BAFTA-nominated Robert Sheehan takes a break from Shakespearean frills and velvety pants to share with Wonderland all about his new film The Messenger.
We all fell for Robert Sheehan and his Irish charm when he graced our screens as Nathan Young in Misfits – he’s had a busy few years since and the rising actor continues to make an impression with his latest role in The Messenger. The film is directed by David Blair (Best Laid Plans) and sees Sheehan playing protagonist Jack, alongside Joely Richardson, Lily Cole, Jack Fox, David O’Hara and Tamzin Merchant. His character is reluctantly tormented by the dead and has been in and out of psychiatric units all of his life – he is considered an outsider by others and branded delusional. The Messenger follows him on a haunting journey of coming to terms with his turbulent past and playing the intermediary between the dead and their beloved.
Below Sheehan talks with us about working with ‘Darth Blaider’, starring in a Shakespearean epic and very exciting upcoming projects involving Dustin Lance Black and our covergirl Hailee Steinfeld. Also, if like us you want to see him in action you can catch him at the Rose Theatre Kingston in The War of the Roses until October 31.
So I watched The Messenger this morning…
This morning? You might be the first person ever to watch it in the morning!
I know it made me think a lot for the morning.
It was like a strong cup of coffee was it?
Yeah exactly! What attracted you to this film?
Well I guess the same as what you’ve concluded there to some extent, I found it a quite thought-provoking script. I found that Jack the character was written very cleverly – it’s interesting actually because the writer Andrew Kirk – I eventually got around to asking where the idea came from and he said his mother, or possibly his partner’s mother, I can’t remember, had dementia and she started talking to relatives that had passed away as though they were in the room. Everybody was completely mystified at first but it happened consistently and weirdly enough out of that somewhat tragic setting this idea sprang forth about a young man who this is happening to. I just loved that, the fact that this idea sprang from so deep a root you know what I mean?
I think that definitely comes across that it came from somewhere like that. He’s a really complex character…
It’s funny isn’t it when you’re in a strange state of mind and you’re being challenged by adversity or tragedy or somethings going on in your life you can sort of go for a walk and all of a sudden become the most creative you can be… it’s an odd characteristic of us humans. Cyborgs. So that was interesting and yeah you’re right that kind of sang off the page and Jack was a very very strong character.
My favourite scenes were between you and Joely Richardson – very powerful.
Yeah – it was tough for Jack in those scenes because she’s so good at her job as a psychiatrist character that she sort of is hitting the nail on the head you know, she sort of has a conclusion and an answer for everything that he throws at her… She clearly has him down to some extent and he feels himself being reduced down to the typical addict or typical patient you know, so yeah that was very interesting. When Joely came in she came in near the end of the shoot for probably about a week we were all in a very tense place because of the nature of the story… She was sort of dropped into this tensity that was going on and it was lovely we did some really electric little scenes and now we are doing this thing on stage.
I’m doing it right now that’s why I’m wearing a frilly shirt and velvety pants and I can hear Joely’s lovely voice hollering over the tannoy which you probably can’t hear. We’re doing a project called The Wars of the Roses which has been directed by Sir Trevor Nunn. It’s a big old gigantic epic Shakespearean adaptation of the Henry VI plays and Richard III play and those four have been very cleverly focused and edited down into three – Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III, which was that period of the time “the wars of the roses” that those three men were seated on the throne. It’s about all the exploit of how they got there and how they were usurped and so on and so forth. It’s just a piece of theatre of such epic proportion.
It will be very interesting to see how it’s adapted into three plays.
Yeah, there’s so much in the first three Henry plays. Back in the early sixties John Barton and Peter Hall decided to focus those plays and essentially make it possible for them to come and see this entire period of time in one day so we’re doing three show days twice a week from the 3rd October.
Yeah – which we haven’t tackled yet. We’re currently rehearsing the second play having performed the first one last night and the night before. So it’s sort of a strange rollercoaster of a project but it’s lovely because old Trev whose directing was stood at the back of the ROC for the three plays back in 1963 and he’s now reviving them on stage for the first time so it’s a real project of the heart.
They’re the best kind! So do you have a preference with stage or film? Or do you enjoy them both the same?
I think they’re very different beasts. With theatre I suppose we’ve had a long rehearsal period of nine weeks – I say long but that’s to cover three three hour Shakespearean plays. Some days you come out of the rehearsal space absolutely buzzed, adrenalised, positive mood thinking, “Yes, I fucking stormed it it’s gonna be awesome,” and then other days you come out with head hung absolutely depressed thinking you’re an utter charlatan – I’m genuinely not exaggerating there. I think emotionally it can be more unpredictable with theatre. But then it’s funny because the first play we performed (we’ve done two previews of Henry VI) I have very little to do in I play a camp frenchman who’s part of the French rebellion. We did it last night and the night before and obviously I was paying attention to what was going on but was so sort of relaxed about the fact that I was on stage it was a tense amount of laziness so that’s good – I’m not going to have an anxiety attack any time soon.
That’s a good place to be! But playing the character of Jack, was that quite emotionally challenging? What did you hope to bring to the character?
I wanted to bring an intensity and a tragedy to Jack but not an obvious one until the end of the film because the problem sometimes when you watch a film is that if there’s a tragic character or there’s an outsider then they’re too aware themselves of the fact that they’re outsiders. Jack when you first meet him, he’s for all intensive purposes fine. To him he’s absolutely spot on – that’s his life and that’s the way he lives and he’s become a pariah because of it. He drinks himself drunk and asleep every night, wakes up and carries on, he’s not particularly happy but he’s leading this weird superhero life, you know? In order to portray that you have to show someone who’s not miserable about that or surprised about that or mournful, he’s just living it. It’s only when things start to bubble over and he encounters a tragic event that’s very similar to an event he experienced when he was a kid that the mirror image of that starts to upset the tender balance that’s going on.
I wanted to bring that intensity but I wanted to bury it way down until it’s picked apart by Joely’s character and Mark, the ghostly character that Jack Fox plays, and by all these memories. Also I think what’s interesting to bring is an arc – to start somewhere and go somewhere completely different because often with a character it doesn’t feel like they go anywhere, they start somewhere and finish somewhere very similar. It’s not very interesting as an audience member to watch and actually to go off on a slight tangent that’s what’s lovely about Wars of the Roses, that you meet Richard III as a very young man with his brothers and his dad still alive and they all go off to war together and he’s kind of in awe of his dad and he’s part of his family very much and you sort of watch the transformation unfold. So that was the intention with Jack – starting him off in that very common-or-garden humorous place, not common-or-garden but that way he digests the very strange reality that he’s living with and going to that extremely intense place at the end.
That definitely came across and he was a really strong character because I think he sometimes you sympathised with him, sometimes you were frustrated with him but then you wanted to like him for what he was doing – so you kind of felt conflicted about him watching it. You feel so many emotions towards him!
Thanks that’s lovely lovely lovely to hear and I’m genuinely not just saying that it warms my heart to hear you say that – thank you very much.
Also, it was interesting how it was left sort of ambiguous whether Jack is actually seeing the dead or whether his psychiatrist is right. Was that something that interested you?
I’m definitely interested in leaving it ambiguous because I don’t believe either side have answers for what I suppose we commonly call mental disability. I mentioned this in an interview at the Edinburgh film festival that I had just finished reading John Ronson’s, A Journey Through the Madness Industry where the more he discovered about psychiatry and psychology the more he realised that throughout his age it’s been just a grope through the unknowable with no frame of reference you know it’s just doctors coming along with theories and an idea gaining popularity and force.
It’s good that the film does shed light on that.
Yeah – it says that psychiatry or established psychology these things don’t have all the answers so I think that was very much a byproduct of how the film ends.
Definitely. You’ve worked with David Blair before – do you enjoy projects with him is it a good working relationship?
I do I very much do I love ol’ Darth Blair. I emailed him the other day, I read an interview where I called him Darth Blair – out of love of course – and he said you should have called me my full name Darth Blaider. Yeah, he’s fantastic and he’s a real purist drama maker, he gets such incredible performances out of people. He’s such a warm, charismatic, incredibly intelligent man and he’s sort of working on a different plane when it comes to storytelling to a lot of film makers I’ve worked with. He’s a true unique drama maker. He’s a lovely man – I think i’m going to work with him again on a film which my friend has written. But because they’re about 90 percent funded, all that stuff’s not set in stone and also the title of this next thing is up in the air. So I suppose what I can say is I’m pretty sure I’m going to be working with him again and a friend of mine Connor MacNeill, who’s written the script which is amazing so yeah watch that space.
Great – I was going to ask you actually if there’s any more upcoming films or anything apart from the new play that you can tell us about?
There’s a film I’m going to do afterwards which is going to be lovely, it’s with this guy called Dustin Lance Black who is an American mostly known for screenwriting but is also a director. He wrote Milk with Sean Penn, he wrote J Edgar with Leonardo DiCaprio and is currently the creator of this mini series they’re doing on ABC called When We Rise about the civil rights movement and the black rights movement I believe in the sixties – it’s about key figures in that. He’s a very politicised man so he’s directing this film and of course has written the script – it’s called The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight. It’s a really really lovely document of love about two young people who are both highly suspicious of love because they’ve seen it tear apart their families. The boy is a psychology major in Yale and the girls is 18/19 years of age and they share a flight back from New York to London and on the five or six hour flight they have this conversation about love and it’s sobering meeting of two people. I think it’s a lot more couched in reality than a lot of love stories which are built in films.
But that’s always refreshing isn’t it – something different.
Yeah it’s about two people who essentially become aware of the fact that they are starting to seal the first beginnings of attachment while talking about how much they both despise love – and that’s with Hailee Steinfeld.
In both the Messenger and The Road within you play very demanding lead roles, I was wondering if you have a dream/ideal role, or what roles you like to choose – ones that push you?
I don’t think I have a dream role. I think I sort of waft through the universe until something comes my way that I find intriguing, that’s really the only power or control you can have as an actor so you sort of take projects as they come on their merits. I certainly love when something challenging comes across the old desk and I think the interesting common ground between the Messenger and the Road Within is that the two characters are both lead characters who are utter outsiders for different reasons. That’s always the juiciest stuff when you get your teeth into a lead character who has all of the quirk or eccentricity of a supporting character you know someone who has a larger journey for that reason.
Well that was really great – thank you so much for speaking with me.
You’re very welcome – what are you going to watch tomorrow morning, The Exorcism?
Words: Alys Davies