‘I felt a great responsibility. I knew people growing up who took their own lives’

Cork actor Éanna Hardwicke on his role in Normal People, male mental health and new film Lakelands

Éanna Hardwicke bounds into the hotel lobby with the warm glow of a man just back from his holidays. As we’re getting settled, he notes that, a little more than three years ago, he posed just across the road with acting colleagues for an Irish Times feature on up-and-coming talent. Here is the snap. He’s smiling beside Venetia Bowe, Clare Dunne and someone called Paul Mescal. How optimistic they look. What could go wrong?

Well, that turned out to be the pandemic year. Hardwicke was waiting to see his performance in Lorcan Finnegan’s excellent horror Vivarium on the big screen. He and Mescal were about to appear in Normal People.

“Someone said to me Normal People came out three years ago today,” he says. “And Vivarium, the other thing I had just done, was then finishing its festival circuit. It was the perfect time to be on TV. And it was the worst time in history to have something released in cinemas.”

Hardwicke endured and is here to talk about his performance in Robert Higgins and Patrick McGivney’s moving rural drama Lakelands. The film’s release is well-timed. This weekend, he competes for best actor – with Lakelands – and for Screen Ireland rising star at the Irish Film and Television Academy Awards (Iftas). Hardwicke has already been around several blocks, but this feels like the year he properly arrives. The Cork man holds his own against a strong cast in Lakelands to deliver a troubling portrait of male confusion. He plays the star of a midlands GAA team who, after getting knocked unconscious in a bar fight, fails to acknowledge the signs of a serious concussion. The film has much to say about the way men so often fail to communicate their core insecurities.


“Yes, that sense it’s easier to endure than it is to be vulnerable,” he says. “It’s easier to do that than to open up. I like how the film deals with that. It deals with it in a subtle way, not a preachy way. That was the facet of the script I could latch on to. Drinking and playing football is easier than opening up.”

The film also demonstrates the extent to which a sports team can become the beating heart of a rural community. There is something, in a microcosmic sense, of the US series (and film) Friday Night Lights about it. Gaelic football is to this community as American football was to the American town.

“It takes on a whole new meaning because it’s your county pride. It’s your parish pride. Paddy, one of the directors, who played football until this year, would say: ‘You might play for a club and win no silverware. You may not get to the heights. But you still give it your all. You give it your life.’ That is an interesting intersection.”

I used to rip off Gift Grub. I remember doing it at a christening once – and people were giving me cash to do more. I liked having an audience

Polite and softly spoken, Hardwicke has the genial charm of a latter-day, Munster-based Jimmy Stewart. He has the height. He has the presence. You see a bit of that with his supporting turn as the young character who will age to be Stanley Townsend in the recent Irish co-production About Joan. He is something else altogether as a weird man-child in Vivarium. Hardwicke admits that he did enjoy hogging the limelight as a young fellow.

“I was probably a bit precocious as a kid,” he says. “I used to do dances and make my mom and dad watch it. I got into this doing impressions actually. I used to rip off Gift Grub. I remember doing it at a christening once – and people were giving me cash to do more. I liked having an audience. I got lucky. I did youth theatre at a pretty serious level. We were doing Alexander Technique and Stanislavski.”

He began his professional career early with a juvenile role in Conor McPherson’s The Eclipse from 2009. That film starred Ciarán Hinds – an actor justifiably (in my experience) renowned as among the most genial in the business.

“There is just something about him. I think he makes everything a pleasant experience. He did for me anyway. And I just had a great time with him and Conor and the producers.”

Hardwicke was educated at Ashton School before going on to study at the Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art. He has spent the past few years biffed about the world, but you still wouldn’t mistake him for anything other than a product of Cork. Ashton gave the nation a number of distinguished Church of Ireland clerics. But he is not of that community?

“No, no, we grew up in the city centre – and my dad’s actually English,” he says. “So we were sort of English-Irish. And that was a friendly environment. I had a great time there. A lot of my siblings went there. It was good place to go.”

I think we knew it was going to be good. It was Lenny. It was a brilliant novel. I’d known Paul for years. But when we were on set and I saw him and Daisy together, I thought: well, that’s the show – and they’re great

—  Hardwicke on Normal People

The Lir was founded as recently as 2011, but it has already released an impressive number of talented, busy actors into the world. Alison Oliver, Paul Mescal, Agnes O’Casey, Kwaku Fortune, Alex Murphy and Hardwicke’s Lakelands costar Danielle Galligan all attended the college. You could view them as a generation – one that overlaps with the Normal People generation. Hardwicke, Mescal, Fortune, Fionn O’Shea and Leah McNamara profited from their engagement with the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel.

Back when he was posing for that photograph, the buzz around Normal People was already audible. But nobody could have guessed the phenomenon that would develop. It will now demand a place within – indeed a photo on the cover of – any study of popular culture during the pandemic. Connell’s chain. The furious calls to Liveline. It was in the lockdown headlines even more than sourdough starter. Paul Mescal and costar Daisy Edgar-Jones were on every magazine cover. Director Lenny Abrahamson was toasted to the skies.

“It happened bit by bit,” he says of the series popularity. “It was gradual. I think we knew it was going to be good. It was Lenny. It was a brilliant novel. I’d known Paul for years. But when we were on set and I saw him and Daisy together, I thought: well, that’s the show – and they’re great. That was obvious on set.”

He still sounds slightly dazed by it all.

“The reviews were great. The numbers were really good. People were talking about it online and it then snowballs into the stuff with the chain and all of that. I think it’s rare you see a love story told through episodic TV. And it’s just a brilliant story. I guess I was surprised at how internationally popular it was.”

We were talking earlier about how Hardwicke’s character in Lakelands opens up conversations about the psychological pressures placed on young men in contemporary society. That was also true of Rob Hegarty in Normal People. Played with great sensitivity by Hardwicke, Rob, a joker in school, copes badly with the real world and (a spoiler for those yet to read the book or see the series) ends up taking his own life. I wonder if he has talked to anybody who identified with Rob’s trials. His arc is not an uncommon one.

“I have, yeah, actually,” he says solemnly. “People have spoken to me about this. People I know and people I don’t really know. It’s a very brave thing for anyone to do. I felt a great responsibility doing it because – as we talked about earlier – male mental health and suicide was something that was so much in our consciousness growing up. I certainly knew people growing up who took their own lives. I was very glad to play that part because I felt a responsibility for it. I felt I knew where it was coming from. And thankfully there was an environment created where we could go there. Lenny is so good at that.”

A lot of my friends have gone over [to London]. There has been a migration again in the last two or three years. And I felt like I wanted to see a new place. I wanted to experience that

Like so many others from the Normal People generation, he now finds himself living in London. That city doesn’t feel so far away from home in the age of instant digital communication.

“To be honest, my decision to go over there was more to do with prevailing winds,” he says. “A lot of my friends have gone over. There has been a migration again in the last two or three years. And I felt like I wanted to see a new place. I wanted to experience that. It is great for work – you just have access to an amazing theatre culture.”

The work has continued to flow. He is in the hit RTÉ series Smother. He is strong in Michael Kinirons’s fine drama The Sparrow, which premiered alongside Lakeland at last year’s Galway Film Fleadh. He has a lead role in Paramount+ TV’s upcoming adaptation of Elizabeth Macneal’s Victorian thriller The Doll Factory. Shares in Hardwicke’s career are soaring on the exchange. That doesn’t mean he can plan anything. That’s not how this business works. Actors – as he said earlier – drift with prevailing winds.

“I like the sense I don’t really know where or what the next job will be and what it will demand of me,” he says. “The more adventurous for me the better really, yeah. I’m welcoming that for now.”

Lakelands is in cinemas from April 28th