Late to the big screen, then prolific, north Belfast’s Stephen Rea honoured with lifetime achievement

Oscar nominee Rea had a long career in the theatre and television, which continued, but pivot towards film

Actor Stephen Rea will speak at the fundraiser
Stephen Rea was honoured with a lifetime achievement at the IFTAs in Dublin on Saturday

It was December 1992 in New York and Stephen Rea was attracting huge interest.

The then 46-year-old, largely unknown in the United States and a self-confessed film novice, was just weeks away from being nominated for best actor in the Oscars.

Nominated for his role as Fergus in The Crying Game, the competition included eventual winner Al Pacino, Clint Eastwood and Denzel Washington.

Actor Stephen Rea has  always been one of my favourite people to photograph.Star of the 'Crying Game' and countless other film and plays,he's unassuming and down to earth.Here he was willing to sit on a forty year old bike at an exhibition about the history of the Carrick Hill district of Belfast.
Actor Stephen Rea at an exhibition about the history of the Carrick Hill district of Belfast.

But the Belfast man was also in the city for the Broadway production of Frank McGuinness’ retelling of the Beirut hostage crisis, Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me.

Rea told one reporter he turned down a role in Stephen Frears’ The Snapper to head to Broadway as he wanted to have a film and a play in the US simultaneously. It was deliberately aimed to open up more film opportunities.

“I did a lot of theatre for an awful long time,” he said.

“And I just decided about two years ago, that I’d had the beginnings of a film career with Angel and a couple of other movies in the ‘80s, so I thought, well, I’m going to have a try at that.”

He added: “I’m very new to cinema. I mean, I am deeply experienced in the theatre, but I’m a bit of a baby in cinema.”

While never A-list according to the Hollywood interpretation, his output since has been prolific, appearing in more than 60 films, varied and continuing with the 2023 release of The Miracle Club alongside Maggie Smith, Laura Linney and Kathy Bates.

Laura Linney stars in The Miracle Club (Matt Crossick/PA)
Laura Linney stars in The Miracle Club (Matt Crossick/PA)

While the bus driver’s son from a Protestant background, then Queen’s University graduate, first appeared in films in the 1980s, he was a regular on television from the 1960s. His first reported role was in the long-running British soap opera, Crossroads.

But for much of the 1970s and into the 80s, he was focused on the theatre, with the Abbey in Dublin the pivotal role with Derry’s Field Day company, which he founded along with the playwright Brian Friel in 1980.

Stephen Rea and Brian Friel
Stephen Rea and Brian Friel

On Saturday, Rea was awarded lifetime achievement recognition at the Irish Film and Television Awards, with The Crying Game director Neil Jordan handing over the prize.

“This is a most prestigious award, if it had happened a little bit later, it might have been a posthumous award,” Rea told the audience at the Royal Convention Centre in Dublin.

Cillian Murphy, named best actor for his Oscar-winning role in Oppenheimer, described Rea as “one of the greatest people I know”.

In his speech, Rea paid tribute to “inspired cultural minister” now President Michael D Higgins and to the charity UNICEF. He also thanked his two sons Danny and Oscar, who are “the most important thing in my life”.

Stephen Rea with President Michael D Higgins and Sabina Coyne
Stephen Rea with President Michael D Higgins and Sabina Coyne

During those round of interviews in the US following the release of The Crying Game, Rea was forced to address the past of his then partner and mother of the two boys, Dolours Price. They were together for 20 years from 1983.

He expressed annoyance at some of the coverage suggesting he somehow was advocating violence when he was attempting to explain the complexity of a situation where many types were drawn into the conflict.

“Yes, my wife was in the IRA,” Rea told the interviewer.

“It was 20-odd years ago, she was a very young woman, and one of the sadnesses for me is that very decent, sensitive people have got caught up in it.

“I don’t think it helps to assume that everyone who is involved is a brute. And certainly, that’s what I was bringing to (my portrayal of) Fergus in The Crying Game, because . . . in a sense, a nice guy can get caught up in the ugliness, the violence.”

More than 30 years on, a fictionalised account of part of the life story of Dolours Price is set to be broadcast widely with the release on Disney + and Hulu in the US of Say Nothing.

Dolours Price at her home in Dublin in 2010. Picture by Mal McCann
Dolours Price at her home in Dublin in 2010. Picture by Mal McCann

It is a ten part drama based on Patrick Radden Keefe’s book charting the abduction, murder and disappearance of west Belfast mother-of-ten Jean McConville. Dolours Price and her sister Marian are two of the central characters.

During his acceptance speech on Saturday, the actor said Jordan’s movie The Crying Game “changed everything” for him.

PACEMAKER PRESS INTL. BELFAST. Actor Stephen Rea who married Delores Price. Delores Price was jailed for her part in the Old Bailey bombing in the 70's.
Stephen Rea in 1983, shortly after his film debut in Angel

“It was a film where people of a similar sex fell for each other. A man could love a man. The beauty of that piece of art was that it was the future for Irish people. This man who was in the IRA realises that it’s not doing enough for him.”