Robert Sheehan: ‘I was a contrarian f**ker. I thought it made me seem more edgy’

The Portlaoise-born actor talks about London living, meditation and lockdown writing

Robert Sheehan, Portlaoise born star of The Umbrella Academy, Love/Hate, Misfits, Red Riding, The Mortal Instruments and Mortal Engines, is lounging on a couch in his north London flat and I'm staring at him through the camera on his laptop. He's very relaxed. "I'm loving this, man, being able to get cups of tea, slices of toast, being able to go and water the plants." Actually, there's a big potted plant incongruously sitting beside him on the couch. His hair is long. "I'm a happy bunny, man."

This was part of a Netflix-organised junket for the second series of its stylish, fun and darkly funny apocalyptic sci-fi drama The Umbrella Academy. In it he plays Klaus Hargreeves, the most fey, flaky, drug-addled and entertaining of a septet of super-powered siblings. The virtual nature of this press junket – the fact he doesn't have to travel to a fancy hotel – has put Sheehan into a sort of zen, reflective place and he agrees to another, longer, follow-up chat a few days later. This time he spins his laptop around to show me the "nice bit of green" outside his window and even goes for a wander at one point, laptop in hand, to open the door for a delivery.

I'm writing a bit about meditation. It has to be written down because if I started speaking about some stuff that's been happening it seems really woo woo

"I had a strange mourning when [the lockdown] first happened officially," he says. "I was in state of disbelief. It was slightly childish: 'This is Orwellian! All of our social freedoms are being restricted and they can be taken away that easy?' It was that tantrumy reaction, which then was replaced by 'I am f**king loving it.' Loving it . . . There was a prolonged heatwave. London was quiet. It was botanical. It was in bloom . . . I was writing, I was going for strolls. I had company here and there. And I was meditating loads. I was growing plants . . . I don't want this to seem empathy-less towards people who've had a sad time of it. I was lucky not to lose people. It was lovely . . . It was like being retired."

When did he start meditating? “Oh dear. Well, I was away from home, quite far from home. I was in Portland, Oregon, doing a film that was fairly taxing. It was eight weeks, mostly at night. It was that film Bad Samaritan. I was at the end of a relationship. It was making me pretty sad and it was making her pretty sad and it was a lot. [Meditating] didn’t do anything for six months, [but then] it just deepens and widens and it casts tendrils out into previously unexplored dark inside yourself. It’s delicious, it really is. It makes you more emotionally fortuitous . . . I’m writing a bit about meditation. It has to be written down because if I started speaking about some stuff that’s been happening it seems really woo woo.”

When did he start writing? "I was in Los Angeles and it was 2015 and I was living in an apartment in West Hollywood, " he says. "I was in a strange kind of a hinterland of a place in terms of work and in terms of my life. I felt quite far away from everything . . . I couldn't catch a cold, man. I'd get sent some script and back then I was a contrarian f**ker and there were things that I wanted to go up for that they didn't want to cast me for.

"So, I was just sat at home . . . I went to a charity gig, which was half sponsored by this magazine [called] Lady Gunn or something and there was a clothing company who was the other sponsor called Wild Fox, and they had wild animals paint these t-shirts, bears and stuff. So I bought a t-shirt painted by a bear which was quite a few quid for charity it was $100 or something and then I put it straight into the wash and cleaned it like gleamingly white clean. I've never seen a t-shirt come out of the wash so clean in all my f**king life," he laughs.

“So anyway, I was at this thing [talking to] one of the editors of the magazine and I say, ‘I’ll write you an article.’ And she went, ‘Well what would it be about?’ And I went, ‘Shadow puppetry. I’ll write about shadow puppetry.’ And she went, ‘Okay.’ I sat down to try to write this shadow puppetry thing and it just came out like a textbook. Nothing sounded like me. It’s like that thing where you can visualise a good drawing but it just cannot travel down the arm to the page. And then I was on the toilet one morning and I thought, ‘Instead of trying to sound like something I’m just going to say it whatever the way it comes out,’ a little thought experiment. And that was the greatest thing ever. Because suddenly I was writing away reams of little thought bubbles that could evolve into something because there’d be no wrong turn. I was writing all these bits when I was in Los Angeles and reading them to my girlfriend at the time and she was going, ‘Yeah, they’re funny, man . . . You should keep writing.’”

Sheehan has been working on fiction ever since and has spent a lot of the lockdown writing. How does that compare creatively to acting?

“Where it correlates for me is in researching a character,” he says. “Even last night there was a film that hopefully we’re going to try and pull together for f**k-all money before the end of the year. And I had a long chat with the director on the phone last night and I found myself for a good two, three hours being [the character] in my living room and looking at all the objects and working out what they would feel about all this stuff. You start to learn things when you take a character and bump them up against things in the external world. And that’s what the writing is.”

When I interviewed Sheehan several years ago, after he had been working on the film Season of the Witch, he said he didn't want the same level of fame as his co-star Nicholas Cage. He laughs when I remind him of that now.

“I was definitely more contrarian for a living when I was 20. I thought it probably made me seem more edgy . . . I was very wary of gathering moss. That was my big thing . . . After two series of Misfits I was like ‘Nah! I’m doing something else.’ I had this desire to not allow anything be bigger than me, as in, be beholden to any show. That’s how I thought.”

After a while I yearn for my own, for the craic, for the ease and the fluency of people who speak not only your language, but your cultural language

As a young actor did he see any of the abuses of power that the industry is now reckoning with around issues of race and gender?

“I don’t know if I was in a position to know the plights of people from minorities [who] may not have been getting the same opportunities I was getting, which is kind of shitty.

"We were talking to [the black British actor, writer and director] Noel Clarke on the Earth Locker [a new podcast he creates with his Umbrella Academy co-star Tom Hopper]. He did a film called Fishermen's Friends, which came out not too long ago. I think a rural comedy drama set in the West Country. All the main actors' names were on the poster, including Noel's and all the main actors were on the poster, except Noel.

"The accumulation of things like that, where essentially your presence is omitted, you are left out. For no good real reason. That would sting. There is a big effort towards inclusion, equality and diversity across casting and hiring. I saw on social media that Netflix posted, I'm paraphrasing, 'To be silent about this is to be complicit' and I think that's right."

After a year in LA he went to live in London, which suits him better and has the benefit of being much closer to Portlaoise where his parents live. “A prolonged time in Los Angeles didn’t do anything good for my spirit,” he says. “I think it’s because you have to live a somewhat single-track life. Of course, you can have friends and a community and people you trust in Los Angeles, but it’s the means of distribution. It’s the traffic, man. It’s the way you get around. It’s a way of life that is quite significantly different to what I was used to. It’s also the cultural gulf. I enjoy feeling a bit different, but after a while I yearn for my own, for the craic, for the ease and the fluency of people who speak not only your language, but your cultural language.”

He tells me he "sometimes gets in trouble" for taking the piss out of people who don't realise he's joking. So we end up talking about humour for a while. He manages to get comedy into a lot of the roles he plays. We talk a little about writers like Samuel Beckett who some critics seem to forget is hilarious. He tells me a story about Samuel Beckett meeting Buster Keaton and both being too overawed to speak to the other. He'd like to do Beckett.

Are his family funny? They are, he says. “I’ve many memories [of being] down at a mobile home in Cork and being at a bar with my mother and her sisters and maybe her niece, Helen, and they all have tears of laughter and they’re doubled over. I think it’s people from that same place as you that can make you laugh the most. I remember a lot of laughing from my childhood, especially from my mum.”

I  loved being on stage . . . It felt like the most meaning I'd ever got out of life

Were his family otherwise creative? "We did a lot of music when we were kids," he says. "We used to go to the Fleadh Cheoils. I went to France at the age of 10 with a band of musicians and the mayor of Portlaoise and the deputy mayor and mum, to do a town twinning thing. And dad [a garda] has a pretty extensive library. It's pretty impressive the amount of books that he's read . . . He was always singing songs and quoting bits and poems, so he was very influential in that way. And he has a great computer head for excerpts of things."

Both of his parents were very encouraging when Sheehan was started acting at the age of 12, he says. "To be honest, I did acting because of all the approval and all the love. My mother, god bless her eternal patience, would take me up on the train to Dublin or Belfast or Waterford for auditions . . . I really, really, really loved being on stage doing plays and stuff. I remember getting a liberating, freeing kick out of being on stage . . . It felt like the most meaning I'd ever got out of life at that stage."

Unsurprisingly then, his favourite role so far has been a theatrical one – Richard III in Trevor Nunn's Wars of the Roses. "Four Shakespeare plays turned into three Shakespeare plays with about 1,000 couplets written by John Barton and Peter Hall to fill in the gaps. So truthfully, I couldn't tell you which bits in my soliloquies were John and Peter and which bits were Bill. I worked really, really, really hard on it mostly out of fear of being laughed at. You have the likes of Mark Rylance and Ralph Fiennes, actors of an incredibly high calibre, doing Richard III and in comes Rob, the Irish whippersnapper. And the truth is I was f**king good . . . I was absolutely terrified. And I learned to negotiate with fear, in a way that put me streets beyond having any kind of fear on a TV or film set . . . I was good at it because I refused to pontificate with the language. I just tried to make it chat, tried to make it f**king banter, to instinctively bring those comedic comedy beats to it."

What did he learn? He paraphrases the actor Antony Sher: "Never allow something as trivial as your own nerves to impact the audience's enjoyment . . . And the other part of it was listening. Listening to another actor is an act of meditation and it requires brain practice. But when you do it, the walls of the theatre fall away and you are in that gorgeous flow state and if you're doing Richard III, you're having a nervous breakdown every night on stage. The reaction was like mother's milk to me, I absolutely loved it. It was scary and challenging and terrifying in all the right ways."

What are his family’s favourite of his roles? “Love/Hate is on again at the moment and my mother and father are watching that,” he says. “They really love that. They like the Irish homegrown stuff the best. They probably relate to it the most. I don’t think my dad’s even seen Umbrella Academy.”

A lot of other people have seen it though. According to Netflix, 45 million households watched the first series and Sheehan is really enjoying being part of it. “I was given permission to cause a bit of chaos – which isn’t always the case in things this big – and then different directors come in trying to rein you in to different degrees,” he grins. “Then it becomes a bit of an ego battle. ‘Well, I’m just not going to listen to you on that front.’ But we find a happy medium.”

He's learned a lot from showrunner Steve Blackman, who keeps managing to surprise him, he says. What's the Umbrella Academy audience like? "They're fervid man, the crowd who love the sci-fi stuff," he says. "It's been interesting since Umbrella. At certain conventions and events it's been quasi-religious. Younger people who are at a more formative part of their lives saying that the portrayal of Klaus and the show at large was important to them. It's such a tender part of your life."

People dress up as his character at these conventions, he says. “It’s taken to quite a profoundly creatively extreme level. You get a lot of girls [dressing as Klaus]. They always paint on quite a big goatee, a more generous goatee than anything I could cultivate, to be honest.”

Klaus is queer. Sheehan is straight but he has, in his own words, “had a few tries, a few goes. It just wasn’t for me . . . [On camera], it was slightly daunting kissing a man with love . . . But it’s just a lady with a beard . . . Love is love really. You can choose to emphasise the gayness of the love, or the love itself. It rang nicely with people because it placed no emphasis on the fact that it was a man with a man. [The characters in Umbrella Academy] are flawed but they’re certainly not prejudiced in any kind of way. They live in a world where if you can get a bit of love [you] cling to it because it’s like gold dust.”

He’s been moved by the response to the character. “Teenage queer people come up to you in tears saying ‘The portrayal of Klaus in the Umbrella Academy was a big part of my coming out or was a very meaningful thing for my journey.’ You go ‘F**king hell that’s lovely’. It’s a great badge of pride.”

Season 2 of The Umbrella Academy is on Netflix from July 31st

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne is a features writer with The Irish Times