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Sunday 24 June 2018

Could Mark Huberman be on the cusp of eclipsing sister Amy's fame?

His sister may be a household name, but with both a play at the Gate and a major TV role this month, actor Mark Huberman is on the cusp of eclipsing her fame. Our reporter meets Amy's eldest brother.

Mark Huberman will be treading the boards at the Gate Theatre from April 28. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Mark Huberman will be treading the boards at the Gate Theatre from April 28. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Mark Huberman has a major TV role coming up. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Amy Huberman and brother Paul at the 2016 IFTA awards.
Mark Huberman as George Gavan Duffy in TV3's Trial of the Century.

Maggie Armstrong

'II think, as a shy person, acting is a perfectly normal place to go. Because the second you're playing someone else, you're not you. It gives you that licence to go anywhere you want. As soon as I'm not Mark, I can just go - anywhere."

This, from Mark Huberman. He's an actor, but not as they usually come.

Whether you know Mark or not from Vikings, Pure Mule and The Clinic you are about to see more of him - and in a few places at once. The 38-year-old Dubliner returns to the Gate stage for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee's savage kitchen-sink classic, and to your living rooms for TV3's 1916 centenary drama Trial of the Century.

Mark, flushed from rehearsals at the Gate when we meet, sips a Coca-Cola in Dublin's Gresham hotel as he considers the delights of disappearing into other human beings. I had put it to him that performing was an unusual path to take for the shy one in the family who studied science. Less usual, at least, than for his sister, Amy Huberman, the actress and author who seems to have been born entertaining a crowd, or his brother, Paul Huberman, who was composing classical piano for film scores at age 16.

But the lad sees it differently. He remembers when a schoolmate told him he should take up debating if he wanted to be an actor. "I was just like, no. That's me, that's Mark. I don't want to be me. I want to be someone else."

Over 15 years of "peaks and troughs" - between well-spaced premieres he was temping in offices, or carrying plates of fancy food - Mark has been a presence in some of the best pictures and plays to come out of Ireland.

Whether next to Chris O'Dowd in Moone Boy, in a tiny scene in Lenny Abrahamson's Frank or as Creon in Wayne Jordan's Oedipus at the Abbey Theatre, he has a rock-like quality. Not just those gallant looks. Or those eyes - which are blue-green and bottomless, like tropical seas.

But back to business - what was going on in the Huberman household? One working actor is a miracle, but two, plus a musical prodigy? In Ireland? With Hubermans around, you start to fear there is a race of better people. What was going on?

"I don't know. It just happened. It is bananas. It wasn't as if it was a 'stage school' house, or Hollywood parents, bringing you to auditions when you were six," Mark says. Harold and Sandra encouraged their kids to try everything, he adds.

Harold - a Jewish Londoner - designed clothes when he came to Dublin, and their mother Sandra modelled while at UCD. At other times she sang operettas with her musical society. "I think mum would have been an incredible actress. But whatever way her life went, it never arose." Growing up in Cabinteely, in south Dublin, Amy and Mark went to the Betty Ann Norton School of Acting. While Amy was "bubbly", Mark showed more interest in science. But finding he was able to stand up and be a "flying Dutchman" in his sixth class play had a stirring effect.

"Is it attention, or telling a story, or the mixture of the two? I don't know," he muses. In Trinity College, enrolled to study Science, he made straight for Players, and immediately got cast as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction. There was "that initial drug rush of doing theatre, realising how much you love it, and finding your home in that space."

He believes theatre takes "such a deep, extended level of commitment, telling a story from beginning to end, it is like going to the gym. You get match-fit… I suppose the cliché is a lot of actors just want to do film, for the exposure or the money or both. But there's nowhere to hide in theatre."

As the light fades on O'Connell Street, Mark's shyness gives way to a fluent and slightly excitable intelligence. As he talks, you sense he has read and absorbed many books on a subject and carefully weighed up the arguments before presenting his case.

Mark is different in that he didn't train professionally as an actor, but soaked up what he could from those around him. A lone scientist at Players, he discovered "an incredible mix of people… American students studying drama and theatre, older people doing post-grads, people who could teach you so much, and I was just listening to them, just sponging off them."

Straight after college he was cast in Peter Sheridan's film Borstal Boy. Soon Tom Hanks was auditioning him for Band of Brothers, and Mark got the part of a wide-eyed World War II soldier. Within months, Amy had got a part in her first film, Bad Karma. "We were neck and neck," says Mark.

Today, he has been rehearsing a different type of fight scene - for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Many Irish people will find themselves right at home in Albee's 1962 play: two couples arrive home after a party at 2am. "They're already pretty drunk, and then just literally keep drinking until the sun comes up… We're all doing spirits, it's all hard liquor, there's nothing soft and gentle.

"Tensions flare up, you start to realise the relationships on both sides aren't perfect, things get out of hand and there's a little bit of a fight."

The lavish Declan Conlon plays the past-his-best historian, George, the enrapturing Fiona Bell will play his hard-drinking wife, Martha. The younger couple are Mark, as Nick, married to Honey, played by Sophie Robinson who people may know as playing lovelorn Belfast student turned nurse, Ingrid, in RTÉ's Rebellion.

The play is directed by David Grindley, who has been a big deal on the West End and lately Broadway.

"On the surface of it, it's just four people in a house drinking. Yet Albee had some pretty massive things to say about what was going on in America at the time, 1962. Nick is the young hotshot, supposedly all-American superhero, quarterback for the football team, with this huge academic success."

Nick is also, Mark tells me, working in the field of genetics at a time when DNA was first discovered, and manipulated.

"Albee has a lot to say about our reverence towards science," says Mark, who identifies with the sentiment. "Knowledge can become a destructive power - scientists inventing the atom bomb. Do they know what they're going to do with the knowledge and power they have?"

The play's aggression circles around Martha's "sewer of a marriage" to George. And it was in a chance corner of Dublin that Mark gleaned much material for this play. We know him as an actor, but denizens of the capital's fine dining scene will know him better as a waiter in Pichet, where for years he served plates of delicate French dishes to the patrons.

"Like a lot of jobs there's an element of performance," says Mark, and apologises for "going very deep now." "It is cool to see other parts of life that you can then go and play, and understand, and have an appreciation of. Somewhere like Pichet, there's such a cross-section of people coming in you get to meet. Character studies - " he apologises again for this "actor" term - "the dynamic of couples that you meet, and what people choose to show outwardly, rather than just privately.

"So you see a husband and wife or a boyfriend and girlfriend coming in, having dinner, and you can just feel what's going on, whether it's good or bad, the tension, whose decision it was to go for dinner, who wants to be there, who doesn't. How happy they are to be around each other. Yeah, those things can definitely be put back into work, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

He worked at Pichet "to stay alive", because 14-hour shifts taught him "work ethic" and because the restaurant staff have been a family to him. "Look," he says brightly, "I could be waiting tables again later in the year."

Mark - who has a girlfriend he desperately wants to protect and not mention in the media - lives in Kilmainham across from the gaol.

On days off he does cheerful things like visit Padraig Pearse's cell. For Trial of the Century Mark was aged a decade to play George Gavan Duffy, the solicitor and founding father who defended, if unsuccessfully, Roger Casement. TV3's three-part series is an "imagined history" in which Duffy defends Pearse - played by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor - in the fair trial he was never given. Mark has had to "delve" into anything he could find about Duffy and is "very excited" to watch it for the first time.

I wonder how Mark and his actor sister support each other, in an industry which can be isolating and frustrating for those out of work. "It's funny, sometimes Paul does accuse us of having Inside the Actor's Studio dinners in the house. He's like, 'Can we not talk about acting?'"

Actors now have to film themselves for auditions, celebrities included. "I've done tapes with Amy, and Amy's done tapes with me. Because I need someone to read with. There's a real trust in that. In terms of who you do your tapes with."

Has his sister's fame set the bar for his acting career? "I'm not sure. I mean, Amy is so talented and so brilliant at what she does, and so good at handling people's appreciation for what she does, that she can be in that world so easily. Whereas I don't know if that's something that I… I haven't done many interviews. I'm just less comfortable with attention really. I'm not saying Amy's massively comfortable with it, but I mean if you watch her in an interview on telly, she's amazing at it."

Amy is so good, he continues, at "existing around her work. So comfortable with all that, and just really able to hold her own and be brilliant, and have that mix of intelligence and comedy and fun and warmth.

"And Amy can find fun in anything. If she was doing accountancy exams, she'd have the craic."

How has it changed the family, having a national treasure on their hands? It must be strange to meet your sister's persona every time you pass a magazine stand, strange to think of hundreds of thousands of followers hanging on her every word on Twitter.

"I suppose everyone just thought it was going to happen forever. So when it became that everyone knew who Amy was, it wasn't strange. It was just, she is that lovely, and she is that brilliant, so it made sense."

As he talks so lovingly about his sister, Mark confirms my deep fears that there is a race of people that are simply more beautiful, more intelligent, more talented and nicer to each other - than the proles who dwell in their shadows.

But in the shadow of Nick and his nasty friends on the Gate stage, I'd be happy to dwell for a night.

'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' opens at the Gate Theatre on April 28, with previews from April 21. The three-part 'Trial of the Century' airs on TV3 at 9pm each night from April 30 to May 2.

Portraits by Gerry Mooney

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