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Stars In His Eyes

INTERVIEW: Rising young actor Robert Sheehan plays the lead role in the newly released fantasy film, Summer of Flying Saucers . He talks about missing his Leaving Cert mocks, his role model Cillian Murphy and his first on-screen kiss

ONE OF THE rites of passage for actors who start out in adolescence comes when they experience their first screen kiss. For Robert Sheehan, that happened when he was 17 and playing the prince who would become King Louis XIV in the TV series Young Blades.

“There was a gag where I get contracted to marry this woman from another country,” Sheehan explains. “At the end of the episode, she kisses me with her tongue. I have to look shocked, saying ‘She kisses me with her tongue.’ Then I say: ‘From now on, this is how we in France will kiss.’ It was very funny.”

Loosely based on The Three Musketeers , the series was filmed in Canada rather than in France. “It was made by the same guys who made Xena [Warrior Princess] and Hercules,” Sheehan says. “It was shot in Vancouver and they all had American accents in it. It was a classy show!”

Now 20, Sheehan is a rising actor in steady demand and that’s understandable from the engaging screen presence he exhibits in the amiable coming-of-age fantasy, Summer of the Flying Saucer , which is currently on nationwide release.

He was born and raised in Portlaoise and there’s no history of acting in the family. “My dad’s a retired policeman and mam works for the health board,” he says. “My brother is a mortgage broker and my sister works in the Bank of Scotland and is doing an accounting degree.”

Robert is the youngest in the family and was 14 when he got his first acting role in Song for a Raggy Boy , dealing with the harsh regime for boys at a reformatory in late 1930s Ireland. “There was an open casting call and I just went for it,” he says. “After a few months I got the part, and then I got an agent.”

Was it disturbing to start out in movies so young and in such an unsettling drama? “Not at all,” he says. “I had no experience or any sense of perspective, so I just went down there and had fun for seven weeks. It was one of the best summers of my life. What they produced was this amazing film, very tough, but we all just had fun.”

A year later, he was cast in a 17-part TV series, Foreign Exchange . “Half of it was shot in Galway and the other half in Australia,” Sheehan says. “My character never got to go to Australia, unfortunately. But I went there on a holiday last December for two and a half months. I stayed with my mate Zach , who was the star of Foreign Exchange. He was celebrating his 21st and I stayed with him for Christmas and my birthday in January. Then I went off travelling on my own up the east coast. It was really cool.”

While still in his teens, he juggled his filming commitments with his formal education. “I did fine at school,” he says. “Because of my acting work, I did miss all my mocks which I was absolutely delighted about and I spent about five months of my Leaving Cert year in Canada because I was doing Young Blades there.”

He evidently loves the actor’s life and he seems entirely unaffected and firmly grounded. “It’s nice when there’s a bit of work lined up,” he says. “I was still going to school until I was 17 and I did my Leaving Cert. Then I went to Galway for a year doing a film and TV studies course, which I failed. But I was working away as an actor all the time. I’ve only been out of work for about four months since, and I was on holiday in Australia and then in Andorra for most of that time. I spent most of the money I had made last year.”

His only professional disappointment was ending up on the cutting-room floor of The Tudors. “I was playing this apprentice kid in what was to be the first scene of the second series. There was me and this other guy, played by Aaron Monaghan, and we come running into this church during a ceremony. We run up on to the altar and start shouting and smashing stuff. Then the congregation forces us out. The scene got moved to later in the series and then got cut out. But it was okay. I was only on it for three days.”

Sheehan now has his own place in Dublin, where he featured in a 2006 episode of The Clinic . “I played a diabetic kid who wants to be a professional surfer,” he says. “I had an overdose of insulin because there was a mistake in the clinic. I passed out on the floor and then I came around.”

He also had a recurring role in the TV series Rock Rivals , shown on ITV and TV3 this year. Devised by the team who brought us Footballers’ Wives, it revolved around a UK TV talent contest that parodied Pop Idol and The X Factor and was driven by behind-the-scenes machinations.

He played the lead singer in an Irish boyband, a character so ruthlessly ambitious that he’s quite prepared to abandon the other members for fame and stardom as a solo singer. Did he do his own singing? “No, I was miming. I can sing, but I don’t know how pleasing it is to the ear, you know.”

Sheehan takes the leading role in his new movie, Summer of the Flying Saucer , which takes place in rural Mayo in 1967. He plays Danny, who returns home from boarding school for the summer holidays and shocks his farmer father and the conservative villagers with his mildly hippie appearance. There are further complications when Danny discovers two aliens in his backyard and befriends them. To explain their presence to the suspicious locals, Danny says they are Polish and they are introduced as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. The scene is set for conflict between the prejudice and fear of difference in the village and the values of peace, love and understanding represented by Danny and the aliens.

He is just about to discuss the film when his mobile rings. “Mam, can I call you back in a minute?” he says. “I’m just getting interviewed here.” He smiles and settles back into talking about making a movie set 21 years before he was born, in the changing world of the 1960s.

“I read about the 1960s in books, when I was figuring out how to dress for the part,” he says. “I heard a lot of classic songs but I didn’t know they came from the 1960s. Anyhow, the film was more about old Ireland, about the hilarious contrast between the hippie boy I play and the backward villagers.”

Lorcan Cranitch, who plays his father in the film, is a great actor, he says. “My proudest scenes from the film are my ones with him.”

With his first screen kiss behind him, Sheehan played a character involved with an older woman in the recent RTÉ drama Bittersweet , featuring Deirdre O’Kane, Catherine Walker and Una Kavanagh as thirtysomething friends reunited in Dublin. “Someone called it Sex in Fair City ,” he laughs. “It was a chick show. I played Catherine Walker’s young lover. He’s an intern and she’s his boss. We have this affair and he gets really attached to her, but she fobs him off. She’s using him for sex and all that.”

When we talked in Dublin, Sheehan was on a day off from the Belfast shoot of Cherrybomb , in which he co-stars with Rupert Grint, best known as Ron Weasley from the Harry Potter movies. They play students whose close friendship is tested when a troubled young woman (Kimberley Nixon from Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging and Wild Child) lures them into dangerous activities.

“It’s going great,” he says. “Myself and Rupert get on very well. He’s a lovely guy. He’s quite a gently spoken guy. What’s really good about this film for him is that it shows him as an adult. He looks very grown-up compared to the Harry Potter films. He’s doing a fantastic job.”

Just as that shoot ends, Sheehan has been cast in Red Riding , a trilogy of films based on a series of books following the search for Peter Sutcliffe, the serial killer known as the Yorkshire Ripper. Channel 4 is producing this as a TV series that may go out on cinema release.

Each episode is titled after the year in which it’s set (1974, 1980 and 1983) and Sheehan will be working with different directors on each one: Julian Jarrold (who made Becoming Jane and the new Brideshead Revisited ), James Marsh ( Man on Wire , The King ) and Anand Tucker ( Shopgirl , And When Did You Last See Your Father? ).

If Sheehan had to choose a role model as an actor?

“Cillian Murphy would be the main one,” he says. “Never mind the image thing that other actors have, standing for 50 million pictures and going to parties. With him, it’s all about good work as an actor, very good work. Modestly speaking, I’d like to take a leaf out of his book and be completely different in every role. He’s so chameleonic.

“I’d like to be a steadily working actor and to do as many things as possible. I’m really enjoying the life.”

Summer of the Flying Saucer is on release now

Original article found here at The Irish Times I August 23, 2008

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