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Sean Mahon's big Irish homecoming

For many actors, playing someone who interfered with an underage girl would be a risk they just wouldn't take. The possibility that the public could conflate you in any way with such a controversial storyline, especially in the context of a soap, might be too high. But, for Sean Mahon, the role of Sergeant Brian McGonigle, who has a fling with a minor on TV3's soap Red Rock, was an opportunity too rich to pass up.

"I didn't hesitate in the least", the actor says on a break from shooting. "It's such a great part. When you take on a role about that, you never see yourself just as the bad guy, you always want to try to figure out why the character behaves as he does. And I suppose the reason I left a normal work life was to try to play parts that were as far away from my real self as possible. And that's what this guy is."

Mahon had an unusual path to acting. He grew up in Rathfarnham in Dublin, attending Colaiste Eanna and started out his career working in marketing for a variety of companies, including Kerrygold and Avonmore. The work brought him to the US, where he felt the acting bug nip a little more persistently at him. Growing up, he always had an interest in drama but felt he owed it to himself to try to make it in "a normal career" before attempting to make it as an actor.

"My life has been a series of moments where I took the plunge when people were asking me would I not try to settle down", he recalls.

In his thirties he decided to move out to Los Angeles to try to make it as an actor, but like so many people who try to break into the profession, he did other jobs to make ends meet while he waited for success to call. One of these was teaching fitness classes at a gym which was frequented by some of the biggest names in the business.

"Part of the regime at the gym was to learn to teach classes in case the teachers didn't show up", he recalls. "I was teaching in a programme called Barry's Bootcamp. Sarah Jessica Parker, Chris Rock and a lot of other stars used to come in. There were so many of them that people didn't really stare. You might think that stars of that calibre would have their own private gyms and instructors but they're people too; they want to be out in the world."

In LA, Mahon won small roles in big shows like ER and Hulk but, he says, he felt he "lost myself a little bit."

"At a certain point I thought, there's more to me than this", he recalls. "I had started to not even care so much about career." His turning point came when he won a part in Conor McPherson's The Seafarer on Broadway.

"I worked there with a lot of talented actors who divided their time between Europe and the US; they had that international life that some actors have. I realised that was what I needed to do. American casting directors tend to typecast you a little bit as Irish or European."

The Seafarer was a springboard into a number of great roles for Mahon, including the part of Dame Judy Dench's son in Philomena.

"I'd just read her autobiography six months before I got the call to go and test for the part. I was with Stephen Frears and Steve Coogan and Frears said to me 'turn around and meet your mother' and there she was, standing in front of me. That was pretty much how he told me I had the part. I was sick as a dog at the time but obviously thrilled. I went out and I was like, 'what the hell just happened?"

Despite the fillip that coming back to Europe gave his career, America is still home for Mahon. These days he's based in Manhattan's exclusive Upper East Side, where he lives with his wife.

"It's a great neighbourhood" he says, "And I love living in America. But it's always great to come back to Ireland too. This is my real home."

Red Rock is on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 7.30pm on TV3

Sunday Independent