Richard Dormer's Good Intentions

The actor on playing the lead in Good Vibrations, joining the cast of Game of Thrones and scripting a play for the Abbey

An international television debut, the lead role in a critically acclaimed movie, a new play opening at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin… any one of these events would be noteworthy in an individual artistic career. But, for Richard Dormer, all three are set to happen within the space of a few weeks. ‘It’s very strange, the synchronicity of it all,’ he observes.

Good Vibrations, the story of the eponymous record shop/label founder and all-round Belfast music guru, Terri Hooley, goes on general release on Good Friday, March 29. Early April sees both the start of the third season of HBO behemoth Game of Thrones, together with the premiere of Drum Belly, commissioned from Dormer by the Abbey.

For the 43-year-old Lisburn actor and writer, whose talent was widely recognised in his early days at Ulster Youth Theatre, these landmarks represent something of a sea change. ‘I’ve been doing this for 20 years,’ Dormer says. ‘There comes a point in every actor’s life when they hit 40 and think, “Will I ever get a chance to be the lead in a film?” Luckily, better late than never, I got the chance.’

For those who have been living on the moon for the past few years, Game of Thrones is based on George RR Martin’s best-selling fantasy literary series, A Song of Ice and Fire. The generic title forms the saga’s opening volume.

Set, in part, on the fictional continent of Westeros (represented largely by locations and soundstages in Northern Ireland) the labyrinthine plot revolves around a cadre of powerful families – some good and noble, others less so – all of whom are vying for power and position.

Lauded by critics and the fans alike, it is rife with sex, violence, political intrigue and magic, and has been dubbed The Sopranos in Middle Earth. Season 3, based on the first half of the third book, A Storm of Swords, is now feverishly anticipated. ‘It’s so well done,’ adds Dormer. ‘The writing is brilliant, the producers really know what they’re doing. The casting is also amazing.’

He and fellow countryman, Ciarán Hinds, join a top-notch ensemble cast, one in which other distinguished Northern Ireland actors like Conleth Hill and Michelle Fairley continue to excel in leading roles. While his haunted outlaw character, Beric Dondarrion, was glimpsed briefly, yet crucially, in the opening season, the role has since been recast in Dormer’s favour. His narrative arc represents one of the more fantastical elements in what is an otherwise gritty and character-driven drama.

Dormer says that, in terms of epic scope and audience reaction, there is little to compare with GoT, and describes it simply as the biggest project he has worked on. ‘The two trailers got something like 21 million hits on YouTube. That’s pretty phenomenal. I mean, it’s only been out for three weeks.’

In Dormer’s view, being linked to the HBO hit is hugely significant for him as an actor. ‘Game of Thrones helps in putting me out there. It’s a big thing in America – it’s big everywhere! It’s always good for an actor to be recognised for something that is quality. If it’s as Beric Dondarrion, with one eye and a flaming sword, fine. I’m so glad that I got this part, It’s memorable. That’s all I’m going to say.’

But for all of HBO’s stellar production values and international profile, Dormer sees his role in the locally produced movie, Good Vibrations, as the true career milestone. ‘In my mind that’s the biggest thing I’ve done. I’m the lead. I have to carry a film,’ he acknowledges.

Set in 1970s Belfast, the film resonates with the sound of Hooley’s voice, speaking out for the youth of those troubled times. ‘He was blind to creed, colour and division,’ Dormer explains.

‘Hooley was passionate about the uniting force of music. What he did for those young people was to keep them off the streets and out of paramilitary organisations. He united them and gave them something to live for, even if it was only once a week in a grotty, spit-covered bar. He gave young people a reason for getting up in the morning.’

The film has received favourable buzz from critics, including BBC film doyen, Mark Kermode (see video review below). While other dramatisations of the city and its history have frequently proved less than convincing, in Dormer’s estimation, Good Vibrations possesses a ‘genuine, authentic realism’. To his mind the strong local flavour – of cast, creative team and crew – was a real plus for the finished article.

Dormer and his wife, theatre director Rachel O’Riordan, continue to live in Belfast. He believes that the city aids his creativity, in contrast to the hectic atmosphere of London, where his agent is based. ‘It’s just too intense there. You’re surviving in London. In Belfast, you can just think.'

In 2003, Dormer wrote and performed Hurricane, a one-man show about snooker legend Alex Higgins, another Belfast icon. The production, directed by O’Riordan, transferred to London and was an award-winning critical and commercial success.

His talent as a playwright will be on show again when Drum Belly debuts in Dublin, marking Dormer's first collaboration with the Abbey Theatre. Set against the backdrop of the 1969 moon landing, the play focuses on a group of Irish-American gangsters in Brooklyn, New York.

Dormer admits to being drawn to the subject of Irish-America, and hopes that the public will respond similarly to his exploration of the Irish immigrant experience, warts and all.

Drum Belly is a story, he says, of ‘the nature of exile, of diaspora’ and of ‘a people who were driven, for whatever reason, from the country and went on to do incredible things in every corner of the world. I don’t think any other country in the world did that to such a degree.’

In essence, however, Dormer believes that what drives his writing more than anything is a simple desire to be entertained. ‘When I write, I write what I want to see. I don’t write to please anybody or to make a point.’

So far, it is a philosophy which appears to be working effectively across the full span of his varied and upwardly mobile career.

Season 3 of Game of Thrones begins April 1 on Sky Atlantic. Good Vibrations goes on general release March 29. Drum Belly runs at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin from April 5 to May 11.