The BIG Interview: Jack Reynor on poverty, pride and passion
He is the Irish movie-star with the cinematic world at his feet. Jack Reynor and his mother Tara tell Barry Egan about the days when they had no money for rent or food, and relied on charity in soup kitchens.
The whole world knows the story of how a young Irish man became one of Hollywood's biggest stars with Transformers. The back-story of Jack Reynor, however, has never been told. It is as far away from the movie-star with the model fiancée, Madeline Mulqueen, as you could imagine. It lacks all Tinsel Town razzle dazzle. It is, in fact, closer to Angela's Ashes. No money for heat or electricity or rent. Begging for help in the snow of a foreign country with a new-born babe in arms.
In 1989, when Jack's grandfather, Damien's business collapsed in Ireland, he and his wife Pat and their two grown-up kids Damien and Tara, both in their late teens, used their Donnelly visas and went to America on a wing and a prayer.
"We went to Colorado with 21 cases of clothes and curtains for bed-linen and $3,000," Jack Reynor's mother Tara says. "Nothing else."
Tara recalls that grim period of having nothing: "My dad always said our prayers at night with us. Mum used to say: 'United we stand, divided we fall', and that if we had awareness, loyalty and love we had it all. We stuck together, hoored it out and made a fist of things - Jack was brought up in that ethos."
The Reynors knew people who lived in Colorado. For a time, they stayed in their home, as Tara recalls, "as if we were the creatures under the stairs. Jack was born two years after that [January 23, 1992].
"They were hard times of struggle," Jack recalls. "My family, essentially, went through an incredibly difficult period when I was born," he says, adding with a laugh that there is a misconception that he was somehow born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
"We didn't even have a spoon," Jack says, not particularly joking.
"Talking about a silver spoon," Tara takes up the story, "the first winter in Colorado and he was born in January, we didn't understand snow. We didn't have the means to take care of ourselves because we didn't have any money."
"My dad was very ill at the time. I had just had him," she smiles. "We'd had a very bad snow and I couldn't stay out of work because we couldn't afford for me to stay out of work. We had no electricity. We had no telephone. And we had no shovels to dig ourselves out of it. So my dad and I dug ourselves out of the house with tea-trays because we had no shovels. We couldn't call Ireland to ask for help from the family and we had no electricity to heat ourselves," Tara adds.
One dreadful day, Tara, fearful of where she and her newborn son's next meal was going to come from, "went down with my 11-day-old son in my arms to the local soup kitchen" in Longmont, Colorado.
"And I was the only white person at the soup kitchen," she recalls. "Everybody else was Hispanic. So I knew what it was like to be a real minority in a foreign country, and that's why I have such empathy with refugees here," says Tara who is a human rights activist, or according to her Twitter account, a 'Human Rights Solidaritista. Anti-Imperialist. Universalist. Speak Truth 2 Power. Bahrain. BanTearGas. Strategist for Non-Violent Mobilisation. Proud Mother of a star.'
"We had day-old biscuits and day-old burritos," she continues. "I didn't even know what a burrito was back in those days."
They were also given week-old donuts and boxes of food with ingredients inside that Tara didn't understand because the packaging was all written in Spanish.
"So I didn't even know what I was being given as charity. The local church paid for our rent and the local charity paid for our electricity." Otherwise, she grimaces at the cold, hard reality, she would have been "out on my backside with this little 11-day-old boy."
"So here were are 22 years later. But it didn't just happen overnight. It has been a lifetime in the happening for this remarkable man from these remarkable circumstances," Tara says proudly.
"When Jack was born it was a big no-no in the Irish community in Colorado with this fresh blood who had come to the neighbourhood. I had gotten pregnant outside of wedlock."
"It was a big no-no everywhere, especially when we arrived in a really small community in county Wicklow," says Jack of his return to Ireland in 1994. "It's like 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. And still, in a lot of ways, actually is," Jack believes.
"But that was just another challenge that we all faced as I was growing up. I won't say that there wasn't a little bit of antagonism over that in the community," he says, strongly, "because there was. So that was my really early childhood."
The return to Ireland when Jack was two was, like everything else in his youth, complicated and not without strife. Jack moved back with his grandparents initially and his mother stayed behind in Colorado, he recalls, for an extra seven months after he left.
"I couldn't afford flights for my brother and I. So my brother and I stayed in America while I earned the money for the two of us to fly to Ireland," says Tara.
Jack remembers his new home - his grandparents' old house that they vacated to seek a better life in Amerikay six years earlier - in Wicklow didn't exactly come furnished.
"There was nothing but a mattress and a little coffee table when we arrived. My grand parents and I stayed in the living room on the mattress for the first while. Then we got this TV, a little white TV with a couple of different buttons for channels but you had to stick a match-stick into the power-socket to make it work. I remember that was the first TV we had when we got home to Ireland. It was mad. There were some people in the community who were actually really great with us. One man in particular, John Mahon, who worked down the shop in Valleymount, at Christmas brought a load of the toys along to the house for my family to give to me; which was a really kind thing. And the community in a way did really did kind of rally behind us."
"Another lady, Alice Stones, gave us duvets," says Tara, "so that we could have bed linen. Before that, we were taking the curtains off the windows and using the curtains as bed-linen; in this fine, big house out in the countryside that had been empty for six years, after my father lost his business after the stock market crashed in the late 1980s, and we went to America to try our luck at something else. And it was very difficult and hard for us," Tara says before breaking off to laugh.
"Finally mum talks!" Tara smiles looking at Jack. "Finally we hear what went on in the background."
"It's great," Jack says, "because I get it from people a lot: "This has just all fallen in your way. You're an incredibly lucky person.' People don't realise that it was, actually, an incredibly hard slog."
I ask Jack the question that's been on my mind for the last 20 minutes: what is the story with his father? "There is no story there," he says. "It is one of those typical cases of," says Tara, "the woman says: 'I can do this by myself,' because she knows that it is only going to be a burden, if there is a guy who is not really interested involved, it is only a burden and a heart ache. So it was very much, you know, cut the cord and we'll keep the channels of communication open."
"And they have been kept open, but there were no nappies paid for," Tara says. "There was no maintenance paid for. I never wanted any of it. There was Irish pride. Jack's father and I had no common ground to build a relationship with. He played no role whatsoever," she says, "other than the occasional calls at Christmas. I bear him no malice. He was just a young guy who thought he'd messed up his life. I got 'everything' - my son shine," Tara says absolutely glowing.
In truth, when I rocked up last Monday to talk to Jack Reynor to promote E Vision on Demand I wasn't expecting much - that all changed, irrevocably, when his mother at my suggestion sat in on the interview and spoke for the first time about her and Jack's incredible journey together. Up until then, all I knew was that Jack was this inspired young actor who made his screen debut in Country in 1999, went to Belvedere College, was in Kirsten Sheridan's Dollhouse and was staggering as the lead in What Richard Did before hitting the big time in Hollywood blockbuster Transformers last year.
I also knew that he got engaged in March to Madeline Mulqueen, with whom he lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Stillorgan. Madeline, he relates, said to him recently that he should write a book about his life before someone else does. He will not be stuck for material.
Jack Reynor's earliest childhood memory, he says, was watching the planes at Boulder regional airport with his grandfather.
"I remember a yellow plane taking off as a favourite," he says. "And then these other planes." Did that resonate because he didn't have the actual money to be on these planes to fly away so he had to use his imagination?
"That's probably it, to be honest. But my grandfather always had a fascination with planes. He was a great inspiration on my life."
Jack adds that when his grandfather came back to Ireland he worked for a frozen food company "during a particularly difficult economic patch. He used to sell frozen food out of the back of a dry ice freezer van, door to door, every evening. I used to go with him every day after school when I was 7, 8 and 9. I used to do 100 doors a night with him. It just adds to the Oliver Twist ethos of this whole fucking story!" he laughs.
Growing up in Humphrystown, county Wicklow, Jack says he was quite creative when a kid. "I remember we had big cardboard boxes and I used to cut them up and make a TV set out of these boxes. I would put it over myself and do the news and the weather for my family. I always had an element of performance in me and I wanted to show off to people."
He also had an almost unquenchable desire to progress from the cardboard boxes of his childhood to the big screen of the present."I'll also say this to you," says Tara at one point, "when Jack was really breaking his heart trying to get a break in the movies, I had cancer. At the same time that Jack heard he was going to get this particular movie, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were in bits over this."
"God, yeah, and destitute as well," Jack adds.
"We couldn't even speak to each other," Tara says. "The hope was that Jack would - you know, all of the hopes in the family for generations, for every family, was that someone in the family will do better than anyone else. So this happened all at that time. The poor young man was walking around the streets of Dublin: 'Jesus, I have to perform.'"
"He didn't know if he had bus money to come home. He knew he had get out to town or to the factory in Ringsend, but he certainly didn't have taxi money to come home. He would rely maybe on sleeping on someone's sofa. He wouldn't eat from one end of the day to the next. So, it is not a big happy-happy story," Tara says.
Where did she get her strength to bring up Jack on her own, to go through cancer etc?
"It comes down through all the generations that came to make everyone of us," she answers.
"My mum is a human rights defender," Jack says. "That's what she does."
"I got it from my grandmother," says Tara.
"You got it from yourself," corrects Jack. "You got it because you had a massive issue with bullies. And people being treated in an unjust way and being demeaned."
"I went to school in the 1970s in London," Tara, who was born in Ireland, remembers.
"I got beaten up in school because I was Irish, every single day. I was driven home from school having had my face wiped up and down against a concrete wall when I was 4, because it was around the time of the Birmingham Bombings. I came back to Ireland and I got beaten up here in school because I had a British accent. So I just hate bullies. And I think Jack has that sense of justice and a care for civil society because of all those things. So there aren't any regrets in the family. Every single thing that has happened, whether it was painful or pleasurable, was another building block in the wall."
Another building block in the cosmic wall was surely that Tara was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2012. Having gone through, she says, "radio-therapy, full left mastectomy, total hair loss, the works", Tara is having reconstruction in November: "12 hours under someone's cutlery . . . "
Her famous son is going bowling at Leisureplex with his little brother Harry this afternoon in Stillorgan near where he lives with his mot Madeline. I mention that I worked in what used to be Blakes restaurant as a school kid across the road from the bowling alley in Stillorgan.
"My brother Damien worked there too!" sys Tom. "He became a great chef in New York," beams Jack of his uncle. "I got my knowledge and love of cuisine from him." Jack adds that he cooks every day at home for him and Madeline. "I use fresh ingredients and it makes you feel really clean, really healthy. It is one of those small achievements throughout the course of the day that is really gratifying and fulfilling."
Jack is here ostensibly to talk about Eircom's new movie service eVision on Demand. He says he's "watching a lot of movies on E Vision on Demand at home."
"E Vision on Demand is going to be good for us because we watch movies at home all the time with the kids," says Tara referring to Jack's 6 and 8-year-old siblings Harry and Jess. Jack says when they saw him on Transformers, they went crazy over it.
"That's the best thing about it."
Would he like to be a father one day?
"Absolutely. I'm only 22 though! Maybe a little bit down the road but it is certainly something that I want to do. I'd like to take a lot of time off when I do eventually become a father. I'd like to take 2 or 3 years off at the beginning and just be there for the kids. I don't want to be that person who is dragging a 3 month old baby on a fucking 14 hour flight to Australia just because I have to work there. That's not fair."
"He also didn't have the ability to have that kind of relationship with me," says Tara, "because I had to go to work and my parents were taking care of him. So until Jack was probably 9 he didn't see too much of me. So it is important for that not to happen in his life."
Despite the super-stardom and the bright lights of La La Land beckoning him, Jack is stuck on life in Stillorgan with Madeline. "I do a lot of travelling, but Ireland is a major part of my life and it always will be. I am quite well established out there in LA; and not being constantly accessible to them is probably an advantage. And even if it was a disadvantage to me, living in Ireland, I still wouldn't leave, because it is more important for me to live here."
To find out more about eVision on Demand, visit www.eircom.ie/evision or call 1800 503 303. You can watch Barry Egan's interview with Jack Reynor on independent.ie