The talented Eoin Macken has come a long way: an actor on the way up

This erstwhile UCD psychology undergraduate and model may not be a household name, but he really should be

TV diaspora is a term used in marketing reports to denote just how fragmented that medium has become. The shift from three channels to 3,000 may explain how Eoin Macken is the most famous Irish actor you might not have heard of. You should have, though. How many other Irish actors have appeared in films with Megan Fox, Seana Kerslake, Milla Jovovich, Natalie Dormer, Noomi Rapace, Gretchen Mol, Jodie Turner-Smith, and Anya Taylor-Joy?

“I’ve been very lucky that way,” laughs the affable Macken. “The thing all these people have in common is that they’re wonderful actors. At first, when I’ve met them, I’ve always been slightly intimidated but they’re wonderful at what they do. It’s made my life really easy. Megan Fox is an absolute trip. But they’ve all been lovely.”

On this side of the Atlantic, Macken is a micro-budget movie-making polymath (more on that anon); in the US, however, he’s a leading man, shooting the second season of NBC’s temporal-jumping science fiction, Le Brea and, for four seasons, the headliner in The Night Shift, a medical drama watched by more than 8½ million viewers at its peak. The latter was an acting showcase for Macken, who played a former army doctor who had recently returned from Afghanistan, struggling with PTSD and his superiors at a San Antonio hospital.

“That was the character that I had the hardest time saying goodbye to,” says Macken. “On The Night Shift I was working with such a wonderful group of people. I was really lucky. It was the crew that worked on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. They are a tight-knit, incredible group of people working at the pinnacle of what they’re doing. Gabe [Sachs] and Jeff [Judah], the showrunners, the writers and producers, and all the directors. So when that finished, I felt — not a grieving process — you feel like that character is still part of you, but you never get to express it anymore.”

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By now, Macken is accustomed to the capriciousness of network (and streaming platform) television. He’s still recognised on the street for his role as the upstart knight Gwaine in BBC’s Merlin. Conversely, Nightflyers, the follow-up by the makers of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, was unexpectedly cancelled after one season.

“I think a lot of it depends on timing,” says Macken. “There are so many small things, like execution, but what the audience wants at that moment is so important. Normal People is a really good example. It’s a great show. And Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal are fantastic. But it hit at just the right time. People were searching for something and that something was Normal People.”

Following on from Nightflyers and ‘Til Death, I Used to Be Famous is Macken’s latest collaboration with Netflix.

A Brit-com fashioned in the style of Billy Elliot and The Full Monty, the film is the debut feature from director Eddie Sternberg. It concerns Vince (Ed Skrein), a former boyband star reduced to propping up his keyboard on an ironing board in Peckham boozers, and Stevie (neurodiverse newcomer and multi-instrumentalist Leo Long), an autistic teenager and gifted drummer. Vince, who once tasted fame, remains obsessed with clawing his way back to the top; Stevie simply loves music, even if his mum frets about him performing with the rowdy Vince.

Macken plays Vince’s former band-mate, who has gone on to a successful solo career; a Justin Timberlake to Vince’s the rest of N’Sync. He’s introduced as a possible rotter, but even he proves to have a warmer side in this big-hearted film.

“At the beginning Eddie wanted that character to be kind of a horrible person,” says Macken. “But when I was reading the scenes, it didn’t really feel that way. It felt like a lot of musicians who I know, who have grown apart and gone on different journeys. That happens creatively. People change and you can’t always take your colleagues and friends with you. But also, I think with his character, he’s in the music industry where you have a record label and certain managers and you can lose a lot of autonomy. I didn’t think the character was a bad person. I thought there was more to him.”

Writer-director Sternberg was inspired to write the script by his cousin, Saul Zur-Szpiro, an autistic adult who overcame agoraphobia through a love of drumming. Zur-Szpiro is a member of The AutistiX, a band composed of people on the spectrum, who have previously played with Tom Jones. Leo Long, who plays with the London Youth Folk Ensemble and the National Open Youth Orchestra, was cast after a wide search among the neurodiverse community.

“I think because the story and that character is very personal to Eddie, he was very sensitive the whole way through the process,” explains Macken. “It was really important how they cast Leo and kind of adapting that character to Leo’s strengths. It’s difficult because there are different levels of autism. I have friends with kids on the spectrum. Some people don’t even like the word autism. So it’s important how you approach it. But the film’s not about autism. We know that music has actually been a big thing for some people on the spectrum. What’s really sweet about this film is that it’s actually about this kid and music and friendship. It’s the journey that he goes on and that his mum goes on. I thought it was really beautiful how they respected and approached that.”

Howth-native Eoin Christopher Macken’s extraordinary career began unexpectedly while he was reading psychology at UCD.

“Myself and a friend were injured and couldn’t play football,” recalls the 39-year-old. “They were auditioning for a play and we are really bored. And my friend said: ‘dude, there are no girls in the science department but there are loads of girls who do drama.’ We were in first year so that sounded like a good idea. So we did the play. I loved acting but I didn’t like being in front of people. It wasn’t my thing. So I began to drift into film-making.”

Meanwhile, the university fashion show launched a parallel profession in the fashion industry. He was the face of Abercrombie and Fitch for their 2003 campaign and has also modelled for Ralph Lauren and GQ. The term model-turned-actor isn’t the barrier it once was, at least not in the US, says Macken.

“It was true in Ireland for quite a while. People would be like, well, you’re modelling and you’re a guy, so therefore you’re not really able to act. For the first couple of years, it was easier to get acting work abroad. I don’t think anyone in America was bothered about it. When you are modelling over there, they want you to go and audition. I liked modelling. I made a documentary about the fashion industry because I liked all these people I met through modelling. There were a lot of really interesting photographers and designers and makeup artists and a lot of crossover with film.”

His parents, mother Maeve and the late barrister James Macken, weren’t entirely thrilled by the career switch. But Macken isn’t one to do things by halves. To date, he has worked on both sides of the camera, chalking up credits as an editor, stills photographer, and cinematographer, while continuing to appear in such high-profile films as National Geographic’s Killing Jesus and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.

“What my parents said to me was that if I wanted to kind of go and pursue acting and so forth, I had to get a degree first,” recalls Macken. “And that’s what I did. I studied acting while I was also in college and then once I finished my degree, I pursued it properly. I came to LA to study acting with this coach called Vincent Chase, who is the resident acting coach at MGM, and he trained Shia LaBeouf and Bill Paxton. I made a short film in LA. I figured if I wanted to act, I should commit and learn everything about film-making. I went to study cinematography at Ballyfermot. So I made this film and I showed it to my dad. I guess because it wasn’t terrible, because he was, like, ‘right, okay’.”

Macken made his debut film appearance in Studs, alongside Brendan Gleeson and Emmett J Scanlan, in 2005, before joining Fair City as a drug dealer in 2008. That same year, he wrote, directed, and produced Christian Blake, the first of five feature films he has authored. A prolific collaborator within the independent sector, he’s putting the final touches to Grey Elephant, a relationship drama concerning couples who were separated during the pandemic.

“I came back recently and did The Cellar with Brendan Muldowney who is a great director,” says Macken. “And I got to work with the producers Richie Bolger and Conor Barry. We’ve worked together on a couple of projects. A decade ago, I made Leopard with Jack Reynor. That was a little indie film that was Rich’s first film as producer. It’s all about working with cool people and finding cool projects. That’s what I think film should be. Being around creative people. That’s what I’m looking to do.”

  • I Used To Be Famous is on Netflix from September 16th
Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic