Photography By Mike Owen Fashion Editor Alison Jane Reid
There is something about the Irish, and their very special ability to convey what it means to be human with intelligence, and at times a dark, reckless, irresistible humanity. Colin Morgan has this ability, along with some of the greatest. Names like – Harris, Finney, Neeson and Cusack. Morgan also seems drawn to play some of life’s outcasts – the uncomfortable, challenging fascinating roles,that linger long after the performance has ended. To that you can add that he is in possession of a rare authenticity, which explains his extraordinary appeal to the collective imagination, and the Merlin fandom.
For my second interview with the actor with a soft, sexy, lilting, brogue that seems to embody all the yearning and restless aspirations of an entire country, I wanted to get under his skin more. I wanted to find out where he really comes from, and how those early, formative experiences growing up in a divided country, shaped him and motivate the choices he makes as an actor. From playing a ridiculously lovable drug addict and homeless man in Parked – to last year’s role in Pedro Miguel Rozo’s play, Our Private Life, at The Royal Court. Morgan certainly likes to live dangerously, and play the kind of people society often shuns or finds too uncomfortable to care about.
Sitting in the back of a taxi after our playful Gatsby fashion story in which a natural shyness melted away to reveal a heartthrob in waiting in devastatingly effective black tie by Gieves and Hawkes, tailors to Kings and Princes – Colin sparkles with energy and quiet intelligence. It’s the night before filming starts all over again on Series Five of the BBC’s Merlin franchise, and Colin is in a mood to talk about his heroes, about a great Irish tradition of storytelling and how he can’t wait to reprise the role of the wizard. ” Merlin has been a very lonely character; because he hasn’t been able to reveal his true identity. Now, when all is right in the world, the chemistry is right, and all the elements come together, he finally going to be part of the world he has set up. I think his super objective is to live in a land where magic is free – you are going to see a very different Merlin – and, after four years, I am still excited about playing him.”
When it comes to Morgan’s heroes, it comes as no surprise to discover that he is big fan of fellow Irishman and celebrated hell raiser, the late Richard Harris. “Richard Harris is phenomenal. I’ve seen him in The Field, and I have to say that the monologue that he gives is one of the best things I have ever seen. It’s a great film, and Harris is mind-blowingly good. He really had to fight to get the role too. He was turned down, but he just wouldn’t take no. He said he needed this role, and wanted the role, and in the end they gave it to him. It’s a perfect example of someone persisting, because they believed in it, got it and nailed it.”
Among the more recent crop of new contenders for acting glory, he also likes Michael Fassbender. “ I think he is very good. He was born in Germany, but grew up in Killarney, County Kerry. He was great in Steve McQueen’s Shame. I like watching other actors, and being open to everything. I think a bad film is just as good as a great film, because as actor, you can say ‘why didn’t you like it?’ and ‘what would you have done differently’.”
There is no escaping the fact that Morgan is a product of his environment. When I ask him what authors and books he likes to read, he contemplates the question for a long time before he tells me that when he was growing up,” I was hugely into Terry Prachett, because coming from Ireland, there was a real need for escapism.”
Interestingly, despite this very human desire for escapism, growing up in Armagh, he is fiercely proud of the new and vocal brigade of Irish playwrights and screenwriters. “I think when you look at Martin McDonagh who directed In Bruges, and his brother, who did The Guard, you can see a new, inspirational wave of Irish talent. There is such a hub of great storytelling in Ireland, because it is so much a part of our history. I would say that Martin McDonagh is my favourite. He has a very specific kind of humour, which he nails down pretty perfectly. It is an Irish thing, that whenever a situation is pretty dire, we deal with it with humour. The situation may be awful, and here we are saying, ‘oh, it’s grand’. Martin’s plays are phenomenal,” he adds, his soft voice rising with genuine admiration. “I remember I was about ten, when I saw one of his plays in the town hall, in Armagh. It was one of the first plays I had ever seen. It’s called The Lonesome West – and it’s about two brothers living in a cottage. It was brilliant to see how he showed all their little idiosyncrasies, and how they interacted together. It was only a three-hander, and it was just fantastic; it captured Irish life perfectly.”
Despite these exciting green shoots, Morgan still isn’t happy about the lack of opportunity for young people to study acting in Northern Ireland. “Ten years ago, a grant from the Lottery paid for three new theatres to be built in– Armagh, Cookstown and Derry. I guess it was an attempt to revamp the arts industry. But, the reality is that a lot of the people in those areas have never really been to the theatre before,” he says. “They view the theatre as something that is for the upper classes. Perhaps that’s too strong, but basically, they think that theatre is not an experience for them. Which in fact, is not the case; and more and more that stigma is being broken down. I don’t think you find that so much in London.
“I think it says a lot,” he continues, “ that they opened a theatre in Armagh, but there were no theatre courses in any of the schools, and no drama courses.”
Would you like to change that situation, given your own struggle to find a way to study acting in The Provence?
“Yeah, it would be great. I was always part of my local theatre group. The issue is that I think acting is still viewed as a hobby, as opposed to something you can do with your life.”
If anyone can be an advocate for travelling on a bus from Armagh to Belfast to study acting, because there were no opportunities in his hometown, it is Morgan.
After four years as the lead in Merlin, two film roles and some daring, accomplished theatre performances at The Young Vic and The Royal Court, he has achieved the near impossible.
“Yeah, well, I am constantly trying to,” he says very modestly, “ as if he is still not quite sure of his success. Though he adds, that if there is ever “any opportunity to give back,” he would do it like a shot.
So what does he make of London, his new home, and does he go out at every opportunity (when he is not filming) to see his peers in play after play? “I’ve seen a few plays since I’ve been back in town. I thought Michael Sheen’s Hamlet at The Young Vic was fantastic. I thought that was brilliant, and I’ve got such a love for The Young Vic –because that was theatre that gave me my first, great opportunity. The people who work there are really great. There is a really amazing atmosphere; it’s laidback, but it’s hardworking. The space there is always evolving. Every time you go there, it is always different. I think David Lan, the Artistic Director, chooses exciting new work to stage, and he always takes risks. Those are all qualities that I really admire about The Young Vic.”
Does London inspire you as a place to work and live?
“There are certainly more opportunities here. It’s difficult to find those outside of London.”
Colin’s first experience of the city was when he came down from Glasgow, to take the lead role in Vernon God Little at The Young Vic. “ I remember thinking that London was massive, and that everyone had a one-track mind when you get on the tube. It’s not that people are rude, it’s just go, go, go and they just want to get to where ever they are going, and not make eye contact with anyone. I found it a little bit cold; but then you realise that people have places to go, and things to do, and that’s the way it is in big cities.
“Of course I miss home. I think it says a lot that Katie (Katie McGrath) and I bring over Irish tea whenever we can, (lots of laughter), because the tea over here just doesn’t taste the same as Barry’s Red label tea! It’s strong, but it is just a nicer cup of tea! You find yourself away from home, and so you make your own little bit of home, by surrounding yourself with your home comforts.”
Is it hard to be away and travelling so much?
“It is just part of being an actor. You go where the work is. I am very lucky, when I do get time off from working on Merlin, it’s good to get a bit of headspace. I love Paris – it has such an awesome charm. On weekends off, I’ve taken off to the city and done several visits to the Louvre. I’ve seen the classics, that everyone goes to see, but it was a picture that wasn’t famous, that didn’t have a name that I liked the most. I can’t even describe it to you. That’s the great thing about art. You can get something from it. It doesn’t need a reputation, a famous painter or a big crowd standing around it. I think I appreciate art, because I am not very good at it. It’s a bit of zone out for me, and art is different in each place you go. I like the fact that is as varied as life.”
How does he deal with the seven months of filming Merlin?
“By keeping fit, staying healthy, and trying to maintain my energy levels, which is the big one, with such long filming schedules. It’s also important to speak to friends, as much as you can. You realise that you can’t just put your life on hold for seven months. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have any friends left! This work is all consuming, but you can’t let it consume you.
“Acting is probably not a real job – but it is what I want to do.”
Copyright – Alison Jane Reid October 2012
Fashion Photography Mike Owen – www.mikeowenphotography.com Copyright Mike Owen/Alison Jane Reid/www.eyevine.com