Portrait

A pub lunch with actor Colin Friels. By Emily Bitto.

Colin Friels on a love of horses

 

I am shown in to a large room in the Melbourne Theatre Company building, where a makeshift set – a replica of a stage-replica of an apartment – takes up half the space. Colin Friels stands alone on the faux stage, practising his lines. As Jess, the stage manager, brings me in, he stops and then abruptly leaves the room. 

Other people drift into the room: Colin’s co-star, Anna Samson; Leith, the dialect coach; Dean Bryant, the director. We chat amiably about the comparable quality of market and supermarket mandarins. Dean calls, “Okay, Act 2.” Anna changes costume on set. Still no sign of Colin.

At the last moment, he returns, hurrying onto the set, making actor-ish vocal warm-up noises. The run-through begins.

The play is David Hare’s Skylight. It’s about a wealthy older man – a successful restaurateur – attempting to woo back a young, impoverished teacher with whom he previously had a long affair. 

I watch Friels intently throughout Act 2. Everything about him appears to belong to a younger man: everything but his face, which is frankly ravaged. He is dressed in a check shirt and navy blue cargo pants with oversized pockets. His movements, as he speaks in a slightly geezer-ish British accent, are boyish. There is much bouncing on the soles of his sneaker-clad feet. When he repeats a line, he makes a “rewinding” motion with his body that looks vaguely like a breakdance move. 

I cannot tell whether this is the character or Friels himself. I hope it is the character, but begin mentally preparing for our follow-up interview, in case he is a cocky bastard in real life.

 

After the run-through, after Friels disappears again and reappears smelling of cigarette smoke, and we are finally introduced, we walk to Clarendon Street for lunch. As soon as we are out of the building and walking, I breathe a sigh of relief. All of the cockiness and bravura has fallen away. It impresses me, how convincing it was, the very movements of his feet conveying something as complex as the desire to hold on to youth. Now, as he walks with his hands in his pockets, talking about an Irish playwright he loves, his presence is gentle and unassuming: comfortable. In fact, after a good hour’s chat over a pub meal, I feel genuinely sad to leave his company. 

At first, he talks about the play. It has been very successful in Britain, with first Michael Gambon and then Bill Nighy in his role. 

“I mean,” he laughs ruefully, “could you think of anyone further removed from either of those two than me?” It’s true: in person it becomes clear that Friels is not just humble, but deeply self-deprecating. 

He is struggling, he tells me, with the age difference between the characters. 

“I guess those guys, David Hare and Bill Nighy, still see themselves as dudes, because they’re rich and powerful. They probably think, ‘Well, why wouldn’t a young woman be attracted to me?’ But for me, I just think, ‘You’ve gotta be fucking kidding!’ So that’s an enormous psychological bridge for me, in the play.”

I try to work out what this self-deprecation is about. Perhaps it stems from career frustration. When I mention the word career, he guffaws. “Career? It could only laughingly be called a career.” But his humbleness doesn’t seem the frustrated type. 

It only falls into place when he starts talking about horses. It is plainly obvious they are his passion.

“There’s a mare I buried not long ago,” Friels tells me. “Matilda. I’ll never get over losing her. She taught me so much, that woman. I just loved her.” 

Over the hour, he repeatedly draws connections between horses and theatre. 

“They’re such parallel worlds to me,” he says.

I ask him why.

“You get this thing,” he tells me, “where all you want to do is get the best out of that little horse. And the horse isn’t going to be an Olympic champion or anything, but that’s fine. You just want to make it proud. So I suppose, being of service to a play… You’ve gotta be the boss, but it’s a sweet partnership.” 

So that’s where it comes from, I think. It’s the humility of someone who has spent a lot of time around animals, and for whom the human world is not the only thing that matters, nor the most important.

His gravelly voice takes on a lilting quality, and I can hear the way he would speak to his horses.

“When a horse twitches that ear, when it moves that lip a centimetre, I think, ‘Oh, he’s getting cranky, that fella. Back off. This fella here, bring him sweeter in, he needs to come in.’ ” 

Perhaps that’s where his knack for body language comes from, too. 

 

Friels says that he often finds theatre “a terrible struggle”. But ultimately, as a self-described anxious type, both acting and horses bring him calm. “When you’ve got it right,” he says, “and you haven’t pushed that horse, you’ve brought it on properly, and it’s proud, and it’s not dominated, then your centres of gravity come together.” 

He comes back from his reverie momentarily, and slips back to his self-deprecating tone. 

“I suppose,” he grins, “you could say it’s a beautiful feeling.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 25, 2016 as "Back in the saddle". Subscribe here.

Emily Bitto
is an author. Her debut novel, The Strays, won the 2015 Stella Prize.