Dublin-born actor Rory Keenan has entertained audiences on TV, film and theatre, from the BBC’s War & Peace, Peaky Blinders and Donmar Warehouse’s Saint Joan to the National Theatre’s production of Liola. Currently performing the role of James (Jamie) Tyrone Jr. in Richard Eyre’s revived production of Eugene O’Neill’s Tony award-winning play, Long Day’s Journey into Night, alongside Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville, Rory tells me what it is like to perform the inebriate and enigmatic role of Jamie – son of a dysfunctional family. He also tells me how he manages to remember all his lines and his fondness for south London and sport — all kinds of sport!

“It’s been great working with Jeremy and Lesley. In fact, it’s been great working together, all five of us!  There is something new to learn in every show. It just happens that way. Constantly learning something new.” Rory has a strong Irish accent, but I understood every word he said to me on the phone. I admitted to him, back then, that I had not seen the play yet  – now showing at Wyndham Theatre until April 7 – which made his answers to my questions even more interesting.

Rory Keenan - Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Rory Keenan as James (Jamie) Tyrone Jr. – Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Overall, the theatre critics gave Richard Eyre’s revival four-star reviews that, to me, means it’s must be a good show. For a production that begins its evening performances at 7.30 pm and ends around 11 pm, it is no surprise that the play lives up to its name. Without giving away too many spoilers: Mary (Lesley Manville) and James (Jeremy Irons) live with their two sons James Tyrone Jr. (Keenan), Edmund (Matthew Beard) and maids, like Cathleen (Jessica Regan) in a summer house in Connecticut. However, there are some dark and sad truths hidden inside the walls of the Tyrone household which the audience is invited to witness and see unfold over the course of a day, or, more technically, just over 3 hours.

From the start of the play, Jamie is quite hard to read. By Rory’s interpretation, Jamie seems arrogant, bitter and, undoubtedly, addicted to alcohol and womanising. It is noted on stage that he was a Broadway star who never gained the same success and recognition as his father, yet it is never fully explained why he is the way he is; we barely get a clue on why he resorts to drinking and possessing a cynical and mean-spirited demeanour.

Matthew Beard as Edmund Tyrone & Rory Keenan as Jamie Tyrone Jr. – Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Rory described to me how he gets into the mindset of Jamie – the son who was never called ‘mama’s baby’ or ‘papa’s pet’. “I try to remember that one of the main reasons he drinks is to escape. Either to escape his family unit or to escape his own self-loathing. He definitely has a self-destructive nature and he’s always one drink away from unearthing the dark truths he holds inside him. In that sense, I try to let him loose in the moments when he’s drunk. The drinking gives him the means and the willingness to express himself in the most bombastic and brutal way. He lives in the world of a pressure cooker and any chance he gets to let off steam, [he’ll happily take it].”

Having seen the play and watched Rory as Jamie, I thought about what Rory told me in that addiction underpinned a huge part of O’Neill’s play. Through Rory’s portrayal of Jamie, there were almost remnants of a good man in Jamie that died years ago. Something traumatic had clearly happened to Jamie; the audience is left guessing the fate of the reckless, constantly angry and aggressive son of the Tyrone family.

Rory Keenan in rehearsals for Long Day’s Journey into Night. Photo by Hugo Glendinning.

I asked Rory, ‘what happens if you or your fellow colleague(s) forget your words on stage?’ He replied, “If we can’t remember we would say something that we think the character would say. Even if we forget our lines though, the audience rarely knows about it.” For me, I’ve always been impressed with the way actors can remember an entire a play, and with a lengthy play like O’Neill’s recalling all those lines it is no mean feat. Yet Rory proved me wrong with some pearls of wisdom, “but it’s all about repetition! Remember ‘rehearsal’ means re-hearing. It’s like remembering the lyrics of a song, but knowing them because you listened to the song again and again.” That makes complete sense; I gather that’s the reason why I remember so many 80s songs.

Then I asked him about how exhausting it was for him to play the self-destructive role of Jamie night after night to which he confessed, “It can be, but we perform to a different audience every night. That’s what we tell ourselves. Even if we are performing every night, we’re performing to people who have never seen the show before, so it’s not too bad… plus, it beats working!” With his last comment, I am reminded of how gratifying actors feel performing on stage. When I asked him whether he had a preference over working in film, TV or theatre, it was as if he knew the answer before I had finished asking my question. “Definitely theatre. You don’t have to deal with editing issues from TV or film. Sometimes it can be really bad editing as well. Being on stage is much more fun. There’s also that instant gratification factor as well, knowing the audience enjoyed themselves.”

Photograph from the BBC’s TV series, War and Peace with Gillian Anderson as Anna Pavlovna and Rory Keenan as Bilibin.

Rory has performed in various theatre venues, both large and small-scale, from the Peacock Theatre in Dublin to the Arcola Theatre, yet he had no problems telling me which is his favourite theatre to work in. “I love small venues actually. I mean, the Donmar Warehouse is a good space. It’s nice to feel close to the audience that way, but also to see their reactions immediately after.” When I asked him about any dream roles he would love to perform, to my surprise he told me he didn’t have one. “Do you know, I don’t really have one. Sure, there are lots of roles I could play, but so long as I’m with a good company and have the right people around me, I’m good. That’s what it’s about for me. But I do enjoy performing new works and new plays more.”

When Rory isn’t rehearsing, which takes up a tremendous amount of his time, he isn’t seeing as much theatre as he would like. “Unfortunately, this time round I haven’t had enough time because I’m busy rehearsing and working on the play, but I definitely have plans to see a few shows when I can.” When he manages to get some downtime, he likes to take it easy in South London. “I’m based in London now and I usually stay in South London. I only come into the centre when I have to like coming in for the shows, but I’m for South London, all the way. In my spare time… I like sport! — doesn’t matter what sport. Any kind!”

As our interview came to a close, Rory offered up some advice he would give to aspiring actors. “I think the best advice I can give is to explore the arts; have a taste of everything, go, watch films, check out art in the galleries and see different theatre. It’s not even about seeing if [you] like it or not, so much. It’s about having a taste of everything, and just seeing what is out there.”

Rory Keenan is on stage now in Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night until April 7th.

To find out more about the production and to purchase tickets, go here.

For more information about Rory Keenan, click here. He is also starring in RTÉ Television’s Striking Out and soon Canal+ TV series Versailles.