National Treasure: From Star Trek to The Snapper, Colm Meaney on four decades of acting

As he returns to our screens in a new drama, Colm Meaney reflects on four decades of film and TV with Shilpa Ganatra
National Treasure: From Star Trek to The Snapper, Colm Meaney on four decades of acting

Colm Meaney (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)

There are worse places than the sunny climes of Majorca to find yourself in lockdown. 

When the virus halted Europe in March, Colm Meaney found himself in his holiday home in the sunny Spanish island with his wife, costume designer Ines Glorian, and youngest daughter Ada. “We were very fortunate — if I had been in an apartment in New York like my eldest daughter, I would have gone nuts,” he says, speaking from Dublin, where he returned after lockdown.

He always did have a knack of being at the right place at the right time. Throughout his — count ‘em — 41-year acting career, he’s flitted between Dublin, London, and LA, picking up an enviable variety of roles. You’d almost forget his ubiquity. He’s well known as Miles O’Brien in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or in Roddy Doyle’s triptych of The Van, The Snapper, and The Commitments, but he’s also lent his talents to some genre-defining productions, from Moonlighting to MacGyver, Con Air to Intermission.

“When I started doing Star Trek [in 1987] I was aware that when you do a high-profile show like that, it’s easy to be pigeonholed, and maybe subconsciously I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen to me,” he says.

“I always tried to do two or three projects every year outside of the show, so it was almost as if I had two different careers going on.

“I was a recurring character on Next Generation, which suited me fine. I’d do a few episodes then I’d go away and do a movie, as I wasn't tied to a contract. When they asked me to commit to Deep Space Nine as a regular cast member, I was a bit reluctant to do that. Sometimes what happens if you go into a series like that, it takes over your life, and that becomes the only thing you do. If you do that for long enough, then you lose the other aspects of your career.

“But Rick said: ‘Look, if there's any films that you really want to do, come to me. I’ll do everything I can to let you out'. And for seven years, he was good to his word, he always got out to do other things.” 

With the air of a man whose largest worry is how to work Zoom, he’s settled on a terracotta sofa and relaxed. He’s there on his own: his wife and daughter are still in Spain, but he’s glad to settle back into life in his native Dublin for a while. 

Kindly, he heaps praise upon this very publication, having recently rediscovered it last year 

It’s terrific. I’ve been really impressed with the columnists and international coverage

he says, the charmer.

He’s returned to help raise awareness and funds for the arts sector during Covid, though it’s one of the many shape-shifting changes he’s seen in the industry during his tenure. In that time, he’s watched as social media altered the cult of celebrity, broadcast channels and services exploded in numbers, and he now believes that “cinemas are a thing of the past — I think that may have been accelerated by lockdown”.

Yet the shift that’s affected Meaney the most is found in filming. With cheaper cameras and a digital editing process, it’s less important to get something perfect in the can — which means less need for rehearsals.

“We developed a process over a hundred years where you rehearsed the scene with the director,” he says. "Then you brought in the technical crew, the director of photography had a look, and then you built it, block by block — you didn’t want to waste film, because it was expensive. But that went by the wayside when digital came in. Nowadays a lot of directors don't even rehearse anymore. They just put three, four, five, six cameras on. So you don’t know what you’re doing, and at times you don't know where the fucking camera is. And part of our craft is playing to the camera.

“I don't like digital, but my good friend Stephen Frears [the award-winning director of The Snapper and Philomena] told me I can’t blame digital for that, because he shoots exactly the same way as he’s always done. So it depends who is behind the camera.” 

The change isn’t stopping Meaney in his tracks. His quiet, career-long purple patch continues, even during this unusual year. We first saw him in one of lockdown’s big-hitters, Sky’s violent drama Gangs of London. As the kingpin Finn Wallace, his murder in the opening scenes starts its chain of events, though we’re intermittently treated to Meaney’s talents in the form of flashbacks throughout the series.

His new role is a world away from London’s ganglands — in fact, it’s in The Singapore Grip, a big-budget Second World War series adapted from Anglo-Irish writer J.G. Farrell’s book of the same name. After Troubles (set in Ireland), and The Siege of Krishnapur (in India), this formed the last of the ‘Empire Trilogy’, which unravelled the impact of Britain’s imperialism because, as Farrell described, “history leaves out the most important thing of all: the detail of what being alive is like”.

The Singapore Grip
The Singapore Grip

The Singapore Grip centres around two colonial families and their business at the time of the Japanese invasion in 1941. With a cast led by David Morrissey ( The Walking Dead, Britannia), Jane Horrocks ( Little Voice, Absolutely Fabulous) and Luke Treadaway ( A Streetcat Named Bob, Fortitude), Meaney takes on the role of Major Brendan Archer, one of the less scheming and self-serving characters of the bunch. He’s “a very gentle soul, and a sensitive man,” says Meaney. "You know he's probably troubled, but he deals with it. I’m rarely asked to play that — I'm usually a much more … forceful character.

“I was excited because you're never asked to play British in Britain,” he adds. “In America, it’s no problem if Brits play Americans, Irish play Americans, Australians play Americans. But in Britain, you're never asked to play British. 

"Even Stephen Frears said it to me: ‘You can't do that, you’re Irish!’ I said: ‘I'm also an actor, Stephen’.” 

Given Laura Whitmore’s promotion of the British Army, it’s an eyebrow-raising choice of character, especially as Meaney is a renowned Republican. But he explains that that “as actors, you play a character, you play fascists, or whatever. Your own personal beliefs and politics don’t come into it … except you don't want to be doing fascist propaganda.” 

While the two episodes I’ve seen tell the familiar tale of colonial high-jinx and high life, Farrell’s critical lampooning of the system begins soon after, Meaney assures.

“It is lampooning to some extent, but there are also serious points made about the nature of imperialism,” he says. “It talks about how they claim to be bringing progress and civilisation, but basically all they're doing is setting up infrastructure in this country in order to be able to extract the resources of that country, and repatriate the profits to Britain, which is what imperialism was all about. It’s the same bullshit as with the Christian missionaries.

“The book and series deal with it in a smart way: there’s no preaching, it's just there, it's in the nature of these people. And the incompetence! You wonder how these people organised an empire.

“Christopher [Hampton, screenwriter] made a good point the other day, that the level of incompetence and casual racism that existed still very much exists in this particular British government. It's a combination of arrogance, incompetence, and casual racism. And yet it seems to get votes, even in this day and age. It's extraordinary.” 

Has it helped inform his opinion of British imperialism?

“It’s reinforced my opinion,” he says. 

Being Irish and reading on history and politics, imperialism was never a positive. I always saw it for what it is: the exploitation of weaker nations by stronger nations.

As Singapore itself looks remarkably different from the 1940s, the series was filmed over five humid months in Kuala Lumpur and Penang in Malaysia. “I'd walk out of the apartment building in the morning, and my glasses would instantly steam up,” says Meaney. “I couldn’t see a thing, I was blind like Mr Magoo, instantly. That's how humid and hot it was.” 

The schedule did allow some time for exploring Southeast Asia — he became familiar with the cities during gaps within his filming, and jetted off to Vietnam and Cambodia once it wrapped.

Happily, the series finished filming well before the coronavirus crisis, allowing us to reap the rewards at a time when we’re watching a little more telly than usual. That’s also the same with his next two films: The Happy Worker, by Twin Peaks collaborators David Lynch and Duwayne Dunham, and Pixie, an Irish comedy-thriller about a woman on the run from gangsters, with Olivia Cooke, Ben Hardy, and Alec Baldwin also in the cast. That said, the crisis and restricted cinema markets mean that dates are still yet to be confirmed.

Actor Colm Meaney(Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
Actor Colm Meaney(Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Looking further forward, I wonder if he might reprise his role of The Major in J.G. Farrell’s Troubles, where the Major makes his first appearance?

“I read Troubles to explore the background of the Major, and it really explains an awful lot about him,” Meaney says. “I’d love to do it, but it was 20 years before we see him in Singapore, so I think they’d be looking for a younger 'me' to play that.” If that’s the case, good luck to the actor: those are some big army boots to fill.

The Singapore Grip is part of Virgin Media Television's new season of programming, and will air in early autumn

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