Best known to sci-fi fans as Chief Miles O’Brien in Star Treks The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, Irish actor Colm Meaney is a prolific star of stage and screens both big and small. With more than thirty features under his belt, Meaney’s ability to blend into any role has created a wide and varied career.
As a supplement to our set report from his latest film, Three and Out, RT sat down with Colm Meaney to learn more about that film and get his thoughts on the state of network television in the US.
Is that a real beard you’re wearing?
Colm Meaney: No! The beard is driving me nuts. I don’t know if you know the plot of the movie, but in the first couple of scenes my character is pretty down on his luck, so he’s got this beard, and then he meets Mackenzie, they hatch their plan and he shaves. I don’t know how you can give a whole performance in these things – it drives me nuts. If I had to do it I’d have to grow a beard.
How do you feel about prosthetics of any kind?
CM: I’ve never really had to do it; even though I spent a lot of time on Star Trek I was lucky and only had to do prosthetics for one episode where we were surgically altered. I really do not like having to go through all that and I find it very bizarre. I think beards and wigs are very restrictive as well; they kind-of deaden you because you use your face to perform, and it restricts you.
How have you been finding the shoot so far?
CM: It’s good, we’ve been up in the Lake District and this is our first proper weekend in London. It’s been tough, it’s a tough schedule, and it’s about money I guess, if you shoot a movie in 28 days producers are going to say to you, “Next time, why can’t you do it in 25?” You pull off a miracle and they want you to do it again. Sometimes we’ve had 39 set-ups a day and that’s a lot.
So in that respect it’s been tough but it’s a great script and a great cast. Mackenzie Crook and Imelda Staunton and Gemma Arterton. It’s mostly Mackenzie and I and it seems we’re making this movie on our own, getting visits from other cast members!
After seven years on network television surely you’re a bit used to fast turnaround times…
CM: Yeah, we shoot up to eleven pages quite regularly in episodic television but you have a crew who are working together a lot and you don’t do as many takes. You’re almost pre-rigged for lighting and stuff like that so you can actually move much quicker. We’re doing a lot of set-ups here, but we’re not necessarily doing a lot of pages.
How did you been enjoy shooting in the Lake District?
CM: It was lovely, I’ve never been up there before that I could remember so it kind-of surprised me! It’s very beautiful up there; I saw some of the dailies and it was beautiful. I’ve never really been to particularly exotic locations in my career but I’ve been to some bizarre places in my time. I don’t get the three-month shoot in the Caribbean movies like Mackenzie does… The fucker!
What was it about the character that really grabbed you?
CM: The first thing was the story. Normally when I’m sent a script I’ll read it through to see how it hangs as a story and then I’ll go back and read it through again and look at the character. And this is just a wonderful story, and it’s one you can tell in three or four sentences. It must have been a great movie to pitch because you can actually get the synopsis over very easily. And it’s a total page-turner. It’s laugh-out-loud, you know, I loved it.
The writing is very good and all the characters are really beautifully complex. There are no caricatures; they’re all wonderfully three-dimensional. We really realised this at the table-read before we started shooting, but it’s also really emotional. Very funny stuff but it’s very emotional as well. The balance is there in the script and if it’s not there in the script you have to rewrite it before you shoot and that’s never a good thing. It literally makes you laugh and makes you cry and that’s pretty rare.
They’re making the new Star Trek movie right now – are you a bit disappointed you didn’t get a chance to do a DS9 movie?
CM: No, absolutely not! When we were doing the show and people asked would I like to do a movie my position was always, if I do a feature I’d rather not do it a space suit! I spent seven years in a space suit and that was fine. I did the TV show, but it’s funny, a lot of people who watch Star Trek know I do that, but they don’t know I do movies too, and similarly people who go to the movies don’t know I did Star Trek. It’s like I’m these two different actors in two different careers, and that’s great – I love that. I think if you start stepping into the feature world in Star Trek you become known to a wider audience as that and it becomes limiting.
We had a great time doing the show; don’t get me wrong, we had a great crew and a great cast. And the writing on that show was very good. We did twenty-six episodes a year for seven years and there were maybe three or four duds in a year which wasn’t bad. We got on very well. So it was a lot of fun and we all enjoyed it, but after seven years it was a perfect time to quit, walk away and do other things.
Were you ever a fan of Star Trek?
CM: No, and you know, science fiction would not have been my favourite genre; I never really developed an interest in it. But doing the series was interesting because I realised that science fiction can be used to really comment on today in a very direct way. We were doing shows about genetic engineering, you know, and there was even a great two-part episode about homelessness, I remember, which was set in about 2040. It was really a social commentary where in the not-too-distant future we could develop a permanent under-class who are segregated from society. In contemporary television you couldn’t do that, so I realised the value of science fiction as a genre by doing the show.
What else is coming up for you?
CM: I just did an eight-part miniseries called ZOS which is set in Bosnia during the war. It stands for Zone of Seperation and it’s about a UN peacekeeping mission; mostly Canadian soldiers who go in to try and keep the two sides apart. It’s more about the characters and the lives that exist in these towns and it was very enjoyable. I actually played a Muslim in that, which was a first! Showtime Canada were the producers, but US Showtime were involved as well so they’re looking at it for that.
I was busy doing a play at the Old Vic with Kevin Spacey called A Moon for the Misbegotten. We moved that to Broadway in March of this year.
Just before I came on to do this I did a pilot for ABC for Life on Mars, the BBC series. We did the pilot for a US version with David Kelley‘s company. We have to wait and see if they want to go to series with it.
Did you see the original?
CM: I didn’t see the original show and actually while I was at the airport yesterday I bought it on DVD. I do want to see it but I didn’t want to watch it before we did it. I hear it was a great hit but from what I’ve heard over there from people who had seen it and had read the David Kelley script, they said it was pretty close. Obviously he’s transposed it to Los Angeles so it’s Los Angeles 1972.
So it’s the ideas and attitudes of LA 1972?
CM: Absolutely. Actually, interestingly enough, it was another Irish actor I was with, so we had two Irish actors playing American cops. Jason O’Mara played the young guy and I played Gene Hunt, the captain of the precinct in 1972. I’m his boss. It was great writing and it’s really funny to walk onto a set that’s supposed to be 1972 because I remember 1972! And it really feels like you’re going back to the thirties or something, with the technology they had and everything. You don’t think about it, because I guess it happens so gradually, but there’s a line where he says something about DNA and I think he’s talking about washing up liquid.
Are you ready to get stuck into episodic television again?
CM: I’ll tell you, we finished DS9 in ’99 and I didn’t want to do another series, but I’ve got two kids; an almost three year-old and a 23 year-old. The reason I did Deep Space Nine was because the older one was starting to go to school and I was spending a lot of time away on location. When you’re doing features you’re away from home a lot. So that was one of the contributing reasons for doing Deep Space Nine and now I’ve got a young daughter who’ll be three in January, she’s getting ready to start school and the way we live we have a place in LA and a place in Spain and we spend a bit of time in Dublin. We hop all over the place and the way it’s been working out we spend half the year in Europe and half the year in America. We’re going to have to curtail that a bit when she starts going to school.
CM: And this was such a good script and seemed like such a good idea that I thought I’d give it a go. While I was doing Deep Space Nine I managed to do two or three features a year as well, so it’s not going to completely stop me from that.
That’s something most TV actors can’t do…
CM: Well I was very lucky to have a great exec producer in Rick Berman. In fact one of my worries when they offered me Deep Space Nine was that I’d be going to a fulltime role after having just recurred in The Next Generation. I could just fuck off and do what I wanted, but I was a series regular on DS9. Rick sat me down one day and said, “I promise you, I’ll always let you out to do a feature you really want to do.” And over the course of the seven years he did. There were a couple of things he said no to, but they were things I wasn’t particularly desperate to do anyway. The important ones I did get to do. They’d write me out of two or three episodes, or have me shoot the last day of one episode and the first day of the next episode. I could do a couple of days in LA and get back to wherever I was shooting movies.
I don’t know if it’ll be the same on Life on Mars, but if it does go I’ve also got four months hiatus every year, so if you can squeeze a movie in there, then great. Also, I feel I’m at a point where I want to do other stuff, I like to mix it up, but I’m just as happy doing good TV. Importantly it’s changed a lot in the last twenty years, where features were the place you wanted to be. The better writing now is very often found on television. Cable, obviously, has had a big influence on that with shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under and stuff like that, but it’s affected the networks now. The networks are looking for the same kind of shows now and the change in the last ten years in extraordinary. There’s no reason not to be in television now. You get to live at home and you’re not on the road all the time, they pay you decent money, and the writing’s good. You’re not compromising for it, you know.