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PJ and Tom share secrets of life over tea and cake

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Tom Vaughan Lawlor as PJ Mara

Tom Vaughan Lawlor as PJ Mara

Tom Vaughan Lawlor

Tom Vaughan Lawlor

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Tom Vaughan Lawlor as PJ Mara

Tom Vaughan Lawlor has opened up about his no-holds- barred access into the life of legendary spin doctor PJ Mara as he prepared for his role in Charlie.

The 37-year-old spent hours pouring over documentary footage of Mara in order to perfect his accent for RTE's three-part drama before he eventually met the person he was playing.

"He just sat back and said, you can ask me whatever you want," explained Lawlor.

"It was fascinating. I wasn't sure if he would meet me and I would have understood if he had said no. If the shoe was on the other foot, I wouldn't have wanted to meet an actor playing me. But he was incredibly generous and giving of his time.

"The first thing I saw when he opened the door was 'oh my God, I'm too short to play this guy".

"We chatted over tea and cake for about an hour. It was nice. His irreverence, off-the-cuff and playful manner and the twinkle in the eye pervaded," he said. "PJ has a very well-spoken elegant refined way of speaking and his elegance and his charisma was both similar and different to Haughey's so they were an interesting coupling."

Speaking about how he got down to the minute details of the Fianna Fail spin doctor's character in preparation for the role, he said: "When you play a fictitious part you want to know how they walk, how they operate, what books they like to read, what music they like.

"So I said, 'do you use matches or a lighter' and he says a lighter; 'what kind of books do you read?' - I knew he was a big fan of literature. He is a big poetry fan and he reads Philip Larkin and John Betjeman. They are the keys that can unlock a character for you.

"Actors talk about getting into the shoes of a character and that is both literal and metaphorical - how they have physical contact with the ground affects how they walk and move.

"What was interesting was that I had a fitting for the costume when I met him and I was wearing loafers in the fitting and he was wearing loafers when I met him too. It might sound silly to someone who isn't an actor but straightaway I was playing someone who was wearing the same kind of shoes. And it had an affect on how I moved."

The Dubliner was also keen on a change of tempo from playing hardened gangster Nidge in Love/Hate. "In a way, I preferred playing PJ. It was a nice change from having your head shaved, running around in the cold, holding guns and beating people up to go to the other extreme when you are in a very beautifully cut suit, having conversations and drinking tea."

Describing the similarities between the characters in Love/Hate and in Charlie he said: "These guys in politics were operating . . . they were making big decisions for the country . . . big life-altering decisions for the public and yet they have to operate at a level where it is their job. If they had to take on the magnitude of what they are doing every day, they would be paralysed by that. They also have to be professional."

Reacting to critics, he said: "One thing to say, in the little bits I've read, people have forgotten it's a drama, it's a TV show, so it has to be allowed to be a TV show. You can't say it was more like this at the time or this person should have done that - if it were completely reverential, it would have been boring. There has to be a certain degree of room for expression."

The actor, who watched the first episode blind with the rest of the country, said he stayed away from Twitter and the nation's reaction. "I have made a choice not to read stuff because the thing is done and dusted so you are not going to change it by reading comments. Obviously you want it to be a success but your job isn't to dictate how people react - your job is to play the part and send it out into the world."

In the early days of his career he said: "I wasn't [able to watch myself on screen] but with Love/Hate I had to because you have to be able to figure out what works and what doesn't - you're constantly refining. What's great about being in a reoccurring drama is that you get to filter out things you didn't think were useful or add things too.

"That didn't happen with Charlie so it was more of a shot in the dark. Personally, I was very proud of it. There were things I could have done better. You are always critical as an actor and that's a good thing."

The father of one is now working on Jim Sheridan's The Secret Scripture, based on the novel by Sebastian Barry. The cast, including Jack Reynor, will begin filming in Ireland next week.

Sunday Independent