We first saw John Connors in Love/Hate, but his gritty new crime thriller looks set to propel him into the big time, writes Esther McCarthy
JOHN CONNORS is chuckling at a childhood recollection of playing near the Dublin Traveller camp where he grew up. He and his friends used to slide down the hill on election posters put up by local politicians.
“We’d take politicians’ placards off the pole, not deliberately, because we were kids, but we’d sit on their faces and slide down the hill. When I think about that now and the symbolism and what that meant,” he says, smiling.
The political has always been personal for Connors. No stranger to discrimination and bullying, his vocal documentaries on Travellers, race, and identity have been ratings hits and sparked debate.
Now, his acting career is set to catch fire too, thanks to the strong early reviews and word-of-mouth buzz for Cardboard Gangsters, a gritty new crime thriller he co-wrote and in which he stars.
Set around the north Dublin suburb of Darndale that he calls home, Connors plays Jay, a working-class man and part-time DJ. He becomes enamoured with the idea of the glorified lifestyle — the money, power, and women — that the local gangsters enjoy, and he joins forces with his friends to take control of the local drugs trade. This puts him firmly on the radar of a powerful and nasty kingpin.
It has picked up awards at festivals in Manchester and the US. Irish reviews are set to be raves. British filmmaker Shane Meadows, whose film This Is England covered similar themes, has asked to see it.
He and director Mark O’Connor (Between the Canals) are unsurprisingly chuffed.
“Shane Meadows is a hero. I’d love to work with him, to be in one of his films,” says Connors.
“I learned not to look at reviews; you’d get disappointed if you get a bad one. We’re all human beings, we can be hurt by words, but Mark keeps sending them to me! It’s mad. I didn’t realise it would have such a universal theme.”
Now aged 27, Connors has enjoyed a successful career since he arrived on our screens as the bomb-maker Patrick in Love/Hate. He’d been acting for a few years by then, but Stuart Carolan’s groundbreaking series was a different league.
“It was the reason I was able to make documentaries, which I love doing. It was great for my career. It changed my life for good, with the fame side of things. It’s something you have to get used to, especially when you’re a private person.”
When we meet in Dublin, Connors is soft-spoken and forthright. He has a sense of curiosity that you often find in actors, and a warmth about him that belies the tough characters he plays on screen.
Though he loved movies all his life, watching Scorsese and John Wayne films with his father and grandfather, acting never seemed like a career possibility.
“I was always obsessed with films, but I’d never thought about acting, it was just an alien world. It was like saying: ‘Do you want to be an astronaut?’ I realise now it was the perfect thing, because Travellers are great storytellers.”
Still, having picked up several junior titles, boxing looked like a more likely path.
“I was into sports, that was my thing, mostly boxing. That was the route I was going to go down. When I hit about 17/18 I lost discipline, started partying a bit, maybe drinking a bit, discovered women and kebabs, that kind of thing,” he said.
He took on a metalwork class and dabbled in acting, but when he went through an emotionally tough period, his concerned brother urged him to give it another go and regain his sense of purpose.
“When I was 16, I was in a FÁS course, I’d dropped out of school and I was doing metalwork. I actually wasn’t interested in that stuff, ever. At the time, it [drama class] was just a way to get out of the metalwork class, which I hated. I loved it, but I never thought about being an actor.
“I ended up quitting boxing, had injury after injury, and being out with long layoffs I was gaining massive amounts of weight.
“I took a break and ended up gaining eight stone in a year-and-a-half. I ended up becoming really depressed. My brother was concerned by me, all my family were, because I wouldn’t talk to anybody, wouldn’t have banter, or the craic with anybody. My brother said: ‘If you don’t want to box no more, find something new.’
“I didn’t consider it previously, because I’d be worried what other people would think about me. At that point, I’d no worry about what people thought about me any more, because I was so low.”
He saved every penny he had to raise €380 for a course at Dublin’s Abbey school, but thought about walking away in the early days.
“A teacher came after me. She said: ‘You have something here. You need to harness it, but you have something special.’ It gave me great confidence.
“I did that course, and I performed at the end of it, on stage, and thought: ‘What is this world that I’ve never been introduced to? I want to do this.’ It was like a different world.”
His father, also John, who struggled with depression and took his own life when Connors was a child, helped inform his love of movies.
“Before he died, he used to put on serious films for me and my brothers, films like Raging Bull, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Scarface. Then he died and, in years to come, they ended up becoming the films I loved the most.
“He gave me the best advice ever. He said: ‘Always ask questions, if you don’t know something. Always be curious. Always listen to people.’
“That ended up helping me with acting; I became fascinated by everybody and everything. Most things that are in my brain now I learned from people, not a book. I like to read, but I learn more from people.”
As his career expands, is he cautious about taking further Traveller roles?
“The thing it, I’ve done loads not based on it, but they don’t hit. Short films or low-budget films that never get a cinema release. So, yes, I’d like to do it [his career] on a bigger scale, but I’m actually not against playing a Traveller again.
“The only thing is, if I play a Traveller from now on, I’d have to be involved in the writing, producer, director or something like that.
“I’m only 27, so I’ve a long way to go in my career. I’m going to direct, which is a passion of mine, and I’m going to keep writing, which I love. I’m going to do this myself, make my own opportunities.”
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