Sunday 18 November 2018

Mark Huberman talks sibling rivalry, self-help, and serial monogamy

Mark Huberman's talent is moving him out of the shadow of his famous sister. He spoke to Donal Lynch about sibling rivalry, self-help and serial monogamy

Succesful actor Mark Huberman
Succesful actor Mark Huberman

It's possibly not the easiest thing having an uber-famous sister. Christopher Ciccone (Madonna's brother), Austin Swift (Taylor's brother) or Jaxon Bieber (who had to deal with an embarrassing first name to boot) could all possibly relate to an experience Mark Huberman might also have had on occasion; that of witnessing an interviewer bide their time until he can get to the meat and drink of: what's she really like? I try so very hard not to bide my time during Mark's riff on homelessness - he's currently rehearsing a role of an Eastern European homeless man - his opinions on the lack of Irish actresses getting great roles (except for one woman, who we're getting to) or the perennial difficulty of waiting for callbacks from auditions, but throughout all of these, there is a nagging sense of an elephant in the room.

Which is a supremely bad metaphor for someone as gorgeously slim as our Amy, but you get my drift. It's unfortunate, but when you're the borderline Irish twin (just 18 months apart) of a one-woman-lifestyle-brand-cum-nation's-sweetheart it's hard to not be defined in relation to her. Which is unfair really, because Mark could also be described as the star of the family. In the last few years he has set himself apart as one of our finest stage actors - his performance in The Gate's production of The Great Gatsby won him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Irish Times Theatre Awards last year, and his performances in the recent dramas Striking Out and Trial of the Century were reckoned to be highlights of both of the series.

And, to be fair to him, he is very good humoured about the ambient Amy fascination, smilingly answering early attempts to find some interesting textures to their on-the-face-of-it very agreeable relationship. Did I read somewhere that he channels his childhood arguments with her when he's trying to get properly worked up for an argument in a stage scene? Oh no, that was just Amy having a LOL on Instagram, he assures me.

But surely, I wonder aloud, it would be natural to feel a twinge of competitiveness when you see your fellow-actor sibling constantly on the screen or in the media. "I know there is generally a lot of rivalry in houses and fighting for attention in the families growing up," he begins, "but even though it sounds so cheesy we've always been mates. Amy, herself, has always said, there is no one journey that every actor goes on, and we never went for the same roles. Obviously there have been some arguments between us over the years. But there are three of us in the family and Amy and Paul (their sibling) would more often spark off each other to be honest."

Anyway, the Amy-comparisons were going on way before the media arrived on the Huberman scene. Their parents started it, sending Mark to drama classes in the hope that it would dissolve a little of his shyness and help him to be a little bit more like You Know Who. "I was sent to them because I didn't speak and was incredibly shy," he explains. "My sister was seen as someone very outgoing who could just get up and do this no problem, whereas I was this guy who wouldn't speak and the idea was maybe he can go along and watch how she does it. She is a year-and-a-half younger than me. I was considered more a practical kind of kid."

He continued that tendency to practicality by going on to study science in Trinity. It was there he also became involved in the Players drama group, where his talent was rapidly apparent and where the likes of Chris O'Dowd and little sis were also making waves. It was then that he had the first inkling that he could make a go of acting as a means of making a living, something, he says that initially disquieted his parents. "My parents were scared of me going to join the arts world. It is a little bit like going to join the circus. It was like 'yeah thanks for sending me to school in Trinity but now I'm going to go off into this precarious career and just hope for the best'. If I saw my CV of today, when I was 18, I wonder how I'd view it. I wonder, would I be impressed? It's a tough one to answer, I'm not sure."

His first appearance was in 1999 in Borstal Boy, directed by Peter Sheridan, but his career went into overdrive after he won a role in the 2001 Steven Spielberg-produced war drama Band of Brothers, after enduring a slew of casting calls, one of which was headed up by Tom Hanks. This was something of a double-edged sword, however. "It set expectations very high. It was like when you see an 18-year-old football player who's just been signed and is desperately trying to look like everyone else on the team. I wasn't intimidated, because at that age you have this youthful feeling of 'this is where I'm supposed to be' whereas if I met (Hanks) now I might be a lot more taken."

There followed a more fallow period as he struggled to find his footing. In those years, his name -which is Jewish (his father Harold Huberman is Jewish and moved here from England in the 1970s and met and married Mark's mum, Sandra, who is from Wexford, and Mark was raised Catholic) as well as his southside twang and propensity for saying "yeah, man" did him no favours. "In America they refused to believe that I was Irish because of my name and my accent or way of speaking. I didn't work for a long time. There were only so many parts for lads in their early 20s. You just want to work rather than sitting on the couch waiting for two years for this cool job that's coming."

After Band of Brothers he had recurring roles in 2005's Pure Mule and RTE drama The Clinic (again alongside Amy) but, despite a handful of meaty TV and stage roles, he also supplements his income on occasion with stints waitering in Pichet, a popular Dublin restaurant in Trinity Street.

He's about to appear in Shelter by fellow Trinity alumnus Cristin Kehoe, which thematically deals with migrant homelessness in Dublin. "There's five characters in the piece and four of them have nowhere to sleep at night. It's about the groundhog day, the endless situation of homelessness in this country. My character is from Eastern Europe and finds himself without a roof over his head. People look after their own, first, a lot of the time and one of the things I've learned is that if there's an area of homelessness that is even darker it's these people who come here from Eastern Europe and end up with nothing." The themes of the play are given added resonance for him by the fact that "it's only a couple of generations ago that my family was leaving home and trying to make a new life for themselves" - his grandparents went from Poland to England due to anti-Semitism after World War I.

Mark turned 40 recently, but says getting older doesn't bother him, even if there are certain consequences to keeping the bohemian fires burning. "I can't go back on every year, I lived them all, they all happened. There is compromise in becoming an actor that you don't think about when you're 21. It's a vocation. Other aspects of life get put on pause. Mortgages are harder to get because, when you present yourself as an artist, not everyone takes it seriously."

He also says that his own family background tempers his view of middle age. "My father was 39 when he had me and I was the eldest so I think that's a context for me." Settling down doesn't seem any closer either: "I've been pretty much a serial monogamist to be honest. Even in college I was like that. It was always the way I've been." His relationship status now is a "delicate issue", he says.

Mark is nothing if not friendly, though he is politely guarded most of the time, and he is doggedly protective of himself and his family. He confidently moves the conversation away from the self to generalities as we continue our chat.

A typical exchange is his recounting of the influence of a self-help classic he was given in his youth. "When I was 20, my mother gave me a copy of The Road Less Travelled and one of themes I took from it was that there is no shame around going to speak to a professional, rather than burdening your friends and family with stuff - it's better with someone who is clinically in a position to say you're fixating on these destructive things that aren't helping you."

Has he ever done that? "No."

He says that "sometimes" people try to get to Amy and her husband, rugby icon Brian O'Driscoll, through him but he's well used to and able for it. "There are a lot of people who would like to be able to get to Amy and Brian." That protectiveness seems to emanate from a genuine and strong bond with his sister, as well as a lot of admiration. "She has so many genuine strings to her bow and, maybe, I'm just not as fully formed a person. She has so many skills that are still untapped. Amy is one of those people who could have done absolutely anything. Brian has it as well: the ability to take a talent and bring it to its absolute peak."

Mark is godfather to Amy and Brian's daughter, Sadie, and he says that the experience of caring for her has made him a better actor. "I have a very strong connection with Sadie, it was really special to be asked to be godfather," he says. "Any time I'm free to babysit I'm very happy to. Kids are the best actors, they have that innocence and honesty before they become self-aware. They give me acting lessons."

Mark Huberman appears in Shelter by Cristin Kehoe, a world premiere presented by Druid as part of a programme of new Irish writing (July 12-29) at Galway International Arts Festival 2018. Tickets from druid.ie

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