SBP Don Wycherley interview (24/02/08)

Over the past month or so, Don Wycherley has been spending much of his spare time lassoing everything from the litterbins on the seafront in Sandymount to garden chairs at home in Clontarf. When his young kids’ astonished friends have pointed out that it’s a strange thing for a father to do, the Wycherley brood, Jack, Evan and Kate, aged between 13 and five, have offered a robust defence. “That’s Daddy’s work,” the children explain — and they’re right.

Wycherley has recently taken on a new role as the lasso-loving cowboy Eddie, one of the central characters in the new Peacock production of Sam Shepard’s classic 1983 play, Fool for Love, which was made into a film by Robert Altman in 1995.

In Fool For Love, Eddie arrives at the El Royale Motel, an encampment on the edge of the Mojave Desert, with the aim of winning back his longterm lover May (Catherine Walsh). Trouble is, Eddie has had an affair with someone called “the Countess” — and May claims she doesn’t love Eddie anymore.

It’s a stark, intense role, the kind plenty of actors would covet. It’s also a role that, right about now, is perfect for the West Cork-born Wycherley, a well-established, deeply versatile actor who, if truth be told, has been in need of a professional break for some time.

Now 40, Wycherley has been on our stages and screens since he was 24, with the result that everyone interested in Irish television, theatre and film knows him, or, if they don’t, with a bit of memory jogging, they’ll easily be reminded.

For radio listeners, Wycherley is the guy, the deliverer of honey-toned, countrified lines about how to go about finding a house in Ireland. For 30-something comedy fans, Wycherley is the Bachelors Walk star – from 2001 to 2003, he played Raymond, one of the leading characters in the acclaimed drama.

Kids tend to think of Wycherley as the Father Ted actor; it was Wycherley’s lot as Father Cyril MacDuff to don a red smock and compete in a Stars in their Eyes talent competition. Love-struck mammies, meanwhile, still recall, with a wistful air, Wycherley for his turn as a rosy-cheeked, fleshy-lipped young priest in Ballykissangel.

There have been so many other interesting career moments — his IFTA-nominated role in The Running Mate; his supporting role in the award-winning Garage; his performance in the Cate Blanchett-starring Veronica Guerin; and his lead role in Tom Murphy’s acclaimed play, Conversations on a Homecoming. At times Wycherley has a Where’s Wally-like quality to him: look at any cinema or television screen for long enough – and you will find him popping up in the frame somewhere.

But over the past year, Wycherley’s itinerary has been filled more with blank spaces than bright new challenges. In 2007, when his wife Deirdre’s mother became ill, Wycherley turned down several roles in order to put his family first.

After she passed away, returning to acting was harder than Wycherley had anticipated. The big screen adaptation of Eden — the Eugene O’Brien stage play in which Wycherley had starred — was made without Wycherley landing a role in it. Other suitable roles simply didn’t come his way — something that Wycherley is refreshingly honest about admitting.

“So many people leave this business,” he says, in the administrative offices of the Abbey Theatre, where, on his lunch break from rehearsals for Fool for Love, Wycherley is attempting to politely eat a shop-bought salad on his knee and talk at the same time. “I’m just fortunate to make a living in it.”

Before he became an actor, Wycherley trained in Drumcondra to be a teacher. He’s grateful for his background. “When things got bad last year, I went into a school in Raheny where I know the principal and said, ‘Any subbing work coming up?’. I ended up doing the school concert for them. I played Fagan in their Christmas play. The DVD is out there somewhere.” Wycherley grins. “You’ve got to pick a pocket or two,” he hums.

A decade ago, even for a school play, it would have been impossible to visualise Wycherley in the role. But these days, there’s less hair atop Wycherley’s head and a harder, more gym-honed muscular edge to the 40-year-old. No longer the bright young cherub-faced leading man of yesteryear, for my money, Wycherley is now more Sopranos than Seventh Heaven material.

While the change is far from a bad thing — if anything, it lends an added gravitas and weight to Wycherley’s acting — it’s still a maturity that, presumably, casting directors need to consider. Wycherley laughs at my tentative efforts to broach the subject of ageing.

“It’s awful when you suddenly realise. You take the script home and read it. Then you say to your agent, I’d like to do this guy. And they go, ‘Oh, no, no. That’d be Colin Farrell or something’. I’m the bad guy or the support or whatever. But some of the support is great fun to do.”

Nonetheless, the change in roles has been hard financially on Wycherley. “I was paid well in Ballykissangel and it’s been decreasing ever since,” he smiles. “The system in Ireland, the money isn’t there for film and television. If I had done the amount of work that I have done across the water, I would be more financially secure.

“You can’t come up above the parapet too often in this country. In some countries, it’s a slow build, but here it’s like ‘Your man was in the last thing, give it to someone else’.” Wycherley laughs. “You’ve almost got to hide under a stone after you do a television series.”

Although much of what Wycherley says might sound a little doom-and-gloomy when put down on paper, in person, despite his dislike of interviews and what seems to be a natural tendency against self-analysis, Don Wycherley is a pleasure to talk to, quick to laugh and easy company.

He fairly bounces into the Abbey offices and — because we’re from the same neck of the woods — has barely even taken off his coat before he’s enquiring about my relatives and mutual friends. Asked about his teen years, though, Wycherley clams up. “Ah, it was the same as yours,” he says diffidently.

Pushed, he’ll talk about his school days at St. Fachtna’s in Skibbereen, Co. Cork and the teachers who recognised his acting talent early on. He doesn’t remember his school reports; he was a little ditzy as a student and perhaps a little cowed by the academic prowess of his elder brother. “George was A in Maths, highest in the country in physics and then came me,” he says.

His family circumstances were difficult. Wycherley’s father Florence, a farmer, auctioneer and politician, died of a heart attack when Don was just one year old. Growing up, Wycherley was close to his mother Marie. “She was a bit of a messer, an actress anyway. There would have been a lot of drama with her.” When she was diagnosed several years ago with Alzheimer’s Disease, it was a huge blow. He and his two brothers took it in turnsto go home to her in Skibbereen at the weekends.

“We were travelling up and down for three years at weekends; every third weekend it was your turn to go home,” he says. “It had gone to the 24-hour care at home. It was crippling money-wise. And then there was the journey and what you’d be dealing with when you’d get down, you know?” Eventually, the time came for the brothers to move their mother to Dublin.

“She’s okay,” Wycherley says, sounding as though he wants to reassure himself as much as anyone else. “It was the best thing, but it was a tough decision to make. She’s in a nice facility. She’s as happy as someone with Alzheimer’s can be. We can visit her regularly now.”

In the home, Wycherley was told by one of the staff that many patients at a far less advanced stage of the disease had been admitted for care. “You held on pretty well really,” the staff member said. You can tell by the way Wycherley relates this that that news meant a lot to him — the brothers did the very best they could.

The darkness in Wycherley’s circumstances may be partly the place from which he derives his strength as an actor. For Fool For Love, the director Annie Ryan had always wanted Wycherley to play the role of Eddie. “We had read the play many moons ago. There was a gang of us that had read it at an informal meeting. Then she rang me and asked me
about it again.”

Then came the lassoing. Wycherley is not particularly tech-savvy – his personal website, created by a friend who had diversified into website design, is the online equivalent of a Dorian Gray picture; seeming to have halted activity back in 2005. But with the help of his son Jack, Wycherley has been spending plenty of time on, watching
cowboys lasso and then attempting to lasso his longsuffering children himself for practice.

The rehearsals have been intensely physical. “It’s been a tough journey. I’ve sprained my ankle. I’ve had to learn how to use a lasso.” In the script Shepard writes that Eddie is meant to have a limp — is this not a help for his character? “Yeah, well, we’ll use it,” Wycherley says wryly. “He’s also meant to do a back-flip but there’s no fucking way I’m doing that!”

With three children ready and willing to distract him when he’s at home, Wycherley has less time than his co-star Catherine Walsh to ready himself for the role, with the result that it’s not uncommon to spot Wycherley practising his lines in public places. “There was something in the Evening Herald last week. ‘Don Wycherley was spotted talking to himself in an American accent on the 130 bus.'” He grins and doesn’t deny that it’s true.

It’s nearly time to finish up, so I ask him a little about the future. Wycherley answers in vague terms – there’s a possibility he might do another play after Fool For Love, but he doesn’t know yet.

Something I’ve said earlier has been playing on him. Although we have already covered the topics of his erratic career fortunes, he comes back to it. “We have a neighbour who died of meningitis recently, killed at 43. Three kids. Lovely fellow; he used to cut my hedges when I was on tour. He took the kids to EuroDisney for a break, contracted meningitis and died in two or three days. That puts the whole fame thing and what you’re trying to achieve in perspective.

“Ultimately, I’d like to earn a good living and just do roles that I want to do.”

Fool For Love by Sam Shepard runs at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin,
until March 15.

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