Many will recognize him for his role as Nidge in that (quite) popular RTÉ gangland drama, and he is an exceptional actor of both stage and screen. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor sits down with Shane Hannon to discuss Love/Hate, honing his craft and the magic of the theatre.
“The past beats inside me like a second heart.” John Banville’s 2005 novel The Sea made a big impression on Tom Vaughan-Lawlor; he recalls thinking that the pace was very slow with every line extremely dense, but that “the payoff is just phenomenal.” The novel won Banville the Man Booker Prize, and the aforementioned quote could certainly be altered a little to refer to Vaughan-Lawlor’s own career in acting. He speaks about the trade with such a fervent passion that it’s hard not to see acting as his second beating heart. The fact that his father too was an actor confirms that it really was in his blood.
Surprisingly however, acting was not something that always appealed to the Dundrum-born star. “I never wanted to be an actor. I think it’s that thing of growing up in an actor’s household, it’s a very unstable environment and financially it’s very scary.” Vaughan-Lawlor would have witnessed this instability first-hand growing up, and it’s not something he necessarily wanted in his own life. “When you’re training to be an actor, they train you to be the best that you can be, but they don’t teach you about the unemployment, which is kind of a defining part of the job really.”
An inevitable interest in film and drama did ultimately blossom however, and Vaughan-Lawlor’s father was not going to stand in the way of his son following him into the arts. “I just became interested in films, the great films of the 70s, the classics. I remember seeing The Deer Hunter when I was very young, at 14 or 15, on some re-release in the cinema when my Dad took me, and I was just blown away by the power of those performances.” The influence those films had on him is unmistakable, and when it came to choosing a career his mind was set on the world of film. “Going to [Trinity] College I decided to study Drama and Classics, and I did bits and pieces in the drama department acting-wise. Then I just realised I had a latent fascination with acting and it went on from there.”
Having went on to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London after Trinity, Vaughan-Lawlor garnered a tangible love of the theatre. “There’s kind of a magic to it. Sometimes you leave the cinema and you’re blown away, but memories of theatre experiences really imprint themselves on your brain.” He describes theatre as something that “feeds your soul in a very rich way” and notes how “There’s some kind of communion between the audience, the stage and the performances that’s very magical, I don’t know what it is.”
Vaughan-Lawlor has just finished performing alongside Ciarán Hinds and Sinéad Cusack in Our Few and Evil Days at the Abbey Theatre, and it’s a role that he was delighted to be offered. During the four-week run he played Dennis, a middle-class mature student, and it’s a role that he resonated with; even the play itself will have echoed life in many normal households he believes. “Behind closed doors in all middle-class lives there’s pain and suffering and secrets. It’s a very calm first couple of acts but you know something strange is going on that kind of draws the audience in.” He summarises the play as representative of the bourgeois, “… with an underbelly of something that’s not quite sinister, but very dark, and it speaks to people on a certain level.”
Our Few and Evil Days was written and directed by one of Ireland’s most exciting contemporary playwrights and someone Vaughan-Lawlor praises highly, Mark O’ Rowe. “I think you’re blessed if you have a kind of a similar sensibility with someone who’s a writer or director in that way and who invites you to be a collaborator in some form with them.” Tallaght-born O’ Rowe is already a renowned talent in both screenwriting and playwright terms, and Vaughan-Lawlor is keen to see what he does next. “I’m really excited myself as a fan as well as a colleague to see where he wants to go in the theatre next. I think it’s going to be really interesting.” Certain acting-directing duos seem to just click every once in a while, and the Vaughan-Lawlor/O’ Rowe relationship looks set to thrive for the foreseeable future. “I think it’s amazing to work with Mark because you see how he shapes language, how he works is really amazing… I feel very fortunate to have met him and have that kind of collaboration so far and who knows where that will go. I would happily work with him for the rest of my life!”
Next month that relationship is set to continue as Vaughan-Lawlor will star in O’ Rowe’s critically-acclaimed Howie the Rookie at the Olympia Theatre, before moving on to runs in the Barbican in London and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival in New York. Originally written for two actors, the play has been built around Vaughan-Lawlor’s innate talent, and is now being described as “… a one-man monologue brimming with ferocious lyricism and coruscating wit.” Vaughan-Lawlor recalls how O’ Rowe “… suggested that I play both parts and you think it sounds like an amazing idea but you don’t know until you’re out in front of an audience if it’s going to work or not.” Considering he won Best Actor at the Irish Times Theatre Awards earlier this year for his first attempt at the role, it cannot be denied that O’ Rowe’s gamble and faith in Vaughan-Lawlor paid off handsomely.
When asked why audiences should take a gamble themselves and buy a ticket for the play, the London-based actor describes Howie the Rookie as “… a full-blooded, dynamic, visceral experience, but it’s also very funny and seductive. I think the language in it is extraordinary.” The play is undoubtedly a physically tiring role considering the amount of time Vaughan-Lawlor spends alone on stage. “It’s like getting fit for anything, you have to slowly build up your stamina for it. I remember the first time we ran it being a third of the way through the first monologue and being completely fucked and going ‘We’re only a third of the way through?’” Learning the lines was another major undertaking, and it took three months to perfect the whole script. “The language was like learning Shakespeare; it can actually be quite easy because of the flow of it. There’s a great beauty and pace and energy and fluency to the language; once you’re in it, the language flows and it’s not as hard to learn as you’d think, but it was still pretty intense.”
When he’s not performing to sold-out theatres worldwide, Vaughan-Lawlor can be seen starring as the intense Dublin underworld criminal Nigel ‘Nidge’ Delaney in Love/Hate. Season 5 of the increasingly-popular crime drama series hit Irish screens on October 5th, with an incredible 976,400 viewers tuning in to the season premiere. Vaughan-Lawlor’s own character is complex and quite different as each season progresses, and this “changing dynamic, depth and complexity” is a blessing in his eyes. “That’s the joy. The hard thing would be if [the role] was being repeated, then you would have to try and make things fresh that are old.”
The part can be challenging and Vaughan-Lawlor acknowledges “I think what’s exhausting is just the pure physical demands of the part in terms of how fast we film, the time we have, and how many lines we’ve got to learn. It all gets quite manic, but you wouldn’t have it any other way because it’s just such a gifted part.” And although he was confident the show would be a success, the level of that success could never have been anticipated. “I knew it was brilliant. The quality was never in doubt for me in terms of the writing, directing, production and the cast, but I had no idea it would have this impact.” Vaughan-Lawlor remarks how he is “Stopped every day by so many people who just have this amazing passion for the show and want to talk about it.”
This pride and passion people have for the show undeniably bodes well for Irish drama. “Everyone’s so educated now in terms of the quality of drama because we get so many great shows from America; audiences are clever and intelligent and want to be challenged in that way. Now we have our own drama at that level, at that top table, and it’s great for future dramas in this country.” Vaughan-Lawlor also points out how Love/Hate “broke the mould” in so many different ways, observing that “… you’d just never see that depiction of violence, that depiction of sex, that depiction of real lives in that bleak way, on the likes of BBC or ITV.”
Creator of the show Stuart Carolan has gone out of his way in an attempt to portray the impact of gang and drug violence in Ireland’s capital city in a brutally honest way. “The depiction of that world is absolutely accurate. He’s obsessive in his research and speaking to people. It’s a very accurate and scary depiction of that kind of life in Dublin.” Vaughan-Lawlor himself has seen that drug culture and is amazed by how obvious it is. “The fall-out from that culture is so visible. You just have zombies and dead souls just walking around, destroyed by drugs. The amount of times in the past four weeks that I’ve seen guys openly smoking crack in alleyways, in phone boxes… it’s mind-blowing.”
The secrecy that surrounds the filming of Love/Hate is well-known, and Vaughan-Lawlor reveals how the cast have to “sign non-disclosure forms and shred your script. They’re obviously very sensitive about stories leaking out… It is hard to talk about because you want to talk about the show, but at the same time you can’t give anything away and you don’t want to spoil people’s enjoyment of it, so you have to be very careful about what you say.” This secrecy only adds to the show’s mystique, and those involved with the production are understandably proud of what the show has achieved. “Because the show is such a big thing here and because we’re guests in people’s homes on TV every Sunday, there’s a great sense of ownership and pride. I feel very blessed and lucky to be a part of people’s sense of pride in something and it’s a huge honour.” He also pays homage to the fans’ devotion. “We wouldn’t be where we are if people weren’t watching and talking about the show so we’re very grateful for people’s loyalty to the show.”
Vaughan-Lawlor will also be seen on-screen in the next few months starring alongside Aidan Gillen in Charlie, three 90-minute film instalments about the political career of the controversial Charlie Haughey. Vaughan-Lawlor plays Haughey’s reliable political adviser PJ Mara, whom he met in his research for the role. “He was very forthcoming and honest and very open about me asking questions about that time.” The three-part drama was filmed over a year ago and Vaughan-Lawlor is looking forward to finally seeing its release. “It’s something that’s still very sensitive and quite raw for people in terms of the fallout or hangover or legacy of Haughey’s time… it will be very interesting when the show comes out in terms of the debate it sparks about that time and its reflection on Ireland now.”
It is clear that Vaughan-Lawlor loves talking about all things acting. “It’s an ongoing honing of your craft and an ongoing learning process… you can always learn more, you can always be better and push yourself more.” In terms of actors he himself admires, he believes Joaquin Phoenix is “pretty extraordinary”, referring in particular to his role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. He sees Daniel Day-Lewis as “kind of a given” for his “fearlessness” and “great sense of humour”, and also refers to Michael Gambon as “mind-blowing in terms of his stagecraft” and Julianne Moore as an “amazing actress.”
In terms of future plans, like any good actor he is keeping his options open. “I just want to have challenges and do parts that stretch me; where that is I don’t know so we’ll just have to see where that takes me.” One stand-out line from The Deer Hunter advises that “You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it’s all about.” And whether it’s shooting deer or making a career on stage and screen, you have to take that one shot. So far, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is doing just that – and he’s only getting started.
Tom will be starring in Mark O’ Rowe’s ‘Howie the Rookie’ at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre from November 11th-15th. Tickets are on sale now from Ticketmaster.ie and all usual Ticketmaster outlets.
Tom can be seen as ‘Nidge’ in Love/Hate Season 5 every Sunday night until November 9th on RTÉ One or the RTÉ Player.