When Connor McIntyre wraps his arm around my shoulder, part of me is expecting to be bundled into the boot of his car and held captive in a dank cellar for six months. He’s an imposing guy, a big bear of a man. And currently the most hated person on TV thanks to his portrayal of evil Pat Phelan on Coronation Street. Mercifully, Phelan’s malevolent stares have been locked away in his dressing room. In their place, a big hug and obvious pride in playing the scariest soap baddie in recent memory.
“A builder was telling me that getting ‘Phelan’d’ is now a recognised term,” he says. “If someone is doing something untoward, it’s called ‘doing a Phelan’. Now, you know you’ve made it as a proper Corrie villain if that happens. It’s a real compliment.”
To say ‘something untoward’ is an understatement when it comes to Phelan’s crimes. On top of the dodgy building work, he coerced Anna into having sex with him, kidnapped Andy, defrauded his neighbours – and even let Les Dennis’s Michael Rodwell die from a heart attack in a muddy puddle. Surely the public must run screaming when they see him coming?
“They’re very cool. They get it. And there’s a certain sense of ownership about it – if you’re a Corrie fan, you enjoy your villain. Knowing full well that he’ll inevitably get his comeuppance. It’s a very moral universe – and quite right too. The reaction I usually get is, ‘you’re so horrible. We really hate you. But we don’t want them to kill you yet.’
“The only time it gets disturbing for me is when it’s older people, whose memory isn’t quite what it was. So they see my face and they know it doesn’t have good associations. That’s when I rush over to put them at their ease. It really upsets me to see anyone get genuinely frightened.”
As you can probably glean, McIntyre is a far more animated, affable presence than his brooding alter ego. The contrast is at its most clear when he sits opposite me enthusing about how he’s able to mix acting with his other great creative love: art. Yes, the man who plays the sinister Phelan actually graduated with an MA in Contemporary Art Practice from the University of Plymouth in 2015.
He came to education later in life having been turned off during his school years (“It was Toxteth in the 1970s, the teachers were demoralised, I left with no qualifications”). Following brief spells as a lifeguard, a boxing coach and a car salesman, he got into acting after wandering into the Barbican Theatre Plymouth and volunteering to read new plays at the weekend, not really knowing what he was taking on. “It was just an impulsive thing,” he says, “and my response to it was immediate. It was like falling in love – boom!”
The reaction was similar when – while researching a play – he put paintbrush to canvas for the first time since the age of ten: “I got a shock up my arm. It was an absolutely physical visceral reaction. And you can’t deny feelings like that.”
Deny them McIntyre didn’t – in fact, he ended up taking seven years out from acting to devote himself to his studies, first with an access course, then at university. “The teachers used to say to me, ‘haven’t you got any mates?’ Because all summer, when the other students were off, I’d be in there, filling the studios with my work. I just like to get involved and I think that’s the key with something you respond to strongly. You just get involved.”
He stresses that he doesn’t use his painting as an escape from the challenges of Corrie villainy (“I wouldn’t use the word ‘pressure’ because it’s an absolute delight playing Phelan”). But might there come a time when the TV studio gives way to the art studio, especially seeing as he’s now mentoring emerging artists, too?
“There’s a saying: the way is easy for those who have no preference. And I consider them the same: they’re both creative things. The older I get, the more philosophical I am about these things. I just follow my nose, do everything with gusto and see what happens.”
As for the future of Pat Phelan, I get the impression that he will face justice in the not-too-distant future. Soap villains have an in-built best before date, especially when their actions become more deplorable. And for Pat, it’s going to get very dark indeed.
“The Rubicon is crossed,” McIntyre reveals. And I infer that if he tells me any more about upcoming plot twists, the Coronation Street press office will have to ‘do a Phelan’ on me. “When people say to me on the street, ‘how many have you killed now?’, I always reply, ‘I haven’t actually killed anyone yet’. But they already think I’m a serial killer. That perception is already there…”
Before we finish though, I have to ask whether – in his journey from Toxteth to university by way of Coronation Street – he met anyone who became a model for Phelan? “In my own personal life, no, thank god,” he says. For inspiration, it seems you only need look at the news:
“Well, it’s all about power with Pat. He’s a dangerous narcissist. And he has no capacity for empathy. Now, how many of our current cabinet do you think you could identify as being that personality type? I’ll let the readers make up their own minds about that one. But just look at our political class – self-interested and, as Ken Loach put it recently, ‘consciously cruel’. Pat just embodies that mentality, doesn’t he?”
So is Pat Phelan really a backstreet Francis Urquhart – the villain of House of Cards? “I think he would have been very comfortable barricaded in at the Tory party conference, make no mistake,” McIntyre laughs. Chief Whip Phelan? Making the move from Weatherfield to Westminster? I certainly wouldn’t put it past him.
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