How Sundance Kid Jack became hot property
Three years ago, actor Jack Reynor was an unknown. But acclaim at a prestigious US film festival is set to catapult the young Irishman to the A-list, writes Ed Power
The last time we saw Jack Reynor he was dashing around Hong Kong shooting giant robots in Transformers 4.
But the young Wicklow actor has assuredly left the straitjacket of the summer blockbuster behind, winning acclaim - and a special jury prize - at the Sundance Movie Festival this week for his turn in the independent Irish feature Glassland.
As the praise rained down, like ticker-tape at a parade, there was sense the next shining talent in Irish cinema may have arrived. In an otherwise ambivalent review of the film, a tale a familial dysfunction and alcoholism set in Tallaght, the influential Variety magazine singled out Reynor (23), hailing his 'wholehearted' acting while Hollywood Reporter extolled him as 'exceptional'.
"This is a career-making performance that while subdued, stands out because of its naturalistic humanity," added the well-regarded Indiewire blog. "Reynor gives a moving performance that irradiates compassion and generosity towards all those he encounters. Every smile, scream. . . carries a touching sense of duty. His character strongly refuses to succumb to despair; yet doing the correct thing is always above everything else."
Glassland is set to debut on Irish screens later this year and, on the back of Sundance, looks certain to gain a wide international release. It will be only the first of a series of new projects. He is currently shooting an adaptation of Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture in Dublin, with Girl with the Dragon Tattoo star Rooney Mara.
And he will appear alongside two of the heavyweights of the age, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, in Macbeth and in an updating of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, with Cate Blanchett and the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch. Soon, he is going to be everywhere. There is even speculation - almost certainly overstated - that Glassland has the potential to secure Reynor an Oscar nomination.
A natural-born charmer, it is increasingly clear that Reynor possesses that indefatigable quality that sets movie stars apart from mere actors. You can see it in his easy smile, those always twinkling eyes - and in the way he commands the screen, regardless of circumstances (he was the best thing in Transformers, for instance, and did not wilt even as the explosions grew louder, the plot convolutions more ridiculous).
"Jack has stepped up immeasurably with his performance in Glassland," says film writer Nigel Wheatley. "It was obvious to the audience at the film's world première at the Galway Film Fleadh that he really could become our little island's next big thing.
"If he can follow the Fassbender model and balance big franchise blockbusters like X-Men and Transformers with smaller, more personal pictures like Glassland, he can go on to have a very successful and respected career."
There is a temptation to view Reynor's ascent in the context of the ongoing popularity of Irish actors in Hollywood. From Domhnall Gleeson to Cillian Murphy, Michael Fassbender to Liam Neeson, our little island is a veritable conveyor-belt of A-listers.
"We produce really good looking hunky guys who can act," actress Fionnuala Flanagan once told me, adding that studios tend to cast female leads first and are more likely to opt for an American. "When it comes to the males they are more open to something a little exotic. In Irish actors, they find the perfect blend of charming, rugged and dependable. You have to remember when Hollywood is searching for a leading men, they are looking for a leading man to play opposite a specific woman," she said.
"There's a certain down-to-earth quality to these actors that makes them very likable," IGN Movies senior editor Scott Collura told me in 2013.
"Farrell, Fassbender and Neeson all seem like guys you could sit down with and just have a pint as you would with your buddies. They're cool dudes!"
Reynor's rise is remarkable. Just three years ago, he was a struggling nobody, living hand to mouth in the sticks and openly questioning whether he'd make the correct decision by going into acting. Everything changed when Irish director Lenny Abrahamson cast Reynor in What Richard Did, a tale of middle-class privilege and violence loosely based on the death of a Blackrock College student in 2000.
Able to flit effortlessly between smug and sincere, Reynor was perfect. Though he grew up in straitened circumstances, he captured the essence of the silver-spoon brats populating the movie. His Richard was a swaggering rich kid on the outside, frightened and unsure of himself just beneath - nuances a lesser actor would have failed to convey.
The ease with which Reynor brought to the surface such complexities may have something to do with the fact that beneath his arguably bland good looks, he is rather a complicated figure himself. Granted, his natural accent is south Dublin - you hear it and your first thought is of over-confident young men swigging Heineken and sharing schools rugby anecdotes.
But, though educated at exclusive Belvedere College, he has known considerable struggle in his life and there is a temptation to conclude this has stoked the fire in his belly.
He was born in Colorado in 1992, raised by a single mother who through much of his upbringing struggled to put food on the table. Speaking to the Irish Independent recently, she described visiting a soup kitchen months after Jack was born. Reynor moved back to Ireland age two. Initially, he was sent to stay with his grandparents in rural Wicklow so that his mother, Tara, still working in America, could save for a second airfare.
"They were hard times," he recalled around the release of Transformers. "My family, essentially, went through an incredibly difficult period when I was born. You've got a girl whose 23 years of age with a two-year-old American baby and no husband around, which at the time in Ireland was a real taboo."
Even after Belvedere, life was not always easy. By then, Reynor had two young siblings. With his mother fully occupied with their care, he felt he ought to be the breadwinner. But he could not just catch a break.
"I hadn't worked in nine months," he said in an interview in 2014. "I was completely destitute. I was living at home with my mom, and she had just developed breast cancer. It was difficult because I have a five-year-old brother and seven-year-old sister, and we were in a dark place economically." (She would eventually beat the illness).
Even as he gained acclaim for What Richard Did, his career seemed in danger of stalling. Reviewers gushed - but where were the job offers? Reynor travelled the world, plugging the movie on the festival circuit, while cognizant that he had barely enough cash to buy a round of drinks. His world was upended when action director Michael Bay happened across What Richard Did. He was looking to cast a plucky newcomer in his latest Transformers sequel. Bay was impressed by Reynor's acting - even more so, by his courage and sense of derring-do. He had found his man.
"Jack Reynor. . . he is an Irish kid that came to America with 30 bucks in his pocket," said Bay. "Pretty ballsy. Seriously who does that? Anyway, I spotted him in a great little Irish movie What Richard Did. This kid is the real deal."
"We were at a film festival in Canada with Richard," Reynor remembered, "and when I arrived in the States I had no access to any other money. It was miraculous in fact that Transformers happened when it did. It was all or nothing.
"The phone was not ringing. I had no money, my mother was very sick and everything was just grinding to a halt. I was at the very edge and then this happened. In a moment, everything turned around and since then I've been able to support my entire family, and I'm. . . gratified."