"What are the rules for making people believe in you?" asks Christopher, a young man with Asperger's syndrome, played by newcomer Jacob McCarthy in the upcoming Irish film The Drummer and The Keeper.
But it would seem that the 24-year-old Dublin actor already knows the rules.
When we chat on the phone, he's in LA on his lunch break from filming a new NBC comedy series A.P. Bio, written by SNL's Seth Myers and Mike O'Brien.
Initially getting into drama because he was a shy child and “my mum wanted me to learn to socialise”, McCarthy didn’t pursue it seriously for a long time. His school was “very rugby orientated, so they don’t really celebrate the arts. It was kind of a private endeavour that I just put on myself in my final year. My dad told me, if you’re going to do it, do it properly and train.”
About a month before his Leaving Cert, McCarthy found out he got accepted at the prestigious Lamda (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art). So to hell with the points, eh?
I collapsed very dramatically to my knees and I was like, crying with relief
“That was the freedom of it. I got the phone call in the middle of school. I was in the hallway when [the head of drama in Lamda] told me I got in.” Such was his shock, “I actually told him to fuck off”, he says laughing. Then he called his mother. “I collapsed very dramatically to my knees and I was like, crying with relief.”
Three years at London academy passed and the plan for his next step came from an unlikely place, a sick day in bed binge-watching Netflix. Researching the shows he watched, he realised how many actors turned out to be British. Inspired, he looked at his options and discovered the Irish Green Card lottery. He entered and was selected
Lamda ran a showcase in New York and LA for graduates who could work in the US and some “heavy hitters” there expressed their interest in McCarthy. “But in my head I was a London actor, I was going to go back to theatre. When I got home my parents said to me, ‘If that can happen in two months out there, imagine what can happen in a year.’ I packed up my things and moved.”
He's been living there ever since, and secured the role of Christopher in The Drummer and The Keeper after reading for it when he came home for Christmas in 2015.
It's a gem of a film, turning in star performances from McCarthy as the Asperger's teen in care, fond of rules, order and logic and Dermot Murphy, his unlikely new bipolar friend, Gabriel, a drummer who isn't keen on any of the above.
The film also brings a touch of irreverence. “I know you’re bipolar and all, but don’t be an arsehole as well,” a football coach remarks. And the chemistry between McCarthy and Murphy gives the film real heart. “We immediately got on. I really respect the reverence he approaches his work with.”
A neighbour of mine has a young kid who is non-verbally autistic and I sat in on his behaviour therapy sessions
The film's subject is one dear to the heart of the film's director and writer, Nick Kelly, who has a son with autism. In preparation for the role, McCarthy "spent a lot of time with people with developmental disorders, particularly Asperger's and autism. A neighbour of mine has a young kid who is non-verbally autistic and I sat in on his behaviour therapy sessions and watched how he interacted with his loved ones."
Nick Kelly also put McCarthy in touch with an acting group through Aspire, the Asperger Syndrome Association of Ireland, where he would “take in the physical and vocal mannerisms, and approaches to life in general for these kids”.
‘A human being’
He wanted to approach Christopher, “not through the lens of somebody with a developmental disorder but as a human being”.
Knowing the subject was personal to the director, did that raise the stakes a little? Early in rehearsals, “I did feel like I was holding back a bit, it was nothing to do with what Nick was doing, but I had a fear of what if I caricature this or do something that is offensive. There was one rehearsal where I stamped my foot at the point where Christopher is having a bit of a meltdown and, after the rehearsals, Nick came up and said I liked that you stamped your foot. And from that point on, the window was open and I realised that the best way to do it was to just go for it.”
The film wrapped and McCarthy returned to LA where work was a little more stagnant than he would have liked. “I was a barista in a coffee shop and would skip work for auditions.” There was some “existential questioning”.
I wrote myself a contract saying 'You're gonna be an actor' which I still have on my wall.
“Acting is something I’ve been so sure of my entire life. When I was five years old, I wrote myself a contract saying ‘You’re gonna be an actor’ which I still have on my wall. “ He was, he says, “terrified of the possibility that my life might not give me what I want”.
“You come out here and everyone is multi-hyphenated. They’re a writer-director-photographer-actor and gonna change the world. I learned very quickly to tune that bullshit out and focus on your own stuff.” But the auditions are ruthless, “the sheer quantity of people trying to do it out here makes it a bit more of a cattle call”.
By the end of 2016, feeling somewhat hopeless, he went home for Christmas, planning to extend his stay “to re-evaluate”. His manager called him from LA and said, ‘You’ve done a lot of the ground work. I think it would be a real shame if you missed this pilot season.”
He had just decided to throw himself back into the fray, when the casting directors of A.P. Bio emailed his agent: "There's a show coming up that we think is perfect for Jacob."
I've got my dressing room and my parking spot with my own name on it, even though I don't drive
He flew back out and got the part. Now he finds himself standing around the watercooler on an NBC soundstage with actors who have been “doing commercials and Nickelodeon since they were two”.
This was not the game plan. “As far as I was concerned, I was going to be living in some squat in south London with a couple of my friends and we were going to be putting on cheap plays in the basements of pubs for 10 years until things took shape.”
In the new comedy, McCarthy plays a young American student, “an anarchist [who] sits at the back of the class and observes. He’s like a trench coat mafia with a heart of gold type thing.” It’s early days and that’s all he really knows so far.
“We’re filming in Studio City and we’ve got our own stage and I’ve got my dressing room and my parking spot with my own name on it, even though I don’t drive. It’s moments where I’m like, this is happening, Jacob – tune in, wake up, you’re here and this is it.”