The Irish Kerouac
An Interview with Emmy Winning Actor, Writer, and Filmmaker Alan Cooke
by L.M. Browning | April 13, 2012 | Featured in the Vol 1. Iss. 1 of The Wayfarer
A native son of Ireland, Alan Cooke is an Emmy Winning actor, writer, and film maker. He has acted on stages in Ireland and in New York for over fifteen years. In 2002 Cooke made his New York stage debut in a show about the events of 9/11. Producing and acting in this series of ten short monologues about victims of 9/11, which played to great acclaim in the Irish Arts Centre. After spending 5 years living in America, Cooke made a multi-award winning documentary about his journey as an immigrant in New York called Home featuring leading actors such as Liam Neeson, Mike Myers, Alfred Molina, Susan Sarandon, Rosie Perez and the acclaimed Irish novelist Frank McCourt. Home was given a volume of praise and awards: Winner–Best Documentary Magners Boston Irish Film Festival, Official Selection Galway Film Fleadh, Official Selection San Francisco Irish Film Festival, and Official Selection Chicago Irish Film Festival. Finally, in 2009 Home was nominated for three Emmy’s including Best Documentary. Cooke went on to win an Emmy for Best Writing in a Documentary.
Currently Cooke has two projects in the works: Naked in New York chronicling his time in New York City and The Spirit of Ireland—a memoir following his time in his homeland. Cooke is also planning on turning The Spirit of Ireland into a documentary exploring all that is beautiful, sad, powerful, poetic and heroic about Ireland and its people. Returning to his native country, Alanwanders throughout the landscapes of Ireland seeking to capture the Irish identity. The film winds down intimate roads, through the lives of the well-known actors, writers, and poets, to unknown natives who are well-springs of extraordinary stories. Cooke shows the viewer Ireland as it is rarely seen—a place of beauty, wildness and dark secrets unveiled. This is a project that will lift the nation’s heart and renew its people with hope and a sense of poetry and pride in the country they call home.
In early 2012 one of Cooke’s videos commenting on the state of Ireland went viral pushing him back into the spotlight without warning. Bewitched by his haunting voice and poetic tone, viewers have been clamoring for more from this prophetic artist, compelling Cooke to push up the release of his debut non -fiction memoir following his extraordinary odyssey in New York during the post 9/11 era, Naked in New York. On April 14th, the audio-book of Naked in New York will be released. As Cooke stands on the verge of a new chapter of his career, I recently sat down with him to discuss the path that led him to this point.
Browning: Welcome Alan. Thank you for talking with me today. I understand you have been very busy of late, working to complete your new audio-book Naked in New York. How does it feel to be coming to the end of such a momentous project?
Cooke: Hi Leslie. Yes, I have been finishing up the preparation for my book Naked in New york. I am about to launch it to the world as an Audio download on my site www.wildirishpoet.com. It is the end of an extraordinary road. It is also the beginning of a I hope an abundant and transformative period of my life.
Browning: Where did your love affair with the arts (written and visual) begin? When did the muse first call?
Cooke: Well I have been a stage actor for ten years and I moved into writing seriously in 2001. I moved to New York then and began a very strange dark and luminous period of my life which change me forever. The arts , my creative heart have always laid deeply inside my very being. The touchstone of writing was being thrust into the river of the world in New York.
Browning: Naked in New York follows your years spent in New York during the post 9/11 era. The feel of the city—the feel of the world for that matter—shifted as those towers collapsed. How did the events shift your life’s course?
Cooke: It was a momentous time. Filled with beauty, decay, and the faces of millions. I had seen the towers fall in Ireland. But I still made my decision to go to New York regardless. It was a very odd and powerful calling within. I believe in the internal mythology of the human journey. I believe in our souls calling us to answer the coda and map of our life. To go against the grain of all that is familiar and that was what going to New York meant to me.
Browning: Having worked late into the night the previous day, on the morning of 9/11 I was asleep during the first attack. I was woken by my mother who was frantic at the news of the terrorist attacks. At that time—early on in the morning—when we did not know the extent of the attack, I distinctly felt the divide that had occurred between how the world had been and how it would be now. During those early hours of uncertainty, like so many I spent the day fixated on live news feeds—the passing moments had a surreal quality—watching the image reel, mind afloat in the fear and unknown…. Where were you when the towers were struck? What are your recollections of that day?
Cooke: I was in Ireland. And I watched this terrible wound open in the world. I watched the faces of those around me. I felt the tremor of a million broken hearts. It was very sad because the century began with a tragedy instead of a re birth. When I got to New York I then watched the wound burn. I felt the ash on my skin of the people lost . I felt the spirit and the humanity too. The flip side of darkness. The light that pours through during a tragedy and I heard many stories first hand. And I released that New York was bigger than any one wound.
Browning: In 2002 you made your New York City stage debut in a show about the events of 9/11, producing and acting in this series of ten short monologues about victims of 9/11. Tell us a little about that experience.
Cooke: Yes that came together through fellow actors, New Yorkers who were hurt by the incident and wanted to express themselves through their art. It was a potent group of people. I had to perform a monologue about a man who was losing his mind because of the incident. I just let it happen and let the words transform me. I let the spirit of it transform me in that moment. It was dark and powerful and the audience were involved in that moment in deep cathartic ways.
Browning: What change compelled you to leave New York and return to Ireland? Was it new prospects in your professional life or changes in your private life?
Cooke: Well I had wandered, fought, been broken and torn apart, moved ten times… being run over by a van worked every conceivable job, I had been at the top and bottom professionally spiritually and emotionally in New York. It was like I was mirroring the shapes and transformations of the city itself. For I do believe that 10 million people in a place so dense and filled with so much human misery, power, dreaming and intention transforms the soul over and over. I had walked over 10,000 miles in New York. Every avenue and street , every corner and brick and tower I knew. All the faces , and languages I filled my soul with. And I left because I needed to empty again. As a wanderer I needed a new road.
Browning: Do you miss New York? Do you ever see yourself returning or is your place in Ireland now?
Cooke: I miss the river of the world. Dipping my hand in. Drowning almost in all of the human carnival. I miss late nights on my fire escape in the summer heat, feeling the trembling of the masses. I miss the possibilities around every avenue. I do not miss the intense energy that can suck your soul. Or the lack of nature. It has it’s good and bad and it’s price and reward. I live by the edge of the Atlantic now. I live near wild horses and fields and mountains. I live with the astonishing spirit and myth of a place unlike anywhere on this earth. I have written two books here in my time. But I feel the itch again. Are we not all wanderers at heart?
Browning: Very true. So, after the release of Naked in New York, I assume you will wander back to your other project and turn your attention back to your documentary. When will The Spirit of Ireland be released?
Cooke: Actually it is a two-fold thing. I recently finished my second book, which is my return to Ireland called A Spirit of Ireland: An Odyssey Home. The journey back has been even more epic. The idea of change within the self and how I see this country and the world so differently now. That will be released in the fall. The film is an epic tribute called The Spirit of Ireland. I am trying to raise the funding for that.
Browning: I see. It certainly is difficult to find funding for indie projects during these hard times. People can make donates on the book’s homepage?
Browning: You have a story for each shore you a lived upon. The tone of your work follows that of Kerouac or Cohen. In Naked in New York you tell us of your migration to the gritty streets of urban America. What is the intended message of The Spirit of Ireland: An Odyssey Home?
[Cooke:] The message is an epic poem, a visual poem to the country. A work that elevates the heart of this nation. And also tries to give the keys to a cathartic experience that is so badly needed here. The film will feature well known Irish artists and also ordinary beautiful lives. It will be a symphonic tapestry of the nation and its wondrous depths. I had created a similar project called Home when I was in New York. It was a film of my journey and the journey of the city which went on to win an Emmy.
Browning: While I realize that the film is still in the conceptual phase, who would you like to be featured in the film?
Cooke: In my last film Home I got Woody Allen and Liam Neeson and Mike Myers and Frank McCourt. I was very lucky and it was because they were happy to see a positive contribution to the city in a time of darkness. I am aiming to get the same caliber of people. But also to travel the entire nation and show the secrets and beauty that have never been shown here to the world.
Browning: You also publish under the name “Wild Irish Poet.” Earlier this year when your video “The Rising: A Speech for the Irish People and The World” went viral you became a voice for the Irish people overnight. How do you feel about these last whirlwind months?
Cooke: Amazing. It ended up on the Rachel Maddow Show. They called it a speech for all of America. It was a dark time in my life. I was getting no where with my work and I sat in my room and wrote the speech from the heart. It touched a lot of people around the world. That’s all I want with my work to touch ordinary lives to make them know they are not alone..
Browning: By your estimation, what is the current state of Ireland? What are the Irish people in need of?
Cooke: Ireland lays broken like a clock. It is devastated financially and spiritually. But there is hope. Ireland has survived so much. I look at the empty ghosts estates and emigration again. But I was driving through a valley the other day and in the midst of a giant concrete path there was one single daffodil growing up through the stone and rock . Defiant and delicate and beautiful. And that is Ireland and maybe that is the world. We are souls are like that flower. Always striving to reach the light. It is such a dark time in the world but out my window I feed birds and they come in droves always flying and reaching and eating and being. There is always hope….
Browning: Great writers often take it upon themselves to chronicle the times in which they live. Do you view yourself as a poet speaking on behalf of the Irish people?
Cooke: Well I feel I am humbled by my journey. I feel a commonality with the ordinary man. I try and write to move others. To lift them out of the darkness. This is a short life with pain and sorrow. But I believe there is a reason to it all. And I believe in making poetic moments from every ordinary moment possible. I write prose and use my voice but with I hope a poetic slant. If I can make someone feel the moment more and see something in themselves that elevates them beyond their woes then I have succeeded.
Browning: The first time I heard your work I was listening to an audio excerpt from The Spirit of Ireland. Your voice was haunting—bewitching. You are that rare, perfect convergence of artist, actor and poet. Have you given up the stage for the pen or do you plan to continue acting?
Cooke: No, I have been off it for too long. It is my very being. I love my writing too. I love the word. It can transform millions. But i love the inner emotion of acting. The physical act of communing with an audience. I love all of the combination of voice word and the body.
Browning: Any plans for a book tour?
Cooke: Well this is an audio book release. And an e-book too. But who knows. If it takes off. I would love to get hard copies and tour. I want to meet and express my books in person. It would combine live performance and words and my voice. It would be wonderful. I am open to it.
Browning: What’s next?
Cooke: Well this has only begun. The audio book launch of Naked in New York is going to need a lot of PR to get it out there. Particularly to my own home crowd in New York. I believe I have created something that all people will love. I have poured my heart, my pain and my life into each word. And recording it was a transformative experience in itself. I am finishing off editing the Ireland book which I believe is even more person and more epic and is a next development in my writing. I feel all the doors are opening in my soul after such a long wander and know I am ready for my work to take me to the people of the world.