Robert Sheehan: ‘I lost roles because I wasn’t high enough status’
The Umbrella Academy, on Netflix, seems like a watermark moment in the Portlaoise actor's career
You hear Robert Sheehan before you see him. He’s whistling away, not a bother on him, and when he enters this London hotel suite, dressed in studded denim jacket, rake-thin white vest and jeans, there’s a pep in his step from more than the fact it’s his 31st birthday today. Clearly, he’s not a man keen to talk shop – even if that shop is a central role in The Umbrella Academy, a Netflix series based on the Dark Horse comic books of Gerard Way, formerly of emo rockers My Chemical Romance.
“In his rock-star days, he was like something from a Japanimation character,” Sheehan says, plopping himself full-length on the couch. “I think he confused me as a teenager. I was like, ‘Am I attracted to him?’
“I wasn’t aware of his comic book, though. In fact my agent Rose, who’s from Limerick, called me and told me, ‘It’s a Netflix show adapted from a comic book of one of The Chemical Brothers, now isn’t that strange?’ That’s how much we knew.”
Sheehan has since become better acquainted with Gerard Way – so much that after Sheehan’s Airbnb in Los Angeles fell through, he “ended up sleeping in his gaff and playing Dungeons and Dragons”.
And he’s now well-acquainted with The Umbrella Academy: a dysfunctional group of kids with varying levels of superpowers, raised by an eccentric billionaire whose emotional investment in them is reflected in giving them numbers rather than names – Sheehan is Number Four but calls himself Klaus.
Regression to childhood
The series picks up when the group are reunited as thirtysomethings after their father’s death, with all the regression to childhood dynamics that any family reunion brings. Sheehan, who can communicate with the dead, is still an unhinged wild child with some zingy lines (“It’s breezy on the bits,” he says of his leather skirt early on in the series). Vortex-hopping Number Five (impressively played by 15-year-old Aidan Gallagher, from Nickelodeon’s Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn) is the most-listened-to, even if he’s stuck in the body of his teenage self. And Number Seven (Ellen Page) puts the ordinary in extraordinary as the sibling with no powers. They all only barely listen to their remaining authority figures: their mother (a robot) and their butler (a monkey). It’s dark, it’s kitsch and it barely makes sense outside of its meticulously crafted world.
Still, it doesn’t take too long to notice that Klaus harks back to Nathan, the character Sheehan played in Misfits, as a bolshy but endearing miscreant within a larger group of kids whose superpowers were thrust upon them.
“It’s not too dissimilar a set-up, that it’s about these people who have this strange, traumatic experience that bonds them together for life and they need each other to help them be normal,” Sheehan says. “And of course, in terms of Klaus’s chaotic energy, people have drawn parallels to Nathan. I try to not do that, but of course it’s inevitable. The characters are inhabiting the same limby, flaily person, so you get echoes. But Nathan was nearly 10 years ago and I’ve done a fair few things in the meantime to change it up.
“I felt this was a good enough character and an interesting enough journey to go back to that mischievous water. Especially as I’ve done varied things to show other sides.”
A thousand pieces
Klaus’s journey is certainly a compelling part of the 10-hour long series, which suggests it would have been a lesser production as a feature film, as was originally mooted.
“Klaus is completely shattered into a thousand pieces over the course of the show, but he’s precariously put together in the first place. He was held together by a few raggedy bits of Sellotape,” Sheehan grins. “Then he just completely falls apart when he falls in love and finds something to root for that’s bigger than his addiction.”
It’s no coincidence that, especially script-wise, the tone of The Umbrella Academy has much in common with modern, offbeat movies such as Deadpool and Thor: Ragnarok, but it’s pointedly without Marvel involvement now that its business relationship with Netflix is coming to an end, and with it, Netflix’s other superhero offerings such as Jessica Jones and Daredevil.
Behind the scenes, Gerard Way and comic illustrator Gabriel Bá are involved as executive producers, but leading the creative direction is showrunner Steve Blackman, who had also worked on Fargo and Private Practice.
Acting is an incredibly gratifying, creative experience when you’re doing it
“The showrunner can be this creative demi-god role,” says Sheehan of this TV-specific role. “You can get ones that are precious about stuff and they don’t want to necessarily have a chat or collaborate. You can gauge that some of them are less wiggly than others, but thankfully Steve Blackman is very wiggly when it comes to creative chats. And that’s the happiest set, because otherwise you feel creatively gagged. In some sets creating a scene is like filling out a f***ing form. I don’t want to slag off anyone in particular, but it’s happened in the past. When you work in a creative environment, people get protective about their ideas. Sometimes it’s justified, sometimes it’s about ego.”
Since leaving the family home in Portlaoise for spells in LA, London and Toronto, Sheehan has flitted between TV and movie roles, and often between large international productions such as The Mortal Instruments adaptation and Geostorm with Gerard Butler (both tepidly received), and smaller, more interesting projects such as 2011’s Killing Bono and his current release, the experimental The Song of Sway Lake.
TV is where he shines; as Darren in Love/Hate, his soul-searching eyes alone added a layer of humanity amid the gritty action. And the ordinary teen-turned-superhero Nathan in Misfits is perhaps his defining role – at least, it was the one that got his curls and charisma noticed in the UK, and earned him a Bafta nomination for his trouble. Still, he’s found that juicy roles are hard to come by.
“There are instances where, in my mid to late 20s, I very often found myself going for roles that they didn’t want to cast me in, because I’d done good work but in a producer’s eyes, I wasn’t high enough status. So I lost out,” he says. “But seeing another person in that role makes it less depressing, because you know that at least it’s done well, like Robert Pattinson in The Rover.”
With The Umbrella Academy’s international audience and high-end budget, Klaus feels like a watermark moment in his career. But just as Sheehan’s acting life gathers momentum, he’s also turning his hand to writing, with the intention of taking on dual creative roles eventually.
“Acting is an incredibly gratifying, creative experience when you’re doing it,” he explains. “But in the off-season, you want to scratch that itch, and writing has become that to me. It’s a really pure form of creativity. It’s good for my mental health, in the same way reading books is good for me. It makes the day brighter.
“I’ve written a short-story book, so it would be nice if it manifests into a real thing. And I’ve written a feature script with my mate Dave Conroy [the son of Don Conroy, best known as Uncle Don in The Den], so I’m polishing that next week. Hopefully I’ll then show it to a couple of producers, but it’s early days. It was only December last year, when I was on an airplane, that I had the indescribable joy of finishing it and knowing that I did it. It took nine to 10 months and lots of shouting with my friend over Skype, but we did it.”
With Klaus ready to be unleashed and this new string to his creative bow as he enters his 30s proper, it’s no wonder Sheehan is in fine fettle.
The Umbrella Academy is released on Netflix on Friday, February 15th