It’s a few weeks after An Cailín Ciúin was named as Ireland’s entry for next year’s Oscars and a few days before it’s announced as one of 30 movies recommended for a nomination for the European Film Awards when I’m chatting to Andrew Bennett. Four months after the film’s release, it has fielded a clutch of festival prizes and an array of five-star reviews, and the “first and foremost stage actor” is getting his head around being recognised.
Any time I’ve been stopped in the street, it’s always been by nice people saying nice things. A few people will say, ‘Oh, I didn’t recognise you’, which I quite liked,” he says via video call after a rehearsal for his upcoming play.
“I’m good friends with Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, who played Nidge in Love/Hate, and he dealt with it very well. He couldn’t go out the door, and he had people jumping on him.
“I don’t think I’m associated that much [with An Cailín Ciúin], although recently I had a funny one. I went to see a buddy in Blackbird, the Harrower play, in The Gaiety during the summer, and a woman behind me stopped me after the show. ‘Excuse me,’ she said. ‘Were you in An Cailín Ciúin?’ I said yes. She said, ‘Oh, I recognised your hair’,” he says, laughing.
“She recognised my hair! But, look, sure, so far, so excellent. And hopefully, some work will come out of it. I’d love to be able to pay off my mortgage here,” he gestures to his Dublin flat. “You’re not going to do that with theatre wages.”
Self-deprecation cannot distract from Bennett’s sublime performance as Seán Cinnsealach in the movie adaptation of Claire Keegan’s novella, Foster. Director Colm Bairéad tells me that “his humility extends to Andrew’s craft too. He is far more likely to talk down, even diminish the process so that he can sidestep any attention”.
Indeed, when he auditioned or “self-taped” for the film during the pandemic, Bennett didn’t imagine he would be considered for the lead. “I sent the tape in, back when there was grass growing on Grafton Street. And I got a call-back to come to an industrial estate in Islandbridge. Inside, Cleona [Ní Chrualaoí, producer] and Colm [Bairéad, director] were speaking Irish,” recalls Bennett, who is not a native speaker of the language. “I got the second call-back, and I thought maybe I’d have a chance of getting one of the lads playing cards. Then they cast me as An Cinnsealach. And… I couldn’t believe it.”
With Carrie Crowley as Eibhlín and newcomer Catherine Clinch as Cáit, their depiction of the quiet generosity and warmth of a 1980s household amid the backdrop of tragedy is a study in subtlety. Sean’s growing fondness for young Cáit unfolds gently in glances and gestures. It is an Ireland of fluorescent kitchen lights and unspoken emotions.
The movie was scheduled to be filmed in June 2020, but had been halted due to Covid-19, Ní Chrualaoí of production company Inscéal says. When cast and crew were mustered in September, rigorous protocols were in place, especially as it was before vaccines were available. The entire production wore FFP2 masks, including during rehearsals.
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Bennett says that the cast and crew “all felt very lucky to have a job” and recalls heading off to the Meath set at 6am, where everyone was masked and socially distanced. “It enormously cut down on the chit-chat between takes. That just added to the concentration. When they called us back to the camera, I wasn’t thinking about what was said about the pub last night, because there was no pub. I didn’t go for a drink with Colm and Cleona until Berlin [Film Festival], long after the film. So it had this sort of formal atmosphere to it.”
It also meant that, in effect, some actors never broke character. “Everybody was masked except for when we were actually filming. And Cáit, Catherine Clinch, would be taken off to her room by her mother, her chaperone, as soon as she was finished. I won’t say I never spoke to Catherine except as Cáit, but it was essentially An Cinnsealach talking to Cáit instead of Andrew talking to Catherine.”
The reflections on the film have made fascinating reading and the quietness in the title has become a particular focus for interpretation. Did quietness mean silence? Did silence mean oppression? Why was so little said?
Bennett nods. “Someone said that I was such a believable farmer or whatever,” he recalls. “But I grew up around these amazingly gentle, quiet people — and I know there are still gentle, quiet people out there — but there was a quality to their gentleness.
“There was a man who lived next door to us, a married man, with kids. And he had the gentlest acceptance of everything. If you’re a farmer, you need to be accepting. If it starts raining when you’re making hay, you can’t start stamping around and screaming your head off and shaking your fist at the clouds, you have to just accept it. And my neighbour has that in spades. I’m very grateful to have grown up knowing people like that.”
Like Bennett, I recall a rural Ireland where affection was shown rather than told, through unprompted acts of kindness in tight, and sometimes gossipy communities, that yielded bonds beyond family.
“Nowadays, and I’ll get into trouble for saying this, but especially in the acting business, people you hardly know would go, ‘I love you’,” Bennett says.
“You’re going, ‘Hah?’,” he says, scrunching up his face. “Whereas, the word ‘love’, where I come from, and the generation I come from, you loved tea, your mother, and — if you were drunk — Ireland. Love was a word that you didn’t bandy around. It’s bandied around a lot nowadays, which sounds old-fashioned, but it’s true.”
Bennett grew up in an “ordinary dairy-farming family” in Co Limerick, one of seven. “One sister, for her sins, and then six brothers. I was low down in the family.” His school years were at Crescent College in the city. “I think, the first co-educational, comprehensive Jesuit school in the world. It was boys and girls, lay teachers and priests. And it was nice to have a few of the old priests, and the Jesuits were nice — certainly the ones I had. There was a lot of [adopting a stentorian tone] ‘The shirt looks better in than out, Mr Bennett’. There was a sort of charm to it.”
And it was there, through the enthusiasm of a drama teacher called Marie Cummins, that he discovered theatre. “I got involved and did plays and just… loved it.
“Then I studied at the university in Limerick and did amateur plays with the Quarry Players and the Granary Players. When that finished, it was like, ‘How do you become an actor?’”
Then came a divine, or perhaps bovine, intervention. “We were making hay one summer, and the paper was on the table, and it said, ‘Actors’ auditions’ and it was for this three-week course in Trinity. I think that was really just to make money from Americans, and they had a few Irish people for colour, you know.
“I won’t run it down because it forced me to go to Dublin. Once I’d made that move, you’re there. And after that, I came up the ranks. I did bad-quality Shakespeare in schools, and then better-quality stuff in schools. Then I was an extra in the Abbey, and then an understudy, and then I went on as an understudy. And they said, ‘Ah, he’s OK’. And they started giving me jobs, and it just goes from there.”
This retelling of his career is rather self-deprecating. He’s a great antidote to the perpetually “delighted” and “honoured” humblebraggers of social media. (Which he has elected not to join.) He is a natural raconteur, and thoughtful with it. His work includes The Marriage Of Figaro, Lolita and The House at the Abbey, Le Roi Lear at the Theatre National Populaire and films, Garage, The Stag and Black 47. He also starred in the RTÉ sketch show, Your Bad Self.
Our interview today is for his upcoming work on Eugene O’Brien’s new play, Heaven, being produced by Fishamble. Following 20-odd years on from O’Brien’s groundbreaking Eden, the new play is similarly an inspection of a relationship — that of Mairead (Janet Moran) and Bennett’s Mal.
The drama unfolds throughout a weekend, as they attend a wedding. Obviously, there will be comparisons between Heaven and Eden. “You can see an older man has written it,” Bennett acknowledges. “It’s much more grown up. I mean, Eden was fabulous, and it was a wonderful, wonderful piece, but the problems in their life were more young people’s problems.
“I think it’s wrong to say that Mairead and Mal are a marriage in trouble, because we’re great friends and they really love each other. They keep describing each other as ‘my best pal’ and all this. But they both have things happening internally in them that are going to come out this weekend, which is her sister’s wedding.”
The play is again set in the Midlands; O’Brien has a particular gift for capturing the nuances of the accent, as he did so memorably in series Pure Mule.
Over the years, Bennett has worked on several O’Brien projects. It’s not a coincidence. Their relationship stretches back over 30 years. Indeed, they were living in the same flat when O’Brien wrote Eden. “We met in about 1988/89. We were both ex-Jesuit boys.
“Eugene ran away from school. Twice. His parents finally believed him that he didn’t like Clongowes. And we had this Jesuit connection and we were both actors. At the time the Pope had just — don’t ask me what now exactly — beatified 19 martyrs and people wanted radio plays about them so that’s how I met Eugene and we just hit it off. Then we ended up living in this fabulous flat for about three years.”
The flat was at 82 Northumberland Road, the grand Georgian avenue in Ballsbridge. They christened it “Club 82”. “There was Karl Sheils, [now deceased], and Charlie Bonner and Eugene would disappear into his room, and he’d be doing all this stuff, and he’d come out and you’d say, ‘How’s it going?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh it’s great. It’s a work of art!’
“And then he’d come out a few days later and say, ‘It’s rubbish! I’m never doing this again’. One night he was confident enough to do a little private reading in our living room. A group was brought in to listen and himself and Karen Ardiff read it, and we all felt we were in at the beginning of some deeply interesting, underground-movement kind of thing.”
Club 82 operated between the late 1990s and early 2000s, and earned its stripes.
“It was magical, and it was party central. We were young, free and single with no sense. This one night — this is a true story — Eugene and myself were staying in and there was nothing going on. And there was a bing-bong on the door. So I went out and there were two young men I’d never seen before with a big bag of cans of drink in their hands. And they went to walk by me. So I said, ‘Sorry?’” he gestures, looking astonished. “We’re here for the party. I said to Eugene, ‘Eugene, do you know these fellas?’ And he went, ‘No. There’s no party here’.”
Still, the lads were easily forgiven. Such was the frequency of parties, Bennett joked they considered mounting a cigarette machine in the living room “because yours would always be stolen by everybody else. We were terrible, terrible drinkers. I remember one evening heading in with Eugene and Eden was on, and I can’t remember what role, but I had a leading role in the Abbey. And we walked in — dying — and we were just looking at each other going, ‘We’re the next generation!’,” he says with a look of genuine horror.
How different it is for younger colleagues in Dublin now, he acknowledges. “When I was in my 20s, I lived in bedsits in Rathmines, and I think my rent was something like £15 a week, and the dole was about £45. You could absolutely live. You could even get a pint once a week.
“I’m lucky I succeeded in buying this place. About six years ago, my parents died and left me about half the price of it. I’m so lucky here. These are small flats, they’re about 30 square metres, but downstairs they’re charging €1,600 a month. Where do you get €400 a week, if you’re an actor?”
As the good omens for the film continue apace, he admits it would be a “lovely birthday present” in his 57th year to get onto the Oscars longlist. But if it doesn’t, he is philosophical.
“I was thinking this to myself the other day, if I could choose a film, of all the films ever made, to be in, it would be An Cailín Ciúin. It’s in Irish and to be able to perform what is our language and uniquely our language, is just a thrill.”
Heaven by Eugene O’Brien comes to Draíocht, Blanchardstown from October 6-8 and the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire from October 12-16 as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. See fishamble.com/heaven