Prior to being awarded an honorary fellowship of the L&H, Robert Sheehan sits down with Jack Walsh to talk about Irish theatre, Nicolas Cage stories and his most tragic role.
“They are basically my personal security. Joy is the most lethal one; she has nun-chucks stashed in her handbag.” So says Robert Sheehan, waving at his family who are assembled on the outskirts of the media scrum. The Portlaoise native’s reasoning is sound, facing a mass of cameras and eager faces, all with their own expectations of the actor.
“I basically rounded up as much [of a] posse as humanly possible because the closest people in our lives are the ones we feel the most secure around. My life at the moment is very nomadic… It’s vital for a travelling salesman to have a base, be it a person or people.”
His acting career was born in the casting room of Song for a Raggy Boy. He says that, although barely remembers the performance, the emotions he felt still ring through. “I was a little fella, 13 or 14-years-old at the time growing up in Portlaoise, so wasn’t really akin to the idea of performance, didn’t really know what it was. Went into the audition with the director and two other actors and then, as sometimes is the case with an audition, what happened was altogether other.”
The 25-year-old continued, “Some kind of spark in the ether happened. I did an amazingly emotional thing for a 14-year-old lad, I took myself entirely by surprise. Afterwards, I felt a deep feeling of shame because I had embarrassed myself so blatantly in front of these strangers. Of course, that was what they were after.”
Sheehan made his name as “Nathan” in the comedy drama Misfits, earning a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and accepted the award for Best Drama Series for Misfits as a whole. Playing an immortal, snide loudmouth, Sheehan revelled in the many relationships allowed to breathe whilst filming. “Sometimes something happens organically between two actors. When they come together in character, it can become really really funny.
“A dynamic can be struck up. That was a unique dynamic, and it was my favourite one too. That and the character that Lauren played; Kelly. The dynamic we had was very interesting, it felt very new. It’s always good to have a love hate thing going on with characters, and make it work.”
How does today’s Sheehan remember his younger self? “I will always look back on [Misfits] and say fucking hell that was a really surreal time. Regardless of the success of the show, I was mad back then. That was the pinnacle of madness, so it represents a very lovely time in my life.”
Sheehan then takes a step back to reflect on how powerful he feels the character is. “Nathan had that shield of armour; his thing is his feeling of invincibility, playing beside his immortality. He was utterly tragic at the same time,” Sheehan laughs. “Maybe that’s a running theme, I bring an air of tragedy to every part that I play.”
He certainly brought that sense of tragedy to his next big role: the portrayal of Darren in Love/Hate, a trusted character, who by the third season begins his descent into madness. Sheehan believes that Darren’s sympathetic side adds to histragic nature, saying, “First of all you see Stuart Carolan’s plan for the character as this kind of noble character who falls utterly from grace, and falls further and deeper than any of his cohorts.
“In the third series, you see he’s doomed from the beginning. As the show goes on you can see him becoming irreparably fucked… because of everything that happened. There was kind of no coming back for him.”
Successes in Ireland and Britain have allowed Sheehan to open himself to American audiences in his on-going portrayal of “Simon Lewis” in the Mortal Instruments series. The actor is excited to make his return, and he has one scene in particular that he is looking forward to.
“In the next book there’s a resurrection scene which is pretty amazing. The words and way it is written is very dark and pretty graphic. My character in the Mortal Instruments comes flying out of the earth and proceeds to overdose on blood. It sounds like such a crazy horror movie type scene.”
This marks Sheehan’s return to the genre having previously worked on Season of the Witch, with the infamous Nicolas Cage. Sheehan recalls one particularly peculiar memory from working with the Oscar winner, explaining, “We were once sat in a very cold castle in Austria. We were huddled around a heater and he leans in and he says, ‘What do you know of the mysticism of leprechauns?’
“He really is like talking to a child; he’s very fascinated and wide eyed. I said ‘I don’t know, pots of gold at the end of the rainbow and stuff’. He says, ‘It’s just I think my assistant Michael might be a leprechaun.’”
Sheehan’s locations have often led to progressions in his portrayals, most notably in filming Accused in a “two up, two down semidetached house” in the middle of winter. “Each episode was like a standalone piece, with a character who has been accused of something and it shows the lead up to the crime and the twists and turns of the story.
“I played a guy who was suffering from paranoia and delusion. As an audience member, you’re never quite sure if it’s his own delusions or it was a subtle war going on between him and his new step mother. The character thinks his step mother is getting rid of the kids so she can have the father. It translated into a very strange and claustrophobic piece of work.”
Having depicted mental illness on screen, Sheehan believes the media often portrays mental health “with varying degrees of accuracy”. He shared his individual experiences with the subject matter, decreeing it as just that, individual. “Sometimes we see characters portrayed with some levels of mental illness.
“I saw something with a character with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and with that I have no idea how to gauge the realness of the performance. I know nobody suffering from PTSD. Yet it seemed utterly unbelievable to me. Accused was all about toeing the line between is this actually happening to this character or not.”
Speaking about future projects, Sheehan said that he considers his stage career a priority and is curious why some actors to never express a desire to experience the medium. “It’s very important… I’m sure you can go through your career without doing theatre, but at the same, it ultimately makes you a better actor.
“The nature of making productions is that it’s very stop-start and it’s more like a hundred yard dash as opposed to theatre, which is like running a marathon. You’re up there for two hours a night giving it absolute socks and that was a quote I borrowed from Tom Von Lawlor [Nidge from Love/Hate] by the way.”
Speaking of Lawlor, Sheehan is forward in his praise of his former co-star. “He’s an actor with an ability to elevate all other actors around him and the faith that they put in him for Love/Hate was great because we started with this character that started off in a somewhat supporting place and inherits the empire in a very shrewd way.
“That character to me was just fascinating to watch and every time I did scenes with Tom it completely upped my game. He makes you look better by proxy. He’s very very inspiring. He’s a guy who can leave his job at the door and go home and have a wife and kids and be normal Tom and then go to work and be terrifying Nidge.”
Considering the recent rise in Irish directorial quality, Sheehan shared his personal hopes for potential directors, and most importantly, their material. “I have been very much bowled over by the work of Enda Walsh recently, who is an Irish playwright. I saw Cillian Murphy do a performance of Mister Man, which is a one man show that Enda wrote.
“I saw it twice in the National Theatre in London. It was pure heaven. Just an incredible performance. So, I would do anything with him, for him.” Realising his strange choice of words, Sheehan promptly added a the caveat, “Within reason.”
Having recognised the work of many others in the creation of his range and approach, he paused, and began to quietly assess his evolved state of understanding a role. “My approach to something is always instinctual. It’s always the script. If I get very excited about something then I start throwing ideas around.
“Ideas ranging from physicality to emotions and then trying to rein it back and hold it in some way. If anyone was to see me with a script that was exciting then they would think I was a mental case. Gibbering to myself in a dimly lit room.”
With three separate projects lined up for 2014, Robert Sheehan is definitely keeping himself busy and with a return to Love/Hate comprehensively ruled out by the show’s lead writer Stuart Carolan, the actor is almost forced to move onto bigger and better things.