Peter Coonan is telling stories about the dead. Stories, told in that familiar softly rasping voice, about all the things the dead leave behind. The actor famously starred as charming psycho gangster Fran Cooney in Stuart Carolan’s acclaimed and beloved Irish crime drama Love/Hate. There were plenty of dead bodies in that series. Coonan’s character once dispensed of a dentist in a memorable way, but for now he is not recalling some gruesome fictional gangland tale.
We’ve been talking about spirits and the supernatural, recurring themes in Conor McPherson’s The Weir, a play set in a Co Leitrim pub in the roaring 1990s. When I ask Coonan, who is currently starring in the play at The Abbey, if he believes in ghosts, he tells a story about going to Macroom in Co Cork recently after the death of his sister-in-law’s mother.
“We went back to the house and for some reason I was like ‘where’s the room?’ I walked into the room where she spent her last days, and I just got this sense, it lifted me, the spirit of something. Her moisturiser lid was off, you could smell her perfume, the flowers there were still fresh and birds were tweeting outside, eating from the feeder. It was just a sense of, ‘okay right’.” He sensed her presence deeply in that moment and the experience moved him. “Joan was a beautiful, kind and thoughtful woman … a gentle, genuine spirit.”
[ The Weir: The Abbey stages an atmospheric revival of Conor McPherson’s 1990s play ]
[ Love/Hate is returning to RTÉ on Friday nights. Why did we love it so much? ]
Coonan is not at all spooked by this sort of thing. He has, he says without a trace of morbidity, an “affiliation” with the dead that springs from the death of his own mother Betty from breast cancer, when he was just 12. The Dubliner remembers, having been called out of school, being allowed to spend time with his mother’s body in St Vincent’s Hospital. “It gave me a huge amount of solace, being able to be with her, to have those moments. I just wanted to be on my own with her for as long as I possibly could.” He remembers the finality when the body was taken away for the removal, the lid put on the coffin. “It was hard when they took it away. I remember running after it,” he says.
Speaking with my dad [about grief] there’s a sense that you get stuck in to your work and you keep going, until someday it might crop up in an adverse way
That was almost exactly 26 years ago. For the hour we’re chatting, it feels as though the spirit of Betty Coonan, a prolific actress of note herself on the amateur scene, is hovering benignly over our conversation in the cafe of the Peacock Theatre. The Weir explores several aspects of Irishness, but a big one, says Coonan, “is what happens after people die. And what they do from that moment on, and how it informs their lives. How do they come back to it? Or do they just neglect it, try and move on and forget … and I suppose as well, it’s about the Irish psyche of, especially for men, how we deal with our emotions. And how we deal with loss.”
He’s thinking of his father Peter Coonan, who for years was a headmaster at Star of the Sea primary school in Sandymount. “Speaking with my dad [about grief] there’s a sense that you get stuck in to your work and you keep going, until someday it might crop up in an adverse way. Or, you know, it hits you when you least expect it.” For his part, he’s always been able to speak openly about his emotions, particularly about the loss of his mother. “I was forced to, I didn’t have a choice … it wasn’t in my nature to keep it in.” And you were given that space? “I think I found the space. Or I was given it by my mum, as bizarre as that sounds, and through this work, because the work has connected us consistently over the years.”
He spent his childhood watching his mother in plays and thinking ‘I want to do that’. She would often read lines with him, the two of them lying with her scripts on the bed. Betty Coonan, he says, was “loving, warm, vivacious, kind. Very, very kind.” His mother sent him to acting classes from the age of four and he had several roles, a small part in a Gaiety production of Fiddler on the Roof for one, before falling away from acting. That was when sport, particularly hurling, took precedence at his Irish-speaking school Coláiste Íosagáin, where he was nicknamed gligín – messer. Apparently he settled down around the Junior Cert.
He’s not overstating those connecting threads between his mother and his chosen profession. Around the time he dropped out of college – his rekindled interest in drama proved more powerful than his interest in his arts degree at UCD – he got a call from amateur group La Touche players. Somebody had dropped out and they needed a replacement actor at short notice. It was 2006, the World Cup had just finished. Coonan had little else to do so he decided to give acting another proper go. “My dad saw me going out one day and said ‘Where are you going?’ I told him I was doing a play in town. He said ‘What play?’ and I told him it was Cause Célèbre by Terence Rattigan. He said, ‘Your mother did that’.”
His dad went upstairs and found the script his mother had used. Coonan’s role was a 17-year-old having an affair with an older woman. His mother had played the older woman, her lines were highlighted by her and beside his own character’s lines in the script, he found her own handwritten notes. “Talk about spirits, Jesus Christ,” he says. He also used his mother’s original script when he had a role in Juno and the Paycock at The Gate.
His mother’s last play before she died was The Mai by Marina Carr, with the Sundrive Players. Caitríona McLaughlin, artistic director of The Abbey, directed Coonan in Rafferty’s Hill by Marina Carr five years ago, which in a way led him to his role in Tom Murphy’s A Whistle in the Dark and now to The Weir, also directed by McLaughlin. He told her back then that it was his dream to do a Tom Murphy play.
He and Brian Gleeson, friend and fellow Love/Hate alumnus who starred with him in A Whistle in the Dark, had done a reading of the play with Murphy 12 years ago “on the back of our Love/Hate escapades”. Coonan is funny and typically self-deprecating about the gathering in Druid’s base in Galway with all the greats – Garry Hynes, Marie Mullen, Sean McGinley, Brian F O’Byrne and the playwright Murphy himself. The Love/Hate actors had been called in to read. It was a case of, he says, “Who are these young actors? Are they any good? Can they act on stage?”
He remembers Murphy giving an introduction at the beginning, a talk about punctuation, the importance of using the commas and adhering to the full stops in the script. The young actors were asked to read parts, but it wasn’t long before “we were gone” and other people in the room were asked to pick up the lines.
“We shouldn’t have been there,” he laughs, but points out that being passed over worked out well. Coonan recalls sitting back then as others read, absorbing it all. McGinley was “so frightening” as Dada, the subtlety in the veteran actor’s performance impressing the young performer. “I didn’t really know what I was listening to, I was just overawed by the experience and being asked to read. It was a masterclass.” Later, he watched the Tom Murphy cycle of plays put on by Druid and was “gobsmacked”. He remembers talking to Gleeson later, saying, wouldn’t it be great one day to do one of those plays?
He and Gleeson had wanted to be in a play together “for years”. Before the pandemic they’d been renting rehearsal rooms with director friends, doing scenes from True West by Sam Shepard. But something shifted, having gone through lockdown after lockdown and being reminded “what home meant, what being Irish meant. In every sinew of your being you were reminded why you love what you live. And myself and Brian were like, ‘We can’t do an American play, brilliant as it is ...’”
Then the opportunity to play Michael in A Whistle in the Dark with Gleeson and McGinley came along, playing to critical acclaim and packed audiences in The Peacock. And now he’s playing Finbar in The Weir. He laughs when he thinks about the night he went home to tell his partner, restaurateur Kim O’Driscoll, that he was going to be doing two plays back to back – the couple have three daughters under nine.
“But The Weir is like A Whistle, just one of those plays that if you get the chance to do it, you grab it,” he says. Coonan had worked with Conor McPherson before as a teenager. He was 14 when he had a part in Saltwater, a film version of McPherson’s Lime Tree Bower, starring Brian Cox. McPherson also wrote the screenplay of one of Coonan’s favourite Irish films, I Went Down.
His bigger break in film came in 2011 in Mark O’Connor’s gangster tale Between the Canals, set in north inner-city Dublin. It was lots of early mornings and late nights. And it was the time when his father – who had half-jokingly encouraged him to be an accountant – saw the hard work he was putting in to achieving his dreams.
“I think at that point he realised I was taking it seriously,” he says. The roles kept coming, a part in a Nick Kelly short called The Shoe that was longlisted for an Oscar. It was Between the Canals that led to a successful audition for Love/Hate. “It was incredible, something for the whole country to be proud of,” he says of how the show was embraced so ferociously by audiences. We talk about how starring in a huge hit opens doors professionally and socially. “My friends loved it. I was getting into things instead of getting kicked out,” he says.
I think as well, different actors have different trajectories. And you don’t want anybody else’s career
He was “Fran off Love/Hate” for four years, from 2010 to 2014, winning an Ifta for Best Supporting Actor. He is full of admiration for Carolan’s writing and delights at having had the opportunity, having grown up watching Martin Scorsese films and Joe Pesci films, to play and have fun, but also to depict “such depraved characters with such incredibly dark sides and a flick of humour”.
I tell him it always struck me as interesting the fact that he and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, who played ruthless crime boss Nidge, were, in real life, quite polite, softly spoken southside boys. He laughs. “I was definitely from a different side of the tracks, but an ounce of divilment in me let me create the character with Stuart [Carolan]... but I suppose that’s acting, isn’t it?”
It is. There’s no physical trace in Coonan these days of his most famous role, that loveable psychopath Fran and his catchphrase “coolaboola”, apart from once or twice when a distinctive high pitched laugh erupts.
“I looked different back then,” he allows. He rarely gets recognised as Fran now. At the time, in that heady Love/Hate heyday, there was a bit of an occupational hazard with people mistaking him for his character. “There’d be these heads inviting me back to party with them in their gaffs in various parts of Dublin,” he smiles.
He’s far more recognisable today as Ben, the lovestruck artist with the amazing apartment he played in Sharon Horgan’s recent global hit for Apple TV, Bad Sisters. Speaking of global sensations, I mention his colleague in acting, Paul Mescal, who shot to stardom after Normal People and now has his pick of movie roles. I wonder did Coonan have similar expectations or aspirations after Love/Hate was such a massive success?
No I haven’t grown. I’m too sensitive. I can’t handle it. I take things to heart for better or for worse
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t … I did want to progress further. I did want to do other things. I suppose I was starting a family at the same time, you know, in between work; you’re like, ‘Do you have a second kid?’ and I also wanted to stay at home. I’m very much a home bird.”
His honesty and thoughtfulness is endearing. “I did have expectations of myself at the time,” he says. “But I also think I was immature, a young father … you look at Paul [Mescal] and you think, that’s amazing, that would have been great, but then you come to a point where you feel blessed. I mean, I am here, in The Abbey, working with Caitríona McLaughlin.
“I think as well, different actors have different trajectories,” he says. “And you don’t want anybody else’s career. If I stop and write a gratitude list right now it is very long.” He’s starred in one of the most revered Irish drama series ever made and had roles in Friel, Murphy and O’Casey plays. He’s been Brendan Behan in The Borstal Boy and David Drumm in The Guarantee, not to mention having a role in Peaky Blinders. And he’s only 38. There’s much more to come, including two independent films next year which, “sorry”, he can’t yet talk about.
I read an interview with Coonan once where he spoke about how he doesn’t read his reviews, having been stung once by criticism that saw him turn in what he described as a “sub par” performance one night in Juno and the Paycock. Has he grown since then? “No I haven’t grown,” he says, that Franesque giggle emerging briefly. “I’m too sensitive. I can’t handle it. I take things to heart for better or for worse.”
And then we’re talking about the dead again, about his mother, the loss of her, and how it might have added to his sensitivity. “It’s probably something to do with that,” he says. “The need to be loved. To be liked. To be appreciated... It always comes back to her.”
The Weir previewed on November 26th. That day marked 26 years since his mother died. That was also his number at Coláiste na Rinne where he was boarding when he got the call to say his mother was gone. “These little motifs keep cropping up.”
He was laughing the other night with fellow cast members about how, had she lived, his mother would have been the ultimate stage mammy. She’d probably have enjoyed all his success almost as much as he clearly does? “She is enjoying it,” he says as Betty Coonan’s spirit hovers over us once more. “I mean, I’ve got three girls who I see her in all the time. I keep a photo of her in my dressing room. I look at it before I go out on stage and I see my daughters flashing through her. She’s there when I keep doing theatre and when I go back to her plays. So you know, she’s never really gone. And when I’m on stage it’s never more close to me.”
The Weir by Conor McPherson directed by Caitríona McLaughlin is at the Abbey Theatre until January 14th.