If you want someone to play Vaguely Depressed Irishman, there is no one alive better at it than Stephen Rea. Daniel Day-Lewis is flashier. Liam Neeson is tougher. Pierce Brosnan is prettier. But God made Stephen Rea to have a certain hang-dog look that beats them all. He’s done action, and he’s done comedy, and he’s even had filmed romance, but he’s built by genetics to look like he’s slightly unhappy about everything that is going on around him and he’d really rather just go back to bed. Which arguably makes him the most relatable actor of modern times.
In fact Rea is from one of the handful of places I can say in Irish, having been born—like Patricia Quinn, Ciarán Hinds, and Improbably Born In Ireland Kenneth Branagh—in Belfast. He studied there and in Dublin, and in the ‘70s did live theatre with fellow Vaguely Depressed Irishman Gabriel Byrne and The Only Irish Actor Known To ‘90s Hollywood Colm Meaney. He has in fact still done a fair amount of live theatre, in addition to his frequent collaborations with Neil Jordan and so forth. He’s of course an Oscar nominee now and has been since the ‘90s.
I do like seeing him in things, and not just because we could do with more Vaguely Depressed Irishmen in film. (Man, imagine him moping through something with Gabriel Byrne!) He’s a talented actor, though it’s often weird to see him attempting to leave his niche. It’s not that it’s bad when he does; I don’t even really thing he’s a Stay In Your Lane actor. He’s not bad at comedy. If anything, he’s better when he’s being funny, because you absolutely do not expect that from that face. But he doesn’t get cast in as many comedies as he ought, because of the face.
The first thing I saw him in is probably the first thing most Americans saw him in—I saw him as Fergus in The Crying Game. That movie’s place in film history is deeply complicated, and I know at least one trans film critic who disliked it and felt hurt by it. Understandably. But aside from That One Scene, Rea spends quite a lot of the movie as someone whose life just keeps getting more complicated and who is just going to deal with it because, eh, that’s life. No one but Rea could have done the role quite so well as he did.
It’s appropriate that Rea’s most notable role times him to the IRA, given his life does as well. Rea was actually hired to speak the words of Gerry Adams when Sinn Féin was banned from the airwaves. His ex-wife, Dolours Price, had been an actual honest-to-Gods IRA bomber; she attended one of his performances the night before participating in a major bombing. I don’t know how he feels about the whole thing, but wow, there’s a lot to unpack there. I wonder if Fergus was a kind of therapy for him.