You get the feeling that if Patrick Bergin weren’t an actor, he could have considered a career in stand-up comedy.
Regaling the media on the set of Red Rock with stories from his stellar career and life, he is playing for laughs and there is a sense of offbeat fun to him that is refreshing.
The quirkiness is a marked contrast to the broody, menacing roles that have made him famous — the violent control freak of Sleeping With the Enemy, the cool IRA assassin in Patriot Games, or more recently the sharp shooter in Free Fire.
Tonight he returns to our screens in TV3’s hit drama, Red Rock, tempted onto our tellys by the chance to work at home on a good, juicy role.
It’s a return to his roots for Bergin — the actor grew up just a stone’s throw away from the old John Player cigarette factory, now home to the TV show’s main sets. “I’d seen a couple of episodes of it, it’s on the BBC now, and I liked it. I was approached, coincidentally, shortly afterwards,” says the 66-year-old.
“I wasn’t sure at first, but became more and more intrigued with it and with working in Dublin. I was brought up in Drimnagh, just up the road, and Donore Avenue (at that time) was a terrifying place to come to, it was very rough down there. So I was intrigued by that, and I used to pass here in the bus every day. All of that was too irresistible. It was destiny. So the answer is destiny!”
Certainly, Bergin’s Jim Tierney sounds like a bit of a character. Described as a temperamental, fitness-loving, old-school Dub, Jim’s hobbies include painting model airplanes and having skirmishes with the local youths who tease and mock him.
It emerges that he’s Rory’s only remaining family, and Jim is very proud to have a detective for a grandson. Yet Jim has a very chequered past of his own, and is no stranger to criminal activities.
He has a dark secret and this could even burden his grandson, who takes great risks to keep the secret safe.
“He has a past. Yet he’s got a lot of character in the sense that he’s not sentimental, but he’s got a conscience. He’s got a strong central role in terms of the plot. He drives the thing in many ways, in a subtle way. So there were challenges as an actor to try and capture that in a short period of time. He’s a former criminal for sure, but he’s doing his best to be on the straight and narrow.”
Some actors who’ve worked on big Hollywood blockbusters might be a bit sniffy at the prospect of doing a TV drama. Wouldn’t Bergin rather be doing Shakespeare?
He laughs. “You can’t do Shakespeare every day! I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive for an actor, I really don’t. Shakespeare, John B Keane and Red Rock at the same time.”
In actual fact, he says, most of the good drama is new being produced for TV. “Just look at the facts. Cinemas are closing. If it’s not TV people are looking at it on Netflix, they don’t go to the cinema and buy the popcorn.
“It may be a shame, there might be a nostalgia to that, and thankfully there are some cinemas that are still doing it. But I used to go and see three movies a week, in [former local cinema] The Star. There was a double bill every day, and there would be a matinee on Sunday.
“Sometimes we’d be two in a seat, there was such a crowd. And you’d pile out of The Star. If it was a fencing movie, you’d have an imaginary sword in your hand. It was a wonderful social experience to go to the cinema.
“There may have been maybe a snobbery. But it’s either nostalgic, or it’s silly. Because the fact of the matter is that most of the drama is on TV.”
On the road
Bergin divides his time between Ireland, the US, and the UK and you get the sense that he likes being the road and the freedom that his work brings him.
“I come back here all the time. I’ve got a place in the UK, a place here and a place in LA. I call it the Bergin triangle. The Bermuda triangle is where boats disappear. The Bergin triangle is where I disappear.”
He has a strong and fond association with Cork, and speaks highly of a recent project he did there, a musical based on the notorious real-life case of Dripsey poisoner Dr Philip Cross, called Murder at Shandy Hall.
“He’s got a wife, a couple of kids and so has his friend. They have a governess, he falls in love with her, and she with him, and they start an affair. She gets sacked, his wife’s starting to get ill and she dies.
“He marries the governess within two months. They exhume the body and find the arsenic. He goes on trial, is convicted and hung. Go and make a musical out of that! And that’s what it is, it’s a musical. We did Macroom and the Cork Opera House, sold out all of them. It was great fun.”
While he has worked in dozens of different roles over a lengthy career, it’s for playing the terrifying, obsessive husband of Julia Roberts in Sleeping With the Enemy that he is best remembered. Some 25 years after the movie was released, he still gets recognised for it “all the time” — a fact that might grate with some actors but is fine by him.
“That film stood the test of time. There was something about the clarity of it, it’s an iconic film.
“I dare say it would be in the top 100 films of all time. I would say that, because of its subject matter, the intensity. It’s shown every week on television somewhere, people really do identify with it, it’s incredible.
“And I have had women come to me and say they left their husbands having seen it. It gave them an insight into domestic violence, and the threat. Because though he does hit her, he only hits her once on the film, but a lot of women I think live under the threat from their male counterparts that they might one day be hit, and that subject is a huge subject.
"And if a work of art of any kind can raise a subject to talk about, it gives you the platform to do so, it’s a good thing. I’m very proud of it.”
To this day, he loves to mix up his roles, and he says it’s helped him see the world. “Work is work. I do all sorts of work. I’m in a sense, in a lucky position to be able to just do what I feel like doing. Location is a big influence — if it’s a place where I want to be or want to see.
“It’s not always just the role. Location is a big part and it’s brought me around the world.”