As Liam Cunningham walked into the Lord Mayor’s Room in the Shelbourne Hotel, I half expected one of the meticulously clad staff to point him to the workman’s entrance. This was a son of working class Dublin, dandering into the rarified atmosphere of one of the city’s great hotels, casually dressed in contrast to the grey suits and power dressing around us.
He probably recognised the irony.
The first thing that strikes you about Cunningham is his looks – rugged, yet with grey eyes that have tantalised countless women glued to their television sets as they watched Falling for a Dancer or Shooting the Past on television, or skipped past Sean Connery and Richard Gere to admire Cunningham as Agravaine in First Knight.
The next thing that strikes you is his broad Dublin accent, cultivated in the city’s North Wall area.
“It is an extremely working-class area, much like any other working-class area in a big city,” he says of his home. (He still lives not far away).
“It has its rough edges and it has its wonderful edges but... (he pauses, choosing his words carefully) you learn a lot of street life.”
His smile gave the impression that he was remembering one of those escapades that youngsters get up to, and you could imagine the young chiseller getting into scrapes and a bit of bother, but he says that really he was quite a well behaved youngster.
“I was boxing clever early on, I suppose,” he smiles. “You make friends with the powerful people as quickly as you can so you don’t get the head boxed off you.”
Liam’s upbringing was “typically working class”. His father was nearly always working, a docker in his native city.
“He was the Marlon Brando character in On the Waterfront,” says Liam. This business about the buttons, where they threw buttons out, it was exactly like that. My father got his job from his father who broke his back in a fall in the hull of a ship, and my dad’s been there since he was 14. I think he got his first pair of shoes when he was about 12. It was that kind of area.
“He used to say ‘first up, best dressed!’ because when he was young there used to be a pile of clothes and whoever got up first got the best clothes.”
Liam himself has three sisters and a brother – a “small family”.
There was never an inkling that the lean young man would end up in the career he did. A lot of actors talk of their loneliness as children and how they found solace in the movies. Not so Liam Cunningham. His childhood was happy and no great teacher inspired him to want to do Shakespeare. He didn’t even read books.
On leaving school the teenage Cunningham joined the Electricity Supply Board, working as an electrician, and eventually spending 11 years in the job. For a man who had never been spontaneous, his decision when he was 23 to leave home, marry his girlfriend Colette, and move to Africa was totally out of character. Why did he do it?
“Because I had never been anywhere in my life,” he explains. “The longest holiday I had was a week in Scotland on a motorbike. I did the tour of Scotland and it was one of the most wonderful experiences I have ever had.
“I had never been on a plane in my life and this job came up in Zimbabwe. It was four years after independence and all the whites were leaving so they were looking for people to train the indigenous electricians.
“I had been going out with Colette for a couple of years – not living together – and I thought it would be a fantastic start to a relationship to go off to somewhere where I had a house, a car, no financial worries and it would be a great adventure for us.”
The couple got married and spent three and a half years in Africa.
Liam says he did a lot of growing up in Zimbabwe. “I had the best times of my life there and the worst times too.”
Liam looked after the power supply for Hurungwe Safari Park – an area the size of Belgium, home to 16,000 elephants, leopards, lions and cheetahs – before returning to Dublin, but the Liffey didn’t offer the same opportunities to white water canoe as the Zambezi did, and it was difficult for him to settle back into the routine of being a Dublin electrician.
Out of the blue came the decision to become an actor.
“A month after I came back, I was doing exactly the same job I had been doing for 11 years and I just said ‘I can’t do this any more’.
“The only thing I was interested in was motor sport and movies and good drama. I couldn’t afford to be buying racing cars or bikes, so I thought I’d have a go at the acting.”
“Then something peculiar happened – I fell in love with it very quickly, it was really bizarre.”
He went to the Oscar – an acting school named after the writer, not the statue – paying more money than he could afford. Because he had only been to see three plays in his life, his audition piece was Kurtz’s speech at the end of Apocalypse Now.
He got a place and about four or five weeks into it he got this “voracious appetite” for acting and what was supposed to be a Saturday and Sunday course, ended up with Liam working every night of the week, trying out different things with different people.
He made his professional debut in Dermot Bolger’s Lament for Arthur Cleary, which played in Dublin before going on tour to the US.
Quite a beginning to a career.
A couple of awards under his belt, Liam then went to Paul Mercier’s Passion Machine, one of the most vigorous theatre companies around. He considers Mercier a walking God, a national treasure. Passion Machine presented Cunningham’s next two plays – Studs and Wasters.
The speed of what was happening seems to startle Cunningham.
The next thing you know he is in London appearing in Jeananne Crowley’s political dialogue about Northern Ireland Goodnight Siobhan with Orla Charlton. The plaudits are flying.
Liam did two plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company and then the TV work started to arrive. He was nominated for the best actor award by the Royal Television Society for his role as Grady in Cracker, Best Boys.
He made his silver screen debut in a small role in Into The West– a “cough and a spit” as he describes it, before going onto War of the Buttons, A Little Princess, First Knight and Jude.
In 1998 he won a huge army of fans with the BBC/RTE co-production Falling for a Dancer as 1930s “new man” Mossie.
He has most recently been seen in A Love Divided, the story of the Fethard-On-Sea boycott.
He has chosen his roles carefully.
“I’m not trying to be Kafka-esque in my acting or avant garde, whatever that might mean, but I would like to consider myself a populist,” he says.
“You can do popular work and it can still be good. It doesn’t have to be the lowest common denominator, it’s not insulting, it raises a few questions. The way I read scripts, I ask myself is there anything going on apart from the story, is there anything you can take away from it, because that is what I like watching. I’ve always considered myself a punter but I’m in a privileged position in that people ask me to do things they consider to be good and that they have worked hard at.”
He was approached a few times to do soaps but turned it down because the work was too formulaic and he would soon get bored.
He is soon to be seen in a film loosely based on the life of Veronica Guerin, hopefully opening next February, and after that he would like to do some more theatre.
But mostly it is the anonymous life he craves.
“I like disappearing after working,” he says.
Away from the bright lights he is the archetypal family man, who loves playing with his children, and doing the odd bit of cooking. With his star in the ascendancy there will probably be less time for this intelligent anti-intellectual to spend in the kitchen.