No country for bold men
Irish actor Stuart Townsend talks love, loss and nationhood and tells Stephen Milton why he thinks Ireland has totally lost its way
The publicist eavesdropping on my phone interview with Stuart Townsend is a constant irritant. Speaking to the actor from the Chicago set of glossy TV series, 'Betrayal', I'm anticipating a curt interjection with the first mention of his A-list ex-partner, Charlize Theron.
But the buffer comes sooner than expected. Aside from his romance with the South African Oscar-winner, the Howth native – who rose to prominence with standout low -budget fare, 'Trojan Eddie', 'Resurrection Man' and 'Shooting Fish' – is famous, notorious even, for getting his marching orders from two colossal Hollywood blockbusters: 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Thor'.
Originally cast as Aragon in the JRR Tolkien screen epic in 2000, he was unceremoniously dumped a whole 24 hours before principal photography began and replaced by actor Viggo Mortensen who, at 15 years his senior, was deemed a more suitable fit.
It was a devastating blow for the relative newcomer, no doubt compounded when history repeated itself 10 years later.
After winning the part of Fandral, mystic cohort to Chris Hemsworth's Norse god Thor, director Kenneth Branagh handed the star his P45 after allegedly showing up for a screen test six hours late.
Rumours from set suggested 'diva-tude' behaviour. With much hearsay, I'm naturally curious to learn his side of the story. The enquiry is met with a laboured groan.
"That's all part of life, you know," he slowly proffers, "which is funny because it kind of defines me in some way in a 40-year life.
"With 'Lord of the Rings', I'd left New Zealand [after leaving the film] and, about 10 days later, I'd forgotten about it. I'd moved on. And then, a year or two after, the film comes out and it's huge and it's started to kind of haunt me again."
Townsend had previously claimed production bosses on 'Rings' refused to pay him, despite putting in two months' training on the New Zealand set. It left a lasting bad taste.
"Personally, I was glad to be out of [the film] and I'm very adaptable. I don't really dwell on the past. Life's too much of an adventure [to focus] on the past. But it did come back to haunt me. It was ubiquitous; it was everywhere so, yeah, I was happy when it was all dusted."
And what of his dispute with the makers of 'Thor'? Was it really all down to careless tardiness?
"Right, well no! That's not true. It was a period in my life when a lot was going on that I'm not really going to talk of but ..."
"Umm, can we move back on to the show, Stephen," chimes his gatekeeper, sensing discomfort on the topic.
"Yeah, I'd really prefer to talk about 'Betrayal' actually," he adds, with a tone of frustration.
It's an understandable reaction to a dark period in his career and, all quibbles aside, one has to really admire this man.
The son of former pro golfer Pete Townsend and model Lorna Hogan was enjoying the early buds of a flourishing big- screen career before the 'Rings' fiasco dashed his Hollywood cache.
What followed was a damaged reputation, which struggled and limped to regain its early promise.
At last, the 40 year-old is getting the vehicle he deserves with slick new ABC drama, 'Betrayal'.
Townsend is Jack McAllister, a powerful attorney and family man who embarks on a steamy affair with the very beautiful and also very married, Sara Hanley (newcomer Hannah Ware).
There are further complications when Jack ends up facing Sara's husband in court, plunging all and sundry into the typical mire of intrigue and mystery one can expect from a show of this nature.
Engrossing and titillating, it's a smash across the pond and is set to do the same business here.
"This guy has it all," Stuart explains. "Lovely wife, two teenage kids, he's rich, got everything he wants. And suddenly he meets this woman and they fall in love and start an affair.
"And there are consequences naturally, but neither can resist their feelings. He has a lovely life with his wife, yet he can't pull away from Sara and I think there's something very human in his actions.
"I actually see Jack as a guy who's made big choices early on in his life, in his 20s which leads to a place where he's not happy in his 40s. I think many people can identify with that."
Currently single, Townsend has certainly endured romantic complications in his own lifetime. Most notable was his nine-year relationship with Charlize Theron, one which they both labelled 'a marriage'.
The union, which began on the set of the film 'Trapped' ended suddenly in 2010. Have they remained close?
"Well look," chuckles the actor, "we had a great time, we had a great adventure, that's all I can say."
I wonder if the Hollywood pressure cooker contributed to the end of the relationship? "We stayed away from all of that," he adds. "But I do think being an actor's a very weird job and, yeah, you have to be very lucky to find someone who will literally put up with that kind of transient lifestyle."
At one point, Theron was winning an Oscar [Best Actress for 'Monster' in 2004] while Stuart was struggling with his own career. Did jealousy ever play a role?
"We weren't in competition, we were in love! But, of course, it's weird. It's like if you, as a journalist, were dating another journalist. Acting's an odd enough job as it is but I don't think it's competitive, not in a way I think you'd imagine. But you know, Hollywood's a strange place."
Does that motivate the LA-based star to migrate to home shores?
"Not as much as I want to. I'm busy making television. I've been away for 17 years and the longer you're away, the further you're away, emotionally."
It's an oddly indifferent attitude from someone who so fervently rallied against the construction and expansion of the M3 motorway through the Tara Skryne valley, skirting the Hill of Tara.
Townsend, with Theron and close friend, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, offered some much -welcomed star wattage to the protest campaign to protect one of the most hallowed heritage sites in the country, but ultimately lost the battle when the motorway was opened in 2010 by then Minister for Transport, Noel Dempsey.
"We did everything; protested on site, did press, ended up on front pages and went on the 'Late Late Show', blah blah blah; no one gave a shit. They were too busy building a house, or whatever the f*ck at the time. And I watched the Celtic Tiger while I was fighting for Tara. Everyone seemed to have a helicopter and a cocaine habit and the country was willing to put a f*cking motorway through the most sacred site in Ireland; a giant necropolis, where all our ancestors are buried. I just couldn't understand that mentality, yet I could feel it was pervasive across the board."
Was he disheartened by widespread apathy?
"Maybe ... perhaps? I find modern Ireland hurts me, whereas I'm obsessed with ancient Ireland and I think we need to go back to the beginning and look at the rich heritage and connect with something that's worthwhile.
"The European Central Bank and IMF just take us apart and rob us, no one seems to do anything, which is very sad for a country that fought for 800 years for their land to suddenly give it away to Brussels."
Time gets called on our chat, just as he's getting riled.
"Look, I'm not in Ireland any more, so I can't really speak too much and I'm sure people think, 'Who does this fella think he is?' But sometimes, I look at it from across the way, at the country I grew up in, where my roots are. And sometimes I say, 'What the f*ck?'"
'Betrayal' is on RTE Two Tuesday, 10pm