The actor: Even while working his full-time gig as Chief Miles O’Brien on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Colm Meaney was turning up in such films as The Snapper and Con-Air, and although he’s been focusing predominantly on film work since DS9 left the air in 1999, he’s still popped up in the occasional one-off episode, miniseries, or TV movie. Starting on Nov. 6, however, Meaney will be back on the small screen in a regular capacity, starring in AMC’s Hell On Wheels, a period piece set during the building of America’s transcontinental railroad.
Hell On Wheels (2011)—“Thomas ‘Doc’ Durant”
Colm Meaney: I read the pilot script, and it was just so good. I thought, “I’ve got to do this!” [Laughs.] And it just confirms my belief that, for the past five or more years, the best writing is being done on cable television. From an actor’s perspective, certainly. So it was a no-brainer. I read this and I thought, “Oh yeah, I need to play this guy.” He was magnificent. Is magnificent. I thought the script was fantastic. I usually look at things like that from an audience perspective first, then have a closer look at the specific character they’re talking about me for. This character just struck me as something from the great days when films were dialogue-driven and you had people like Walter Huston and Walter Brennan talking like [Does an unintelligible yet utterly accurate impression of Huston in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre], and I thought, “This is the kind of stuff that you just don’t find.” It’s like gold dust. So that’s basically why I signed up.
The A.V. Club: So you hadn’t been actively looking for a full-time TV gig?
CM: Not really. I mean, I was aware from the scripts I’d been reading that, as I said, the best writing was on cable television, so I figured I was more likely to find something interesting there than in features.
AVC: Given the time period, it’s no surprise that Deadwood comparisons are being made. If we go that route, you’d be the Ian McShane of the series, at least based on what we see in the pilot.
CM: Well, I don’t see Durant as being completely villainous. I mean, he’s certainly not all bad. He’s ruthless in achieving his goals, and he uses a lot of questionable tactics, but I think as it goes on, you’ll start to see a more human side of him. Because all of these characters are conflicted. They’ve got good and bad in them. Which, again, is what’s great about the writing. It’s not just that simple, straightforward good-guy/bad-guy thing. There’s a few despicable characters that pop up from time to time, but they’re dealt with. Severely. [Cackles.]
AVC: He certainly seems to be a guy who knows how to work the system, anyway.
CM: Totally. Absolutely. To achieve his ends, he’s quite happy to do that. And he articulates that in the pilot, I think. He says, “Blood will be spilt, lies will be told, there will be all sorts of villainy, but that is the only way to get this built. And if you want your railroad built, it takes guys like me to do that.” Which is incredibly honest and self-aware of him. Those Gayton boys [show creators Joe and Tony Gayton], they know how to write them speeches. [Laughs.]
The Dead (1987)—“Mr. Bergin”
CM: Oh my God. Well, what I remember most of that, of course, was working with John Huston. I mean, I was there a lot, I didn’t have a lot to do or say, but just to be there with him was… I mean, what a huge thrill for a young actor. You’re aware you’re becoming a part of cinema history by doing that.
AVC: It was decidedly late in his career. Did he still have all his wits about him as a director?
CM: It wasn’t just late in his career. It was very, very late. [Laughs.] We had about a week of table readings before we started shooting, and John would come in, and he was actually on oxygen, and he would say [Adopts a weak, throaty voice], “Good morning, everybody. Shall we start? Let’s start.” Then in the middle, “Shall we take a little break? Let’s take a little break.” And at the end, “Well, thank you very much, everybody. That was wonderful.” And at the beginning of the week, everyone was kind of, “Is he okay? Is he going to be able to do this?” Well, the following Monday, the first scene, first shot, he calls “action,” and about 30 seconds into the tape, this bellowing voice explodes across the set: “No, no, no! That’s much too slow! Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut!” Wow. No problem there. He’s ready. [Laughs.] It was just extraordinary being around him.
I recently worked with Jack Huston, his grandson, who’s the son of Tony Huston, who wrote the screenplay for The Dead. I was having fun working with Jack, and I realized he was actually my fifth Huston to work with. So Jack was like, “Oh, so you already know how to handle a Huston, then.” [Laughs.] ’Cause I worked with Anjelica, Tony, and John on The Dead, then I worked with Danny—I didn’t work with Danny until The Conspirator—and then I worked with Jack in this film we did in Belgium last year [The Hot Potato]. So, yeah, five Hustons. Not bad. [Laughs.]
The Commitments (1991)—“Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr.”
The Snapper (1993)—“Dessie Curley”
The Van (1996)—“Larry”
AVC: How did you first find your way into the Roddy Doyle camp?
CM: Alan Parker. I did a film here with Alan called Come See The Paradise, with Dennis Quaid. And while we were doing that, Alan told me that he’d just gotten the rights to a book that hadn’t been published yet, but it was set in Dublin, and he’d love me to do it. You hear a lot of that in this business. “We’re gonna do this next year…” Yeah, yeah, sure. And if 5 percent of them come through, you’re lucky. [Laughs.] But Alan told me, and within a year, he was set up and ready to go with The Commitments. So he brought me back to that, and it was interesting, because he didn’t bring in anybody else from outside—he wanted it to be a very Irish production—and I’d been almost 10 years in the States by then. I’d moved to New York in ’82, and I hadn’t been back in Europe at all. So in a way, it set me up so that I could work both places again. Because when you go away like that, it’s like you’re forgotten. You’re over there, and that’s it. So it was a hugely, very important thing for me to do, because having played the character in The Commitments, when Stephen Frears came in to do The Snapper, he wanted me to do it, and then there was The Van with him as well. And to play the same character—I know he had three different names, but it was the same character—in three different movies, it’s a very rare opportunity for an actor. And it was great. Such a joy.
AVC: My favorite line of yours in The Commitments is when you ask, “Is this the band, then? Betcha U2 are shittin’ themselves.”
CM: Another one I love is when he says God sent [Joey “The Lips” Fagan]. “On a fuckin’ Suzuki?” That’s a great line.
The Unit (2006)—“Charge D’Affaires”
CM: Oh yeah! Well, I just wanted to work with David Mamet, you know? I’d never worked with him, and I was in town, I was here, and it was between doing something or other in Europe or spending a bit of time doing this, so when they asked, “Do you want to do an episode of The Unit?” I said, “The Mamet show? Sure!” Also, I’m a big fan of Dennis [Haysbert], who’s a lovely, lovely actor.
Con-Air (1997)—“Duncan Malloy”
CM: It was a great experience. It was long. We were there for months and months shooting that. But the problem for me with big, huge-budget action films is that the pace is so slow. As an actor, I like to get a bit of momentum going with a character and kind of work a bit quicker. I mean, not crazy-fast, but, you know, five or six pages a day is a nice pace. But a lot of the time on that just took so long to set up, with the stunts or whatever. But having said that, it was a good experience. I’ve heard some real horror stories from other guys about action shots going on forever. But we were fortunate, in a sense, because there’s the two storylines going on, and a lot of the time was spent doing the other one, and John Cusack and I were kind of left to rework scenes and do stuff like that. Simon West was very open to that, and Jerry Bruckheimer was there most of the time. We had a really good time on it. And it’s a good script for an action-adventure film. It’s nice to have some actual marrow. I think it’s one of the better action films of the last 20 years. So, yeah, it was a good time.
Parked (2010)—“Fred Daley”
CM: It’s a little independent film that was shot in Ireland a year ago last January. A first-time director [Darragh Byrne] came to me with the script, I read it, I liked it, and it worked out time-wise. Again, a different kind of character for me to play, in that this guy’s quite a quiet, subdued, introverted man, and he’s down on luck. He’s living in his car. He’s quite a gentile guy, not rough around the edges. And it’s a nice story about how he kind of slowly, quietly starts to get himself together again and get his life back in shape. It’s a very gentle little piece, but it’s had a good response. It was a big hit at the Galway Film Fleadh, and it’s done well at other festivals. I think it’s being released in Europe before the end of the year.
Get Him To The Greek (2010)—“Jonathan Snow”
AVC: A small part, but a fun one.
CM: Yeah, well, it actually wasn’t as small as that, but the way it was cut, they cut most of the Las Vegas storyline. It was a bit too risqué for the studio, I think. [Laughs.] I mean, you can see it. It’s on the DVD, I think. But it was.
AVC: How was Russell Brand to work with?
CM: He’s great. I love Russell. He’s a great guy. Great character, lovely human being. I had a lot of fun with him. He’s an imminently sensible fellow. [Laughs.] He really is! I mean, I think he’s funny when he plays his quirky comedy—his stand-up is really one of his strong suits—but when you sit down and have a conversation with Russell about something substantial, he’s incredibly sensible.
Under Siege (1992)—“Doumer”
CM: A good time down in Mobile, Alabama, with Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey. We had a lot of fun. Great time. And, you know, we didn’t work with Steven [Seagal] much. It was another one of those cases where we had our own kind of storyline going, so we were just having fun with it.
AVC: Dare I ask what Seagal was like to work with?
CM: Well, like I say, I had very little to do with him. Except when he shoots me. He shot me, the bastard! [Laughs.]
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1993) / Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)—“Miles O’Brien”
CM: [Takes a deep breath.] Yep. Good ol’ Miles. [Laughs.] I mean, [Deep Space Nine] was a big show, well-written for the most part. Even though we did 26 episodes a year, which is a lot of shows to do and keep the writing standard high, but they did it. I was very fortunate there. We had a great executive producer, Rick Berman, who… I mean, during that show, every season, I’d do at least one, maybe two features, and they would release me to do that. Which was very unusual in TV in those days.
AVC: Would you go so far as to call it a life-changing role for you?
CM: No. Not at all, no. It was like I was two different people. The people who watched Star Trek knew me as Miles O’Brien, and the people who knew me from features… It was like I was two different actors. [Laughs.] I had two different careers. I mean, it was fun, it was a pleasure to do, but it certainly wasn’t life-changing.
AVC: You’re not much of a science-fiction fan, correct?
CM: No, I wasn’t. And I’m still not, really. I learned a lot more about sci-fi by doing the show, and I was very impressed with how the writers used it being set in the future to address contemporary issues, everything from homelessness to genetic engineering. All these issues were brought up in that show. I was very impressed with that.
Kenny Rogers As The Gambler, Part III: The Legend Continues (1987)—“Tinkerer”
Moonlighting (1986)—“Katharina Suitor”
CM: Kenny Rogers? Oh, Jaysus. [Laughs.] I almost forgot I was in that. The only thing I remember about that is being very surprised by Kenny’s speaking voice. [Starts talking in a thin, high-pitched voice] You know, Kenny’s got a high-pitched speaking voice. Very quiet.
AVC: Were you just doing pretty much anything that crossed your path at that point?
CM: Yeah, that was not long after I first came out to Los Angeles. It was ’84 or ’85. So you’re just building up your reputation and paying your dues. I remember I did Moonlighting, Remington Steele, a bunch of shows like that.
AVC: Does anything in particular stand out for you from that era, or was it just work for work’s sake for the most part?
CM: I can’t quite remember exactly what, but the Moonlighting episode I did, there was something unique about it.
AVC: That was their Taming Of The Shrew episode, wasn’t it?
CM: That’s right! Yeah, yeah, yeah. God, you know more than I do about what I’ve done. [Laughs.] But, yeah, I was going to say that I remember it being Shakespearean. Now, how did we do that on Moonlighting, anyway? It wouldn’t have been time-travel. What was it? God, I can’t remember. But, anyway, it was fun to do.
[The episode was bookended with a story about a boy who wants to watch Moonlighting, but is told he needs to do his homework, which is to read The Taming Of The Shrew. Cue the boy’s imagination, which puts the characters of Moonlighting into the play. —ed.]
The Conspirator (2010)—“David Hunter”
CM: Another historical piece. It kind of goes in cycles. I hadn’t done much historical stuff. I’d wanted to do it, because I love history and I read a lot. Also, I think it’s my strong suit as an actor. I’ve got a theater background, so I’ve done a bunch of it. But again, I read the script—and Robert Redford directing? A no-brainer. Great ensemble, too. But he was such a gentleman, Redford. I mean, for a man that’s had the life he’s had, you’d expect somewhere for there to be a bit of arrogance, but nope. Nothing. As nice as they come. I’ve never worked with [Clint] Eastwood, but I hear that on his sets, it’s always very calm, which is exactly how it is with Redford. No panic, no push. Very gentle and quiet. He’ll just very quietly talk about what he wants to do. An absolute gem. And, you know, he’s interested in everything and everybody. Just a great, great guy. Such a privilege.
AVC: Generally speaking, do you enjoy the costuming of period pieces?
CM: It has its ups and downs. With that one, we were in Savannah, it was September or October, so it was still pretty hot. So that was a bit of a pain in the ass, what with that big coat. But, yeah, sets and costumes to do with period pieces, especially when they’re as good as that, when they’re well-observed… I mean, you walk around the little tents we had there, and all your references are right there. It transports you, in a way. Which is great. And it makes you more aware of how important the design team is to a film.
How Harry Became A Tree (2001)—“Harry”
CM: Wonderful film. Brilliant. I did that with a great Serbian director called Goran Paskaljevic, but it suffered because of 9/11. We’d taken it to the Venice Film Festival, and it didn’t so much win awards as it did earn a lot of praise. They said it was ’cause of politics that it didn’t win, but whatever. Anyway, we were taking it to Toronto next, but on our way to Toronto, we were going through Paris, and, unfortunately, that was the morning of 9/11. The Toronto Film Festival, it went on, but just barely, because either nobody could get there, or the people who were already there were trying to get home. So How Harry Became A Tree, the producers had offers from distributors in Venice, but they figured, “Well, let’s see what we get in Toronto.” And then after 9/11, the movie industry didn’t really know what to make, nobody was really buying anything. So How Harry Became A Tree just kind of got lost in that shuffle. Which is a real shame, because it was a brilliant piece of work.
Layer Cake (2004)—“Gene”
CM: Ah, yeah. A hard man. But he didn’t mess with people unless they messed with him. It was a very good shoot to be on. It was shot in London, and Daniel [Craig], it was just before he got Bond. A wonderful actor, great guy to work with. We really had a good time on that. Some of the stuff was great to do, like beating his head into the ice and all that. [Laughs.] Daniel is so good at so many things, but every take on that, where I bounce his head off the ice, I really thought I hurt him. After we cut, every time I’d go, “Jesus, are you all right?” “Yeah, I’m fine.” “Fuck! I thought I’d hurt you!” [Laughs.] He’s just amazing. He’s great, Daniel is. Total gentleman. One of nature’s gentlemen. He really is. We all know that he’s a great Bond, but he’s gonna be up there with Connery.
AVC: Did you ever imagine you’d play a badass?
CM: Well, I’ve always been a character actor, you know, and you always get your share of character actors who are bad guys. So it never surprises me. And if it’s good writing, you can find your way into the part well enough. I always think of that line in Amadeus that the Emperor says: “Just hit the notes!” [Laughs.] You know, you do a bit of research if it’s necessary, but most bad guys aren’t 100-percent bad. There’s some redeeming factor in there somewhere. “For every thief is some poor mother’s child.” So there’s that element you try to bring to it, too. Sometimes there’s a glimmer of justification for what they do. So you do those things internally, yourself, in order to be able to play it. I’ve never really played pure evil, though.
AVC: Would you be interested in giving it a go?
CM: Sure, why not? [Laughs.]