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‘Downton’ star Brendan Coyle arrived at ‘St. Nicholas’ at right time in life

Brendan Coyle | Courtesy Goodman Theatre

British/Irish actor Brendan Coyle has an affinity for the work of Irish playwright Conor McPherson. What he fondly calls his “obsession” with the playwright goes back to 1995’s “This Lime Tree Bower,” a play he saw over and over. In 1999, he won an Olivier Award for his performance in McPherson’s ghost story, “The Weir.”

“I’m completely spellbound by his work,” Coyle says. “It just speaks to me.”

Most recently, Coyle, best-known in this country for his portrayal of Mr. Bates in “Downton Abbey,” has found his way to “St. Nicholas,” McPherson’s one-man play that is making its U.S. debut at the Goodman Theatre in a production directed by Simon Evans that is a transfer from London’s Donmar Warehouse.

‘St. Nicholas’

When: To Jan. 27

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $31-$85

Info: goodmantheatre.org

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In this intimate thriller, Coyle portrays a jaded Dublin theater critic who leaves behind his career as well as his wife and children to follow a beautiful young actress to London where finds himself caught in a bargain with a group of modern-day vampires.

“I think Conor has a sort of wisdom and insight into the human mind and behavior,” Coyle says. “Here he writes about this man lost in regret about a lost love but there also is reality and truth and humor here. He encompasses all this in the most beautiful way.”

While Coyle was performing in the debut of “The Weir” at London’s Royal Court Theatre, “St. Nicholas” (starring Brian Cox as the embittered critic) was playing at Bush Theatre, a smaller fringe theater, which was whereCoyle first saw it and vowed to one day take on the role.

“I’ve been carrying it around for a long time,” Coyle says with a laugh. “I was in my 30s then and too young for the role. Now I’m in my 50s (he’s 55) and old enough for it.”

About three years ago, he began to get serious about learning the piece, a venture he at first found a bit intimidating.

“He’s quite an unsavory character but he’s very honest about his dissolute nature,” Coyle says. “There’s some very dark humor here and a sort of madness about the man and his life and the way he goes about his business. Ultimately, it’s a meditation about love and the human condition.”

Brendan Coyle stars in “St. Nicholas” at the Goodman Theatre. | Helen Maybanks Photo
Brendan Coyle stars in “St. Nicholas” at the Goodman Theatre. | Helen Maybanks Photo

Coyle was born in England to an Irish father and a Scottish mother, and holds dual Irish-British citizenship. Acting had never crossed his mind until at 16 he saw his first play, “Richard III.”

“Something really lit up in me,” he recalls. “It all made sense. I could do this for a living.”

It was a life-changing moment when he discovered he had a cousin, Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy, who ran Dublin’s Focus Theatre, known for training students in Method acting. After studying there (“It was a great experience”), he received a scholarship to study theater at London’s Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts.

Like many British actors, Coyle can be seen in a long list of British television series. And it was in one of these, where Julian Fellows, the creator of “Downton Abbey,” saw Coyle’s performance in the period drama “North and South,” an adaptation of a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, and was inspired to write the role of Mr. Bates for him.

For the role that would make him a heartthrob among “Downton” fans, Coyle says he looked to his two grandfathers for guidance.

Anna (Joanne Froggatt) greets Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) outside Downton Abbey in season 2 of the hit PBS drama series. | (C) 2011 Nick Briggs/ITV for Masterpiece
Anna (Joanne Froggatt) greets Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) outside Downton Abbey in season 2 of the hit PBS drama series. | (C) 2011 Nick Briggs/ITV for Masterpiece

“I come from a big matriarchal family with very powerful women,” he says. “But my grandfathers were very quiet, very stoic, very gentle men. That combination was very inspiring to me.”

Always up for a theatrical challenge, Coyle recently starred, alongside David Suchet, in a work by an iconic American playwright. That play, Arthur Miller’s “The Price,” was first staged at Theatre Royal Bath and will transfer to the Wyndham Theatre in London’s West End beginning Feb. 5.

Coyle says it is all part of “the glut of theater at the moment” in his life, something that got left on the wayside during all the years of filming “Downton.” He also hopes are to take “St. Nicholas” to theater festivals in various countries.

“Theater will always be there; I’m already looking at plays to do in the future and hopefully some will come to pass,” he says. “I’m drawn to theater because generally I think it’s where the most daring, the most interesting scripts are.”

Meanwhile the film and television roles keep coming. He has a role in the current movie “Mary Queen of Scots” and the Netflix series “Requiem” and “Spotless.” And, of course, there’s the “Downton” movie coming out later this year.

“They get angsty if you give anything away,” he says with a laugh when asked about the long-awaited “Downton” feature film. “It’s more of the same, this time involving a royal visit. All the conventions, all the tropes are there. It’s on a bigger, grander scale and going to look great.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.