Fra Fee has had a meteoric rise to fame. The Tyrone actor best known for his role in Les Misérables and who made his Broadway debut last autumn in The Ferryman, this month has joined the cast of the National Theatre’s return engagement of Brian Friel’s modern classic Translations. Born in County Tyrone, the stage and screen actor studied Music at the University of Manchester before continuing studies at the Royal Academy of Music.
I caught up with Fra in-between performances to find out more about his ambitions, his appetite for theatre and how his acting career began.
Question: Born in Dungannon and attending St. Patricks Academy the bright lights of the West End and beyond seem a million miles away but did you always know that you wanted to be on the stage? Did you excel at any other subjects?
I come from a family of story-tellers. My da is and always has been a regular on the amateur dramatic circuit with local groups Bardic and Craic Theatre so theatre was a part of my life growing up. From a young age I also discovered I had a singing voice so performing goes back as far as I can remember to be honest.
A real formative experience that sticks out in my memory was going in to collect my sister Claire from rehearsals for Blood Brothers – she was playing Mickey – at St Pat’s Girls Academy, I was about six or seven and my ma had asked me to run in and let her know we were there to take her home, and I witnessed the girls rehearse the final scene (“Tell me it’s Not True”) and I was completely captivated. I subsequently went to every single performance of the show. I’m pretty sure I wanted to be an actor from then. My subjects at school were all creative. Literature, theatre studies. I was mad into music as well and ended up studying it at university. I’m lucky that music is still a massive part of my life now.
Question: You are currently starring alongside Ciaran Hinds, Seamus O’ Hara and Judith Roddy in the National Theatres production of Brian Friel’s Translations. What attracted you to the role? If you could play any other Brian Friel character who would it be?
Well this was a no-brainier really. I think Brian Friel is our nation’s best playwright. He encapsulates the crisis of identity amongst us Irish folk so well. I didn’t study Translations at school, like so many others, but I did know the play exceptionally well. My da played Hugh in a local production in Coalisland and being obsessed with theatre as I was then, I wanted to be involved in whatever way I could. Subsequently I was the prompter backstage for each performance…I came in handy!
And I love Owen. I go into the play every night with the conviction that what I’m doing (translating / Anglicising Gaelic place names) is the right thing to do in order to progress and unify opposing cultures. Of course, these actions turn out to have devastating consequences which he then has to deal with, and he learns from his mistakes but at the beginning of the play he sees himself as a product of the future and a survivor. I’d also love to play Gar Public in Philadelphia, Here I Come. What a play.
Question: I have seen you perform in small spaces like the Naughton studio in the Lyric Theatre Belfast and also in larger venues on the West End, which do you prefer and what, if anything does a home crowd add to your performance?
Funnily enough I’m coming back to the Naughton on November 22nd to perform a show I did in London and at Broadway’s 54 Below Cabaret venue. It’s called Seisún and its glorious mix of Musical Theatre and folk and story-telling. I can’t wait to perform it in Belfast. I love the Naughton as well. It’s a gorgeous, unfortunately under-used space in the Lyric. I don’t have a particular preference between large and small houses to be honest. Something very special and beautiful can be shared in small spaces like the Naughton or Menier Chocolate Factory in London where I played Candide a few years ago. And when its only witnessed by a hundred or so people it feels like a secret shared…then again, it’s also pretty fun playing the Royal Albert Hall!
Question: You have been described as one to watch, what would you say is your biggest achievement to date? Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
Oh, I don’t know. I’m proud of lots of the things I’ve done, and they all count in some way. The Ferryman was a life changing gig, there’s no doubt about that. Getting to originate a role in an Irish play by Jet Butterworth and be directed by Sam Mendes in the West End and on Broadway was pretty unreal. Five years from now? No clue. Hopefully more of the same. Telling stories.
Question: Who are your inspirations?
My family inspire me all the time. They’re an amazing bunch and I’m very lucky to have them. In terms of work…I’m inspired by the work. Great writers, great plays, beautiful musicals, stories that I want to tell – that’s my inspiration.
Question: With plays like Ferryman and TV shows like the Derry Girls as well as exporting Game of Thrones. The Northern Irish theatre and film scene is growing and seems to be making a splash globally despite arts cuts. Why do you think the world currently has such an interest in NI?
There are obviously financial benefits from shooting in Northern Ireland at the moment but there is a cultural thing happening as well. It’s no accident for example that Translations is been revived at the National this year when the issue of border-control is so very much in our psyche.
We come from an intriguing place – its messy, funny, often confusing but rich with culture and history – who wouldn’t want to tell stories and hear stories about us?
Question: If you could introduce one law in Northern Ireland what would it be?
Up until a few days ago I would’ve said marriage equality and abortion rights but thankfully that’s just changed! So, I’d probably insist upon the teaching of LGBT families and equality in schools.