Damian Dolan speaks to actor, director and producer Sean Cronin about playing bad guys, his love of Ireland and his biggest film yet, the true story of boxer Michael Watson
It’s not hard to see why Sean Cronin was spotted walking down London’s Portobello Road and immediately cast as a villain in the 1999 blockbuster movie The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz.
Coming suddenly into view, striding purposefully around the corner of The Grange pub in Ealing, and bedecked smartly in black with dark sunglasses, Sean looks every inch one of the bad guys he’s played on screen. “A woman stopped me and said ‘you look really evil. Do you want to be in The Mummy?’, he recalls.
“I found myself at Shepperton Studios, shaved from head to foot, my eyebrows, my legs, and painted gold wearing a nappy.
“I was a glorified extra in those days, but what was amazing was I walked onto the set of this $200m movie and they’d built ancient Egypt, and I just thought ‘wow, I want to do this’.”
By chance, he came to the attention of acclaimed director of photography Adrian Biddle (The Mummy, Aliens) and director Vic Armstrong (Die Another Day, Spiderman 4), when he happened to walk through a light box on the floor.
It was a moment that led to him being a ‘featured extra’ on the film, but perhaps more significantly it sparked an interest.
“The lighting from below horror lights you and when I walked through this light Adrian and Vic both went ‘wow’,” he said.
“Adrian picked up a light and moved it around his face and said ‘look how different it can make you’, and I just became fascinated. You look at the set and it doesn’t look that great until you look down the lens and you see what they’ve created.”
Armed with an agent, and his “intense look” he got a small part in The World Is Not Enough with Pierce Brosnan, where he had to hold Denise Richards around the waist for 21 days. “She never said hello to me once,” he recalls.
Sean has his Cork father and Sicilian mother to thank for his ‘look’, with a credit to a former partner who bestowed upon him his villain-like scar by his right eye with the use of an ashtray.
Affectionately describing his immediate family as “proper paddies”, it’s clear Ireland is close to his heart.
For the past few years, he’s presented the annual Richard Harris International Film Festival in Limerick with Jared Harris, Richard’s son.
Sean immediately digresses into a quick story about the great man getting top billing over Marlon Brando and Paul Newman – it’s the first of many such stories, and each is as welcome as the last.
Stories about Tom Cruise and Simon Pegg “cracking him up” on the set of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation follow.
We’re then on to Terry McMahon, the maker of acclaim film Patrick’s Day. “He’s a really funny guy. He can’t stop swearing.” Then another Richard Harris story, this time about a two-week session with Peter O’Toole, but we’re soon back on track.
The asides should come as no surprise, of course, as Sean is, after all, a story-teller. It’s what he does best.
More extra work followed in The Mummy Returns (2001) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), but he then chose to leave behind the world of blockbusters, with its limos and five-star hotels, to tell the true-life stories of those who can’t tell them themselves.
Fifteen years on, he’s an awarding director, cinematographer and producer, with his own production company, and continues to act. But if that wasn’t enough he also edits. He’s directed over 80 music videos, 30 commercials and 20 films, won 37 awards, and has appeared in over 75 movies.
Tongue-in-cheek he complains how he’s “died in every single one” and immediately begins rattling off the extreme ways in which he’s met his end.
“I got vaporised in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, electrocuted in Mission Impossible and Pierce Brosnan opened a submarine door with my head in The World Is Not Enough,” he says.
Sean’s fascination with behind the camera, and “making those stories real” took him to New York to study cinematography for a year, where he “learnt nothing”.
“You learn on set. You learn why at school, but you learn how on set,” he said.
As a director and producer, his choice of subject matter is hard-hitting. The multi award winning short film An Unfortunate Woman (2015) told the true story of Kathleen Mumford, who in the 1930s smothered and killed her five-year-old son Derek because he had Cerebral Palsy.
Give Them Wings is another true story, about Paul Hodgson who was left unable to speak or move after a bout of meningitis.
“He [Paul] typed the screen play with one finger and his nose. When I met him he said, ‘Sean I can’t move much, but I can hold a f**king pint’,” says Sean, who is soon to direct a 30 episode tv period drama set in the shadow of the Crimean War, called Irongate.
He also did Andy Nolan’s (of BibleCode Sundays fame) Jack Mulligan, which starred former World Middleweight champion Steve Collins.
“The blockbusters go over my head. The money’s great and it builds your profile, and a lot of people get to see you, but the stories I like to tell are true stories.”
It’s a world away the 21 days he spent on the set of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation in which Simon Pegg steals Sean’s face.
“It’s a great experience; they pick you up in a very nice car and play you a lot of money, and they put you in a five-star hotel,” he adds.
“That side of it is glamourous, but low budget film making is not. It’s very, very difficult.”
Director of photography on Die With Me, a film about the Manchester bombing, he had just one day to shoot in a hospital and a mere £300 to pay for the location.
On the set of An Unfortunate Woman when the location was only available until 6pm, he found himself faced with the security guard wanting to “go home for his tea” with Sean about to shoot the scene when Kathleen Mumford smothers her son.
“You’ve got to get the entire thing shot in one day. We started at 6am and I left at 5am the next day. That ain’t glamourous, that’s hard, hard work,” he says.
“And I’m very anally retentive. If I haven’t got the shot I won’t stop, but the reason most of my films win awards is because they’re as good as they can be. You’ve got to look at what’s good, and then be better.
“On Mission Impossible I sat there for hours waiting to be called on set, twiddling my thumbs, and unless you’re playing the lead it’s really boring and it’s not very fulfilling.
“Taking a screenplay and being in charge of the whole production that’s the buzz. Taking it off the page and telling a true story. And it’s more important; it’s a higher calling than acting.
“I hate doing it because it nearly kills me, but at the same time I love doing it.”
He’s just about to start his biggest film to date, ‘Michael’ – The Michael Watson Story. The true story of the British boxer’s recovery from a coma suffered during his world title fight with Chris Eubank in 1991.
“It’s an amazing story of his fight back from the brink of death and Chris Eubank’s turmoil at coming to terms with what happened that night. Eubank was never the same fighter,” explains Sean, whose passion for the subject matter and his art pulls you in.
“There’s an amazing scene when Muhammed Ali comes to his bedside as he’s just woken up. Muhammad Ali has the onsets of Parkinson’s Disease and the lymo pulls up, but you don’t know who it is, but the guy’s slightly shaking as he’s getting out of the car, and you see all the paps and the lights going off.
“You can’t hear what they’re saying, it’s muted, but then you suddenly realise they’re shouting ‘Ali, Ali’. You cut to the front of Muhammad Ali and he looks down at Michael, who can only communicate by blinking, and he says ‘you’re looking good, but you’re not as pretty as me’.”
The film also recounts the ensuing court case between Michael and the British Board of Boxing Control.
“The reason he was so badly injured was there was no gas and air, and no ambulance waiting. They took him to the wrong hospital. It was an hour and a half before he got any oxygen,” Sean adds.
“Boxing regulations were changed because of what happened to Michael on that night. Now it’s a much safer sport.
“It’s an iconic part of boxing history and I’m very lucky to be directing it.”
He’s assembled some impressive talent for the film. Richard Harris’ son Jared Harris plays Peter Hamlin, the neuro surgeon who saved Michael’s life, while Steve Collins is the film’s fight co-ordinator.
Vic Armstrong is on board as is Ray Nicholls, who did the fight scenes on Gladiator, and Robert Binall, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
The film is fully cast aside from the parts of Don King and Muhammed Ali, with Samuel L Jackson a possibility for the latter role.
Like Sean’s other films, it’s a labour of love. The finances have been “pledged” but it’s been a long road to reach this point.
“I lunch with Michael every two or three weeks. He’s been very patient as it’s taken me and year and a half to get the interest,” he said.
“I’ve had over 400 meetings with people who say they’ve got money. This industry is full of delusional wannabes. They tell you they’ve got money, but it’s not until the last minute that you find out they’re broke.”
Sean’s previous life, as frontman for ten years of rock band The Marionettes, who toured with the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and as a nightclub owner, has given him a balanced perspective on the film-making industry, and kept him feet firmly on the ground.
“What actors fail to recognise is we’re not as important as we think we are. It’s only make believe,” he said. “One of the things that annoys me about this industry is the arrogance of some of the big agents, not so much the stars. You can’t get to them.”
The same can certainly not be said of Sean. He may have appeared in some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters and won numerous awards, but that doesn’t exempt him from “sifting through his daughter’s laundry” or from the challenges of childcare when on location.
Couple that with an infectious passion for telling true-life stories that matter, a healthy array of Richard Harris stories, and 40 minutes in the company of Sean Cronin is 40 minutes well spent.