Stephen Rea

Belfast actor still pushing the boundaries

‘Acting is about exploring the life we all live. You have to insist on questions that challenge establishments, challenge orthodoxies.’

Belfast actor Stephen Rea’s career exemplifies his life motto. With politics at the forefront of his work with the Field Day Theatre Company, ‘that’ moment in the hit film The Crying Game and a varied filmography which challenges Hollywood’s expectations, Rea is a man with many missions. 

Rea was born into a Protestant working class family near the Antrim Road, Belfast, in 1949. Enjoying his first run on the boards at the age of four, Rea flirted with acting all the way through his youth.

On the advice of Stewart Parker, he attended the Abbey School of Acting after a spell at Queen’s University, but after struggling to find roles in Dublin, he left Ireland behind and moved to London.

Rea's first break came at The Mermaid Theatre in a production of Sean O Casey’s A Shadow of a Gunman. From this foothold, Rea went on to work with The Royal Court and The National Theatre.

Rea soon tired of the pressure put upon an actor on the English stage and baulked at having to lose his accent and identity.

He returned to NI and formed the Field Day Theatre Company in Derry with Brian Friel. A highly political and controversial company, it grew to include a publishing arm and tackled many of the issues and difficulties facing NI at that time. 

Field Day soon included Seamus Heaney, Seamus Deane, David Hammond and Tom Paulin and exercised major creative and political influence.

Rea's love of cinema started as a child when he had attended Saturday shows at the Capitol and the Lyceum in north Belfast.

His first film role, 1981's Angel, was also director Neil Jordan’s first big screen outing. The film was based on the killing of the Miami Showband in the mid 1970s, and became the first modern classic of Irish cinema.

Rea’s finest on-screen hour came when he reunited with Jordan to star in 1992’s infamous The Crying Game, for which he received a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars.

Rea dealt with the ensuing fame in typical, level headed Belfast style. He did not desert the stage and returned to Belfast in 1998 to direct a production of Stewart Parker’s Northern Star at First Presbyterian Church, Rosemary Street.

Rea’s filmography would make any lesser actor pale. Starring in films as diverse as Breakfast on Pluto, Michael Collins, Fever Pitch and The Butcher Boy and with four films hitting the screens in 2007 alone, not to mention a stint at the Abbey in Dublin, Rea’s reputation one of Belfast’s greatest living actors is well earned.