Robert Sheehan: Returning to the Supernatural

In The Messenger, motor-mouth Misfits actor Robert Sheehan plays an unwashed weirdo who can speak to the dead. For director David Blair, he was the obvious choice. When we meet Sheehan in Edinburgh, he's shoeless and ready to bare his soul

Feature by George Sully | 03 Sep 2015

“I’ve taken to not wearing shoes as much as I possibly can. Which is difficult, because, you know, the sock absorbs the foot sweat. If you’re wearing no shoes, and you’re driving a car or whatever, and your foot starts to slide off the accelerator – that’s bad! That’s too much sweat. Need to wear Maxi Pads on the soles of my feet. Maybe we should talk about that? I have a new invention...”

Robert Sheehan is full of ideas, for better or worse. But we’re not here to plan out a new Dragon’s Den pitch; the tall Irishman, barefoot and sporting a fresh tan in an opulent hotel conference room, sits down with The Skinny to discuss his latest film, The Messenger, before its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. If anyone’s seen the hit Channel 4 superpower series Misfits, his excitable, charming scamp Nathan isn’t a far cry from the real deal. We try and get the man back on track.

The Messenger is about a young man who is being plagued by the recently dead,” he explains. “People who have died violently are coming to him and plaguing him to pass on messages to their recently bereaved. He’s the only one that can see these people, or interact with them in any way, so the effect of this is him showing up to funerals – he’s a dirty-type character, a bit homeless-lookin’ – trying to tell the bereaved about their dead, about this message, and obviously you couldn’t think of anything more obnoxious if you’re on the other side of that. So he ends up just being beaten up and cast further and further out.”

There is a thriller plot in the film, too: a high-profile journalist dies under suspicious circumstances, and Sheehan’s grubby Jack becomes reluctantly embroiled in the case thanks to his otherworldly gift. But this narrative plays second fiddle to Sheehan, whose compelling, dynamic performance is the movie's chief draw.

“The whole thing about the character is that he’s entirely within this reality,” he explains. “So he’s a normal guy and the way he accepts these dead people coming to him is in a very humdrum, normal way: ‘Ah for fuck’s sake. I’ve seen this all before. It’s just gonna end in tears. Why don’t you just fuck off to heaven and leave me alone?’ It’s a really normalised approach to this supernatural thing that’s happening to him. I think he’s very human in that way.”

Robert Sheehan in The Messenger

This isn’t Sheehan’s first time working with Scottish director David Blair, whose prior work includes BAFTA-winning BBC series The Street.

“Lord Blair – Master Blair – Overlord Blair, as I call him. I had worked with him about four years ago on a TV thing for the BBC, a thing called Accused, and then he got his hands on [The Messenger] script. He became attached and he said, ‘You know who’d be good for this fella? Weirdo, showin’ up at funerals, smells – get Sheehan.’”

What's Blair like to work with? “Ah, he’s dynamite. He’s like a dynamo on set. There were long, long conversations, off set and then on set, about how not to make [Jack] mad to the audience. As soon as the audience thinks he’s insane then it just becomes way less interesting. So the idea was to keep the audience liking him; I mean, it’s difficult, certainly on the page, to like the guy. He’s doing unlikeable stuff in a very unlikeable way, constantly. There were endless debates about how to pull those two things off, and David was funny, ‘cause he’d go, ‘You can’t look at him,’ about the guy who’s dead. ‘As soon as you look in his eyes, you’re mad.’ I’m like, ‘That’s not true!’ and then a huge, endless debate would happen.”

As well as keeping viewers on side, despite his intrusive, self-destructive behaviour, the actor also pulls off a convincing northern accent. Has he had dialect coaching?

“No. I’d worked in the accent, or the general northern English accent before, so I had a bit of a head start. And if any accent thing comes up I just sort of go into the accent as early as possible, and then stay in it until the film’s over. People go, ‘It’s so hard to do an accent.’ It’s not really, as long as you just accept that you can’t have your own voice for the whole time – which is a tough thing to accept.”

Casting Sheehan, an Irishman, despite the film’s location, is testament to his versatility. “David’s lovely in the sense that he puts those sorts of choices in the hands of the actors. I suppose there’s an element of trust, so he said, ‘Where are you gonna be from?’ And I said, ‘I’m gonna be from northern England.’

"One thing that becomes important as an actor is relevance – that affects your choices" – Robert Sheehan

“Actually, the year previous, we were gonna shoot the film, and it was gonna be in Edinburgh.” Could he do a Scottish accent for us? “...Nuh.”

But he is a fan of the Scottish capital. “I feel like Edinburgh is the Galway of Scotland. Because it’s the same thing: in Ireland they call Galway ‘the graveyard of ambition,’ but that just means that people go there and never leave, because they forgot all about what they wanted to do in the first place, because they were so seduced by the loveliness of Galway. It’s a good thing; it does sound pejorative, but it’s a nice graveyard full of ambitious people who can’t remember what they were ambitious about, drinking cans down by the docks.

“I used to live there for two years,” he adds.

Conversation inevitably turns to Misfits, and its impact on his career. “One thing that becomes important as an actor is relevance – that affects your choices. Like, you know when someone says, ‘Ah yeah, I really love that actor, but what are they doing now? They’ve not done anything for years!’ And usually that’s not true. You’d think as an actor you’d go, ‘God, I’d hate people to think that about me.’ But I think that’s a really corrupting thought.

“That’s the thing about doing a show that had relevance; popularity equalling relevance, equals fame to some extent, and so really what you mean is you want to stay in the minds of people, in a fame way. And that’s toxic, to try and follow a career in that way. So I try to remove that entirely from the equation. But at the same time, Misfits, for me, was stumbling into a show that was really popular... it has done great things for my career.”

We highlight the supernatural similarities between Misfits’ Nathan (who is immortal) and The Messenger’s Jack. “No, that was coincidence. Both of them are just idiots in their own way. The whole supernatural thing I think is a smokescreen for the fact it’s just two fuckin’ arseholes doing their thing.”

They’re also both talkers, a trait common to many of his roles. Though we already have plenty of evidence, we ask if he’s as chatty in reality. “Yeah, I think so. I find it important to be able to get your point across.”

Has this ever gotten him in hot water? There’s a sharp intake of breath: “Yeah, absolutely. Oh God, I just remembered one thing... I can’t... I just remembered a story that could have been quite befitting subscribers to The Skinny, but I can’t tell it, because it’s too bad!” Oh? “No, I just upset someone once, for saying the wrong thing. But no, I do think it’s important to be able to get your point across. I think [with] most of the conflicts in this world... the base cause is because the person isn’t getting their point across properly, and there’s miscommunication. All of a sudden someone’s been bottled, your wife is screaming, she’s just stabbed a fella with her stiletto, and you’ve been barred from that pub for life...”

Something we can all relate to. “That was the story, basically,” Sheehan adds, unnecessarily. 

The Messenger is released 18 Sep by Metrodome