Robert Sheehan on girlfriend Sofia Boutella: 'You're staring at five months apart, but it always works out'
How do you play it cool when you're hitching a lift in Tom Cruise's helicopter? Robert Sheehan would like to know. As he returns to TV for the first time since Love/Hate, he talks to our reporter
Robert Sheehan never ceases to be overwhelmed by his Hollywood surrounds, and he's trying to work on that. But it's difficult, for instance, when you find yourself in a helicopter piloted by Tom Cruise.
"I wish I could be comfortable in those situations," explains the actor over Skype on a sunny morning from his Berlin hotel, where he's working on Netflix's dystopian thriller, Mute.
"Because he's a genuinely welcoming, lovely person. And you try to be casual. But it's hard when you're sitting in the back of a helicopter, with headphones on saying, 'So Tom, what else can you fly?' That little voice in your head is saying, 'what the f***?!'"
It didn't even matter that Cruise had ruined Sheehan's surprise weekend for girlfriend, rising actress Sofia Boutella, who was shooting The Mummy at the time alongside the A-list star.
"I took her to Dorset, had it all planned out. I was going to take her to Monkeyworld. That was the piece de resistance.
"But then she gets a call on Saturday saying, 'sorry, we need you in Oxford for rehearsals'. Wasn't thrilled about it, but work comes first. A car picks us up, we get there, meet Tom, and they get to rehearsing.
"Then he goes, 'I'm flying back to London, do you want a lift?' We jump in to the back of his helicopter and he takes the scenic route and gives us a tour of the country estates. And the whole time I'm completely wowed. And sometimes, I wish I could become less wowed by these things."
Watching his pupils flare while he periodically scratches the patch of dark whiskers on his chin, I wonder if this insecurity in such glitzy company is perhaps central to the peculiarly infectious Sheehan charm.
After all, this is an actor who, by 21, had shared screen time with Andrew Garfield, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Nicolas Cage. And by 22, was starring in two hit series on both sides of the Irish Sea - RTÉ's Love/Hate and Channel 4's Misfits.
Now facing into his 30s, the Garda's son from Portlaoise is shooting costly blockbusters: alongside Gerard Butler in forthcoming eco disaster epic Geostorm; David Tennant in crime caper Bad Samaritan, and the aforementioned Mute, alongside Alexander Skarsgard. "Can't tell you anything about it, but trust me, it'll be mind-blowing," he ensures.
And despite a mildly confronting Russell Brandesque arrogance, and an obvious fondness for his bouncingly defiant tone, it seems Sheehan's humility has remained relatively intact. Or else it's just blatant humble-bragging.
Whichever it is, he's friendly, sparky, and enthusiastically chatty about his latest performance in the second season of Sky Atlantic's pleasing Arctic whodunnit, Fortitude.
Joining new cast members Dennis Quaid, ER's Parminder Nagra, and Game of Thrones' Michelle Fairley in the icy tundra, he portrays a shadowy shaman who offers spiritual leadership when the frozen Norwegian settlement is rocked by another spate of grisly murders.
Ever inquisitive, the chance to play a seductive guru was opportunity to expand his mind. "I did endless reading on life after death and the physicality of leaving our bodies," he tells me, furiously waving his hands in front of the camera and blinking his tired-looking feline eyes in the sharp sunlight.
"Here I'm getting to learn about shamanistic cultures all across the world, reading books on anthropology and philosophy. And that's what's really nice about acting, you have these clusters of time where you get to learn about, 'insert subject here'. You don't become a master with a Phd, but you spend a lot of time learning subjects that you wouldn't ordinarily pursue."
Based in Eskifjörður, a frontier town in the isolated climes of east Iceland which doubles for the Scandinavian community on screen, the actor got to enjoy, and endure, the extreme conditions. "It's like nothing you'll ever experience. It almost looks like an Irish industrial estate, lots of corrugated iron. Built functionally because of the cold and the ice storms which are catastrophic. You'd have to put spikes on your boots so you didn't fall on your face and kill yourself.
"We holed up in our hotel, night after night, drinking and swapping stories with Parminder [Nagra] and Dennis f****** Quaid. The man's a legend.
"And it's the end of the line. Civilisation stops. We were going up these mountains in super Jeeps, getting up to these parts of the peaks where humans hadn't set foot for years, staring out on beautiful, unforgiving landscape. It was an incredible experience. I could call it illuminating."
The bitter climes of Iceland are a world away from where he met Boutella. A former dancer for Madonna and Michael Jackson, the 34-year-old Algerian actress has landed plum roles in Star Trek Beyond as well as the aforementioned horror remake, The Mummy, with Tom Cruise.
After falling in love on the beaches of Goa during a hazy shoot for gritty low-budget flick Jet Trash nearly three years ago, the striking couple set up home in London.
Robert visibly glints at her mention, even while charting their rocky transition from hazy sun-kissed romance to sobering reality. "It was a day-dreamy setting; the waves, the sand and the sunsets. That kind of endears you to love. But then we went back to London and had to learn how to get on and how not to quarrel. Because when two people are in love, they quarrel the most because they're probably sensitive the most to one another."
He listens back to his words and clears his throat. "We certainly get on now. I think you realise after a while, that what it is, we're both very married to our work, which after a while becomes this sort of core issue. When you're two actors, you're peripatetic, you have to drop everything and go sometimes and a relationship has to adapt."
While busy schedules frequently pull them apart, they remain resolutely solid. "You're sometimes staring at five months apart. But it always works out. She gets time off and hops on a plane, I get time off and hop on a plane. The longest we ever spent apart was just six weeks."
Fortitude is Sheehan's first TV series since his high cheek-boned, crook-with-a-heart, Darren Treacy met a bloody end midway through the Love/Hate saga.
It coincided with his choice to leave the RTÉ drama to focus on film, the same reason he walked from sci-fi teen hit, Misfits. Did he ever look back with regret?
"With Misfits definitely. When I left and they carried on, all of a sudden, I got this pang of, 'maybe I shouldn't have done this,' it was a really sad moment, I jumped off the train and watched it chug off into the distance, going 'awh f***'."
It wasn't the same with Love/Hate. "After the second series, [creator] Stuart Carolan, was convinced I wanted to leave. And I said, 'I don't know, do you have more in the can for Darren?'
"My agents didn't want me to do more, they're innately suspicious of television if it gets too long-form. But the third series was probably my favourite. It was the best of the entire show and I felt like I came to a natural end-point."
His on-screen love Rosie, played by new Hollywood It-girl Ruth Negga, had already made for pastures new in season two. And like Sheehan, the risky move has reaped rewards. Or awards in her case - last week she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in civil rights drama, Loving.
Robert is elated by her colossal accomplishment. "I love Ruth and I couldn't be happier for her. Not that I'm in the slight bit surprised, she's a fantastic actor. She's luminous, one of the greats of our generation."
It's an enjoyably, honest encounter with Sheehan. He appears to increasingly operate on a vastly different wavelength from his acting peers who are so often closed-off and removed. Could this relaxed form be synchronised with his advancing age? "I'm nearly 30 for Christ's sake," he cries, "That crept up out of nowhere."
He launches into a spirited, uninterrupted sermon on the virtues of growing older and his attempts to aid the process with an intention to "watch every movie ever made" and a fresh live-for-the-moment, carpe diem attitude. "Because you're alive one day and you could be dead the next."
And once again, I'm treated to the appealingly random, authentic Robert Sheehan rhetoric: "I want to restore my health and improve my physiology to its optimum level, if I can. And hopefully, I'm on the road to doing that. I've been training, exercising, eating well.
"Because as the ancient Greeks said, 'a healthy body leads to a healthy mind'. I believe it was the Greeks. Either the ancient Greeks said it, or Eddie Izzard. Actually, I think it was Eddie Izzard. Sure we'll go with Eddie. He's the all-knowing, all-seeing, wise one."
Fortitude is on Sky Atlantic on Thursdays at 9pm