embarrassing him to younger people. How dare ye, you know? My father would say, 'If you're in my house you'll do as I say' - and so I left."
Quinn never abandoned his own religion, though, however much he despised its authorities. And in the 1980s, Martin Scorsese cast him, twice, as the lead in The Last Temptation of Christ, before America's religious right capsized it and, at the third time of asking, he was replaced by Willem Dafoe. He was ready for the role. "The more I researched his life," he says, "the more I saw him giggling and dancing - the more I saw a man able to drink wine, and be light-hearted. A lot of that stuff's been stripped away, by translators and bishops, to suit their own purposes. The books dropped out of the Bible were much more about personal empowerment. These dogmas, these huge institutions - they're corrupt."
Song for a Raggy Boy is also about the rural Ireland of the mid-20th century, a time still preserved in aspic when Quinn moved there in 1972, and which he identifies with deeply. His favourite film, This Is My Father (1998), written and directed by his brother Paul, is in a story-telling tradition Quinn is intimate with. "When you have a grandmother who's a matriarch," he says, "not given to any wit, and she calmly tells you a story about being taken into a fairy ring when she was young, and how one of the little people was grumpy and she didn't like him, and she goes into detail about his face and expressions - it blows your mind. Her daughters would go, 'Ah, stop that', because they were embarrassed by her conviction. But I believe in it all. She was incapable of invention".
Quinn is, just, more American than Irish. Born in Chicago, his family moved to a small Midwest town after he and one of his brothers were mugged in the city. Did the mugging bother him? I ask. "Sure," he drawls. "I was five." Spells in Ireland included one spent with his mother and three siblings, begging for hospitality from relatives, while his impoverished father stayed behind. "At that young age, we all felt that tension and fear, big-time," he says, still sounding uneasy at the memory. "Because if you think about what my mother went through - she had four children, going from relative to relative, looking for a place to stay. When my mother talks about it, I realise the impact it has had on us all."
Part of him, he admits, has stayed protectively "detached" from people. Though married, he's happy alone. The instability, at least, made him act. "When you're young, you're so plastic," he says. "I can go back to Ireland, still, I will be in a region for 10 days, and I will have that accent. And part of me feels, God, what a centreless whore you are, what a sham... and part of me feels no, that's part of who I am. Because I had to do it as a youngster, to survive."
Quinn's early acting career was characterised by drift, and he has never quite forced home his chances since. Does he think his rootless early years sapped his drive? There's a heavy, hissing intake of breath, as if this goes close to the bone. "Inside, I have a hot drive," he says. "It's just that I don't trust it. I've never wanted that ego trip of ambition. But I'm always vacillating back and forth. It's interesting. There's maybe some hypocrisy there that I need to evaluate..." He pauses, and tells a story. "I ran into this fella who owns a trucking company, a massive concern; and he proceeded to evaluate my whole career, and tell me where I was going wrong, and how to fix it. He said, 'Come on, stop with the, "Oh, they just want big names like Tom Cruise, and you have to be political, and I don't like that.." If you read a script, and you know that you're the person that's most right for this part, it is your sacred duty to get that job. However you get it. You're doing the producer a favour by arse-kissing him and sending him flowers" '. I'm trying to take his advice. But it's hard for me to sell myself. It's...embarrassing."
In the end, Quinn's detached, thoughtful view of the world means his real life - happily married in rural New York, with an autistic 14-year-old daughter who needs his attention - will always take priority over stardom's compromises.
Sometimes, though, he thinks back for a moment to the night in 1985 when he was Emmy-nominated as Best Actor, for the Aids drama An Early Frost. "They have the picture at the bottom of the screen with all the losers, to see what your reaction is," he remembers, "and when they said, 'Dustin Hoffman', my face lit up, and you can see me saying to my wife, very clearly, 'Thank God'. Because I was so afraid of getting up and speaking. And I was 25 years old, and I thought, 'This'll be every year.' I'm 45 now, and I haven't had another nomination. So it's amazing how quickly one's life...goes".
Maybe it's too late now for Hollywood to give Quinn his due. He still sounds grateful for the odd life he's had.