By Stephen Milton | thetimes.co.uk
It was earlier this year, in mid-July to be precise, when Robert Sheehan’s career took a turn for the unexpected. Alongside the 1980s fallen idol Samantha Fox and the rapper Lil’ Kim, gossip sites revealed the Irish actor’s imminent entry into the Celebrity Big Brother house.
Sheehan was initially amused by the tawdry chatter. “But then it got bigger and bigger,” he recalls. “It kept pinging up on my phone via Google Alert. My girlfriend texted me a list of names with mine on it, saying, ‘Is there something you should be telling me?’”
He eventually silenced the rumours with a curt tweet. “I had to. People were texting, saying, ‘Congratulations. I know you’re going to be amazing.’ Going in with that f****** carnival of lunatics? It was tragic.”
It’s morning in Berlin, and Sheehan is sitting in a clanging hotel lobby, sipping a cup of coffee. The kaleidoscopic art work looming behind his head, combined with the light, creates a psychedelic halo effect. He rubs his tired hazel eyes, the fallout from another late-night shoot on Mute, a dystopian sci-fi movie co-starring Alexander Skarsgard, Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux. Director Duncan Jones is at the helm. “You know, who did Moon and Source Code? This has been described as the spiritual sequel of Moon.”
He’s keeping good company. In a couple of weeks, the chatty actor will travel to Portland to begin work on Bad Samaritan with the Independence Day producer Dean Devlin and co-star David Tennant before jetting down to New Orleans for reshoots on Gerard Butler’s climate catastrophe Geostorm.
Next month, he’ll debut as a shadowy shaman — a role he seems genetically and psychologically programmed for — in the second season of Sky Atlantic’s Arctic thriller Fortitude, alongside fellow newcomer Dennis Quaid. The Celebrity Big Brother slag heap will have to keep a little longer.
That’s not to say the Portlaoise native has conquered the entertainment industry — or come close. Since quitting the security of RTE’s criminal juggernaut Love/Hate, then Channel 4’s Misfits, Sheehan has endured the usual peaks and pits of a working actor.
A lead opposite Hailee Steinfeld in Dustin Lance Black’s The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight inexplicably evaporated. A starring role in the spin-off of The Walking Dead was torpedoed by an agent’s misstep. He blinks slowly and sighs. “It can be hard, man. You can’t help but get excited. You develop an expectation and you start spending the money. And it hurts like f*** when you don’t get the job.”
After an eager relocation to Los Angeles last year, he had his wings clipped by the City of Angels and has since moved back to London. “I was sick of LA, in all truth. There’s this undercurrent of desperation, and just by being there it feels like you’re taking part. And if you’re not doing something, in the way of filming, in the eyes of everybody you’re not doing anything. A lot of people are just firing shit at the wall, and I hated that. And I hated there was an expectation on me to do that.”
Wiggling those dark brows and periodically pursing a finely sculpted pout, Sheehan boasts an open candour, something his contemporaries fear to express. The cocksureness of his early twenties, best represented by eye-rolling, mournful claims of being swarmed by fans during his breakthrough stint as the Love/Hate felon Darren Treacy, has been replaced with a smooth maturity.
He’ll turn 29 in January and the imminence of his thirties prompted a desire to refurbish body and soul, with gym training and Bret Easton Ellis podcasts about movie culture, respectively. The latter, he says, “develops your appetite and curiosity for quality”. The former is having a visible effect, as he gesticulates with muscular toned arms on a not-so-gangly 6ft frame.
His latest project is Jet Trash, a feature financed on a shoestring. Based on Simon Lewis’s cult novel Go, the lurid tale of dope-toking backpackers [Sheehan and newcomer Osy Ikhile] hiding out on Goa’s hedonistic sands, after a dicey entanglement with a London underworld shark, was his first attempt at producing. It demonstrates his determination to create work, rather than wait for the phone to ring. “I didn’t structure any of the financial deals, I have no experience in that, but I did help raise the money, which was a keen learning experience,” he says. “It wasn’t too difficult because of the low budget [€250,000]. I came up with a few financier names, Andy Brunskill [producer on Lilting] came up with a few names. We took them out for Indian dinners in the UK and charmed them away from their cash. Somehow, it worked.
“And we were lucky because several producer friends warned against shooting in Goa, telling us, ‘India will f*** you. The bribing will be relentless.’ Fortunately, we were poor, so it wasn’t a problem.”
The dreamy shoot wasn’t without its headaches for Sheehan and director Charles Henri Belleville. While recreating a flicker of Danny Boyle’s The Beach, they were plagued with problems, from quarrelling crew members, persistent financial doom and the near-fatal overdosing with sedative of a cow that was being used in a pivotal scene.
Meanwhile, love was in the air for the actor and French co-star Sofia Boutella, often a kiss of death for a production. “But it was completely advantageous in this situation,” he muses. “The quickness with which we got together and were telling each other, ‘I think I’ve fallen in love with you,’ was about two-and-a-half weeks. And it’s also tough emotionally because you have to consider, maybe it’s the India bubble? We were staying in these little huts on the beach and watching the sun rise every morning. It’s a daydream setting. That endears you to love.”
Together for more than two years, their relationship survived after returning to London. “We had to learn how to get on. Reality came back and we had to learn on a practical level who the other person was. Falling in love was easy but the tough part was getting to know each other.”
Boutella’s career is currently soaring. She landed a significant lead in this summer’s Star Trek Beyond, and has just wrapped on Universal’s Mummy reboot with Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe.
In the past, Sheehan has said love cannot withstand the nomadic existence of working actors, and blamed this for the breakdown of a previous relationship. “Last year, I was doing a play in London, so I had nine weeks of rehearsals and six weeks on stage. And she was going off to do Star Trek in Vancouver for five months pretty much at the same time, and we thought, ‘This is going to rupture us, this is going to kill us.’ But you get breaks, you adapt, you travel. Once you’ve done a few stretches apart, you get better at it.”
Sheehan yawns and stretches. His enthusiastic speech pattern is losing its energy. He rubs his eyes again. His hotel bed is calling. Plans for Christmas have been made — work commitments will permit a couple of days off in LA and Mexico with Boutella. I comment on his workaholic ways. He chuckles and tells me his professional priorities have changed.
“When I was in my early twenties, there was a real appetite to work constantly and a drive to get yourself on a low rung of the ladder. But as I mature, you have to take care of your career like it’s a delicate flower. I’m not taking on projects arbitrarily any more. I’m becoming more snobbish. Whose sandbox do you get to play in? The more you raise the bar for your résumé, the more people look and see how hireable you are. I’ve realised actors can destroy their own careers.
“But I’ve also learnt recently, if you have a good thing in your life, hold on to it.”
Jet Trash is screening exclusively at Vue cinemas from Dec 9