After 'Cal', his first film, John Lynch played so many republican activists that he came to resemble an IRA Everyman. Then he starred as Gwyneth Paltrow's boyfriend. He tells Louise East about his latest unexpected move
There's something uncanny about meeting John Lynch. The actor has played so many republican activists that he has come to resemble a kind of IRA Everyman. Piercing eyes: check. Haunted face: check. Widow's peak: check. If you asked an Irish cinema-goer to describe what a republican looks like, Lynch is probably what they'd come up with.
In Cal, his first film, from 1984, he played a young recruit to the cause; since then he has appeared as Bobby Sands, in Terry George's Some Mother's Son, and as the innocent Paul Hill, in Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father. Today, though, he's playing a rather different role, that of a first-time novelist. By his own admission, it is a part he has been rehearsing for quite some time. "When I was much younger, I remember saving vouchers from the back of the Quaker porridge-oats packets so I could send off for a set of six novels. There was always something about a novelist, some romantic notion of a writer, that really appealed to me."
Lynch's novel, Torn Water, is a lyrical coming-of-age story set in a housing estate outside Newry, in Co Down. Its protagonist, a young lad called James Lavery, finds an escape through acting. Hmm. Lynch grew up in Corrinshego, outside Newry, and found an escape through acting. How autobiographical is it? "About a third," says Lynch. "The family life, the absent father and so on, that's all made up, but there's no escaping the fact that there's parts of me in the boy, particularly in his school life and inner world.
"When I was a kid, we improvised these little plays with our teachers, and I always found some way of doing these overly dramatic deaths. I thought that was a particularly strong image: a child in the North unconsciously parroting what's going on around him."
Thoughtful, measured and not a little tormented, Lynch couldn't be much farther from the shrieking, hand-wringing stereotype of the luvvy actor. He listens almost solely to virtuoso miserablists such as Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and Bob Dylan. He reads Joseph Campbell on mythology, Seamus Heaney and Pablo Neruda. About 14 years into his career, when he went for a role as Gwyneth Paltrow's boyfriend in Sliding Doors, he had to do a screen test, as nobody thought of him as a comedy actor.
The eldest of five children - his sister Susan is also a well-known actor - Lynch says he is from "a close family and a very together one". The jet-black hair and dark eyes, which pass for "black Irish" on screen, are inherited from his mother, an Italian teacher who met Lynch's father, a Corrinshego native, in London. With chronic bad timing, they moved back to Co Armagh in 1968, when Lynch was seven.
"The Troubles were just starting. All the civil-rights marches were happening. I remember when the army moved in for the first time," says Lynch. "One particular winter, there was a spate of killings in Bessbrook, and in a farmhouse nearby some Catholic men were taken out and shot. Our childhood was very much informed by that atmosphere of oppression."
Straight out of school, he took up a place at the prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama, in London. In his third year there, he landed the title role in Cal. "They came to the school, asking whether they had any 19- or 20-year-old Irish kids. I fitted the job description," he says, deadpan. Pat O'Connor's film, which was a huge critical success, gave Lynch his first professional experience, alongside Helen Mirren, Donal McCann, Ray McAnally and John Kavanagh. "The cast looked after me. Donal in particular I had a real father-son relationship with - a typically Irish, grunted kind of thing, but I was fascinated by him."
Much has been made of the fact that Lynch didn't work in film again for several years after Cal. The initial attention, he admits, was overwhelming - "I didn't know what was going on half the time," he says - but, far from dropping off the acting radar, Lynch was hard at work in the West End of London. "Eighteen months at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Fourteen months on The Seagull. Big commitments."
His retreat into theatre was fuelled in part by a desire to stretch himself, but he was also put off by the kind of film parts he was offered. "They were all Northern Irish things, and I left them alone." It's an unlikely statement from an actor who went on to make his name in a string of high-profile films about the North, but Lynch came late to the idea of politically-engaged film-making. "I ended up, when I had a bit more experience, doing a lot of Northern Irish material, because by then I was comfortable with the need to tell those stories. I was around film-makers such as Jim Sheridan and Pat O'Connor, who were very conscious of the responsibility of stories or film. I began to feel it was important to be part of films that were about the North and were trying to make sense of that bludgeoned way of living, of how that impacted on a place and how it impacted on me. Otherwise, why do I do what I do?"
On the set of 1994's Words Upon the Window Pane, he met his future wife, the film-maker Mary McGuckian. "We got married eight years ago, and she's had a profound influence on me, certainly in terms of writing. She's a producer, writer, director and a tremendous force in getting things done. She encouraged me to look beyond what I thought were my parameters."
The pair worked together on several films, including Best, a biopic of the footballer George Best, which Lynch co-wrote as well as starred in. More recently, the pair have opted for separate projects, McGuckian making Rag Tale, a story set in the world of British tabloid newspapers, and Lynch splicing writing with acting. "We probably will work together again, but we did four in a row - every film she did, I was in - and it's nice to have a break."
Lynch's forthcoming releases are an unlikely duo: Isolation, a horror film about cloning by the young Irish director Billy O'Brien, and a big-screen treatment of Lassie. Lynch says he greeted the idea of the latter with a certain horror - "I thought of Skippy, and then I remembered, Oh no, that's the other one" - but embraced the project because it offered the opportunity to work with Peter O'Toole, and also with Charles Sturridge, who directed him in The Seagull 20 years ago.
Isolation provided another kind of thrill. "It's so different to the stories I was used to doing in an Irish context. This is a film-maker in his early 30s who wants to try something very ambitious, very different. People are looking beyond the dark political stories and trying to be inventive.That's really exciting."
Lynch is understandably proud of Torn Water, the result of his own ambition and invention. "Acting, by definition, has its limits. You're not responsible for the genesis of the material, and the pure spontaneity isn't yours, because the origin of the words is not within you. I didn't know whether I was going to be successful. I hadn't been commissioned to write it. I hadn't talked to an agent or publisher. I just sat down and had a go, thinking, well, if it doesn't come off I'll hide it.
"I realised after three months of just knocking on the door of it that, actually, a door had opened and I had this story. I'm not saying acting hasn't been tremendously satisfying, but there's a completeness about writing I've never felt before."
Torn Water by John Lynch is published by Fourth Estate on November 7th, £12.99