John Connors: ‘Acting ... killed my depression on the spot’

The Love/Hate actor on creativity, anti-Traveller bias, and being too outspoken

When John Connors was a seriously depressed young man he ended up in an acting class. He had recently admitted that he was suicidal to his brother who, after a long conversation, said, "Look man, you need to do something … Why don't you try acting, because you love film?" They googled classes and rang the Abbey Theatre. Connors convinced them to allow him into an advanced class, rustled up the money, and ended up sitting in a circle listening to more experienced actors talking about their acting experience. "I was thinking: I have to get out of here."

But then they started doing an improvisation exercise in which people played a shopkeeper and a customer. A well-to-do Dublin actor took to the stage and began, in Connors’s opinion, to patronise and talk down to a black Brazilian actor. “I started to fill up with venom,” he says. He volunteered to go next. He kicked the door open and fake-robbed the fake shop. He slapped the patronising Dublin man about and took his shoes off.

It was like I stepped through a portal and there was this world I never knew existed – this world of creativity – and I thought: I can't believe I've never known about this

“The teacher separated us and I ran down the stairs and she chased me,” he says. “ ‘John, John come back,’ and I said, ‘No, no, please don’t call the guards’. And she said ‘Please come back ... That was intense. Do not touch any student again, but you have something. Come back and let’s see if we can harness it.’ And I came back and did two hours that night and it was like as if I’d swallowed a magic pill that killed my depression on the spot.”

So the acting saved him? “It literally did,” he says. “I went into that room that day with a pain in the stomach and the weight of the world on me and I went out and all of that was gone. It was like there was a portal and I stepped through the portal and there was this world I never knew existed – this world of creativity – and in the moment, the buzz, the rush, I thought: I can’t believe I’ve never known about this.”


Political awareness

Connors is now known as the star of Love/Hate and Cardboard Gangsters and a face of several acclaimed RTÉ documentaries. As we speak, he's working on a one-man show, Ireland's Call, the story of three young men and their families in Coolock, to be performed at the Dublin Fringe. The pages are spread out on the table on front of him.

He has spent most of his life in that area, moving between halting sites, houses and Travellers’ camps. He depicts his early days living on the camp surrounded by cousins and aunts and uncles as idyllic. “Fields behind us for miles. We’d be looking for fairies and things like that. We’d get the politicians placards from the poles and we’d slide down a hill sitting on their faces.” He laughs. “I didn’t realise the symbolism of that at the time.”

He was always well aware of politics, he says. His grandparents Chrissie and Paddy Ward were activists, as was his grandmother's sister Nan Joyce. "I wasn't wandering around quoting Karl Marx or anything like that," he says. "But I was aware of our standing in Irish society and our history and our relationship with the State from a young age." (He notes later that his grandmother became very demoralised by this struggle and ultimately retreated from any political engagement.)

Does he remember when he first realised that Travellers were treated differently than settled people? “This is something I’ve thought long and hard about,” he says. “I remember I was five years of age and I was in high infants, I think, and one of the kids called me a ‘knacker’ and I didn’t know what the word meant but the way they said it was negative. So I went home to my mother and said, ‘What’s a knacker?’ And I could just see the dread in her face. My mother still remembers it. She said, ‘It doesn’t matter, you’re not a knacker.’ ”

He sighs. “I knew we were different anyway because there was this big gap between where we lived and where the settled people lived … We walked a certain way to school and they walked another way. As we got older I got into fights with settled kids and was bullied by some of them.”

Did he feel looked down on? “That’s what made you feel different,” he says, “and that inferiority would have started early with me. A lot of Travellers, they’re very proud people, but there’s definitely an internal shame there. You can’t not be affected by it. I know many people in my family who feel very inferior to settled people. I’ve a relation who, when he goes to the pub, he goes with settled fellas and when he’s in the pub he puts on a Dublin accent. They don’t even know he’s a Traveller and he’s been drinking there 10 years.”

They never knew? He laughs. “Well, they didn’t until I walked into the pub one day and said ‘What’s up?’ I ruined the buzz for him.”

Father’s suicide

Connors’ own father suffered with depression and schizophrenia and took his life when Connors was just eight years old. Connors had, a few months earlier, walked in on the aftermath of a failed suicide attempt. “For years I would have had anger and resentment,” he says. “Why did he leave us and why did he leave Mother to rear us? Then when I started to battle my own mental health in my late teens, and I knew what depression was, I imagined how bad it was for him and I started feeling empathy and sympathy for him.”

Did people discuss his father’s death? “In whispers,” he says. “Then we became the kids whose father committed suicide, which was a stigma all of its own. There was the pity brigade with some people and then you’d be slagged on the way to school: ‘Your daddy killed himself.’ I definitely internalised a lot of that anger and then, because of the bullying, that brought me to boxing.”

He excelled as a boxer, he said. “It became a vehicle where I could express all that stuff. But as I got older it sort of bolstered my own machoism and became a negative in my life. When you become more macho, you can’t talk about what you feel. I internalised that then.”

He became depressed before acting helped him find a path out. “I think you can use a lot of what you are not willing to express in dialogue and can put it in performance and can fucking unleash it,” he says. “That’s what I’ve done. I’m doing acting classes at the moment with a friend of mine who’s actually a psychotherapist and a cognitive scientist, so we mix both of our skills together and see how they complement each other.”

He talks a little about the psychological theories underpinning the acting techniques advocated by Stanislavski, Adler, Meisner and Strasberg (he explains the differences to me). "Any great actor is an amateur psychologist," he says.

It was very apparent to him that acting was a very middle-class world. “You get this friendly racism sometimes,” he says, “where people want to talk about Travellers all the time to you and say how sound Travellers are.” He puts on a posh south Dublin accent. “I just watched this documentary about Travellers; it’s so fascinating. I’d love to go to a Traveller camp. I think you people are great.”

He should play a south Dubliner. He laughs. “I don’t think I’d get cast.”

It angers him, he says, how few opportunities Travellers or working-class kids have to get involved with the arts. “In working-class communities you never see a theatre in the middle of it – not even music – it’s football or boxing, just sport. Yet most of the stories being portrayed on screen or on stage are of working class people told by middle or upper class people.... 90 per cent of the Irish film industry is from one or two postal codes in Dublin.”

TV breakthrough

Love/Hate was his third proper acting job after roles in the films Stalker and King of the Travellers. He was initially on set as a glorified extra but a few lines were up for grabs, and Connors convinced the director, David Caffrey, to let him say them. "I had the cheek to say they weren't very realistic," he says, and he reworded them.

When his part expanded, he was taken aback by the public reaction. He describes attending a UB40 concert where a horde of drunk Love/Hate fans swarmed him and he had to be taken to the VIP lounge for his own protection. "My shirt was torn off me. My hair was reefed. I was scratched. I took a bad anxiety attack."

Did he set out to be an activist? He had little option, he says. "Every actor in Love/Hate was asked what was their favourite film and what was their dream role and would they like to go to Hollywood. I was asked would I account for Traveller crime and all the stereotypes. So straight off the bat I wasn't even engaging in acting discourse … I had to defend my whole community."

He has also been outspoken about mental health, the treatment of refugees and homelessness, but when he deals with these issues, he says, he gets widespread support. When he talks about Traveller issues, on the other hand, he gets a backlash. “Anti-Traveller sentiment in this country is unbelievable. Getting called a knacker, a pikey, getting death threats. Early on it used to affect me a lot and make me really angry and a bit depressed. In the last few years it doesn’t affect me at all. It just bolsters me.”

He also faced a lot of criticism for taking a strongly expressed anti-abortion position during the referendum on the Eighth Amendment. He says that the reaction got very extreme, particularly on social media. “I got people saying we hope this passes so Travellers can abort children,” he says. “People threatening my life, calling me a misogynist, a woman hater, a racist, a member of the alt-right for being pro-life … People with Repeal tops who had ‘human rights activist’ in their bios, they’re giving me death threats and calling me a pikey and a knacker.”

Controversial T-shirt

He also did some incendiary things himself. He printed and wore a T-shirt with the slogan “Vote ‘no’ to baby genocide”, which was hurtful and offensive to many people. “[That] was going a bit far, I think,” he says. “The problem with it was I got so much hate, and ‘pikey’ and ‘knacker’. I got so angry, that I wanted to kind of get them back and I went and printed those two T-shirts out. I regret it now.”

It surprised him how ready people were to write him off. “I’ve been involved with Traveller rights, homeless stuff, mental health stuff for years and it’s all whitewashed with one position and I’m demonised and was a hate figure.”

He has been thinking, more recently, that he needs to be a bit more circumspect about his opinions. Many in his family have cautioned him against being so outspoken. Why? “They just think it’s damaging my career as an actor,” he says. “And I’ve been told this by people in the industry – film-makers and casting directors – not to be so outspoken and to stay away from certain issues. They’re not trying to censor me. They’re just giving me genuine advice.”

He respects his family’s opinions. Three years ago he returned to live in a Traveller camp after seven years living in a house. “The seven worst years of my life, probably,” he says. “Strangers all around you. A little box room. A concrete jungle. All the neighbours hated us for no reason. They put in 100 noise complaints in the first month even though we made no noise. One of them called their wifi ‘Knacker neighbours’ so that was the sort of sentiment.”

Why did he return? “The Irish State has made an effort to destroy my culture through their assimilation policies, so I made an effort to preserve it by going back in.”

And he also just likes it there. “When you grow up in a camp with all your family surrounding you, all your cousins and uncles and aunts always there for each other ... That’s a very addictive ethic and way of life.”

Cousin’s 21st

Even as a well-known actor he still faces discrimination, he says. “I still get stopped going into bars,” he says, “and often then if they recognise me after they stop me, they say ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.’ That’s the world we live in where they suck up to celebrity.”

He talks about a recent incident where he was out celebrating his cousin’s 21st and they were stopped going into a Dublin pub. “Not tonight lads, it’s not your type of place.”

As they walked away, someone asked him for a selfie and the bouncer realised who he was. “Your man’s face went red and he was embarrassed. ‘Do you want to go up?’ I said ‘No, no,’ but [my cousin] said, ‘Please, Johnny can we go in? Six Travellers? Where else will we get in?’” He sighs. “And I had to swallow my pride and go up because it was his birthday … Travellers internalise a lot of that and have a lot of bitterness and anger. Every pub, club, restaurant, bar ... Gyms won’t give you membership.”

I have my own family history of people being taken into care, and I have family who ended up on smack. I have many criticisms of this country, as a state

He talks about someone else he knows. “The final straw for him was a Communion thing and all the parents decided to go to this one place and he was the only parent refused. They finally let him in but wouldn’t give him a drink. He was just really embarrassed by the situation and came to me and talked to me and he burst out crying, and I’d never seen him cry before. He was a real tough fella, you know?”

He's pleased to be able to inspire young Travellers and working-class people (he's met many who now want to be actors) and he's proud to be able to speak up for his community. He still feels their lives aren't being represented in the arts and he wants to help address this. His Fringe play, Ireland's Call, tells the story of three young men from Coolock, but it also delves back into the heroin epidemic of the 1980s and, further still, to life in the industrial schools. "I've a lot to say on that subject matter because I have my own family history of people being taken into care and … I have family who ended up on smack … I have many criticisms of this country, as a state, not the people ... although we're all complicit."

He is also working on Paddy Slattery's film Let Your Guard Down, making a feature-length documentary called The Children of Lir about people overcoming adversity and he is writing another feature, Keepers of the Flame, about the destruction of Traveller traditions in the 1960s.

He has vowed to be a bit quieter about politics for a while because he wants his films, plays and documentaries to speak for themselves. Of course, he also reserves the right to change his mind about this. “If there’s something comes up that I feel I need to weigh in on, I will.”

Ireland's Call runs at Bewley's Cafe Theatre, Dublin, from September 10th as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival;