In one of those funny little coincidences that life throws up, the day after I meet Robert Sheehan I’m due to interview his former Misfits castmate Antonia Thomas. Naturally, I ask Sheehan for a question to pose to the actress with whom he shared his big break.
“Ask her about Ermo Eglido Zenza,” he tells me. Then he records a message on my phone: “Always remember Ermo Eglido Zenza! Remember him!” and erupts into a massive cackle. (All Sheehan’s laughs are cackles, and his Irish lilt could turn milk into honey. The man has a future in the audiobook industry should the acting roles ever dry up.)
Thomas laughs when I play it to her, and then explains. “Doing community service you have these little things that pick up rubbish.” [Misfits, if you haven’t seen it, revolves around five juvenile delinquents granted superpowers in a freak storm.] “And Robert was like, ‘I think his name should be Ermo Eglido Zenza.’ For some reason it went on and on. Because Robert is so funny, he manages to make something like that, which is totally random, hilarious.”
Eight years on from Misfits and Sheehan is back in the superhero game with comic adaptation The Umbrella Academy. The Netflix synopsis runs: “A dysfunctional family of superheroes comes together to solve the mystery of their father’s death, the threat of the apocalypse and more.” Fans of the comic will know “and more” does a lot in that sentence.
Sheehan is Klaus, a charismatic junkie with the ability to communicate with the dead. The room’s sharpest mind and most damaged soul, wringing humour and pathos and despair from a single line reading. You laugh even as your heart breaks for him.
“He was great,” co-star David Castañeda tells me via email. “Really intuitive and easy to work with. Definitely one of my highlights of being in the frozen tundra.”
Jesus, we all have to spend a lifetime bettering ourselves, don’t we?
There’s this William Morris quote: “The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.” Sheehan seems to have discovered that secret: you can see in his performances – and, I hope, read from this interview – that here is somebody for whom no corner of existence is too trivial, too mundane to take an interest in.
“Why’s it called square mile?” the actor asks as soon as we sit down. Because we go out in the City, I say, although nowadays our remit is much broader. Maybe it’s time for a revamp. “Square Hectare, maybe?” he suggests.
SM: It’s probably too late now…
Sheehan: You know, there’s a funny compulsion these days of people raging at the past. It’s fine to leave things as they are, or as they were when you named them. There’s a story I read recently about a university that had a Rudyard Kipling poem on the wall – If. Very famous poem and it kind of has an imperial vibe to it, as was the fashion at the time. Guys like him were imperialists.
The university wiped it off and had it replaced by a poem by a Jamaican poet, which is grand, but at the same time there’s an element of deleting the past going on. You have to have a frame of reference - you have to know where we’ve come from in order to carry on going the right direction.
Winston Churchill had some horrific views…
He was mainly responsible for the Auxiliaries, best known as the Black and Tans in Ireland, a vicious force of post-WWI dudes who just came over and were given free rein to do horrible things to Irish people. I’m not forgiving him that – but people were of the time. Sorry, I’m going off on a complete tangent.
Not at all...
Yeah, and that’s why square mile should remain square mile!
Society has got very absolute now – things are good or bad with no middle ground…
Yeah. I read 1984 recently. By no means am I saying we’re approaching the fascistic levels of 1984, but the whole reality, or unreality, of 1984 is the fact that they edit the past to suit the present. When you start doing that, there is no past. There’s no present, there’s no future. There’s just essentially a moment that can mean whatever it has to mean in order for the ultra powerful to continue being powerful. So when you start raging at the past, you start reediting the past, it starts to look a little 1984 to me, you know what I mean?
Do you look at past interviews and shudder?
Yeah! And I go, God, I was a complete moron! But at the same time, you can kind of delight in it. Jesus, we all have to spend a lifetime bettering ourselves, don’t we? We have to be heading generally in a direction of betterment – and that means being an uncivilised moron somewhere along the way.
It’s like that Muhammad Ali quote: “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
Absolutely. Which is why something like the firing of [Guardians of the Galaxy director] James Gunn is very unsettling. That statement you said was correct. That someone should lose their job for some bad jokes they made ten, 15 years ago seems completely ludicrous.
That’s Twitter, isn’t it?
I have friends in the public eye who have gone back over their Twitter feeds, editing stuff that was said, in a context, of a time, eight, nine, ten years ago… Maybe I should have a look back! [Laughs]. Nah, I never really leaned into Twitter, never had much on there.
Private WhatsApp chats are now fair game…
I was listening to Louis Theroux recently. He was talking about how there’s sophisticated technology to hack computers. Often the response is, ‘oh but if you’ve got nothing to hide there’s no problem, right? What’s the need for such privacy?’ Yeah, that’s true, but it’s also true that everybody is shameable these days. Pretty much everybody can be shamed if you put stuff from the right context in the public eye. Some people are more deserved of shame than others, but things can be amplified and turned and twisted.
Everyone has to be flawless…
Yeah, and nobody’s completely flawless! I think that we should all be a bit more forgiving of each other in that respect.
You’ve been acting from a young age…
Ready to retire!
You’d be amazed at what you can get out of people if you take an interest in them. Mostly money
Is it true that you stay the same age as when you entered the public eye?
Mmm, no. I’ve found the opposite, almost. I think I’ve been someone who’s gone through too much change for comfortability.
Personal change, you know? Becoming a different person. Feeling a lot’s changed in five years, ten years – sometimes you look back at yourself and you recognise only parts. But I think that’s the journey – that’s what you’ve got to do if you’re serious about acting, or any sort of creative discipline. I think it’s good to embrace change. Means you’ve got a more varied well to draw from as you go through life.
How do you keep a core of yourself?
That’s a very good question. I think you keep your core by realising the value, the priceless value, of long-lasting relationships in your life. Because I think we are only ourselves in the context of a mirror – be it another person, or an actual mirror… [Laughs]. I think you need your long-term friends and family to remind you of your core self, you know?
It’s like with a breakup – you lose the other person, but you also lose the person you were when you were with them…
Yeah! I was comfortable with that person! You think he’s still there, though? Or is he actually in the other person?
That specific person must be – but it’s not like you won’t have other relationships…
That’s ultimately it, isn’t it? I suppose that’s what falling in love is all about. Two people find one other, and they essentially enjoy the selves they experience in each other’s company.
‘I like you as I like me when I’m with you…’
[Laughs.] I think sadly that’s where we all digest reality, isn’t it? And that’s what’s nice about the old Umbrella Academy! [Laughs.] We had the time to explore what variety of self my character is when he’s with each sibling. There’s a richness to each individual one-on-one relationship between the siblings because of that very reason. They’re all someone slightly different to one another – even though they’re all the same age, some of them seem the big brother, the big sister, and I think Klaus goes very, very much in the little brother category.
The black sheep...
Oh yes, definitely! The blackest of the black sheep. Black as the night.
I loved the dance montage in episode one...
That comes out of nowhere, doesn’t it? That was a funny one: I read the first script early on, and when they launched into this dancing montage I was kind of scratching my head and asking, ‘What is the reason behind this?’ And then you see it, and you go – of course! It’s these characters being totally alone with themselves. The audience gets to be alone with these characters while they’re dancing, and that’s a very deeply personal thing I think, if you’re doing it alone.
Do you dance alone?
Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes in the shower. I have one of those doors that are a bit rattly so I have to be careful not to elbow too hard.
That would be a bad way to break a door...
It would. Or my elbow.
There are similarities between Klaus and Nathan [of Misfits], although Klaus does seem to have the better wardrobe...
[Laughs.] It’s sort of Nathan meets Frankenfurter from Rocky Horror.
Why do you excel at these characters? Hedonistic, funny, a little bit broken?
Probably because deep down I think we should all go on strike together and all spiritually transcend and go communal and hedonistic. Secretly that’s what I think deep down in the core of my belly. I asked Gerard Way, who writes the comic books, “Where does Klaus come from?” He told me that Klaus comes from a particular time in his life, mostly the rock star period. At that time, he went through a great deal of struggle too, so what was also there was this very large and probably infinite creative well that was born from that mischief. That’s the source.
It’s probably because I was just in Indonesia but I keep harping on about Hinduism. There are many gods in Hinduism that characterise the different aspects of what it is to be a human being. There’s one very chaotic god called Hanuman who’s a white monkey god.
We learnt about Hanuman in school…
Really? G’way – you were learning about Hinduism? That’s fantastic.
Presumably in Ireland you didn’t?
No! We did religion class but to be honest I don’t think many people were taking it that seriously. Had we said to the teacher, ‘let’s learn more about Hinduism!’ I’m sure they would have done it. [Recaptures train of thought.] What’s nice about Hanuman and all those deities is that they are all parts of a human being, all the way back to primitive impulses. Klaus just comes from a very mischievous place, and that’s a fire that I like to keep embers burning of as much as I can.
If you could talk to one dead person?
Ooh. Maybe George Orwell. I do love George. Love him very, very much – which is surprising, as a lot of his stuff was socio-political, but there’s something about the way he wrote books, man. I could read until I drop. He’s my favourite author.
He wrote from a place of interest. He was a very interested man, and a very empathetic man. People who are curiosos and who are empaths make for very interesting people.
Presumably that is exactly how you try to be as an actor?
Try to be as a human being. Take an interest in people. You’d be amazed at what you can get out of people if you take an interest in them. Mostly money. [Laughs.]
You went into theatre after Misfits [doing The Playboy Of The Western World]...
Yeah, I was always very restless and keen to continue to explore creatively, to do different stuff. I’ve always been a wildly impatient person, often to my detriment, so I was just eager to go off and do other stuff, which was probably my main drive.
Culturally we all speak our own languages to some degree, and the one that you were raised with resonates with you
Stage offers that instant gratification, right? Audience applause, etc…
When you’re acting in television and films, it’s great when you’ve got a proper good talky scene, when you can try and take the scene to very different emotional places, really flex the acting muscles as much as you can. But it’s also an incredibly technical exercise, it’s very fragmented. There are lots of hugely skilled people trying to achieve hugely skilled things around you. Your performance becomes dependent on a close collaboration with someone who’s moving a jib with a camera on it. It becomes very technical.
There is an electricity and a life to performing on stage that is completely unmatched. It’s longer arc, it’s uninterrupted performance, it’s creating it from one moment to the next to the next to the next. It’s a really magical feeling when that works.
Can you think of a specific moment?
Oh yeah. I’ve done two professional plays in my life, first was The Playboy of the Western World, the second was a trilogy with Trevor Nunn called The Wars of the Roses. Some nights, there were moments near the end of Playboy that were really emotional, really powerful. Those moments when you feel the air go out of the room a little bit. And there were moments at the end of The Wars of the Roses when my character Richard III is in the middle of a full mental breakdown and his identity is splitting and he doesn’t know who he is. It’s such a – excuse my French, square mile – it’s such a mindfuck. It was just wonderful. Leaning into those intensely emotional moments and not robbing the audience of anything. So yeah, I’ve had profoundly magical experiences on the stage. I’d love to go back if I get the time.
What’s your dream role?
[Singing] Dream plaaay? That’s a tricky one… I’d love to do a Samuel Beckett play. I don’t think I’d care which one, but I’d have to be a bit older I think. It’s funny, in terms of theatre I often drift back to Ireland in my head. There’s a great writer called Stuart Carolan who’s written some great plays, beautiful plays. He wrote a television series I did called Love/Hate, and he’s written some fantastic theatre. I’d also love to do a Tom Murphy play – something like Whistle In The Dark.
As an Irishman, do you tend to gravitate towards Irish plays?
There’s always a natural leaning towards doing Irish stuff. I suppose it speaks to your upbringing. Culturally we all speak our own languages to some degree, and the one that you were raised with resonates with you incredibly powerfully. You do tend to drift back. I’d love to go back to Ireland and do some stuff. Ireland has a phenomenally creative output; we have really interesting, talented minds coming out of Ireland.
What’s your favourite book?
Oh, tough question. If we’re going to go with an Orwell, it would have to be Down and Out in Paris and London, or Burmese Days. Why? I don’t know why! The way he writes feels like a warm hug to the inside of my consciousness.
I go through phases where I read a lot – I find that it encourages me to sit and think, and I think that sitting being mindful is much healthier for you than constantly encouraging yourself to be distracted. I don’t think that’s a happy way to live your life.
I live a very peripatetic life, quite nomadic, and you can feel sometimes that you’re kind of yearning for an anchor
Do you meditate?
Yeah, I do try and meditate. I can get up in the mornings, dude, and be a little bit restless – my head’s in the future. That can make you very inefficient and a little bit scatty I think, so it’s a nice way to centre yourself before the day commences. Especially on days like today, when you have to get your thoughts in order and communicate them well.
What turned you onto it?
A few friends who kept telling me about the benefits of it. I live a very peripatetic life, quite nomadic, bouncing from place to place, and you can feel sometimes that you’re kind of yearning for an anchor, and yearning to feel connected to things and people. Meditation is a really lovely way to remind yourself that we’re all just one big blob of consciousness.
I meditated a lot during the making of The Umbrella Academy. You spend a lot of time sitting in your trailer – as ol’ Sean Connery said, “they pay you to wait, and then you go off and do the acting for fun.” You just sit there for 20 minutes and you get into this very, very lovely, quiet, fuzzy space where your whole body resets itself while waking. And then you go in and you have no interest in anything other than what’s right in front of you. It’s incredibly beneficial for acting.
And for interviews?
Yeah! People who are into meditation should think of it like a brain sorbet. Clearing the palate wonderfully effectively before getting into whatever the next thing is.
The Umbrella Academy Season One launches on Netflix on 15 February.