JOHN Finn’s first glimpse of Ireland was from a ferry chugging into Cork Harbour on a misty morning in 1972. Raised in the Bronx, in a stoutly Irish-American family — his grandparents spoke in Irish at the dinner table — he’d long dreamed of visiting his ancestral home.
“Ireland was very different in those days,” says Finn, a respected 62-year-old character actor best known for the TV procedural Cold Case, and who had roles in movies such as Glory and Catch Me If You Can.
“There were no new cars on the roads. In the west, some households didn’t yet have electricity. It was a poor country — a poor country rich in culture,” he recalls.
Finn proudly describes himself as Irish-American, but he has a nuanced understanding of Irishness, disdaining the shamrocks and shillelaghs stereotypes. He has studied the Irish language for years, so when he was offered the opportunity to star in TG4’s new big-budget crime drama, An Bronntanas (the channel believes it has created its answer to Love/Hate), he jumped at the chance.
“My character was born in Donegal, went to New York, was an NYC cop and then decided to come back and raise his kid in Ireland — so he became a garda.”
Being familiar with Irish, acting in the language was not an insurmountable challenge. Still, occasionally he had to ask that a line be rephrased so that he could better grasp its meaning. “I need to understand what I’m saying ‘emotionally’ for it to work. If the structure was not something I could get my head around, I would ask them to rearrange it.” Irish audiences may know Finn from a celebrated ad for Cold Case that ran on TG4 in 2005.A suspect taken in for questioning by the Cold Case team answers in Irish, presuming it will baffle her interrogators. Finn’s character throws her for a loop, however, when he shoots back ‘as Gaeilge’.
“We were told we had 30 minutes on the Cold Case set. It was great — TG4 had wanted to do it to encourage people to watch the show on their channel, rather than Sky or what have you. It came down to the wire whether we’d get the time on the set or not. We found out we did, late in the day, and had to move without delay for it to come together.”
Finn is proud to be called a journeymen. Having served in the US navy — he was posted in Wales when he took his fateful trip to Cobh — he got into acting in the 1980s, appearing in movies such as True Crime, Blown Away, The Pelican Brief, as well as TV shows like Chicago Hope, The X-Files and NYPD Blue (portraying different characters over the course of the show’s run).
However, his career was transformed when he was cast as a hard-charging detective in Cold Case, which debuted in 2003 and was an immediate hit. “Getting a series like that is tremendously secure,” he says. “It makes your life easier. That said, creatively it is somewhat of a dead end. It’s a bit like a factory. They typecast you in a certain role and don’t want you to go outside that. They can do that because there are just so many people. I go to an audition and I see ten John Finns and they’re all going for the part I’m going for.”
An Bronntanas airs on TG4, Thursday
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