Doctor Macken will see you now
Eoin Macken went from Fair City to starring in a new American hospital drama on NBC. Julia Molony met him in London
When Irish actor Eoin Macken was growing up in Howth, the eldest son of a barrister and nurse, his dream was to be a zoologist and, he says, "go to Africa and study lions."
Now 31, the Irish actor has finally made it to Africa, though not in any way he might have imagined back then. With his zoology ambition long since abandoned, he's currently playing an emergency room doctor on the NBC series The Night Shift instead. But he can thank his growing fame in the states for helping him bag an invitation to travel to Mozambique with the charity Sightsavers, to make a film about their work there.
Until recently, Macken was probably best known in Ireland for his role as Gavin in Fair City. But he's actually a triple-threat talent who started his career as a model, and now keeps busy as an actor- slash- filmmaker- slash author. He is busy following Patrick Dempsey's footsteps in the noble pop-cultural tradition of the emotionally damaged but handsome hospital doctor. While, at the same time keeping himself amused between takes on location in New Mexico with edits and re-writes of his first novel. As you do.
The results of his efforts is a book called Kingdom of Scars, "a coming of age story about a 15-year-old boy in Dublin, going through his first experiences of drinking and sex and drugs," he says, which will be published later this year by Poolbeg.
Macken's life as he describes it is a restless odyssey driven by creative curiosity. He seems almost allergically adverse to settling on one discipline. Though if absolutely forced to choose he says, "All I've wanted to do is write. In school I just wanted to be a writer but I was afraid to be a writer because I felt I couldn't. It didn't really feel like my writing was interesting enough, so getting a book published was a huge kick."
Despite his restless energy, he's subject to self doubt like anyone else. "I go through periods where I feel very confident about stuff but other periods that are insecure . . .I find doing different stuff removes the responsibility of focussing on one thing," he says.
Initially, the spur for writing screenplays was to serve his ambitions as a young actor starting out. He wanted to create good roles for himself, and figured that the most expedient way to go about this was to pen them himself. But his career as an actor had a few false starts. His first break came via a role in the Irish football movie Studs opposite Brendan Gleeson. He was completing a degree in psychology at UCD at the time and ended up taking two months off for filming and "writing my thesis on set." Immediately afterwards, he headed to New York to study the Meisner method. He was offered his first American film role there, but at almost the same moment, his father was diagnosed with cancer. "So then I came back and spent two years at home," he says.
Back home, he was on the verge of abandoning acting altogether, when he was offered a job working in a hotel doing marketing. "I asked my dad should I do it and he said if I wanted to make films, I should make films instead. I figured if I took that job I wasn't going to make films anymore, so I decided not to take that and to just keep doing acting and film-making."
Sadly Eoin's father didn't recover, and passed away in 2007. After a stint in Fair City, when Eoin eventually returned to New York to complete his studies, he did so with a renewed sense of focus. The loss, he says "made me more appreciative of time. I didn't want to waste time. It made me more determined. I think beforehand there was a certain flippancy to what I was doing, just because it was exciting." He was determined to wring the benefits out of every experience, including the role in Fair City, "I did it just after my dad died, so I was like, I'm going to do what I want here. I was quite specific about how I wanted to do things." Doing a soap was good discipline. "It teaches you to be less indulgent. You don't want to get stuck doing that for too long, but you can learn from doing it," he says.
But it was when he was cast as a wayward knight in the BBC series Merlin that things started to really take off, the role introduced him to a global audience, and no doubt helped to swing things for him with the producers of The Night Shift, who cast him as the lead character in the series, playing a doctor recently returned from service in Afghanistan who is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Playing a sexy doctor has already launched the career of many a doe-eyed male star, including, off the top of my head, George Clooney, Noah Wyle and Patrick Dempsey to name just a few. But Macken is diffident about being a newly minted medical pin up. "I don't know if I'm a pin up yet," he says, visibly embarrassed. "I still feel really awkward just doing an interview with you." And he's philosophical about the boost in profile a role like this inevitably brings. "I don't think you can measure anything based on it," he says, "so I wouldn't. But it creates opportunities, opens doors to do other things I want to do."
The trip to Mozambique to work with Sightsavers is a case in point. Scheduled to coincide with their Million Miracles campaign which is launching this autumn, his film covers his experience in Mozambique in an area of the country where more than a fifth of the population suffer from a visual impairment. He was struck by the simple measurable benefit of providing basic treatment which can be immediately life-changing.
"There's stuff going on in Gaza and Syria and Ukraine, all over the place, there's always stuff happening. But when something can be solved so simply, you kind of want to focus on that. . . As opposed to getting overwhelmed by a myriad of problems."
He seems to be relieved to have the chance to point the camera at someone else for a change, "I love acting, but I hate being in front of camera - I get really awkward. I hate being the centre of attention."
Eoin Macken's documentary and the Sightsavers Million Miracles campaign launch this autumn. www.millionmiracles.org