Northern Ireland actor who received loyalist death threat to open Broadway play
Known as the accidental actor, Portadown man Glenn Speers had a succession of jobs before finding his vocation. He tells Ivan Little how he fell in love along the way - and what it's like mixing with James Nesbitt, Rod Stewart and Russell Crowe
A Portadown actor who's about to star in a new play on Broadway about the Troubles has revealed that he once quit a job as a pub bouncer in Lisburn after receiving a loyalist death threat. Former amateur boxer Glenn Speers, who's now 51, was warned by police that his life was in danger after he turned paramilitaries away from the Lisburn bar where he was working in the Nineties.
Glenn, who is flying to New York next month with the cast of the controversial play about Ulster, The Ferryman, was told to take the threat seriously.
The bar where Glenn was the head doorman had been trying to attract a different clientele in the town which was a stronghold for the UDA. But the attempt to keep the paramilitaries out didn't sit well with them.
Glenn says: "The police told me that my name had been placed around a few places and that I was going to be made an example of.
"I asked the police what I should do and they advised me to get another job. They said the paramilitaries wouldn't come down to the front door of the bar to get me but would probably pull me out of my bed at four in the morning. So I quit there and then."
He never dreamt that the move would lead to him eventually becoming an actor at the age of 40 - the accidental actor, as he's been dubbed.
Glenn had been raised on the loyalist Killicomaine estate in Portadown where he says he had a "great childhood", even as the Troubles were starting to create havoc.
"My mother kept me and my brothers on the straight and narrow," he says. "It was an innocent childhood and my memories are of playing football on the green until it got dark, riding my bicycle during long summer holidays and going fishing down on the River Bann.
"I have an old school photograph and on one side of me there's a fella who went on to become a doctor while on the other side is a guy who went on to become a paramilitary."
Glenn, whose family moved to Lisburn when he was a teenager, dropped out of school before sitting his A levels and he joined the Royal Navy, spending nine years as an engineer on Sea King helicopters.
"I grew up in the Navy and I wouldn't change a day of it. I was at an airbase in CornwalI and I was on a second line unit when the Gulf War kicked off, so I didn't see any action there."
Glenn and a few Navy friends formed a band called Rhino's Horn. He was the singer in the group, who were playing soul music after watching the Commitments movie.
And Glenn never imagined that a couple of decades later he would end up in a West End show based on the Roddy Doyle story. But Glenn's commitment to the Navy was waning.
He says: "I took redundancy at the age of 27 in 1993 and went back home to Northern Ireland.
"I knew I didn't want to be an engineer but I didn't know what I was going to do instead. I blew my redundancy money in six months of partying and I went into a succession of jobs.
"I was selling stuff to kitchen manufacturers, I was picking mushrooms and I was also a roadie for a band, driving them the length and breadth of Ireland. It was great craic.
"One night they could have been playing in the Felons club in west Belfast, the next in a club on the Shankill. You didn't get the national anthems mixed up at the end of the night."
Glenn went on to spend 10 years as a bouncer before he was "threatened out of the job".
The paramilitaries did him a favour - for his decision to get out of Lisburn was to play a significant part in Glenn's amazing transition to acting.
After leaving Northern Ireland, he headed to Dublin where he worked as a car cleaner during the day and as a bouncer at night in a bar.
It was there that he met a girl from Zimbabwe who was to become his wife and "changed my life completely".
After a year in South Africa, Glenn and his new wife Jacqui returned to Ireland where he enrolled in a four-month acting course after spotting a flyer about it.
He says: "I'd no experience of acting, apart from playing the part of the villain in a pantomime we put on for the commander of our base in the Navy.
"But I'd always had a fascination with movies and when I did my first piece on the acting course in front of a camera something just clicked with me. It was like an epiphany.
"I went home that night and told Jacqui I had found what I really wanted to do with my life. I got a bit of extra work and I did a few advertisements and even a training video for the Garda."
It wasn't exactly Hollywood and Glenn says that out of the blue Jacqui suggested they should go to London where he could try his luck.
He says: "And so we gave all our possessions away and got on the ferry in Dublin. We crashed on a friend's floor in London for a few days. I had no contacts, no agent, no job, no nothing.
"I knocked on doors and eventually got a small role in a movie called Perrier's Bounty which starred people like Brendan Gleeson and Cillian Murphy.
"I played a car clamper but the film got me a professional credit and then I found an agent. Things trundled along but I was getting work and building up my CV."
As well as movies, Glenn has also appeared in TV shows including Dr Who, Ripper Street and Stan Lee's Lucky Man with James Nesbitt, but his break into the theatre scene was totally unexpected.
He says: "I was asked to audition for the Commitments in the West End but I thought they were having a laugh. Everyone else at the audition had sheet music with them and were doing vocal exercises, running up the scales. But I couldn't read music and I couldn't play an instrument so I thought it was a hoot.
"The guy who was doing the casting was called David Grindrod, who I later learnt was Andrew Lloyd Webber's right hand man. I didn't have any sheet music to give a pianist so I asked David if I could sing along with a karaoke track, Proud Mary, on my phone.
"After about 20 seconds he stopped me singing with the usual 'thank you, we've got what we need'.
"So off I went thinking that was that. But I got a call back and I met the director of the Commitments, Jamie Lloyd, who offered me a role and the chance to understudy the part of Jimmy Rabbitte's da, which was played by Sean Kearns from Newry."
After Sean was cast in Wicked, Glenn was asked to step into his shoes for the last nine weeks of The Commitments.
"I had a ball," he says. "Rod Stewart came to see it. Jude Law was there and Russell Crowe bought us all a pint in the pub next door after a show."
Several more movies followed before Glenn was cast by Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes in The Ferryman, which was written by Jez Butterworth and deals with the discovery of the body of one of the Disappeared and the impact on his family in rural Ulster.
Glenn played an IRA man called Malone, but stood in for local actor Stuart Graham in the bigger role of a Republican leader for 26 shows.
"That was fantastic for me," says Glenn. "And the next thing I knew I got a call from my agent telling me I was going to New York as Malone but understudying a bigger part too.
"I don't have a lot of lines as Malone but I am on stage quite a lot adding menace to the proceedings.
"During the prologue at the start of the show, I walk out with a cigarette and a pint in what is meant to be a back alley in Derry. I spend 10 minutes looking at the audience before I deliver the first line in the play."
Glenn still pinches himself regularly as he counts his blessings about where his new found career has taken him.
"It's been a remarkable journey. And I don't know where it's going. I've asked my agent to line up some meetings for me in New York and I know The Ferryman might open doors. It's going to be the hottest ticket in town," says Glenn, who will be packing some rather unusual clothes for his trip to the Big Apple.
"When I was home recently I bought myself some Portadown FC tops. I was a huge fan," he says.
The Ferryman opens on Broadway in October. For more information, visit www.theferrymanbroadway.com