Tom Vaughan Lawlor is one of the best Irish actors to grace screen or stage, writes Michael McDonagh
Attending a special screening of the Stephen Burke directed Irish feature film Maze at the Irish Film Festival London, next week, will be celebrated Dublin actor, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor.
Irish TV audiences will be most familiar with Tom from his role as Nigel “Nidge” Delaney in the RTÉ One series but of course playing that complex role, which won him several awards, was only one of many wonderful characters Tom has portrayed both on film and on stage.
He is the lead in Maze, about the true story of the mass break-out in 1983 of 38 IRA prisoners from Northern Ireland’s infamous Maze prison.
As Tom was a De La Salle boy like myself I asked him if it had been a brutal experience at the hands of the brothers and if it had given him any pointers for his role as Nidge or as Larry Marley in the Maze?
“Ah no, there were no brothers when I got there in the 90s, all the brothers were gone by the time I arrived. I had an amazing experience at De La Salle, as all the teachers for me were just gorgeous and I had a great time there.”
So he was one of the lucky ones but he then anticipated my next question to ask him had he read ’s recent book: “You should read Roddy Doyle’s new book have you read it? I’ve read it and thought it was amazing. There was this really nasty review in The Irish Times that said that this book is a failure and I thought how can you call a work of art a failure. What does calling a work of art a failure mean?
“I thought it was a stunning book and really enjoyed it. He is a real chronicler of Ireland and amazing the way he looks at Ireland and to watch it in the days before the boom.”
Tom’s somewhat brief appearance in as the sinister IRA enforcer McCabe, was perhaps informed by his role in Love/Hate, in which he rose from being a minor gangland drug runner, to becoming a major and sinister crime boss.
For performances such as ‘Nidge’ Tom won the Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Television award at the 2012 IFTA Awards, and the Best Actor for Television award at the 2013 IFTA Awards.
On stage, theatre fans will have enjoyed seeing him in at the National Theatre and before that in Kathy Burke’s production of Brendan Behan’s play The Quare Fellow, all of which show just how strikingly talented and versatile an actor Tom is.
He was born in 1977 to Dublin’s middle class Southside suburbs, a far cry from the north Dublin gangland he would inhabit in his ‘Nidge’ incarnation.
A bright student, he went on from De La Salle to Trinity College, Dublin where he graduated in Drama Studies, then pursued his ambitions at the elite Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) here in London. Past RADA graduates include Peter O’ Toole, Alan Rickman, Richard Attenborough, Sean Bean, John Gielgud, John Hurt, Albert Finney and Imelda Staunton, among many others.
With such an illustrious alumni had it been hard for him to get into RADA?
“You do three rounds of auditions then you get a recall and you do a work shop but I worked hard to get in and I worked hard when I was there but it paid me well. It was tough but it was an amazing experience and I loved it.”
Looking at a list of Tom’s credits it seems he has never had a day off since he graduated, as he has played such a variety of challenging roles on both film and the stage:
“Well its funny as I’m very very fortunate because there are so many actors, brilliant actors, who struggle to find work and I have had some stretches out of work so I know to a degree what that is like and it is really agonising and you really question your life choice and your ability. It is really not easy but I am one of the fortunate ones as I have worked consistently. Ninety per cent of actors just go from job to job and just roll with it and hope for the best but for me it has been good”.
The late PJ Mara was the Machiavellian advisor to former Taoiseach, the late Charlie Haughey, and Tom played him brilliantly in the film about the life of Haughey.
So I asked him what was it like to play that role?
“He was a fascinating man and I met him in the time before we filmed he was kind of subversive and funny and intelligent, as I thought he might be. He was really incredible and an extraordinary man and I was pleased that I got to meet him before he passed away. He was one of those people who could seduce you and was so beguiling and so charismatic with such energy. He was amazing. Because he was irreverent and liked to take the piss, a lot I think journalists loved that and loved his swashbuckling style”.
I wondered if it was harder to play living or recently dead people known to the public rather than fictional characters?
“There is great responsibility playing someone who really existed, I suppose in trying to capture both the spirit of that person and the physicality. If it’s a well-known person you have to be careful too that it doesn’t become simply an impression and nothing more.”
As mentioned Tom recently played the IRA enforcer in The Secret Scripture, which will also be screened in the festival. For some of us he was not on the screen long enough. I asked him about it and if it could have been good to see the character explore more the divisions and cruelty at that time in Ireland’s history?
“With film you sign up for it and stories take different avenues but it was an opportunity to work with Jim Sheridan so I was really pleased to be involved. And ‘no’ is the short answer. I read the book it was based on and did some reading around the time but by the time I got the part shooting was quite a short time and you follow Jim’s lead and row in behind him. It was wonderful to work with him and to see how he creates in his imagination and how it flowers on set.”
Maze will be screened at the Irish Film Festival London, and I asked Tom about it: “We shot it last year but before director Stephen Burke had been finding funding for it so I was in involved and I had been on board for maybe a year before.
“As you know, getting the full funding and getting films made is hard and takes time but as the script was so good and it is such an incredible story I fought to make sure I was free to do it and to be able to do it and was thrilled for them, and us, that the funding came through and we got it made and that it evolved into the film it is.
“I am really proud of it It was an extraordinary time politically and I suppose the Maze prison, was the front line, in one sense, of The Troubles at that time, what with the Hunger Strikes and the escape.
“I had over a year to prepare for it and so much time to read around it and to meet and talk to people and to get full context for the shoot. Then we shot it over a short time, it was a quick shoot over about four weeks. Most was done in a prison in Cork then a week in a studio in Sweden, as they were also investors.
“We had a blast, it was such good fun and such a brilliant story that was so sensitively handled by Stephen, the writer. It comes at the escape from two angles, from a prisoner’s perspective and from a Protestant Unionist warder’s perspective, so I think it is a very balanced take on it and is very mature and nuanced and I am very proud of it.”
Rather than living in Hollywood in California or even Ireland, Tom lives in this country in Whitstable which is hardly known for performing arts.
I asked how that came about and if he had ambitions to move to Los Angeles : “I’m here because my wife and I lived in London for 15 years and we love London and are always there but we just decided to come to the coast and buy a house and have a bit more space for our son to run around in the garden because it gives him and us a bit more headspace.
“I’ve been to America and I have worked there. This job, this profession, is extraordinary and can take anywhere and you just go with the flow and if the opportunity came up, I’d go, but I’m lucky I can work in Ireland and England, sometimes in America, so who knows.
What can we next look forward to seeing him in and which does he prefer, film and TV or theatre?
“I’m doing a play in the West End. Its a Pinter play called The Birthday Party so we are on in the Harold Pinter Theatre from January till April next year. I’ll be working with Toby Jones, Zoë Wanamaker, Stephen Mangan and Pearl Mackie and it’ll be directed by Ian Rickson. We had our first day of rehearsals and it is really exciting and amazing.
“I’m very lucky, sometimes things just work in terms of just getting the job or the scheduling just works out and it just flows. Sometimes it doesn’t work out but I don’t want to overemphasise this. I do realise just how fortunate I am to be able to jump between media, from film to theatre.
“When I’m filming I love it and I don’t miss theatre that much, then I see a play or am in rehearsals and I think ‘Oh my God, I love this so much.’ This sounds like a gushing answer but they are very different and they stimulate different parts of the imagination and your energy and spirit as an actor. It is like asking who is your favourite child. Impossible to tell. You can’t.”
Maze screens at the Irish Film Festival London on Friday 1st December at Regent Street Cinema. Find out more about the Irish Film Festival London at www.irishfilmlondon.com
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