Jack who? Why Reynor is set to join a long list of Irish leading men in Hollywood

Taking Hollywood by storm: Jack Reynor in What Richard Did

'Jack who?" was the widespread response when it was announced last week that largely unheard-of Irish actor Jack Reynor had been cast as the hero in the next Transformers movie.

Of the half-dozen or so up for the part, Reynor, star of grim D4 melodrama What Richard Did, was by far the least known.

Across Hollywood, insiders scratched their heads: had an utter neophyte truly received the nod over relatively established leading men such as Luke Grimes (seen alongside Liam Neeson in Taken) and Hunter Parrish (from the TV show Weeds)?

About to turn 21, Reynor has travelled a considerable distance in a remarkably short time. Born in Colorado, he was raised in Humphrystown, Co Wicklow, and later Blackrock, Co Dublin, attending the prestigious Belvedere College.

He is a nephew of Fair City actor Paul Reynor (Harry Molloy) and the son of human rights activist Tara O'Grady. Reynor caught the acting bug at school, performing in several stage productions.

His first major role was in Dollhouse, a low-budget tale of misbehaving teens directed by Kirsten Sheridan. The success of What Richard Did – in which he is uncanny as a rugby jock with a dark side – has won him acclaim in Ireland and Britain. He had to work hard for Transformers, going through three auditions.

"I used to watch a ridiculous amount of movies every night," he said of his love of cinema in a recent interview. "Die Hard got me into the whole thing. I think I was seven. I had a taped copy, which had been on RTÉ One. I would watch that movie three times in one day. It was mad."

Transformers director Michael Bay felt it necessary to explain his outside-the-box pick. "I hired a great new actor for Transformers 4 to star against Mark Wahlberg. Jack Reynor, he is an Irish kid that came to America with 30 bucks in his pocket," he said.

"Pretty ballsy. I spotted him in a great little Irish movie, What Richard Did. This kid is the real deal."

The news broke in the same month Daniel Day-Lewis, who, though undoubtedly British, self-identifies as Irish, received a best actor Oscar nomination for the lead role in Steven Spielberg's ponderous new Abraham Lincoln biopic.

Here are two Irish-based actors at opposite ends of the career spectrum: a beginner who has just landed a blockbuster part and a veteran in line for a record third best actor academy award. Each, in their own way, with the world at their feet.

This is remarkable but, looking to the bigger picture, not surprising. For the past 30 years, smouldering leading men have been one of the country's most successful exports.

From Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson to Colin Farrell and Michael Fassbender via Pierce Brosnan, Cillian Murphy and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, we have a remarkable track record in keeping Hollywood supplied in troubled hunks.

Meanwhile, Roscommon's Chris O'Dowd has achieved something until now considered unthinkable by graduating from the British sit-com circuit to the Hollywood comedy A-list.

"Jack Reynor is simply continuing a great tradition. Ireland has always produced fine stage and screen actors," says Chris Tilly, movie editor at entertainment website IGN.

"These Irish actors all combine acting ability with good looks, charm, and just a little bit of danger, which Hollywood seems to lap up."

"Why the Irish?" Elena Howe, editor of the Los Angeles Times movie blog 'The Envelope', mused in a recent interview with the Irish Independent.

"Good bone structure, handsome men, and a certain quiet stoicism that appeals to both men and women."

Historically, Irish men in Hollywood tended to be fast-living and irascible. For instance, Richard Harris's brash, boozy reputation was integral to his screen persona. This was true, too, of Peter O'Toole, who, while raised in Britain, projected the sort of twinkling insouciance audiences, especially in America, regard as quintessentially Irish.

Thankfully, Irish actors no longer feel it necessary to play up to the stereotype. Granted, Jonathan Rhys Meyers' rise to fame as star of The Tudors was in parallel with his ascension as a tabloid bad-boy. And for several years, Colin Farrell looked in danger of ending up acting's answer to George Best (it was only as he reached his mid-30s that he appeared to calm down).

These are the exceptions, however. You won't find Cillian Murphy lamping paparazzi outside nightclubs. When not on screen, Michael Fassbender – recent split from girlfriend Nicole Behaire notwithstanding – does a remarkable job of staying out of the papers and the gossip blogs.

Indeed, by Hollywood standards, Irish stars are uncannily accomplished at side-stepping the pitfalls of mega-fame. Maybe it's the actor in them, but they do not seem dazzled by their own success and, a rarity in the industry, come across relatively grounded. Maybe that explains the restrained, even subdued, performances they often put in.

"A lot of times you work with actors and they show up screaming, 'take me seriously! I'm ready to act!' When Michael shows up, he's just Michael. He's a regular dude," was how Charlize Theron described working with Michael Fassbender in a 2011 GQ profile.

"He's appreciative and grateful for the fortune that's come towards him. He's relaxed and easy-going. He's not heavy and he doesn't f**k up everybody else's day. He's happy to be a part of the circus."

The question this raises, of course, is why we aren't nearly as accomplished at producing female leads?

Speaking to this journalist last year, screen veteran Fionnula Flanagan shared an intriguing theory. "You have to remember when Hollywood is searching for a leading man, they are looking for a leading man to play opposite a specific woman. The leading lady has usually already been cast. And she is almost always American.

"Look at all the films – no matter who the actor is, he's inevitably opposite an American actress. We produce some really good-looking, hunky guys. What Hollywood is not on the lookout for is young, sexy, non-American women. Those sort of women abound in Hollywood."

"What's interesting is I bet many Americans don't specifically know the actors you mention are Irish, and yet there is that appeal nonetheless," adds Scott Collura, a senior editor at IGN Movies.

"I'd say that there's a certain down-to-earth quality to these actors that makes them very likable – Farrell, Fassbender and Neeson all seem like guys you could sit down with and have a beer. They're cool dudes. Or at least come across that way."

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