ONE BALMY NIGHT LAST MONTH, ANDREW Strong, a beefy Irish teenager with a blond ponytail bouncing behind the features of a street fighter, got into a cab in Los Angeles. Recalls Strong in a lilting brogue: "The driver says, 'Damn, I got myself a movie star! You're in that film The Commitments, right?' "
Right. Although "star" may be stretching the point, the Dublin-raised 17-year-old is definitely on his way—and the meter is ticking. These days he's raking in praise—and some dollars—as the gutty lead singer in The Commitments, a pumped-up, feel-good movie that follows the fortunes of a group of scraggly young Dubliners who, when not arguing or making out with each other, belt out soul classics at full throttle.
At 5'11" and 210 lbs., Strong is not exactly a George Michael—style pinup. As Deco Cuffe, he's a boorish buffoon who, musically at least, is a sort of cross between Joe Cocker and Meat Loaf. But his voice is pure Memphis: Strong delivers "Mustang Sally" and "In the Midnight Hour" with the verve of an Otis Redding—and a pinch of Van Morrison. But the pipes, not the profile, won the part. Strong was far from being the producers' first choice for a study lead singer. Recalls casting director Ros Hubbard: "He sang and he was magic. [Director Alan] Parker said, 'You know, I think he's good-looking in his own sort of way.' "
Strong's magic comes straight from his homework—the kind that's not given in school. Music—Wilson Pickett, James Brown and the booming voice of his own father—resounded throughout his childhood. Andrew's dad, Rob Strong, 44, strums up a comfortable existence as a professional musician on Ireland's pub circuit and teaches music part-time to inmates at Dublin's Mountjoy Prison. He also sings radio jingles for Guinness stout.
While the music was seeping into his subconscious, baby Andrew was developing his own style. Remembers his mother, Noreen Armstrong (Armstrong is the family name; Strong is Rob and Andrew's stage name), a former beautician and model for everything from tights to cheese: "Oh, he was wild. As a toddler, he'd be out on the streets playing with the nappy hanging off him."
According to Noreen, Andrew used to swear terribly and would terrorize "those nice teachers" at a Montessori kindergarten school. "The only thing he learned in school was how to play rugby," complains his father. But Andrew already knew what he wanted. By age 4, he was hanging around his dad's rehearsals, collecting beer glasses for a 10-pence tip. "I used to bring him to gigs, and he'd be fiddling about with the instruments," says his dad. Andrew is fairly accomplished on drums, guitar and bass and can even noodle on the piano a bit.
By the time he was 12, Andrew had formed his first garage band, in which he was the lead singer and was still picking up hints from his father. "He'd plug in his guitar, I'd plug in the bass, and we'd jam," says Andrew.
The intergenerational friction in the family is minimal. Indeed, if not for his harmonious relationship with his dad, Strong would have quit The Commitments before he even got the role. Andrew, who won the part in the movie at the tender age of 16, quickly became frustrated with learning the band's numbers during auditions. "I said, 'Look, I'll ring them up tomorrow and tell them forget it,' " he recalls. "But Dad said, 'You can't put it down without a fight.' He really, really pushed me." Their efforts paid off. Parker tailored the role to fit Andrew's unconventional looks. Says Parker: "I kept saying, 'Give me the voice, and I'll make him into an actor.' "
Thanks to The Commitments, Strong says he now has a six-record deal with Beacon Records and also has had offers to audition in Far and Away, a Tom Cruise
movie filming in Ireland, and Patriot Games, a follow-up to The Hunt for Red October.
Sudden fame can be head-turning, of course, but Andrew seems largely unaffected. And he has decided that he does not need a "relationship." "I'm the type of person that if I meet a girl, I fall in love with her for a week, and if I see another girl, I fall in love with her," he says. "Maybe it's just because I'm 17 and that's my mentality." Anyway, he continues, he prefers "just playing guitar and bangin' drums, getting friends to jam" rather than "going around screwing everything you see." Says Angeline Ball, who plays a backup singer in the film: "Andrew's far from being like Deco. Deco was a bit obnoxious, but Andrew's like a soft puppy."
In fact, most of the money he earned from The Commitments has been spent on his family, who have lived for the past three years in a 12-room house near the village of Blessington in County Wicklow, 22 miles from Dublin. Andrew bought his father a new guitar, helped buy his mother a car and purchased a recreation-club membership for his 11-year-old sister, Niamh. Says longtime chum Alan Lloyd, 21: "It hasn't gone to his head yet. He doesn't like to go out meeting all the people and talking all the jive."
Strong insists he's going to stick to Wicklow's simple pleasures. Life there includes six cats, a black Lab named Elvis and, much to Andrew's chagrin, the sometimes odious task of baby-sitting Niamh. "This is where I live," he says peering over the hedgerows that flank his parents' home. "Who here can give you a big head? The sheep?"
LAURA SANDERSON HEALY in Wicklow