It’s a very cold, very wet winter’s day in London, but Robert Sheehan is dressed for the sun. When I arrive at the cosy-cool hotel in Soho for our interview, the Laois actor is lounging barefoot in one of Netflix’s suites, wearing a pair of stretchy orange and black patterned leggings with a thin tank top under a hooded vest.
“To be honest, I’ve just come back from the Orient,” he starts to explain, pausing to ruminate on his choice of wording and crack in a theatrical British accent, more for his own amusement than for mine or that of the Netflix PR joining us in the room, “That’s an old-school word – ‘I’ve just come back from the Orient with some silks and spices! Anyway, I’m basically still there in my head,” he shrugs, leaning back in his armchair and crossing his legs on the coffee table between us. “I’m dressed for Bali sunshine and I refuse to give up the ghost.”
A week of meditation on the Island of the Gods is a long way from afternoons playing the spoons at school in Portlaoise. The youngest son of former Garda Joe and Maria Sheehan, he landed his first job at age 12 after his mother brought him along to an open audition for Song for a Raggy Boy. Sheehan went on to study film and television at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, until he failed his exams a year in and didn’t return.
Following appearances in RTÉ’s medical drama The Clinic and BBC period show The Tudors, Sheehan’s breakthrough role came in Channel 4’s supernatural dramedy Misfits, in which he played charismatic young offender Nathan. The part earned Sheehan a Bafta nomination and legions of ardent fans, turning him into a global heartthrob – but among Irish viewers, he’s best known as gang member Darren in RTÉ’s crime saga Love/Hate. Since Darren’s infamous exit from the show in 2013, Sheehan has combined work in prestige TV series Fortitude and Genius: Picasso with blockbusters such as Geostorm and Duncan Jones’ neo-noir Netflix film, Mute.
It’s Netflix, again, that prompted his trip to “the Orient” (or, more specifically, Singapore, followed by a holiday in Bali): a promotional tour for his new show, The Umbrella Academy, based on the cult comic book series by Gabriel Ba and Gerard Way, former frontman of US rock band My Chemical Romance.
It’s the story of a group of seven children, adopted by billionaire industrialist Reginald Hargreeves after a bizarre worldwide event sees 47 infants born by women who had previously shown no signs of pregnancy. Hargreeves forms the ‘Umbrella Academy’, a relentless training programme to raise his children as superheroes, but as they reach adolescence, the team starts to splinter. The first episode picks up 17 years later, when the six surviving members, now in their 30s, are brought back together in the wake of Hargreeves’ mysterious death.
The cast includes Ellen Page, Tom Hopper and Mary J Blige, along with a CGI chimpanzee butler voiced by Adam Godley. We meet Sheehan’s character, Klaus, as he’s checking out of rehab for the umpteenth time, and learn that he has the ability to commune with the dead – when his mind’s not addled by drugs, something with which he’s far more preoccupied.
Sheehan admits he’s “not too well-versed in the whole comic book world”, and had never heard of the comics before the show. He’ll occasionally read British graphic novels from the 1970s, such as his current favourite, DC’s Swamp Thing, but says he’s not a big fan of superhero stories. “It sounds slightly ironic to say, but I’m not sure if I’m the best authority on superheroes, because I haven’t seen many of the more recent [movies]. The last one I saw was Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” he says. When I point out that Star Wars doesn’t really count as a superhero film, he scrunches his face trying to recall another example, eventually offering 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and later, Black Panther.
“What’s interesting about the superhero landscape is that it’s kind of mirroring television, oddly. Cinema has become television and television has become cinema,” he muses. “A superhero movie can’t exist without world-building, and that means it becomes episodic, like a TV show. I think we’re at an odd crossroads in terms of cinema, and the superhero landscape is at the epicentre of that crossroads. It’ll be interesting to see if cinema carries on surviving in the traditional sense – I’m not sure if it will.”
It’s an interesting time for superheroes on television, too. Netflix recently cancelled three of its major Marvel series: Luke Cage, Iron Fist and Daredevil, which doesn’t bode well for the remaining shows, Jessica Jones and The Punisher. While the platform doesn’t release official streaming figures, the latest seasons were poorly received, in particular crossover series The Defenders. Some critics have pointed to the upcoming launch of a competing streaming service from Disney, which owns Marvel Entertainment, as a possible reason for the bloodbath, but in any case, it’s not an encouraging time for TV heroes.
Which may be why Sheehan is quick to describe The Umbrella Academy as the antithesis of the classic superhero story. “I think it can be slightly reductive to use the superhero brush to daub The Umbrella Academy, because at its core, it’s kind of anything but. There are tried and tested formulae with superhero stuff, where they endure Herculean trials and they save the day, but what I think Umbrella Academy does really skilfully is it embraces the complete polaric opposite of that,” he argues, coffee escaping over the rim of his cup as he gestures enthusiastically.
“The thing about our Umbrella Academy characters is that there were such high expectations of them since they were children. What’s left are these emotionally messed-up, traumatised adults who are trying to build a life on top of very, very shaky foundations. [The show] embraces not the Herculean trials or the saving-the-day, but all the opposite stuff – trying to deal with being a human being before even thinking about saving the day. That’s what I think is very interesting about it, is that it plays against the expectations of the superhero genre ferociously,” he says, adding with a giddy cackle, “Vigorously! You see my pants in the show!”
You do see his pants in the show. And perhaps the most visible difference between The Umbrella Academy and the Marvel/DC properties is in that scene, and in the bodies of the characters: although Sheehan is still toned and lean, these aren’t sculpted Thor torsos parading around screen.
Back in 2015, Sheehan told the Irish Independent that in his 20s, he had wanted to become a gym junkie with an “intimidating torso” (“God, I talk an awful lot of s***e, don’t I?” he chuckles when I bring it up), but when asked about any pressure to bulk up for his big superhero role, he bursts out laughing. “Noooo! In fact, the less I did, the happier they were,” he says. “Klaus is completely not your typical cape-wearing, Captain America-style superhero, he’s the far, far end of the, let’s say, the male spectrum. He’s not necessarily a man, he’s kind of just this creature that’s not bound by traditional societal norms like ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘masculinity’, ‘femininity’. He just sort of… is.
“That was important for me, and that’s not very superhero, because the concepts of quite reductive masculinity and femininity go hand in hand with your traditional superhero role. The less torso-building that I did, the better.”
In the first two episodes made available to critics, Klaus borrows his sister’s skirts and blouses and exhibits a flamboyant physicality to match his sense of dress. Sheehan is perfectly cast as Klaus, and elements of the role mirror his own colourful mannerisms and personal style.
“You could say that,” he grins. But we’re starting to see a broader shift in red carpet menswear, as the standard uniform of banker’s suits is abandoned for more daring looks on the likes of Chadwick Boseman, Timothée Chalamet and Ezra Miller. “He’s a fashionable boy, isn’t he?” Sheehan says of the Fantastic Beasts star. “Why not? If you enjoy colour and vibrancy, wear whatever you like. I think people should feel less restricted by the perimeters of things like ‘menswear’ and ‘womenswear’. It’s not something that I really give much credence to when I’m buying clothes. I buy mostly ladies clothes. I think to be yourself, first and foremost, that’s the easiest way to think about it.”
Despite his theatrical flair, there are shadowy aspects to Klaus, too, and in that sense, he’s the latest in a line of dark characters for Sheehan after Misfits and Love/Hate. “I think it’s probably quite a selfish position as an actor, to really lust for all of the dark and juicy stuff. I spoke to [showrunner] Steve Blackman at length about what Klaus’ journey would be, and hearing about how wildly interesting it was, I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m up for taking a stab at that, absolutely’. It’s honestly like nothing I’ve ever heard. It’s usually that: if [a role] is like nothing I’ve ever done or heard, that’s usually the main motivation. I’m always nudging myself into discomfort zones, as much as I can,” he explains.
“There probably are similar echoes between Klaus and Nathan, but they’re very different as well, they go off on very, very different journeys. I think Klaus is whatever you want him to be: he’s not shackled by identity too much, he has an identity – quite a strong one – but it’s very malleable depending on the situation he’s in. If he’s manipulating people through charm, to get money or drugs out of them, he has a whole different set of tools in his toolbox. Whereas Nathan is just utterly himself and probably will never change. He doesn’t know how to change, that’s just how he is.”
Whether he’s researching shamanic cultures or mastering Tourette’s syndrome, a lot goes into Sheehan’s preparation for his roles, and The Umbrella Academy was no different. As well as filming himself rehearsing to better understand Klaus’ physicality, he opted for a more spiritual practice this time around. “I did a lot of automatic writing as the character, which was interesting, to see what would pop out. After you’ve familiarised yourself with all of the material, the comic book and everything, you just start typing and see what oddness comes out,” he explains.
“Everybody has underlying issues, and I think automatic writing is an interesting exercise, because the act of writing, if you’re in a good mood and the right headspace, it gives you access to a deeper part of yourself that is aware of the issues of whatever character it is. It was kind of an internal search, this time, to come up with a character that I find most interesting.”
This year also marked Sheehan’s 30th birthday, another occasion that prompted a bit of introspection. His four-year relationship with the actress and dancer Sofia Boutella ended. Now, he’s reflecting on what’s important to him outside of his career. “A lot of interesting stuff has happened in my life in the last couple of years, and it makes for a very exciting future, but also a future that holds a lot of unknowns. It’s about the more self-knowledge you have going into all of this stuff that involves being in the public eye a lot. So I’ve just been working on taking time away from exploring characters and being characters all the time, and spending a bit of time away on holidays and doing meditation.”
When he’s not working or meditating in Bali, Sheehan tries to get back to his native Portlaoise as often as possible. But the seven-month shoot for The Umbrella Academy in Toronto precluded any trips home. Once filming wrapped, he headed home for his mother’s birthday, and was back a few weeks later to film a guest appearance in The Young Offenders Christmas special. “It was a good whack of time, and that was the longest I’ve been away from Ireland, actually,” he notes, although he was determined to offer his support for the Repeal movement during the referendum on the Eighth Amendment, and contributed to a star-studded campaign video. “Ireland has changed a lot, and I think I’d like to spend some time back there,” Sheehan says, adding that he has no plans for a permanent move back. “I’ll always be somebody who spends a lot of time in a lot of places, that’s just always going to be the way. But I try to spend as much time in Ireland as I can, because it’s lovely and it feels like a release.”
The Umbrella Academy begins on Netflix on February 15
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