Having shot to fame in Misfits and Love/Hate, Robert Sheehan returns to Ireland as a rapidly rising Hollywood star, writes Padraic Killeen.
THERE’S a fine array of stars touching down in Ireland this week for the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, among them Russell Crowe, Julie Andrews and Kenneth Branagh. Flying in direct from Hollywood, meanwhile, is one of our very own: Robert Sheehan (Love/Hate, Misfits). The Laois native has been based in Los Angeles for the past few years and he returns to Ireland in promotion of his new movie, The Road Within, in which he plays a young man suffering with Tourette’s syndrome.
Part road movie, part coming-of-age story, the narrative follows Sheehan’s protagonist as he flees his treatment clinic and embarks on a quest to scatter his mother’s ashes over the Pacific Ocean. Joining him are two fellow patients, a rebellious anorexic girl (Zoe Kravitz) and a young man struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder (Dev Patel). Though formulaic in places, it’s an absorbing drama that features charismatic performances from its young stars.
Sheehan says he was especially drawn by the challenge of portraying a character with such a debilitating condition, and by a script that sought out humour and light even while depicting the harder realities of neurological and mental disorder. “On the page it was very funny and yet it still remained very respectful of these people who have very real illnesses,” he says. “At no point does it exploit the disorders to make a joke. It’s not nasty. It treads that line perfectly.”
The Road Within is one of a number of films Sheehan is staring in this year.
Sheehan’s performance is a measured and affecting one, conveying the plight of being prey to irrepressible nervous tics as well as the desperate desire to contain them.
“The interesting thing with Tourette’s syndrome is that a lot of people are encouraged in treatment to name their tics,” he says. “And each person would have their own unique set of tics. So, for me, it was a thing of allowing that energy that is bubbling under to come to the surface and come in a very pronounced, clarified way, much as someone with Tourette’s would do. Because they repeat the same spasms over and over again. It’s motivated by a kind of obsessive-compulsive feeling, like, ‘I have to stretch the front skin of my neck and touch the back of my head of the top of my spine now in order for me to feel that the energy is gone away’.”
Needless to say, he was aware that it was the kind of role that, if misjudged, could go very wrong. “As long as I didn’t f**k it up,” he says. “That was my worst, worst fear. In the actual approach to shooting the film and the rehearsal period I was losing sleep because I was really worried that I was going to f**k it up.”
In the end, a five-month research period allowed him the time to settle into his character. It also gave him the confidence to find some humour in his character’s situation, tapping a levity and a creative spirit that Sheehan says Tourette’s sufferers themselves very often channel.
“I hung around with a girl called Ruth who was absolutely extraordinary,” he says. “She had the most creative Tourette’s syndrome, and there is an incredible creativity to Tourette’s. There is a cool website, actually, called Tourette’s Hero. It’s run by a girl who collects vocal tics submitted by adults and kids with Tourette’s and puts them up on the website. So you might get something like ‘Exploding Slinky Donkey’ and then an artist will come along and do a depiction of that tic. It’s a really cool way to celebrate the creativity of Tourettes, and it can be outlandishly creative.”
Mimicking this outlandishness, Sheehan and his collaborators on The Road Within came up with many of their own vocal tics on set, with ‘Polygrip dental cream’, and, um, ‘Anal bleach’, being two of the more printable efforts that made the cut. (Sheehan owns up that ‘anal bleach’ was his own contribution.)
Of course, there has always been a mischievousness to the young Irishman. His delightful impishness, wed to a sense of boundless energy — the energy sometimes contained, sometimes explosive — has been key to his winning screen persona. Certainly, it was what broke him in the UK, where his charmingly pugnacious turn in Channel 4’s Misfits made him an overnight star.
As well as Misfits, Sheehan starred alongside Aidan Gillen and Tom Vaughan Lawlor in Love/Hate
Sheehan is also distinguished by an ability to take the mickey out of himself. A recent appearance in Mark Hayes’s online sketch series, RanDumb: The Adventures of an Irish Guy in LA, finds Sheehan playing a deranged version of himself as a preening, arrogant luvvie. (“As you can see, I’m a complete arsehole,” he jokes.)
Evidently, then, while his star remains in the ascendant — he has a diverse range of international films due for release this year — Sheehan appears grounded enough to avoid the pitfalls of ‘Lalaland’. Indeed, he seems to be pursuing work that appeals to him and not chasing some dream of fame and superstardom. “There are actors in LA and their modus operandi is just to get rich and famous. And a lot of them are deeply unhappy people. But I think you’ve got to do what makes you happy, really. We’re all allowed to be a bit happy. So chase that.”
Best of the rest: Highlights of the JDIFF
The Water Diviner – The Savoy, March 20
Russell Crowe’s directorial debut is about an Australian man (Crowe) seeking to learn the fate of his three sons, each reported missing in action following deployment in Gallipoli. Crowe will participate in a post-screening Q&A.
Barry Lyndon – The Savoy, March 21
A 40th anniversary screening of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel about a rakish member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy (Ryan O’Neal). O’Neal and Kubrick’s producer Jan Harlan will attend.
Electric Boogaloo – The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films – Cineworld, March 21
Recounting the story of the 1980s production company Cannon that dealt in schlocky action and exploitation movies, this is a must for everyone who lived through the heyday of VHS.
Lost River – Cineworld, March 28
Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut is a neo-noir starring himself, Christina Hendricks, Eva Mendes, and Saoirse Ronan. Ronan will present the film.
The Canal – The Lighthouse, March 28
Ivan Kavanagh is arguably the most provocative Irish director of the past decade. This is his psychological horror about a film archivist who discovers a secret lurking in his own home.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved