STICKING TO HIS GUNS

Film: Actor stephen rea, one of the stars of Trojan Eddie, talks to John Lyttle

Stephen Rea has a grand total of five films in the Screen on the Green season, part of the Barbican's forthcoming "From the Heart" festival (3 to 17 April). The very thought makes him moan. "Five you say? Ach, God, no." Ach, God, yes. It's almost a guided tour to his career highlights. Here's his early, breakthrough performance as the repulsed, and finally vengeful witness to an IRA murder in Neil Jordan's Angel. Here he is again, defected to the other side, as the on-the-run IRA man in the Oscar-winning The Crying Game, for Jordan again. We drop to a minor key for a cameo turn as a name dropping taxi driver in the under-valued Last of the High Kings, then see him as a nationalist hero in the controversial Michael Collins, before enjoying a return to full-blooded form with a preview of Trojan Eddie, in which Rea (above right) plays a bullied market hawker with a grudge against gypsy godfather Richard Harris - a spectrum of Irishness, and humanity, that never allows itself the laziness of cliche, nor the luxury of grandstanding. So what's the boyo's problem?

"I can't bear to look at myself," Rea groans. "The first time I saw The Crying Game, I thought, `You're okay'. The second time, all I saw was what I hadn't done, what was wrong. The third time I had to leave." If that makes the actor sound as lugubrious as his screen image, it's a case of projection: critics and public alike tend not to remember the sly wit he brought to his fashion photographer in Pret-a-Porter or the utter, easy going charm radiating from the laidback husband of Les Blair's Bad Behaviour. As he says, "I can take a joke, and I can crack a joke."

If he seems serious, well, fundamentally he's a serious man, but that, if you dip into the clippings file, is a quality he shares with his fellow members of the "Murphia"; that star band of Irish names who have taken Hollywood by unexpected storm. Liam Neeson, Gabriel Bryne, Patrick Bergen, Pierce Brosnan, and even those craving honorary membership, such as Daniel Day-Lewis, all have a whiff of Celtic angst about them. Or perhaps that's the material they appear in. Certainly, Rea's busy CV - 23 films since 1982, plenty of theatre (Chekov's Uncle Vanya and Pinter's Ashes to Ashes amongst them) and some "important" TV (most recently Shadow of a Gunman and Hedda Gabler) - tilts heavily towards social issues, and politics, specifically Irish politics. In fact, his next picture, the aptly named A Further Gesture, again casts him as an IRA gunman, and, once more, offers a complex portrait of loyalty and tortured ideology that bears out Rea's assertion that he "isn't, in any way, interested in narrow nationalism". Furthermore, "I wouldn't say I have an agenda. I just choose work that means something to me. There's not much point otherwise." True enough. But, modesty aside, his work for Field Day theatre company, and championing of new Irish authors such as Seamus Deane - "My God, such writing" - not to mention a newly resurgent Irish film industry, places him in the forefront of a culture's search for identity beyond the now imploding certainties of Church and Free State.

The point is often lost on some British critics, whose objections, frankly, seem less to do with art, and more to do with a certain imperialism. Ask Rea for an opinion, and he sighs: "Now, I don't want to be attacking anyone, or making a fuss." Which is kind, given he's been getting flak as far back as Angel, never mind the character being definitely anti-paramilitary.

Then there's The Crying Game, in which the IRA man has had enough of bloodshed and wants out. "I know," Rea says. "It's as if critics here couldn't see it. They couldn't get the point. The Americans got it immediately." So you have to ask if Rea, an actor who can hold audiences spellbound, doesn't occasionally get reviews that read like ambushes because he once provided 16 minutes of Gerry Adams voice-over for Channel 4, and because his wife, Dolours, was convicted of bombing offences in 1973. Rea won't be drawn, instead muttering something heartfelt about "the process of decolonisation". But then, his work, at its most eloquent, carries his voice very clearly. As he says, "You try your best. Some people watch The Crying Game and they see fiction. Some people watch and see the reality. You hope they learn. That's it really. You've got to start somewhere."

`Trojan Eddie' is on release at selected cinemas (see review, page 8)

Rea also features in five films as part of the Screen on the Green season at the "From the Heart" Festival at the Barbican, Silk St, London (0171- 638 8891) 3 to 17 April

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