‘I gained 8 stone in a year-and-a-half, and I got really depressed’ – John Connors reveals acting saved him after losing father and quitting boxing
John Connors stars as a drug dealer with an eye on the bigtime in Cardboard Gangsters. His new film has a classic gangster movie touch but there's more to it, he tells our film critic
In 2012, John Connors made his feature film debut in King of the Travellers. It was a rough and ready production and Connors, at 22, was a raw beginner. But his fuming presence stood out, and he dominated every scene. "All the little Traveller kids are obsessed with that film," he says, "and they give you back the lines and all. My little nephews love it, and I watched it with them recently. I couldn't bear to look at it because of my performance!"
He's come a long way. In his new film, Cardboard Gangsters, which he co-wrote with director Mark O'Connor, he delivers an unforgettably powerful portrayal of Jason Connolly, a Darndale drug dealer who dreams of becoming a big shot.
It's a very fine film, hard-boiled but saltily humorous, and almost feels as if a classic 1930s Warner Brothers gangster picture had been relocated to Coolock.
"I love James Cagney," he tells me, "and I've watched all his films, so I'd say I was definitely influenced by that subconsciously. But the biggest influence was the area, and the sort of things I experienced."
John grew up in Coolock, within his own community mostly, but also for a time in a house on the Darndale estate, which gave him a unique perspective on how the area worked.
"Usually with these films," he says, "you're looking straight at the top, at some big shot, but you're very rarely shown the process of how someone becomes a gangster, and that's what interested me.
"I'm all about nurture, and the environment you're brought up in, and these places can be a breeding ground for gangsters because they're neglected by the state. Not for one second am I trying to justify it, I'm only trying to understand it. All we're saying is that if you come from that, it's more difficult.
"But it's not impossible, you still have a choice and you're choosing a bad road and you shouldn't, because this is what's going to happen to you."
John's character Jason is a bright young man, good with his fists but loyal to his friends and family, who sees a way of radically improving his fortunes. He and his crew are selling cannabis on their estate when an opportunity arises to move into the more lucrative heroin trade. But this pits Jason against Derra, the local kingpin, and a battle of wills quickly escalates.
His physical presence in the role is extraordinary, as always, but his acting is restrained and subtle, and shows new depths, particularly in the scene where Jason sobs uncontrollably in the aftermath of a murder.
"For me," John says, "that's the pivotal moment, the killing, because that's where he sells his soul, and there's no going back from that then. But his reaction to it proves that he's not a psychopath - he has too much humanity, and it drives him insane."
Cardboard Gangsters also explores what attracts young men to drug gangs in the first place.
"We wanted to show the respect that they get, these gangsters in their BMWs, living the high life, flashing the cash. They're not some millionaire Premier League footballer, they're right next door. When I was younger I looked around me and I saw friends of mine that had gone down that road and were making money, so the temptation was there."
Acting, he says, was his salvation, but his route to drama was a circuitous one. John lost his father to suicide at eight, and was raised mainly by his mother.
"I got bullied a lot as a child because I didn't have a father, and I took up boxing because of it." He was good at it, and won an Irish title, but recurring injuries forced him to quit.
"After I stopped," John says, "I gained eight stone in a year-and-a-half, and I got really depressed.
"And my brother reached out and he said why don't you try acting.
"I did it sort of as a therapy to start off with, until the first class and then I went 'wow, this is what I want to do now'. And it instantly got me out of the depression - it was cathartic."
Following his debut in King of the Travellers, he made eye-catching appearances in the TV dramas Love/Hate, Charlie, and Rebellion: his acting career was underway.
If enough people get to see John's performance in Cardboard Gangsters, things could really take off for him, but he has no dreams of living in London or America. "I would travel to work but I wouldn't stay in that place, because I love Ireland, and nothing will ever replace my home.
"I'll never move away from my family, and I'll never not live in a camp, with my family surrounding me. My dream is just to buy my own bit of land for my family."
John has become a formidably eloquent advocate for his community, and his 2016 TV documentary I Am a Traveller gave real insights into a little heard point of view.
He has described anti-Traveller sentiments as the last socially acceptable prejudice in Ireland.
So why does he think it's been so slow to change?
"I used to blame settled people in general, but I never blame them now because I understand they've been conditioned in a certain way. After the founding of the Free State, a kind of dehumanisation project began.
"There was all this talk in the Dáil and in government papers about the ugly image of the tinker in the countryside, and through the 1930s, 40s and 50s, various vagrancy laws, acts were brought in, till the 1963 act of itinerancy, which Charlie Haughey headed.
"Basically," Connors says, "it was attempted ethnocide, and since that assimilation policy of the 1960s, we've lost a lot of Travellers, gone, settled.
"I know people that have, and they're ashamed of it."
He, though, is fiercely proud of his Traveller heritage, and the way he and his family live.
"It's a tuath, the ancient Gaelic tuath clan culture: we all look out for each other, and you've your aunts, your uncles, your brothers, your sisters, your mother, your grandparents, your cousins all around you.
"Christmasses are amazing, we've 200 people around us - all our family - and we jump from trailer to trailer singing and dancing. It's beautiful."