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'I'm lucky, I can pay my rent. A lot of actors are on the dole'

He's been writing short stories, growing plants and planning podcasts in lockdown, but Robert Sheehan knows he's lucky - the acting industry is in crisis, he tells Tanya Sweeney

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Robert Sheehan

Robert Sheehan

Robert Sheehan

Whatever about his mesmerizing screen presence, everyone should, if they ever get the chance, have a Zoom conversation with Robert Sheehan at least once in their lives. By turns fun, thoughtful and witty, the Portlaise-born actor steers our conversation hither and thither, from meditation and the Merry Pranksters to food poisoning and being governed by unconscious forces.

The 32-year-old's acting CV is every bit as brilliantly scattergun. There's the nimble supernatural comedy Misfits; the homegrown indie Killing Bono; the fantasy blockbuster The Mortal Instruments, and of course Love/Hate, the gangland hit into which Sheehan injected plenty of pathos.

Today, though, we are talking about his return to Netflix's Umbrella Academy. The series has amassed the sort of superfans that TV executives can only dream of, and with good reason. It's a muscular, smart and funny superhero series, not unlike Thor: Ragnarok or Deadpool.

Based on the comic book series written by My Chemical Romance singer Gerard Way, The Umbrella Academy charts the fortunes of seven gifted siblings. Not just any typical siblings: across the world, women give birth on the same day in October 1989, despite not having been pregnant. An eccentric billionaire manages to adopt seven of the 43 children and creates a team of superheroes.

In Love/Hate

Sheehan plays Klaus, a drug-addicted miscreant that the audience can't help but root for. Klaus' superpower, incidentally, is being able to communicate with the dead. After arriving at an apocalyptic cliffhanger at the end of the first series, fans have been chomping at the bit for Season 2. The Hargreeves children find themselves in 1960s Dallas, where drug-loving Klaus evidently finds his comfort zone.

"Yeah, you'd think so, wouldn't you? Certainly on the face of it," Sheehan says, with a hint of mischief. "He always manages to manifest problems here and there. In the 60s, he's kind of able to exploit his position of privilege, being from the future."

Sheehan appears tailor-made for the role of flamboyant Klaus, but reveals he had reservations before taking the role.

"Previous to it coming along, I've had a few times with American - generally speaking, American - TV where it's been sort of false starts and frankly a bit unpleasant," Sheehan reveals. "The whole process of being nearly in one of those TV shows - nothing like Umbrella, though - I was kind of wary. I was wary too of the pitfalls that can occur in TV, especially where you sign up for so long. It can be five or six years, and I was very aware that scripts can tail off in quality as often creative hands can change."

A lengthy conversation with Umbrella Academy's showrunner Steve Blackman soon allayed any fears.

"We talked a little about what kind of journey the character would take, and it was like 'Jesus, that's pretty out there', and I was intrigued by that," Sheehan recalls. "Then I found out Tom Hopper and Ellen Page were attached and I was like, 'allll right!'."

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In Season 2 of The Umbrella Academy

In Season 2 of The Umbrella Academy

In Season 2 of The Umbrella Academy

Sheehan has spent the few months before the release of Umbrella Academy's Season 2 in lockdown in London. Far from twiddling his thumbs, he has kept busy. He's been growing plants ("oh, over 30 bits on the go on the old balcony"), and has completed a book of short stories.

"It was kind of written before the lockdown, but to be honest, it was very beneficial to the development of the book," Sheehan reveals. "It went from an embryonic phase to something that's relatively more publishable."

He pulled "a fair few all-nighters" to get the book over the line. "It does massively help the head," he concedes. "It's nice to be practised in a couple of different forms of creativity, and writing is great because you don't have to create a whole production from it. You just put your absurdisms on the page."

Most actors, we agree, are taking to lockdown in very different ways. "It is fretful about the acting world," he says. "I'm lucky, you know - I can pay my rent and I have no babies, and I'm in a more flexible position than a lot of them. I was talking to my agent and lots [of actors] are on the dole. It's tough."

Writing and growing plants aside, Sheehan is also flexing his brain on a new podcast.

"Me and Tom Hopper have a delicious new podcast, which we've been cooking up as lockdown was coming to an end," Sheehan reveals.

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Filming The Young Offenders

Filming The Young Offenders

Filming The Young Offenders

"We've done 20 or so episodes. It's a very different pursuit altogether. It's me, him and a guy Byron [Knight, Broadway star], who is a friend of mine in East London. We basically get these amazing people like billionaires and scientific people and people in political arenas to answer interesting questions. It's called The Earth Locker, and it's sort of evolved to be about food and the body."

With that, Sheehan puts down his Grumpy (Seven Dwarfs) mug and reveals his custom-made Earth Locker pendant.

"It quite coolly blocks electromagnetic frequencies, of which there is a ton coming off your computer right now," he explains.

The neckwear puts me in mind of Connell's famous chain in Normal People, I tell him.

"He's such a dreamboat," Sheehan sighs of Connell, played by actor Paul Mescal. "I was unaware of his [Mescal's] existence before watching Normal People. Excellent, excellent f***ing acting. It's just lovely - everyone's on the same page with the acting and directing. It's a show that knows itself very, very well, and it's lovely to see that quality of acting coming out of Ireland."

Sheehan does get to return home regularly and, in 2018, turned in a memorable appearance on The Young Offenders' second series. He laughs and winces at the memory: "I'm just remembering the night before the first day of filming - I'd been up all night puking my ring up as I'd had a dodgy Chinese in Cork city. It was the only thing that was open at 10pm and I had seafood. Not advisable, Rob. Peter Foott [Young Offenders creator], is a friend of mine - man, he works you. Sixteen takes in on Young Offenders, I was like, 'is he always like this?'."

With Love/Hate currently enjoying a redux on Irish screens, Sheehan has been given pause to reflect on his career-changing role as Darren. "I feel very, very lucky to have been involved - there's immense pride there," he says. "Me coming along at 20, 21 and being all, 'yeah, yeah, I'll do it', I was very lucky to have that fall into my lap. It's a testament to the quality on the show that it gave us all a great push in our journeys."

Sheehan admits that some roles missed his lap entirely: "It's like buying a house or something - you get all emotionally invested in it before you get the keys, and you've pretty much moved into the [character's] shoes," he smiles. "Hindsight is a great thing, and I know now that some things I didn't get, had I gotten them, they'd have knocked out a more significant [role]. It's good to go through the pain at the time, though."

For now though, Sheehan is mindful of exacting a balance in his life between the personal and professional.

"I will at some stage start a little army, once I find a woman silly enough who will have a nomad as a partner," Sheehan notes. "Yeah, I'd love to have a few nippers. I suppose I've gone through a stage of maturation in the last three years of my life. I feel a lot more settled. Life still flies at you occasionally, but I feel a lot more ready for that."

Season 2 of The Umbrella Academy is released on Netflix on July 31.

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Irish Independent