It was Valentine’s Day and the skies was pouring down. I had battled sheets of wind and rain as I scurried up O’Connell Street eventually finding myself in the elegant and humane sitting room of the Gate Theatre where the radiators were heaven sent and my shoes no longer beyond saving. There was even a tea set but it might easily have been a misplaced prop. The windowpanes were pushing in and the Hallmark Friday seemed done for. But then in ambled Rory Fleck Byrne, the young lead in the Gate Theatre’s current production The Vortex, with strawberries for the day that was in it.
Rory is all bone structure and tall polite limbs. When we get chatting his carefully chosen words are only slightly muffled while he chews. He speaks in a slow drawl that suggests a young man giving utmost thought to what he is saying, but then at the same time he is completely unguarded, talking about his career and an old heartbreak with a refreshing fluency and willingness that doesn’t drown in that dreaded actorly introspection.
The pomade laden hair he’s sporting is down to his character, Nicky Lancaster, an artist in 1920s London who returns from Paris to London with his fiancée and is set on a collision course with his self-involved and complex mother Florence, played by the actress Susannah Harker. “I’m loving existing in twenties right now. I love it. I’d love to do more twenties stuff. I’m just upset that The Great Gatsby has already been made. I’d love to do more Coward. The jazz, the cigarettes, the company…” The Vortex isn’t your usual Coward play. It’s a dark piece of work that at times is devoid of hope and shows humans at their most nakedly selfish and desperate. Rory notes the frothy public perception of Coward’s work that people can’t seem to shake. ”I think sometimes with Coward people make the mistake that it’s all surface…I was speaking to someone after the first performance and they were saying that at the beginning they were really getting lulled into the Noël Coward comedy but then there is a point in act one where people realise there’s more to this. And you really feel that on stage – people wanting to laugh but sensing there is something ominous underneath.”
A Carlow native (both his parents are Irish and he spent his early childhood in England), Rory found his way to the stage through youth theatre, a hobby he had originally discovered while growing up in England. When he moved back to Ireland he joined groups such as Barnstorm, Kilkenny Youth Theatre, Dreamstuff Youth Theatre and Young Irish Filmmakers. He even played Romeo during his teens.
Rory knew he wanted to be an actor from the get go. “Straight from when I was kid I was like that’s it. I just knew. You know when you have a feeling in your gut? You just know what you want to do. There was no drama at school so I had to find it myself. You know when you get to fourth year and you have career guidance trying to help you out? They told me they had no idea what to do with me. No one had ever applied to drama school before.”
Luckily for Rory, he ended up at RADA, the Royal Academy in London. Accepted in 2007 after an audition during his leaving cert year after he graduated he secured the male lead in the stage adaptation of breakthrough Irish movie Disco Pigs. Did he feel intimidated taking on the role that made Cillian Murphy a star? “I watched half the movie in the bath before I auditioned and then I decided I’m going to stop watching this, because if I get the part I don’t want this to inform what I’m doing. It’s just such a phenomenal piece of writing. Enda Walsh is very poetical and lyrical. It’s all in the text. We had a wonderful director, Cathal Cleary, and it was with Charlie Murphy (Love/Hate) who’s phenomenal. Cathal was very open to us playing around.” Cillian Murphy and Enda Walsh even came along to see the play without telling them. They spied them during a scene where he and Charlie “were on stage hoinking at the audience like pigs, shouting at them and intimidating them. There was a sheet hanging in front of the stage so we both hid behind it and thought how the fuck do we do this show now? We had a drink with them after and they were very complimentary.”
Disco Pigs and The Vortex are pieces of work that offer amazing portraits of young men, both showcasing the frustration that comes with defined male roles. When talking about masculinity and the pressures on young men Rory is forthcoming. “I think it’s hard for young men. But I think our generation is getting better at understanding the variety of what a man is. I just saw, walking down here, a billboard for McDonalds that said Man Food. This big burger and these sorts of things are projected into our consciousness all the time of what a man should be. In The Vortex some people see my character as a closeted homosexual, but its not mentioned in the play that he is. He’s just somebody who is searching for love and has instincts that aren’t what society accepts normally and people are telling him to shut up and put that away and go and conform. But he can’t. His instincts are too strong; his connections to his emotions are too strong. I think it is difficult for young men to be brave. I think it is easier for girls in the world we live in to find that. Girls are allowed to be more emotionally connected. When I was growing up at school guys wouldn’t express themselves with their clothes because it was feminine. They didn’t talk about their emotions. To be a man you had to play rugby and be muscly, which I think is completely backwards. It is not until people get into their twenties when they start to realise “Oh, I can dress like this if I want to.” I think our generation of man is getting better at owning themselves and expressing themselves. The more men do that it creates possibility and opens up people’s eyes and younger men growing up aren’t trying to be something they’re not. It just makes a better world, doesn’t it?” This false Hollywood portrayal of men is a topic that captures the young actors imagination. He’s even making a film, entitled Bodies, this summer about a young rural man whose putting on a front to his local community. (Here’s the fundraising page.)
“I’m very interested in that spectrum.” Rory is also a musician and a keen traveller, his face lighting up as he regales us with tales about his time in Vietnam. “Actually someone broke up with me while I was in Vietnam, I was on my own.” Okay, maybe not complete joy. “So that was a bit difficult. I was on my own and it was quite difficult. I remember I was trekking up a mountain one day and there was this temple and all these Vietnamese people sitting around the temple eating food. I picked my camera up to take a picture of them and they beckoned me over and told me to take my shoes off and sit on the mat and offered me this bowl of noodles. And I was in a really difficult place because of my heartache. But just to have this person to offer me a bowl of food, it was just the biggest, best gift they could have given me. We couldn’t understand each other. We tried to talk to each other, they were speaking Vietnamese and I was speaking English, but we just looked into each others eyes and we didn’t need to talk it was just a human connection and it was just what I needed.” For someone so open it’s no surprise that he finds himself in such situation. “I met a Vietnamese guy on the plane and he was flying back from Australia because his wife was about to give birth to their first child. He said when you get halfway up the country come into our house and we’ll put you up for a few nights. And then he paid for a motorcyclist to drive me an hour and a half outside of the city where they lived to take me to these big caves.”
And what’s next for this young up and coming actor? “I have a film coming out in April called The Quiet Ones (trailer here) by Hammer who did The Woman in Black. It went to Cannes last year and Lionsgate, who did The Hunger Games, picked it up. It’s about group of Oxford students who are doing experiments on a young girl. She’s deemed to be possessed and we’re trying to disprove the supernatural. It was amazing to shoot. We went to Oxford and the buildings there? Jesus, they were beautiful.”
For more details about The Vortex and to book tickets see here.
Jeanne Sutton @jeannedesutun