The greatest trick that Tom Vaughan-Lawlor ever pulled
As Hollywood calls, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor tells our reporter that he's in no big hurry to shake off the 'Nidge' tag
The worst kept secret in Ireland emerged a few years ago in the wake of Love/Hate's ascension to ubiquity. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, the actor who played Nidge, was, it turned out, playing a character.
For a while, it was as if the only thing people wanted to talk to this brightest of bright acting talents about was how different he was in real life to the ruthless anti-hero of that Dublin crime saga. Where people associated the gaunt face and shaven widow's peak with spitting inner-city bile and gangland menace, they were met with an urbane, craft-conscious, Dundrum-based consummate professional.
Spoiling the effect even further, Vaughan-Lawlor is today empathetic of such queries. "It didn't get to me because I have that too," he hoots from under his trilby. "I find that disconnect so weird, so people's reactions are totally legitimate. It's a head-messer. I've worked with actors who are so flamboyant on screen and stage and then you meet them and they're self-effacing and quiet."
Self-effacing, indeed. Quiet, we're not so sure. Having been up since five this morning to catch an early flight back to Dublin from Kent (where he lives with actress wife Claire Cox and six-year-old son Freddie), the heavily caffeinated Vaughan-Lawlor is chirpy and chatty. While loving life in England, he relishes any trip home, he tells me, and savours the exhale that comes with touching down in his home town.
It's an exciting time for the 40-year-old. Maze, a finely-calibrated new film about the eponymous prison break that saw 38 IRA inmates scamper to temporary freedom, is getting sturdy reviews. It's central three-way of Barry Ward, Martin McCann and Vaughan-Lawlor puts a clutch of this country's best male acting prospects in an effective shop window. Last year saw the Trinity and RADA graduate step into Hollywood with his supporting role in cartel thriller The Infiltrator (leading man and Breaking Bad icon Bryan Cranston dubbed Vaughan-Lawlor's turn "a masterclass").
And then we come to the small matter of Avengers: Infinity War, the presumably hulking - in more ways than one - pinnacle of popcorn-guzzling, box office-breaking superhero excess due for release next year. Vaughan-Lawlor has been revealed as playing a galactic baddie who will most likely become a staple of future films in the gargantuan franchise. A fierce contractual omerta must be observed off-set but he can discuss this new landscape of Hollywood.
"Well it's the same thing as the plays I did touring around Ireland," he says, "it's just a different optic. You're working with these superstars who are hunting for the same thing that you are on a five-day, €10,000 budget independent movie, which is truth, reality and connection. And I find that amazing. People ask me are you intimidated by being in that sphere or that company and I'm not - not because I'm being arrogant but because they're just applying the same techniques and mechanics as you would to a rehearsal reading of a play as you would to a huge multi-million budget franchise film."
He does concede that the distance takes some getting used to, especially when a young family is in the picture. "It's funny," he says, "my wife is an actor and she's doing a show called Jamestown for Sky 1 in Budapest at the moment. During the summer, me, my son and my wife were in three different time zones for a week on two different continents. I made sure we got a picture in each time zone so I'm going to get them framed together. It's been quite a bonkers summer." Admittedly, friends with more conventional nine-to-five lifestyles look at the couple, what with the strange cars collecting and dropping them off, or Freddie being handed over to grandparents or friends, and think "lunatics". He laughs at this but there is an edge to his assertion that acting is "not a boring life". Watching his father, the renowned stage actor Tom Lawlor, struggle for work in the impoverished 1980s planted in him a slight trepidation about the vocation. To this day, with Hollywood opening its embrace to him, he still speaks of the "heady times" that can come with "insecurity mixed with the extraordinary experiences".
"The anxiety and insecurity is always there," he says through a goofy grin. "And I'm one of the very lucky ones in that I work consistently. That headiness I don't enjoy. I was doing a play that was really successful and it was one of the best times of my life but after a while, I was like, 'I just want to go home and pay a bill or do the school run'."
While Tom Sr's influence is apparent, his "brilliant" English-born mother instilled in him something else that the actor is noted for in the industry - "the integrity of hard work". With genuine wonderment, he relates a story of his mother cycling him through a snowstorm from Dundrum to Newpark for a guitar lesson after the family car broke down. "My mum worked in a restaurant, and even though there was no money in our house we never wanted for anything as kids because she worked her fingers to the bone for us." Having Freddie means he now "gets it" in terms of that sacrifice and describes parenthood as "humbling, frustrating, boring and incredible". Perplexing, most likely too, especially when Freddie quizzes him about God, death or Donald Trump. "I'm trying to figure this stuff out for myself!"
And what of Nidge? Surely a time will come when he'll wish to discard the label and be known for other things? "I think it's wasted energy trying to resist something like that," he quickly replies. "In an ideal world, of course. But to wish that experience away? No. I was very thankful for that journey."
Appearances are therefore not what they seem with the shape-shifting abilities of Vaughan-Lawlor. An actor, he insists, must be an open-minded observer who can look past first impressions. His first lesson in this was a ferry journey back to Ireland during his student years with an old girlfriend. A rough-looking customer, perhaps a foreshadowing of Nidge himself, came and sat down close to them carrying a plastic bag. An air of threat quickened as the passenger suddenly reached into the bag.
"What does he take out? Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence," he laughs. "Those inconsistencies in a character, the jagged edges and contradictions, are what are most exciting."
Maze is in cinemas nationwide from Friday