Tristan breaks through the clouds
Following a 'light-bulb moment', actor Tristan Heanue turned his life around dramatically. Our reporter meets the rising screen star
If you're an aspiring actor and you want to harden yourself to rejection, work as a door-to-door salesman. That's the advice of Tristan Heanue as the Connemara actor and filmmaker describes hitting rock bottom.
"I remember just having this meltdown after my 30th birthday where I was like, 'is this it?'," he says. "I felt like I was washed-up and I'd peaked. And I was a rubbish door-to-door salesman too because I didn't have any drive or passion for it. It was a horrible period but in a way it helped because I was so used to rejection that I didn't care when it happened in acting. I get over these things very quickly. It makes me more determined."
To illustrate the point, Heanue recalls the excitement of a six-day shoot on the set of Game of Thrones only for the scene to be cut ("I remember ringing the mother to tell her not to bother tuning-in after all").
The determination he speaks of has culminated in the actor stepping behind the camera too. Fed up with waiting for the phone to ring, many actors resort to writing work for themselves. Not all, however, do so to award-winning effect. In This Place, his debut short film, premiered at the 2014 Galway Film Fleadh. It nabbed a Best Actor gong for Heanue while announcing the arrival of a keen screenwriting talent. Twelve months later, his directorial debut Today took the Best First Short Drama award in the City of the Tribes.
Inspired by the social-realist work of Shane Meadows, In This Place portrays a young coulda-been stuck in small-town Ireland, hanging on in drunken desperation and putting off his life. Apart from the unassuming muscularity of his lead performance, Heanue wrote the piece from a deep and personal place.
"There's a bit of me in it from when I was younger," Heanue explains, "When I wrote it, I hadn't done any acting work in about six months. Paddy Slattery, my producer, was always encouraging me to write, so I wrote the script for that on an A4 pad. It was just a simple story about a guy who had lots of potential as a teenager sports-wise but the next thing he wakes up at 33 and hasn't left home and his girlfriend has gone to Australia. It takes place over one day, and looks at the decisions he makes and repercussions they have on him being able to go anywhere."
Perhaps most importantly, In This Place had a duty to put Heanue in the shop window and was purpose-written to play to his strengths. On the back of his Galway Film Fleadh win, it landed him a role in Ciaran Creagh's recent drama In View. He was also approached by director Mark O'Connor, who still counts it as one of his favourite Irish shorts of all time. O'Connor would cast Heanue in Cardboard Gangsters, the gritty crime saga that is currently on course to be the biggest Irish film of the year at the domestic box office.
With O'Connor as a mutual friend, Heanue also came into contact with actor John Connors and the pair hit it off. When he pitched the lead role in Today to Connors over lunch, the Love/Hate star jumped at the part.
"He loved it," Heanue says. "It helped us get it made and encouraged me to keep working on it. Anything I needed, he was just there. He came down to Connemara for four days and hung out with the locals. Everyone was like, "bring him back to the house, I want to have a whiskey with the man who shot Nidge!"
This Friday, Heanue will return to the Galway Film Fleadh with A Break In The Clouds, his first time writing, directing as well as starring in a short film. It is a tremendous piece, confirming the 37-year-old as not only a dexterous and visceral acting talent but also one of the most exciting up-and-coming filmmakers in the land. With naturalistic poise, it depicts the toll taken on the mental health of first-time parents.
"I'd never really thought about it until a couple of years ago," Heanue says of the project's inception. "I'd visited a friend who'd just had a baby. I'd be quite an anxious person anyway but I remember seeing him and he was a ball of nerves. I nearly got a panic attack myself, like 'I need to get out of here'. That level of responsibility in the first few days, I'd say it can be terrifying for a new father and mother. Then I was out for dinner with another friend who'd had a child a year and half previously, and he told me he'd been on antidepressants. Another friend had a breakdown. If your partner is suffering from post-natal depression, you're twice as likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, feelings of being overwhelmed. It just stayed with me, that image of two people struggling. The men, especially in that situation where they're supposed to be 'the rock', never talk about it."
The acting bug first bit Heanue on the Connemara set of Kevin Reynolds's aptly titled Tristan and Isolde (2006) where he was James Franco's body double. There were a few years of "talking" about studying acting but very little action. There was a two-year stint "faffing around" in America. Finally, on his 25th birthday, his mother decided her son had been "knocking around the village, drinking pints" for long enough and "banished" him to Dublin. While working in construction to save up money for an acting course, he got sucked in by the trappings of a well-paying job until the economic crash spat him out the other end. Door-to-door hell beckoned.
A six-week introduction-to-acting course with Kathleen Warner Yeates in the Abbey gave him enough rudiments to arm himself when a chance encounter with a friend of a friend led to a role in Martin McDonagh's The Lonesome West. It was February 2010, and he was finally airborne.
It was a "light-bulb moment" for Heanue after a rudderless period of self-doubt and low-self-esteem.
"Everything changed," he says, "my mental state, my outlook. Something just switched on. And like anyone around that time, I was probably drinking too much and not looking after my mental state so I quit drinking. There was now a goal, and I was very driven."
He knows a career in film may take time so DJing and landscaping are flexible ways to help pay the bills now. Besides, anything beats sales.
"I've always had belief that I can get somewhere in this game," he frowns. "I don't know if that's blind ignorance or what, but I do. I'm still on the bottom rung of the ladder pretty much, in the grand scheme of things. But I'm on that ladder."
A Break In The Clouds premieres at the Galway Film Fleadh this Friday. www.galwayfilmfleadh.com
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