The actor-turned-author talks about how writing and meditation helped him face his demons, getting better at relationships and apologising to his exes
Inspiration can strike in the unlikeliest settings. Robert Sheehan was sitting on the toilet when he finally found his writing voice. The half-remembered strictures of secondary school English classes fell away. He forgot about the essay style he’d been tinkering with fitfully — for a piece on shadow puppetry, of all things. And instead, on the notes app of his phone, he “wrote a very anecdotal piece in a voice of how I would chat to someone. The story, I suddenly understood, is just what it is in the moment. I tried to make it more like the oral tradition, little rambling meditations.”
Now, barely a couple of years later, his first book of fiction, Disappearing Act, is out. It’s a collection of darkly funny short stories, aptly written in unlikely locations — one was composed in the back of a cab while a Muslim taxi driver played a spoken word reading of the Qur’an on the radio — and takes inspiration from the characters he’s encountered on his travels as well as his own life and background; the penultimate chapter grew from a recording he made of his father. Most of the stories feature a character’s monologue with themselves.
“The book is satirical of self-talk. We all walk around with this referential self who is chatting back to us. I find that really bizarre and funny.” He wrote the stories “skeletally” and then let them marinade in his head, editing furiously through most of lockdown.
The results are the type of witty colourful writing that would have gotten published, even without Sheehan’s star caché. It might be easy to be cynical about an actor turning his hand to fiction — the critical mauling Sean Penn received a couple of years ago for his novel lingers in the memory — but the Portlaoise-born actor has a rare imaginative talent and has already won fulsome praise from Breakfast on Pluto author Pat McCabe no less.
The urge to write fiction had a particularly personal genesis for Sheehan. “Meditation, for me, is the thing that makes ideas spring forth. I find I can observe my thoughts and write them down. It’s given me a greater relationship with my own body and a greater relationship with other people. I found, in the past, I could get a sulk on or be irritated, but really those things are as observable as the world, and meditation helps me have distance to observe those things occurring like I would a cloud passing. I used to say that I was fiery or emotional, but really those things were me collapsing into old ways of thinking that were too strong for me to avoid. And I can see that now.”
He started meditating a few years ago, when he was at an unhappy period in his life. “I was around 30 and I was doing a film called Bad Samaritan (in which he co-starred with David Tennant) and, quite frankly, I was miserable. It was about things going on in my life; I felt like I couldn’t just ‘be’, and I was always creating drama around me. I was just exasperated, and so I started meditating. I thought, I’ll reserve judgment on it for six months and, after six months, I couldn’t have been more grateful I did it.”
The results were dramatic. He saw “generational patterns” in his own behaviour and moods and, at times, things got quite trippy. “Between me and you and that tape recorder, I felt like I’d had profound experiences happen to me that were like death rehearsals, intense hallucinations, just while I was sitting at home on my couch or on my floor. I become aware of vast scenes of 3D imagery. There is a layer below waking reality that I call the field of infinite dreams. I think it’s the subconscious, and I can go there any time I like now.”
The mixture of spiritual verboseness, rock star style — rake thin in a barely-there wife-beater — and court jester energy call to mind Russell Brand and, as with the comedian, YouTube is full of clips of Sheehan issuing quips and horsing around to beat the band. When it was announced recently that Timothée Chalamet would play Willy Wonka in the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory reboot, Twitter fans en masse deplored the missed opportunity to cast the Irish actor in a role that seemed to fit his mischievous, knowing persona.
Not that he’s wanting for big roles. Over the last decade, he’s built up an impressive body of work, with starring turns in Love/Hate, Misfits, The Mortal Instruments and Mortal Engines, and, most recently, The Umbrella Academy on Netflix.
What makes this back catalogue more impressive is that Sheehan was all but a child star, a category of actors who, Graham Greene once wrote, often face into “acres of anonymity” as adults. Sheehan’s earliest credits date back to his mid-teens (Song for a Raggy Boy is the first big one) and, at 16, this precocious, musical (he played the bodhrán and tin whistle) son of a guard left home for seven months to film a television series in Canada. “So I was gone (from home) even before I left home properly. It was tough because I was quite lonely, but sometimes I think that suffering at that hour of my life made me robust.”
His parents, he says, “inflated me with a sense that I could do anything I want to do. There was no talk of, ‘Oh it’s not the most practical thing.’ They put me ahead of themselves, particularly my mother, driving me all over the country to auditions. When I was a teenager, I was with a young person’s agency and going up for the odd class on Sunday and there might be an audition that day.”
Unusually for an actor, he didn’t go to drama school. He dropped out of college in Galway, where he studied film and television. It was, he recalls, a city where there was “plenty of opportunity” to meet girls. Not that, as time went on, it was always only girls. “I explored my sexuality, just to see if there were any tinges in a gay or bisexual area, but there wasn’t really for me. I gave it a few tries though.”
Even in the early years of his career, there was, behind the youthful confidence, a gravitation toward self-help and spirituality.
“Me learning to act was mainly kind of practising with friends who were also actors. We were all eager to prove ourselves; that helped me. In public, I took on this swaggery air — it helped in my career too. In those years, I used to do positive affirmations. They were about how good I was at acting or my health. Because I think, passively, you can go around telling yourself you’re terrible at things and there is a corrective needed for that. But that’s equally as dishonest.”
Was he as hard on other people as he was on himself? “Absolutely. In relationships, I had a tendency to be rather selfish at times.” Would he apologise to any of his exes? “I’ve done that. It is a good idea. It’s as much about you as it is about them but, if you’re doing some spiritual housekeeping, I think it’s no harm to reach out.”
When he was in his late teens, he was cast in the Red Riding trilogy, and earned critical acclaim for his performance as a male hustler. “Then I did an action film, Season of the Witch, with Nicolas Cage, and I thought now I can make a career out of this.” He also credits the influence of his agent, Rose Parkinson, with whom he enjoyed “incredible camaraderie”.
Through the noughties, his star continued on its ascent. He was BAFTA-nominated for his performance in Misfits, about teens with superpowers on community service, and won warm praise for his performance in The Accused, playing a mentally disturbed teen who was convinced his stepmother was poisoning him. His growing stature as an actor combined with his arresting appearance — large expressive eyes and a crown of dark curls — made him popular with casting directors and fans. At times, this has been a bit of a double-edged sword and, quite frequently, he gets pestered for selfies (“What do they even do with them all?”).
Not that he is always against interaction with the public. “London can be a difficult place to live. There is this studied indifference in public spaces, and you can get sucked into that, but, for the last while, I’ve tried to break those panes of glass just a little bit every day. If the opportunity presents itself, I will have a meaningful non-agendaed chat with someone in the same space as me.”
He spent lockdown in the English capital. “To be honest, lockdown was lovely. I was in north London, Islington-Holloway area. It was floral, vibrant, beautiful, quiet, and I went on these lovely long walks with no agenda. I saw a few people every week. I was worried for my family. One thing about getting older is that I try not to let worry tarnish every day. I’m able to compartmentalise things and, if they keep popping up, I know they have to be dealt with through talking about it or writing about it. I didn’t think about getting Covid because fear degrades the functionality of the body. It’s a vicious irony that, the more in terror you are of a virus, the more likely you are to contract it, because your immune system isn’t working as well.”
He’s 33 now and sees many of his friends settling down and getting married — “deeply irritating”, he says with a twinkle — but there is no sign of him doing that just yet.
“It’s easier to meet someone when you’re famous but harder to conduct a relationship with someone. There is someone (significant) now and it’s been an interesting learning challenge for me; a confrontation with the self and noticing old patterns emerge and then watching them dissolve. At ground level, relationships have become easier for me because I know that what I’m fighting with is myself. Suddenly you’re five years old and you’re having the same feelings you had when your mother told you to go to bed early and, all of a sudden, you’re playing the role of your five-year-old self, and your girlfriend is your mother, and you might punch a wall because you’re an adult. And so, all this stuff, I’ve really improved upon.”
The alternative, he says, “would be not working on it. I’d be slaving under it for the rest of my life and grow old exactly the same and have people say ‘ah that’s just our Robert, cranky as ever, he’s a character’, when really he was just a sulky oul p***k who never dealt with the way he was.”
His meditation practice has helped him to deal with the grief of losing his uncle, Mikey, who died in a tragic house fire in Kilorglin, Co Kerry — where Rob’s father grew up — two years ago. “That was very sad. It was unexpected. I didn’t get to see my family through that time; I was in Toronto making television. Writing helped to process the grief. I was meditating on set about three months after he died and somehow I started welling up and I started writing about him on my phone.”
Being able to process those emotions, and the ability to enjoy the bone-deep satisfaction of creation, is what drives him to write most days. Another book is in the works, although he can’t say yet what it will be about. But whether he’s as successful at writing as he is at acting is beside the point, he says.
“Writing and meditating have definitely helped my growth as a person, and that’s more important than anything material that comes my way. Being able to sit with a feeling and just observe it? That’s free, and it’s like a superpower. Everybody should do it.”
Disappearing Act by Robert Sheehan is out now, published by Gill books
Photography: Christian Tierney; Styling: Sophie Donaldson; Grooming: Ruth Bergin; Hair: Rachel Manley; Shot on location at The Storeyard, Portlaoise