Totally Tony Devlin
The west Belfast thesp is taking over Hollywood
Tony Devlin is a man on a mission. In early 2007, Devlin formed Brassneck Theatre Company. His aim: to shake up what he calls the ‘elitist stereotypes’ in NI theatre.
'Theatre is elitist,' Devlin admits. 'When I did The Wrong Man, people came up to me after the show and said, ‘I’ve never been to the theatre before. That was much better than Eastenders!’ I think many working-class people are put off going to the theatre because they feel intimidated by the fact that the average theatre-goer is from a more affluent area. With Brassneck I’m going to change all that.'
Devlin holds an enviable CV, with theatre credits including classics such as Henry V and Pericles, contemporary heavyweights Observe the Sons of Ulster and The Wrong Man, and musicals like Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Beautiful Game.
Whilst actors on both sides of the Atlantic fought for roles in HBO’s Band of Brothers, Devlin didn't need to. This Belfast man was conscripted to go to work for Spielberg and the silver screen soon beckoned with roles in Hart’s War and Breakfast on Pluto. All this before Devlin has turned 30.
Growing up in working-class west Belfast, Devlin was introduced to theatre in secondary school. Still in his teens, under guidance from Roma Tomelty, he won a role in Titanic Town and, from that moment, he was hooked.
'I was very lucky. As soon as I left drama school I attracted an amazing agent who helped me get a part in Pericles. I performed at Ludlow Castle before audiences of 400 every night. It was a wonderful summer but when the play neared the end of its run, I panicked - I had no work lined up for Monday.
'An actor in his 60s gave me some sage advice: ‘Have faith and the doors will open’. I thought he was being blasé but then a friend helped me get a job in an office straight away. It was a horrible, soul-destroying place with no windows. The boss hated me for bringing the office down with my obvious misery but I kept auditioning. Then one day I got a call about my audition for Band of Brothers. I put the phone down, stood up and left the office. I told the boss, ‘So long, I’m off to work for Spielberg!''
The HBO mini-series covered the epic journey of Easy Company, 506 Regiment, 101st Airborne Division from their days in training camp through to the Normandy Invasion and beyond. Directed by Tom Hanks and produced by Stephen Spielberg, the $120m mini-series was the most expensive television series ever produced. The result was a brilliant and bruising glimpse of heroism in World War II. Few dramas have matched the same scope or quality before or since.
Devlin played medic Ralph Spina. At such an early stage of his career, it was a daunting task.
'There was huge pressure, not only because it was HBO and Spielberg but because it told the stories of people who really existed. When you portray these people you have to honour their lives. I met the actual Ralph Spina at the premiere in Paris. He came up to me and said, ‘You play me, huh? When I was your age I was handsome! Why’d they cast you?’ He was the funniest guy I’ve ever met. This 87-year-old took me to the Moulin Rouge with his wife and drank me under the table.'
On such a long shoot, did the cast of actors - which included Friends star David Schwimmer and James McAvoy of The Last King of Scotland - share a camaraderie like the soldiers of Easy Company?
'Not with me,' Devlin exclaims. 'I think because I came in on episode 6 and they’d been together since the start that they wanted to pick on me like soldiers might pick on a new recruit. One actor in particular really got at me but I didn’t pay attention to him. I’d just think, ‘Wind your neck in, you’re an actor from Croydon. If you saw any hint of actual combat you’d fill both your trouser legs!''
On the strength of his performance in Band of Brothers, Devlin landed a part in Hart’s War. Although the film starred Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell, the stars couldn’t guarantee good box office. After just a week in the cinema, Hart's War snuck off to video release with its tail firmly between its legs.
Colin Farrell pulled no punches in describing what the four month shoot was like during a bitter winter in Prague. Did Devlin find the experience as arduous?
'Not at all. Bruce Willis took me under his wing. He was a barman until he was 28 and I’ve done bar work so maybe that’s why we developed a friendship. We went to Prague’s casinos every night for 4 months and had nothing but laughs. I called a friend in Belfast one morning and said, ‘Mate, you’ll never guess what happened. Last night I fell asleep in a bar and this morning I woke up in Bruce Willis’s hotel room!’ None of my friends believed me so I flew them over. Those months were amazing. I regret nothing!'
Might audiences look forward to a Devlin/Willis Belfast-based buddy movie?
'Actually we email all the time,' says Devlin. 'I’m going to LA in January for pilot season. That’s when the networks air a series of pilots of potential sitcoms and dramas. Bruce is gonna set me up with a few contacts and agents out there.'
HBO, Spielberg, buddies with Bruce Willis…all a million miles way away from recent BBC NI travel program Home from Home, in which Devlin explores far off corners of the world visiting the home towns of NI emigrants. Has he ever been tempted to stick with TV presenting and become NI’s answer to Carol Smilie?
'Carol Smilie? No way, man! I’ve had phone calls offering me crazy money to present everything from travel shows to interior design programs. Can you see me doing that. I don’t want to be on television talking about ornate tables. It’s not me. I’m an actor.
'Acting for me is the most honourable profession because we are the tools people use to explore, or escape from their daily lives. We can make them laugh or we can make them cry. We instil faith in people and we can give them hope. People can see a play which changes their entire outlook on life or helps them through a difficult time. I’m very proud to be an actor.'
It is this belief in the life enriching power of drama which drives Devlin. As artistic director of Brassneck Theatre Company, Devlin is adamant that theatre should be accessible to all. BTC's latest play, Edoardo Erba's Marathon, is another step towards this goal and should be one of the theatrical highlights of this year’s Féile.
'Brassneck is bringing theatre to the people,' he declares. 'I’m not talking about Catholic or Protestant people but working class people; people who worry that theatre is above their heads. That is a false perception I’m out to beat it.'