First Encounters: John Finn and Frank Shouldice
‘He’s not self-deprecating, just sound’
American actor John Finn
Producer/director and playwright Frank Shouldice. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
John Finn is an American actor who plays an Irish-speaking garda in TG4’s drama, ‘An Bronntanas’. He had a lead role in the US series ‘Cold Case’ – and first acted in Irish in a TG4 promo for that show. Films he has worked in include ‘Catch Me if you Can’ and ‘Glory’. He lives in New York city
Frank’s a great character. I met him in the late 1980s; he was living in New York and writing for the Irish Voice. I’d just started out with the Irish Arts Centre, was doing a play there and Frank interviewed me. Right off the bat, Frank and I got along very well; the craic was good, we had good laughs. We stayed in touch and years ago I came over to do a drama for BBC Northern Ireland and stayed on. I shot a short film that Frank and I wrote in his house in Dublin, lived there for three months with him.
At that point I’d been coming over to Ireland quite a bit, got my Irish passport. There was a period when Frank was covering sport for the Irish Independent and he and I would drive out into the country to cover GAA matches. We had some wonderful times: he’d interview the manager and some team players, we’d find a B&B and spend the night. We’d be in a little community and he’d say, now that’s a pub. I’d say, Frank, that’s not a pub. He had a knack for finding places that just had a board-on-a-barrel and a spigot for Guinness.
I started acting pretty late, I was 27 or 28: I couldn’t spell theatre before that. I grew up in the Bronx, joined the American military when I was 17 and sailed as a merchant seaman for another five years after I was discharged. I got in with a group of guys I met in a bar in Brooklyn, who were sitting around reading a Yeats play. They told me about this place called the Irish Arts Centre. I was trying to discover my culture; acting happened by chance.
I’d been to Ireland in the 1970s on a ship. My mother’s parents were born in Ireland and I remember them speaking Irish; they’d stop when I came into the kitchen because they knew I didn’t have any Irish. It was the late 1990s when I started going to Oideas Gael in Glencolmcille to study Irish. I’d go for a week or so every couple of years.
I think Frank and I will work together again. I really admire him, he works nine to five and then writes his plays. He has a wonderful voice, I really like what he tries to say.
Frank has one of the most caring, sweetest personalities I’ve ever met in man or woman. He’s one of those people you can sit and talk to and he really listens, he responds based on what you say – he’s not waiting to have his say. There’s a wonderful quality of humanity to him and it makes him a better writer. And it underpins what he does professionally. He represents a neutral voice that has some sort of moral compass. All of the investigative reports of his that I’ve seen are even-handed; they say, this is the way it is, let the viewer make their mind up.
The film version of An Bronntanas will be shown on TG4 on St Stephen’s Day at 9.05pm.
Frank Shouldice is a producer/director with RTÉ’s investigations unit and a playwright who has had 10 plays produced, mainly in Dublin’s fringe theatres. He has also scripted a number of short films. He lives in Dublin with his wife Rachel
I was working in journalism in New York when I met John: he was in a Graham Reid play, playing an RUC officer – ever since he’s been playing either cops or robbers. I interviewed him for the Irish Voice and we just hit it off. Our friendship grew from that. He had been to Ireland – his grandfather was from Clare.
I left New York in 1992. We stayed in contact and a funny thing happened after I came back to Ireland. We’d been out of contact for over a year. I was watching Carlito’s Way, with Al Pacino. This scene emerges where there’s a cop in a white raincoat running across the road – it was John. I thought, I must get in contact and dropped him a line. Two days later, I got a letter from John – he’d seen a short film I had written which was broadcast on cable television. He wrote to me: our letters had crossed in the post. It was a funny reunion in pre-email time. We picked up again from that.
I used to cover a lot of sport, working around the country, and if John was over here and free he’d come along with me. We paid a visit to Crusheen: it was very evocative, visiting the tumbledown stone cottage his family had come from. On one of his visits, in 1994, we were in Leitrim: it was the first time in donkeys’ years that Leitrim had won the Connacht provincial title and was just a fantastic place to be, a magical time. It’s part of what was very appealing for John on trips to Ireland.
John’s always had an interest in Irish, so playing in An Brontannas was a good fit. I’m not much of a Gaeilgeoir and here he is making a strenuous effort to reconnect with a language his grandparents used to speak. He puts me to shame on that.
I have two hats. I work in RTÉ’s investigations unit; it’s a difficult but very rewarding area of journalism. I also write plays and scripts. They’re very different disciplines. One is a pursuit of truth, the other is the creation of a world. The lines are clearly very different. John and I did work together on a short film, do run ideas past each other; I’d really like to work with him again.
He’s very modest about his abilities, very humble, has no notions of himself. He’s not self-deprecating, just sound. He has a huge curiosity about people and places and things. Other people might talk the hind leg off you, name checking people like Pacino, but he’s more interested in what other people are doing.
I’ve been out with John, in the early days of Cold Case in Ireland, when fans of the show would come up to tell him they liked his work. John would be genuinely surprised, half chuffed and half embarrassed. I don’t think that recognition was something he enjoyed; he doesn’t want to be the centre of attention.