Blog : Great Storytelling

Author, Auster: My Love for the Novelist Paul Auster – by Paul A.

Author, Auster: My Love for the Novelist Paul Auster – by Paul A.

I’m currently on page 676 of Paul Auster’s latest novel, the 866-page opus 4 3 2 1. And I have to say – each page is bliss. I find myself smiling a lot, occasionally chuckling gleefully, and even a couple of times on the edge of tears. I come back to the book each night like an old friend I am delighted to see again. Which makes sense – because Paul Auster is my favourite modern novelist by a country mile, and one I always return to with anticipation.

I was first introduced to him by my mum. One day at the library, she handed me a copy of Moon Palace, and said, “I think you might like this.” (She never does that with books. With shirts yes, but this was unusual.) I still don’t know quite why she thought I would like it, but I tried it. And fell immediately in love, with Auster’s mysterious, affectionate, spell-binding tale of Marco Stanley Fogg’s journey through the American twentieth century. That was the last Auster book I read from the library. After that, it was straight to the bookshop to read more. I gobbled them up – starting with his acknowledged classic trio of short dream-like detective novellas, The New York Trilogy. I burned through his novels – it would be impossible to pick favourites, but some I just loved: The Book of Illusions, his tale of a grieving professor who finds meaning in rediscovering a lost silent comedian; Timbuktu, his delightful novel narrated by Mr. Bones, a dog; The Music of Chance, his twisting, tragic tale of the dangers of gambling with your life (which was made into a splendid little movie with Mandy Patinkin and James Spader); and Mr. Vertigo, his wonderful story of a young orphan who learns to fly … and the dark dangers of the world of entertainment.

When I’d read all his novels heretofore published, and was awaiting his new one, I found myself trying his prose … and finding it equally human and absorbing. His tales of growing up in New Jersey, of near starvation poverty in Paris translating poems and attempting to be a writer, and his lessons in life becoming a father, trying out being a film-maker, aging and learning, in books like Hand to Mouth, The Red Notebook, and more recently Winter Journal. His published letters, with fellow writer, J. M. Coetzee, comparing life in South Africa and Brooklyn are a joy; the collection of stories of coincidence collected by the public radio station NPR from its listeners that he edits, True Tales of American Life, reads like a myriad of one-page Auster adventures; and even his screenplays, a form normally sluggish and cold to read, burst with imagination and playfulness.

Did the fact that with my middle name being Andrew, he and I were both Paul A., impact my interest in him? No doubt it did, and it’s the kind of play on words and names that he loves. I initially mis-pronounced his surname as “austere”, which I think he’d quite like. Since he’s both that and not that. His writing is clean and clear, uncluttered, never trying to bewilder us with clever language (unlike Joyce, one of his heroes). But his writing is also warm, funny, silly, intrigued, flawed, meandering and humane – never cold. Some people have told me he is a postmodern novelist, but I find myself arguing with them, because he’s not cynical and clinical – yes, he’s playful, in ways I’ll talk about below, but it’s never about form, it’s never cruel, desolate, giving up on us. It’s always sincere and compassionate – often whimsical. It’s full of love of life – I’ve personally always found Auster’s writing to be much more like Dickens than like Beckett.

I’ve been in the same room as him three times, all in New York, and I can say, in person he comes across as brave, curious, generous and humble, yet with a robust self belief. Though I’ve never spoken to him. The first time, he was reading from his new novel, Invisible, at the 92nd Street Y. He started to read, and I was surprised. Based on his author photo (Auster the author, mysterious dark eyes in a black polo neck) and his sensitive writing, I expected a gentle, light, bohemian voice. Instead, Auster had the pleasing smoky deep tones of a New Jersey truck driver. Then I went from surprised to astonished – he chose to read, in front of hundreds of people, a passage from the book that was essentially a long graphic sex scene, indeed an incestuous one, and I remember thinking, even as an actor who thought he was decently courageous, I would have struggled to do it. But it wasn’t to shock – he read with great brave calm, and it facilitated a powerful discussion afterwards about a key idea in the book – how much of this was fantasy, and how much we mangle memory in our lives. I was wowed – this man’s skill was only matched by his bravery.

The second time, I saw him speak at the Strand Bookstore, along with Edward Albee, about the influence of Samuel Beckett on their work. Kind of a dream come true for this actor! It was joyous to see how much he loved plays, even though he doesn’t write them – at times, he seemed to like them more than Albee! But what I was struck by was his humility – and his feeling of debt and awe to other writers, from Shakespeare onwards.

Finally, I went to see an on-stage adaptation of City of Glass, one of The New York Trilogy, at a tiny theatre in Greenwich Village. It was quite good – a little avant-garde artsy for my taste, but it captured theatrically a lot of the mystery about identity in the book. Then suddenly my evening became like a chapter … in a Paul Auster book. I heard a man laugh heartily, in a lovely warm guffaw, at many of the comic moments in the play. It sounded vaguely familiar … could it be … nah. Then, as I was leaving the theatre after the show, there walking in the lobby right in front of me … is Paul Auster. And I think, “Gosh, I should go up and talk to him. He’d love the coincidence of this, he just happens to be here the night I come, his huge fan, Paul A., Paul an Actor with Paul the Author …” when I noticed the writer-director of the play joining him, and starting to talk about the show, and Auster was warmly, generously congratulating him on the piece, and I realized – this was his moment and I didn’t want to disturb it. Maybe I should have held on, found a way to say hello, but this felt like the right thing in that Paul Auster moment too, as I walked off into the New York night, marvelling at life’s incredible capacity for meaningful chance.

But back to the books. What do I find so special about his writing? Well, besides his ability to create intriguing narratives, to develop and reveal character, and to examine big themes in his stories, there are a few special things that are particularly Paul Auster that I love:

I love how he makes lists.

I love his enchantment with games, both the intricacies and joys of sports, particularly baseball, but also games he makes up that his characters play, like Screwdriver Darts. (I recently was cleaning out some old boxes of papers, and found I had written down the complete rules to Playing Card Baseball that Auster created in one of his books.)

I love his fascination with chance and coincidence. Life is always full of strange twists of fate in Auster’s world, the gods are at play, the world is small and ingenious and deeply mysterious. And bets are always dangerous in a Paul Auster novel.

I love how he’s intrigued by names, and the power of names. Of the name Paul. Of getting nicknames. Of how names are changed, like immigrant surnames anglicized at Ellis Island. Of anagrams. Of matching names. Of friends with similar sounding names. Of choosing pen names and aliases. Of initials. And of the titles of books and movies and stories.

I love his affection for the very poetry of words – not just in their arrangement but in individual words alone – what they sound like, where they come from, what they look like. He plays with words.

I love his adoration of books, and of stories, and of stories within stories. His regard for the masters like Cervantes, Kafka and Dickens, and his fascination with the very act of writing, including the choice of pencils and notebooks used, of what desk to sit at and where, and of typewriters as heavy hearty old friends and great gifts. His awe at the very process of publishing and how bookshops are magical sanctums of quiet possibility.

I love his delight in movies and movie-going, of old black-and-white Hollywood from spinning noir to Laurel and Hardy screwball slapstick, and of slow-moving French movies. And of the different qualities of cinemas and being in them, from the Thalia in Manhattan to the Cinematheque in Paris. And of the mischievous truancy of a matinee on your own.

I love how his women are smart, adventurous, fierce and challenging, often mysterious, but with a delicate heartbreak (and romance-stopping heart-brake) to them. How he never underestimates the capacity of older people to still have strivings, dreams unfulfilled and to make major mistakes. And how he brings together little gangs of aspiring kooks, wanderers and lost souls.

I love how he nails the essence of places, especially New York and Paris. Both cities’ capacity to be foreboding from the outside and sweetly delicious from the inside. The quality of walking straight blocks in Manhattan and winding cobbles in Paris. Reliable diners in Brooklyn and bustling restaurants in Saint Germain. The French capacity for disdain and generosity, of New Yorkers’ grinding determination and secret flights of fancy.

I love how fascinated he is by the structure of a day. I find myself jealous of his characters and the routines they build. And how he sees the value in repetition, and in repetitive work and of deep delving, whether writing a book or building a wall.

I love his bad jokes. His love of lame puns and punchlines. Of catchphrases. Of the joy in people’s dumb attempts at humour.

And I love how much he loves people. That is clear in every word, every line, every page, every punch of his typewriter keys, his huge heart for all kinds of people amid the incomprehensible totality of life, and the worthwhile effort of writing to understand … bits of it.

Most of all, he is so paulfyl. I mean playful. I think that’s a pretty great quality – in art and life.

Thanks, Paul. From Paul.

***

 

My New Campaign: Let’s Save the Standing Ovation

My New Campaign: Let’s Save the Standing Ovation

I’d like to talk to you today about an endangered species.

The genuine standing ovation.

He’s a bit like the red squirrel, that lovely Irish creature, rather gentle and delightful, who is being routed and pushed aside by his rapacious and rude American cousin, the grey squirrel. The red is now disappearing from Irish woodlands because some fool introduced the grey to his environment, and the grey is much pushier, more aggressive and rather less soulful, and so is taking over and pushing aside gentlemanly ol’ Red.

I don’t like it. And now, I am seeing a similar phenomenon happening with standing ovations in Irish theatre audiences.

Now, as an actor, there are few things more joyous and gratifying that receiving a true standing O from your audience. They have appreciated your work that much. Wow. But let’s be very clear about what a standing ovation is.

Good theatre is invigorating. It’s live, and when it’s finely done, it makes us feel alive. It moves us. Literally. Initially our innards, our emotive juices, our gut, the electrons of our brain, our groin and our heart. What Elizabethans (who saved theatre after the Dark Ages and produced, y’know, that Shakespeare dude) called the Humours. It’s viscerally right in front of us (in a way that the gentle caress of a novel on our mind or the distanced magic of the cinema screen isn’t), performed right here right now for us by brave actors, you can hear the words reverberating in your ears, you can smell the sweat in your nostrils, you can taste the storm of tension in the air. And more than anything else, you feel it. If it is a well-told story, it builds in stages to climaxes, provides rushes of information to our mind and thrusts emotion to our core. It gets into our bodies and produces all kinds of strange, wonderful and touchable feelings. It is physical. And when it ends, we need to, have to, respond physically. And the best way we’ve culturally learned to do this is to applaud. To smash our hands together in unison to say well done, kudos, thank you for those actions and your courage and the impact they had on me.

And sometimes. Just sometimes. Probably rarely. But certainly at the best of times. That show has been so impactful on us – touching our hearts so much we have trouble swallowing and our eyes are heavy with tears, making us laugh so plentifully that our bellies ache, drawing us into the story so much that we have been clenching our fists along with the hero and sitting on the edge of our seats – that the physical reverberations inside us … well, just clapping isn’t enough to release the gathered explosions of how much we’ve been moved inside.

We have to put our whole bodies into it. We can’t stay rooted to our seats one second longer.

We have to stand.

And when we feel this way, we must do that.

I’ve been to hundreds of plays, and I can recall only a handful of times I’ve been that moved. You remember them. They stay with you.

Such as Steppenwolf‘s engrossing August: Osage County on Broadway. David Cromer’s revelatory Our Town at Barrow Street Theatre. John Breen’s gorgeous rugby play Alone It Stands in Dublin’s Andrew’s Lane (ironic considering the title!).

Once, after watching Propeller’s The Winter’s Tale at the Dublin Theatre Festival, I was so wrapped up in the show that when Hermione moved, I believed she was a statue coming back to life, and I wept with blissful joy and appreciation. And at the end, I stood, you better believe it, and applauded raucously. And only as the applause around me started to settle and fade, did I realize I was the only one in the orchestra standing. Initially I was a little embarrassed (eeeek, who’s that dude?), then I was perplexed (what show were you watching, people?!) and then I was serene (well, I loved that show, that was my true reaction and I’m so glad it was).

And there’s the rub: the urge to stand and applaud needs to come from inside. From all those swirling, tumultuous, electric feelings inside you that have been created by the play.

It doesn’t matter a damn what is happening outside you. That’s not relevant. Obviously.

I think you know where I am going with this.

If you weren’t so moved by a show, and don’t have those feelings inside your arms and legs, then there’s no reason you should stand.

Even if people all around you are.

Because nowadays, people are giving standing ovations utterly cheaply. And that inflation is slowly, relentlessly murdering their worth.

I started to see it on Broadway, where you’d go to terrible productions … and people would stand. I saw a stale, miscast, lumbering version of Les Miserables, that was on its last legs, and closed shortly thereafter, that you could barely give away tickets to. Yet, at its curtain call, people stood in their droves. Huh? All around me, throughout the show, I’d seen people shifting in their seats, yawning, scratching, I didn’t hear one gasp, see one tear on a cheek, hear anyone mutter Omigod Jean Valjean. (And listen, Les Mis done properly is incredible; when I saw the movie in the cinema, I wept so many times my cheeks were salty). They were plainly not that into it. Yet, at the end they soared to their feet. Huh? And then you start to reason it out, and you remember, most people seeing a Broadway show have paid a lot of money. Quite possibly they’re on vacation from out of town, and expect a brilliant experience, and can’t wait to tell their friends about the show they saw and stood for. Instead of an instinctive reaction, on Broadway, it’s become part of the routine.

And you want to know how to test that? See how long the standing O lasts. If in the amount of applause time, the cast can go off into the wings, wait three beats and the crowd are still applauding, and the actors need to come back out for an encore bow, that’s more likely to be legit. But I bet it ain’t that long.

Because applauding for a long time is hard work on the hands and forearms. After a while, genuinely clapping starts to hurt. But when the urge is internal and needs to be released, that doesn’t matter. Walking out into the lobby, with palms that are still stinging a bit but a head buzzing with the show you’ve just seen, is an ace feeling.

And now I’ve started to see the fake standing ovation at shows in Dublin. Ugh. Not everyone has been to Broadway, so I wonder if it’s years of watching awful manipulative shows like Pop Idol and The Voice where standing ovations are a trope, choreographed and not special at all. But it has seeped in. I’ve seen people give a standing ovation for 20 seconds, and then stand and put their coat on while the applause ends. I’ve seen people pop back on their phones during a standing ovation. I’ve seen people clearly miming clapping so they won’t have to put the effort in! If these things are happening, that’s not a standing ovation.

That’s peer pressure.

Lads, you’re not 14 years old. Be honest. Be true. Be brave.

Luckily we have an alternative. This awful plague hasn’t yet swept good theatre in London or on the continent. (Touch wood). There, standing ovations are still rare. Rather, if someone really enjoyed a show, they keep clapping. And the cast must keep returning for encore bows. It’s lovely. And the crowd stops clapping when they, as a unit, are done. Any day of the week, I’d take length of applause over height of applause.

So let’s not let the standing O be worth zero.

Please, next time you are at a show, think of the red squirrel. Of course, please applaud. And keep applauding until you are satisfied that the urge within you is spent. And if that urge is so strong you just need to stand and applaud, bravo, go for it. But don’t worry about who is standing around you. Be your own person. Have your own response to the show. Don’t be a lemming jumping off a cliff into cheap mediocrity.

C’mon, people. Let’s Save the Standing Ovation.

###

The depth of Elvis: What any actor can learn from the King

The depth of Elvis: What any actor can learn from the King

One evening in the summer of the year 2000, I walked into a record store with a little exercise for myself – to walk out having purchased albums by three artists I’d never bought before. I did pretty well, looking back. I bought Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, a gorgeous album, whose backstreet poetry and elegiac songwriting I still find haunting. I bought Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis, which of course I know now is maybe the greatest jazz recording of all time, just pure magic of atmosphere and the coming together of ludicrous talent in one band. And the third album: a 3 CD pack entitled Artist of the Century. Featuring the songs of Elvis Presley. Now of course, I knew basically who Elvis was – as a pop culture figure, it’s like saying you’d never heard of Einstein or Picasso or JFK. The boy who brought rock ‘n’ roll to TV audiences with his scandalously swinging hips, the envoy (or thief) of black men’s hot music, the woeful and wasted movie-star of teeny-bop beach movies, the bloated has-been in cheesy jumpsuits in Las Vegas, the hamburger and peanut-butter sandwich munchin’ mama’s boy, and long-dead ex-husband of the foxy actress in The Naked Gun. Who sang Hound Dog and Burning Love and Love Me Tender, and other singles I’ve heard a thousand times over supermarket tannoys. Elvis has left the building. A-huh-huh. Thank you very much.

So why the hell I did pick up three CDs of this rock ‘n’ roll cliché, sharer of faux-Nighthawks cartoons with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, when I could have bought Nirvana or the Rolling Stones or the Prodigy? Because some part of me was just darn curious as to why Elvis was this icon. And once I started listening, I got it. I was bitten by the bug. I became enchanted with this heroic singing voice, this arranger of beautiful music, this charmer of depth, truth and skill. As I listened to his twenty-year range of music, I had different phases of love: initially I was a stalwart for the familiar early 60’s RCA output, the venerable hit singles – Are You Lonesome Tonight, Can’t Help Falling in Love, You’re the Devil in Disguise. Then I discovered the breakthrough Sun records, in all their raw, untampered glory – atmospheric, sweaty and gutsy, Mystery Train, Good Rockin Tonight, That’s All Right. I was too cool for school to appreciate the 70’s stuff, all brass and big … until I watched the ’68 Comeback Special, and was blown away. And suddenly found the hair being brought up on the back of my neck by If I Can Dream, Always on My Mind, An American Trilogy. Now I’m just a completist, lapping up every minor record and B-side and live bootleg. (Maybe someday I’ll be mature enough to appreciate all the movie soundtracks!) I’m a long-time unapologetic Elvis aficionado, the kind of man who could get into three-hour arguments in bars with people questioning his importance compared to Jay-Z or the Beatles or David Bowie (all great too, but there are princes … and there’s the King.) I can talk treatises on how I think Elvis Country is as great a concept album as Pet Sounds. I can drive at night for an hour or two, happy with just the company of streetlights and the moody darkness of From Elvis in Memphis. And yes, there’s only one artist I have to try and mimic when I sing karaoke (I’m definitely not the worst impersonator …)

So you’ll get that I think Elvis is majestic. But why? What is it about him? Sure, he’s got an incredibly rich voice, with range and control and power and specificity, a gorgeous instrument, a gift from the gods (that he took pretty great care of and nurtured and trained). But then so did Freddie Mercury and Ella Fitzgerald and Robert Plant. And he didn’t even write his own songs, not like Springsteen or Dylan or Michael Jackson – Elvis just interpreted and arranged (and pretty much produced) them. Yeah, just. He just happened to be a massively music-smart arranger who knew exactly how to tell a story with the material in front of him, and had glorious taste for a memorable melody and punchy lyrics. But then so did Frank Sinatra and Aretha and Sam Cooke. And he has no cool factor – compared to Jim Morrison or Johnny Cash or Eminem, he’s rather hokey and sweet and old-fashioned.

No, what makes Elvis extra special is the depth of his work, which I think is one reason he’s so stirring and appealing to me, being an actor. With every song he sings, not only does Elvis see the story in the song, its arc and scenes and changes, but he reaches deeply into himself, into his understanding, his empathy, his heartbreak and soul-strength and cruel-memory, to share with unremitting generosity a level of bare-hearted vulnerability that risks every sharp blow, that conjures each moment of pain, of grief, of bliss, of sacrifice, of sharing, of pride, of shame, of wonder, of joy, and gives it to us with every sinew of his muscle and might. And he does so in a way that combines confidence in his capacity and joy in his talent, a rigorous understanding of the destiny of his skill, with an “aw, shucks” humility that knows it all comes from some God above, some muse, some shard of luck and something much greater than I, that laughs off fame and over-regard, and even amidst cadillacs and private jets, reveres the ordinary human life, in all aspects of its tragedy and comedy. This is in every Elvis performance, bar none. That is the greatest glory of the man – that he shares his incredible musical gifts with such depth of generosity.

I hadn’t realized this until taking a trip to Graceland. I loved walking in Elvis’ footsteps, in his ultimately rather cosy and charming mansion with its working kitchen and silly-ass Jungle Room and multi-TV basement den covered in TCB thunderbolts (and a supremely cool mirrored staircase). I got such a vibrant kick from seeing the black leather suit from the Comeback special in the flesh. And gaping at all those gold records on the wall is quite a knockout. Then, when I walked outside and stood by Elvis’ grave, I was stunned to find myself in floods of tears. But they weren’t so much from grief at losing him so young or any aspects of the tragedy of his life, like the divorce or the drugs or that he never really lost the insecurity of impoverished, shy youth. No, I realized clear as a bell, after being surrounded by the catalogue of his life’s work, that I was crying from awed thankfulness at the generosity of the man, of just how much he gave of himself as an artist. The depth of that giving, to us the listeners.

Up there in Heaven, Elvis (which I’m sure is a Christmas party singalong at Graceland), I salute you. Thanks for sharing your gift with us so readily and bravely, and reminding the rest of us actors and performers to give of our gift as generously and as courageously as we can. Thank you very much.

***

What Would Mick Do? Or How I’m Inspired by Michael Fassbender

What Would Mick Do? Or How I’m Inspired by Michael Fassbender

On rare occasions, a new actor appears on our screens that makes me jump up with excitement, stunned by their depth, range, humility to the role and story, and a certain bold confident creativity that is being released and shared. For me, it’s happened maybe three times in the last fifteen or so years. Around 2000, I was thunderstruck by the vigour and growling fierceness, tied with vulnerability, of Russell Crowe, while in the last couple of years, I’ve been just knocked out by the dignified, fearless and thoughtful range of Oscar Isaac. Between those two came through the guy I want to talk about today, who I just think is outstanding. And as a lovely bonus, he’s an Irishman too: the mighty Michael Fassbender.

This man is a proper, serious, ballsy, dedicated, smart, talented actor who shines a genuine beacon of light of interesting, engaging performances.

I adore his bold choices of craft – being a Kerryman with a German background, there aren’t that many parts for Kerrymen with German qualities in the movies, so Fassbender naturally always has to choose a new accent. But not only that, I always feel he chooses a new voice. A quality of tone, phrasing, pacing, that breathes the substance of the character, that has been created by imagination, inspiration and choice. The spiffy over-confident soldier Archie Hicox from Inglourious Basterds is very different from the diffident Peter-O’Toole-inspired robot of Prometheus, though both would be seen as posh English accents. I love how he brings new qualities to how he walks with each role – there is an understanding of genre and archetype that come through. And yet with that, this is not a man made hollow with technique – always there is tremendous depth of emotion in his eyes, thought-through truth, honestly-imaged pains and fears and doubts. I flash to a scene in X-Men: First Class where as Magneto he is challenged to move a far-away giant satellite dish with his powers. As he did it, Fassbender could have chosen to grimace or pout, but no: I remember being truly struck with the heart-rending, tear-inducing agony that was in his heart as he did it. Not too many actors make that kind of choice in a popcorn superhero movie. To everything he does, Fassbender brings a respectful seriousness, passionate work, never disdain. Yet always a sense of play.

Outside of films, I love how he talks about the script being everything. Much more important than burrowing into endless tunnels of research and body-manipulation, is reading and re-reading and re-re-reading the script, knowing the lines and every beat of subtext and thought that fills those white spaces between the lines, understanding the story deeply and the arc of character you are playing and your part in the overall tale. He talks about reading the script a hundred times, and the longer I work as an actor, the more I think that is the most important homework. Know the lines so well that they are your friend, your inspiration, that you have asked them many questions that have sprung forth so much colour and imagination, filling out the blank canvas of the role with truth and specificity and original responses.

His range is astonishing and wonderful. The raw, haggard iron-will of Bobby Sands in Hunger (his across-a-table scenes in that with Liam Cunningham are worth watching on their own). His effortless carriage of period roles, whether a Roman centurion (I love my ancient Greek and Roman dramas and not everyone can carry it off) or a glowering Rochester full of long-bred arrogance and stricken history opposite Mia Wasikowska’s Jane Eyre. His willingness to dig dangerously deep into the dark soul of a character, bringing a crucial level of unbending power-need to slave-owner Edwin Epps in Twelve Years a Slave – to bring out honest disgust yet also understanding in the audience. To somehow be utterly fascinating for a whole movie where your head is covered by a paper mache mask, as Frank Sidebottom in Frank. Being utterly spellbinding arguing about computers (zzz), with a razor-sharp understanding of the shape of Aaron Sorkin’s scene-writing as Steve Jobs. He can play cowboys (Slow West) or intellectual geniuses like Carl Jung or do Shakespeare as the prince in the Scottish play.

In short, the man is a master storyteller – who always makes it not about him, but about the story, with all his skills and dedication. So I’m always excited to see him in whatever he’s chosen to do next. (Let’s see, next up, he plays an outlaw traveller opposite Brendan Gleeson in Trespass Against Us, plays an Australian lighthouse keeper who makes a heartbreaking choice in an adaptation of The Light Between Oceans, a novel I really liked, and he’s in Terrence Mallick’s new film. God, he’s bloody good at picking his projects too.)

Throw in his unmatched bravery (that is one man utterly unfazed about nudity). Add a lovely humility, how he always carries himself in interviews as a good sport willing to answer the lamest of questions or do some silly bit; how he is always generous with sharing credit or discussing his process on a project; and how he never steps aside from his pride and roots in his Irishness, his Germanness, his Kerryness. He’s just the business.

We’re pretty much the same age, we’re both Irishmen, both actors, we both love story. We’re practically the same. (Okay, he could be my cool cousin, maybe?) Basically, when it comes to film-acting, if I can be a little more like Fassbender each time, I’ll be doing pretty darn well. Keep up the good work, Mick, and flying the flag with such distinction – I’ll certainly be watching.

***

The Unregarded Director of Beloved Classics: Rob Reiner

The Unregarded Director of Beloved Classics: Rob Reiner

I just realized the other day who one of my absolute favourite directors is. I hadn’t really put two and two together because there’s no hoopla around this guy, but then I looked at his body of work, and realized he had made a number of movies I just adore, that have been huge landmark parts of my life, and that I have rewatched with pleasure over and over (the true sign of a classic). Movies that feature elegant storytelling, delicious spiky humour, great roles for feisty women, a classic sense of structure, a lovely capturing of rapport and the changing of relationships, mounting suspense, a fine sense of location, actors clearly having a great time and doing some of their best work, and overall a sense of brightness, optimism and joy. Now maybe it’s not groundbreaking work in terms of form, so maybe that’s why the critics would look right through him, but I think you could say that about a number of directors we now hold in esteem – people like Michael Curtiz or Howard Hawks, or even Stephen Spielberg, whose quiet skill in crafting work in a range of genres draws less attention than the apparently obsessed auteur who is easier to pin down. And maybe his later work isn’t as stunningly consistent as his earlier movies, but all directors, even Kubrick and Hitchcock, have their up and down periods. And his narrative doesn’t really fit with the grand box-set director, this shlubby-looking gently-smiling former child sitcom star, who loved working in Hollywood and never saw himself as an anarchist rebel. But dammit, the fact is, Rob Reiner is a brilliant, memorable film-maker.

This is the man who pretty much invented the mockumentary with This is Spinal Tap, and that was his first movie! A film that rockers still adore more than any other, and dare I say it, up with Waiting for Guffman as the best of Christopher Guest’s ouevre.

Who made one of the great coming-of-age boy’s stories in Stand By Me, a movie I adored when I saw it on VHS as a twelve-year old at a birthday party when I could have walked right into those boys’ worlds and knew exactly how they felt, our wanders in the Wicklow hills seeming an equivalent to their train-tracks, and nothing being worse than a leech down your pants. Elegaic, rude, imaginative, painful, glowing with the life of restless young lads, it’s just marvellous. And I have loved watching it with the sunset of memory every time since, as I become less like Wil Wheaton and more like Richard Dreyfuss.

Who made the greatest fairy tale adventure movie of all, that most joyously heartbreakingly hilarious and wonderful The Princess Bride, which I had never seen until drama school, because my childhood friend had the poster for it on his wall (courtesy of our local video shop) and it kind of creeped me out as a kid, and when I did watch it on a couch with a bunch of acting classmates, I had to hush them because they all wanted to say the lines along with the film, they loved it that much. Rodents of Unusual Size, playing mind-games with a Sicilian, being nearly-dead, and the course of true wuvv. And the final scene still makes cry every time.

Who made the best romantic comedy of all time, in my opinion, the glorious, pitch-perfect, endlessly rewatchable-with-glee, When Harry Met Sally, a movie that I am sure more than any other made me want to live for a time in Manhattan, wandering through Central Park in fall, with a spunky, thoughtful, high-maintenance blonde chick with a magic smile, while singing Gershwin like Harry Connick Jr (done).

Who made one of the great, drum-tight engrossing courtroom dramas in A Few Good Men, featuring Tom Cruise used perfectly, Jack Nicholson in one of his greatest parts, and a deep cast from Demi Moore to Keifer Sutherland doing terrific balanced work. This quite likely was part of my decision to study law at university, the idea of prancing like Daniel Kaffee around a sun-blessed courtroom (oh dear) … before side-stepping more truthfully into acting …

Who made one of the most crazily suspenseful films of all time, without a hint of the supernatural to help the way, in Misery, showing he wasn’t just great with ensemble casts and snappy banter, but could create maddening claustrophobia and fear in one space with two actors, with Kathy Bates and James Caan in supreme form. I can remember going to see it as a celebration of finishing my Inter Certificate exam in 1991 aged 14 with two pals – when everyone else went to a rugby club disco and came back with tales of being snogged by rabid girls, and yet, I wasn’t really that jealous, which just shows (a) what an innocent 14 year old I was, and (b) how a great story experience was so valuable to me (and that’s still true. And I’m still pretty darn naive even now!) I can still remember clear as a bell my pal Moro literally leaping out of his seat in the cinema when Annie smashed Paul Sheldon’s ankle with the sledgehammer …

And that’s just dipping into the top shelf, before even giving thought to excellent films such as The Sure Thing and The American President.

Has anyone else given as many actresses their best parts, such as Meg Ryan, Annette Benning, Demi Moore and Kathy Bates? Has anyone else adapted Stephen King so well? Or brought Aaron Sorkin to film as astutely? Provided more memorable lines than “I’ll have what she’s having,” “You can’t handle the truth,” “Mine goes up to eleven,” and “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!”? To me, it tells me everything that I can remember the exact time, place and way I felt the first time I saw so many of his films.

Writing this, I’ve discovered there’s a whole host of Rob Reiner’s later work I’ve not seen, so I’m excited to get a hold of the likes of The Bucket List, Flipped and LBJ. And I was delighted to see he’s got a new thriller coming out, Shock and Awe, about a group of journalists skeptical of George Bush’s weapons of mass destruction. I can’t wait. With Rob, I’m pretty sure at the least, I am in for a good time. And that’s a pretty good film-maker, eh?

***

10 Hypnotising Novels

10 Hypnotising Novels

One of the truly great joys I think you can have is reading a novel, whose story is so well told, you can’t bear to put it down, you’re excited to think you’ll be back reading it later, and when you’re in the midst of it, you are almost in a trance state, so deeply are you engaged in the narrative. Of course, this doesn’t happen often, and I guess that’s part of what makes it special. Here are a gang of novels, in no particular order, that have left me spellbound and I think are pretty darn special:

 

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt is just an exceptional writer, sentence by sentence, page by page, which I found again when I read her latest book The Goldfinch, which was also utterly absorbing. But The Secret History remains one of my favourite novels – I remember being utterly captured by the first-person story of a young man who falls completely into the seductive world of a gang of charismatic, eccentric misfits at a fancy New England university, where mystery and adventure is key and the rules of normal society are cast aside for a superior world of ideas and experiences … until ultimately facing the dangers of crossing the boundaries of morals and laws. I remember its crisply formed ideas and gorgeous sentences blowing my mind, and whipping through the pages of its darkly thrilling story. Even now, when I see its simple black cover in a bookshop, I get a tingle of joy.

 

The Brothers K by David James Duncan

In what is surely one of the greatly underrated Great American Novels, the saga of a family is gorgeously captured. Compassionate, uplifting and deeply humane, it follows decades in the lives of the four boys in the Chance family, absorbing us in capturing key aspects of American life, of sport and big dreams, of religion and regret, of political upheaval and finding your own way in that huge country. Truly beautiful, its 600 pages will blaze by, and leave you with only a feeling of good soul afterwards. I still sometimes dream of setting up a baseball pitching practice area in a back yard, complete with target and a bag of stained old baseballs, like the dethumbed father of the tale.

 

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar by Roald Dahl

More of a novella, I adore this Roald Dahl story, and can remember being plain gobsmacked as a young lad following its incredible but so believably told story of a rich layabout who learns to count cards from a yogi master’s teachings, and then goes on to use various disguises to cheat casinos and give the money to the poor. Its intricate playing out of the learning process of magically seeing through the cards, and the sweaty drama of our protagonist’s first attempts at a card table, are all brilliantly captured in Dahl’s unmatched clear and caustic storytelling. 95% chance you will read this in one sitting.

 

Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis

I have clear memories of being introduced to Bret Easton Ellis while at drama school, and devouring his books in the only reading time I had amidst long days and crashed-out nights – my rumbling bus journeys to and from Dublin’s city centre. I remember being aghast and utterly fascinated by his American Psycho, but in reading his Glamorama, I was genuinely hypnotised. I recall reading a 3-way sex scene that went on and on and on for pages and pages, and having to put the book down, not from arousal but just being dizzy with its imagery. And getting off the bus one day, I realized I was noting the brand labels worn by each passer-by, and rating them based on it, just like the protagonist in the story, and having to shake it off! Almost every Ellis book is like stepping into a dangerous dream – dark and absorbing and fearless and scary. But in particular, Glamorama just got into my head. Brilliant book.

 

The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay by Michael Chabon

Oh, how I love this wonderful book. The just joyous, joyous story of two scruffy New Yorkers, one a brand-new immigrant, a lucky and resourceful escapee from fascist Europe, the other a feisty Jewish boy battling his true nature, both of whom find creative bliss and magnificent purpose creating superhero comic books, in the Golden Age of Marvel and DC. This is a heart-tendering story of friendship and liberation, and of doing good in the world with the gifts you have, of simple heroism, against a background of the rattling radiators and bright lights of 40’s Manhattan, and the horrors of World War II. And if like me, you grew up on Spider-Man comics, you’ll just love how it delves into the world of classic comics bullpens. Excelsior.

 

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Ah, Dickens. Though some may mock him as mawkish and obvious, when he is read, I dare you not to be deeply absorbed. The story of Pip and his rise through hidden benefactors to the stately London life, and how his life comes crashing down around him amidst memories of foggy moors and cobwebbed ballrooms, stays with me like a vivid dream. And I still choke up thinking of the scene where Joe comes for a visit in his patched-up Sunday best, and can’t work out where to put his hat. Magic.

 

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I saw the film first, which I adore. But in many ways, the book is even better – even Goldman’s intro, which creates the colourful tale of how the book was “discovered” is utterly delightful. This fairy tale packed with hilarious humour, marvelous imagination and of course true love, is unputdownable, with all of its much-loved scenes even more vivid in print, with even more of a Grimm-tale dangerous darkness to fight against for our heroes (and heroine). Perfect to read to your ailing grandson.

 

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck’s mighty tome is a spirit-lifting elegy for lost dreams, for surprising loyalty, for family longing, for tarnished relationships, for awful pettiness, for stubborn passion. It is full of characters in the Trask and Hamilton families that you will cry over, and its muscular storytelling is packed with wisdom, bravery and healing. Delve into it deeply, and you will come out thrilled with your journey.

 

 

Mr. Vertigo by Paul Auster

I am a huge fan of Paul Auster, adoring his cleanly-written stories of chance and synchronicity, of the power of names and numbers and addresses, of movies seen in cinemas and books written in notebooks, of fallible memory, of stories within stories, of promises made and contracts entered into, of New York in all its impossibility, and of baseball games, both real and conjured. And this may well be my favourite, his tale of a twelve year old boy who learns to fly from a mysterious magician. Even when I think of it now, its last page, I get a shiver.

 

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Aged 21, on my first ever visit to the US, on my J-1 visa summer in Cleveland, Ohio, I can remember writing in my journal, and being asked by my room-mates and fellow travelers, sweatily bored out of their minds in our AC-less, TV-less 1-bedroom apartment, on a weeknight of hot dead air and empty pockets, what I had written. To read it aloud. (I guess I should have known I was an actor then.) I did, and I remember very clearly what I read out. How even when surrounded by the grotty urban neighbourhood we were in, of biker bars with broken windows, of snarling cars shuddering our windowframes, of screaming and shouting in the night, how in reading The English Patient, it carried me away to a world of grace and desert light and dignity and sun-sparkled beauty. And it truly did, in Ondaatje’s spellbinding tale of characters smashed by the War, filled with profundity and heat and astonishing poetry, capturing fragile human life amidst the crash of mighty metal forces. Such is the power of a truly compelling novel.

 

***

Magic in Here: Walking around an Empty Theatre

Magic in Here: Walking around an Empty Theatre

 

Sometimes you go somewhere and you just feel at home, even it is your first time being there. Like it’s where you belong. Like it’s the right place for you to be. To me, I always feel that way about a theatre. Of course, I feel that way about going to work in a theatre, the bustle and excitement of rehearsals and tech and performances, of the whole gang putting a show together, assembling the pieces, welding them into place (or more likely sticking them there with gaffer tape), and of course, the rush and sparkle of an audience coming in for a show.

But to me, there’s something delicately and deeply special, a juicy feeling, about being in an empty theatre. To me, it feels like the cool calmness and connection to your spirit that you get when you are in a church where your faith is fulfilled. It can be a theatre I am working in or one I am walking into for the first time. I love to stroll amid the seats, around the stage, through the dressing rooms. Counting the lights above my head. Testing out the acoustics with a few great lines, feeling how they bounce around the space, how they echo with the room’s excitement at being spoken to, how the ghosts of past performances wake from their slumbers and peek from the wings with interest. I always feel like a theatre is a living organism, a godly thing, like an angel built of bricks and mortar, and that like a momma of a big family, it loves to have people in it, its kids back in the house, making noise and laughter and playing and filling the place with joy and excitement and purpose. Theatres wait patiently like mighty whales when they are empty, and are delighted to open their huge jaws and swallow up people like Jonahs when they come knocking.

I love the sound of my shoes clacking across the boards of the stage. I love the look of the seats, their symmetry, the sudoku of their layout, and if they are red, that is just the icing on the cake (is there anything better than a comfy scarlet seat in the stalls?) I love the smell of dressing rooms, of make-up powder and relaundered costumes and the past tang of flowers and sweat and camaraderie. I love the taste in the air, fresh and cool, as if you are eating the space, like it’s clean paper to write words on anew. And I love the feel of the theatre, of opening its many wooden doors, of stroking its velvet curtains, and the shiver of anticipation it creates on my skin.

Because maybe that’s just what an empty theatre is – potential. Possibilities of shows that could be done here. In an empty theatre you cannot help but commence imagining – what play might suit that bare brick background or having that high ceiling or that overlooking mezzanine? What way might you lay out the seats to get a thrust for Shakespearean soliloquies or to surround the actors for a minutely observed Arthur Miller? What will it be like to walk down this corridor in full costume for your opening night entrance? What would it feel like in here, to look out and see every single seat filled and hundreds of eyes watching you with delight? How would a Pinter play work in here, or a Moliere, or an adaptation of Dickens’ Bleak House? And that new play, the one you adored reading but it just wouldn’t fit in those other places, you know what, it might be magic in here …

You see, there is. There’s magic in here. In this hungry space, ravenous for words, for truly felt emotion, for capturing human comedy, for gripping stories, for utterly present life on the stage, for raucous laughter and ringing heartfelt applause and honest tears. There’s the chance to do something here that’s never been done before, that will only live like this in these walls, shared with these friends. There’s the potential to put on a play.

So imagine away. There’s magic in here.

***

The Colossus as Role Model: Why I Love Laurence Olivier

The Colossus as Role Model: Why I Love Laurence Olivier

One of my greatest acting heroes is Laurence Olivier. You may ask why, considering I was too young to ever see him on-stage, and there are film stars with more acclaimed performances. But when I first started to take acting seriously, and ravenously watched performances and read books about the subject, I kept finding myself drawn to Olivier’s fierce desire to produce bold performances, to tell stories with great ambition, and to build theatres and companies. While John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness of the English knights were marvelous creative actors, they didn’t have Olivier’s ferocious leadership drive and willingness to break the rules. While Marlon Brando had immense pure talent, he doesn’t have Olivier’s keen sense for how everything fits in the story, nor Olivier’s uncynical love of the work. Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole spurned so much of their talent in wayward boozing and brainless movies. I once saw Steven Berkoff give his splendid one-man show about Shakespeare’s Villains, and loved how he described his hatred that Olivier had filmed his mighty performances as Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III, because then essentially it was impossible to better the man who Berkoff called, with pure respect, “The Colossus.” Here are some things that make Olivier such an icon and indeed role model for me.

Read More

The Wonder of Theatre: From Early Experiences to Today

The Wonder of Theatre: From Early Experiences to Today

The theatre is full of wonders. It is magic, a good play done well on the stage. It is the alchemy of the work of creative people with the attention of an audience, in that moment alone. And it has the potential to leave its mark on us very deeply – delightfully, powerfully, movingly, terrifyingly, hopefully. Theatre may be inherently ephemeral, but it can blaze brands on our memory.

I was thinking about that recently, seeing some really good shows where at times my mouth was wide open, wowed, and how that has been a binding force through my ongoing love of theatre – that potential with a live performance to capture an audience with clear, true, imaginative and specific storytelling, to provide them with something really special, worth coming out for, and maybe just unforgettable.

Read More

The Cinema of Camaraderie – Howard Hawks and Good Gangs

The Cinema of Camaraderie – Howard Hawks and Good Gangs

I recently started watching The West Wing for the first time. It was one of those nights when we didn’t have a show to watch, and flipping through Netflix, we thought, why not just watch one episode of this.

Now 20 episodes later, I’m rather hooked, and delighted there are another half-dozen seasons to watch. Why am I enjoying it so much? Yes, Aaron Sorkin‘s fast-paced dialogue is sharp and delightfully witty, I am completely aligned with its humanist and liberal values and morals, it is fascinating to watch the inner sanctum process of the Oval Office, and Martin Sheen is the Irish-American President I’d be happy to vote for (if this Irishman was an American citizen). And that’s all part of it. But ultimately what keeps me coming back, what makes me gleeful about the show, is that it is essentially, moment-to-moment, a story about camaraderie.

Read More