The IRA prison breakout film, the superstar-studded Avengers: Infinity War, Love/Hate and Ellen Page were all up for discussion when he met Stuart Clark.
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is turning a none too delicate shade of beetroot as I remind him of what Bryan Cranston said last year after they’d appeared together in the Pablo Escobar drug lord biopic, The Infiltrator.
“Tom was an absolute dream to work with,” the multiple Emmy-winner purred. “His sensibilities and his instincts were always on point. He’s chameleonic in his performance. It was a masterclass and he will conquer wherever and whatever he does in the future. He was a genuinely warm guy, but that’s what you always get with the Irish.”
“Er, yeah, um, that was very gracious of him,” Vaughan-Lawlor mumbles into his glass of mineral water. “It’s always nice to make a genuine connection with the people you work with, and Bryan made sure that the shoot was a very happy, productive one. I spent the first couple of days thinking, ‘It’s Walter White!’ but then I got over the Breaking Bad thing. Well… almost!”
As you’re probably already aware, Tom is far more softly spoken, middle-class and rugby playing than the Love/Hate character, Nidge Delaney, who catapulted him to fame seven short years ago. Since being gunned down in the Season Five finale – Tom insists he doesn’t know if the assassination attempt was successful – the amiable Dubliner has played those two Irish political behemoths, Padraig Pearse and PJ Mara; proved Bryan Cranston right with another film-stealing turn in Jim Sheridan’s The Secret Scriptures and rubbed shoulders with Hollywood royalty in Avengers: Infinity War, more of which anon.
Tom’s career highlight to date, though, might just be his portrayal of Larry Marley in Maze, Stephen Burke’s true life telling of how in 1983 the IRA prisoner masterminded the springing of 38 fellow Republicans from the supposedly inescapable H-Block 7.
The film has turned out to be rather more topical than most of us would have liked, with the Red Hand Commandoes asking Teresa May to be unprescribed – there’s a hint in their name as to why they shouldn’t be - and dissident Republican groups joining forces in anticipation of a post-Brexit return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the south.
Stephen Burke’s insistence that Maze isn’t a pro-IRA film has done nothing to placate the former H-Block warden who declined to be identified but charges, “It all feeds in to making a ruthless terrorist organisation look like they were doing something heroic. Many of those who escaped went on to murder more people and some of them were shot dead while trying to murder people.” It’s also incurred the wrath of TUV spokesman Timothy Gaston who accuses it of “romanticising terrorism”, and the majority of callers to this morning’s even-more-fractious-than-usual Stephen Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster.
“I’d better have a listen back so that I know what to expect when we go up there on Thursday for the Belfast screening,” Vaughan-Lawlor says with a resigned smile. “I think what Stephen Burke has done is very even-handed. If it were just a film about the Maze prison escape, I wouldn’t have wanted to do it because it wouldn’t be saying anything new or interesting. The escape is an entry point, a conceit really, that allows Stephen to tell the story of two men – Larry Marley, the inmate, and Gordon Close, the prison officer - from opposite sides of the divide whose internal ideological conflicts turn out to be exactly the same.
They have a lot more in common than they realise, which feeds into what I believe is the film’s over-riding message, that being: ‘Conflict can only be resolved by people coming together and having conversations and dialogue.’ That process can be a hard sell to your own side, which is why Margaret Thatcher insisted that, ‘We don’t talk to terrorists’ while opening up channels of communication with the IRA. Despite their public demonisation of them, the American government eventually spoke to the Taliban and are probably now in some form of contact with ISIS.”
Vaughan-Lawlor isn’t surprised by the controversy Maze has been causing.
“The intricacies of resolution conflict are obviously part of the Irish landscape,” he proffers. “I wasn’t naïve enough to think that Maze is just a drama between two men. I did my homework in terms of the politics of the period, which included meeting some of the escapees. I asked them stuff like, ‘How do you endure years in a blanket on dirty protest? The isolation, the fear, the squalor of your own excrement being smeared on the walls…’ They were all kind of relaxed about it: ‘We were young men, we felt passionately about the choices we made…’ None of them seemed to be haunted by the experience, which surprised me a bit. I suppose when you grow up in a war zone your temperature gauge is set to that intensity. It’s your reality and you’re following a history and tradition of revolutionaries and men who’ve chosen armed struggle.”
Had Tom been 17 and living on the Bogside when Bloody Sunday occurred, what would he have done first thing Monday morning?
“I don’t know what I’d have done, but I understand why people, especially teenagers who had all this conflict in their lives and were politicised very quickly, chose to join the IRA,” he says carefully. “They were a community under threat. Meeting people of my generation from the North, I’ve sometimes been overwhelmed by the intensity of their feelings. They were fighting for their identity.”
Gordon Close is played quite brilliantly by Barry Ward, another Dub who’d previously appeared in the likes of Jimmy’s Hall, Silent Witness and The Bill.
“Despite coming from similar acting backgrounds, it was the first time we’d worked together,” Tom reveals. “The rapport was instant. Barry’s a very generous actor and has humanity for free. There’s no airs or graces; he’s an artist. The filming was done over a five-week period in Cork Prison, which had only just been decommissioned, so there was energy in the walls. It made the experience feel very real.
“I’ve played real people before, but no one whose life has been as controversial and extreme as Larry’s was. We haven’t done any British press yet, but I’m sure when we do we’ll be asked some tough questions, which is why I’ve done all that reading and research. If you’re arguing on behalf of a film, especially one that’s deemed to be political, you have to be 100% certain of your facts.”
The reason Tom’s talking about Larry Marley in the past tense is that two years after being released from the Maze in 1985, he was shot dead by the Ulster Volunteer Force as part of a series of tit-for-tat paramilitary killings.
“I’ve thought a lot about Larry and the fact that his political choices had this huge impact on his wife and kids who only get to see him once a month with no personal contact allowed other than a quick hug or kiss on the cheek,” Vaughan-Lawlor notes. “One of the film’s key scenes is when Larry’s son asks him, ‘If it hadn’t have stopped, would you have gone on hunger strike?’ And he says, ‘Yes, probably’, which means he was willing to leave his wife a widow and his children orphans for the cause. Part of my job was to get my head around people making that starkest of choices.
Larry definitely felt survivor’s guilt over not being one of the prisoners who starved themselves to death before the IRA leadership ended the strikes.”
Asked when The Troubles first came onto his radar, Tom replies, “It would have been the Enniskillen bombing in November 1987, when I was about ten. It was a year after the Challenger space shuttle blowing-up, which was what first got me into watching the news as a kid. My first experience of being in the North was when my school left Dublin’s leafy suburbs to play rugby against a Protestant private school there. It wasn’t exactly being on the frontline, but it did drum home that, ‘God, this stuff is happening just an hour’s drive away.’ Up till then, like most southerners, I’d felt very separated from it all.”
Love/Hate has turned out to be one hell of a springboard with Killian Scott, Robert Sheehan, Ruth Negga, Charlie Murphy, Brian Gleeson, Peter Coonan, Jason Barry, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Aoibhinn McGinnity and John Connors all going on to bag major international TV and film roles.
“People say, ‘Are you sick of being asked about it?’ and I’m not because it served me at the time artistically and subsequently it’s given me great opportunities,” Tom concludes. “I remember getting the script and my sister, who read through it with me, saying, ‘Wow, this has the potential to be special!’ If Love/Hate had happened in my twenties I’d have lost my mind because you’re still trying to find your identity and place in the world – the whole Justin Bieber meltdown thing makes perfect sense to me – but being married to an amazing woman and having a great son and very grounding family, I was able to really enjoy and build on its success.”
Maze is on general release now
Future roles for Tom Vaughan-Lawlor
The Cured (TBA)
“Not being a fan of zombie films, I was a bit non-plussed when my agency sent me it, but the script is so clever in that it asks, ‘What happens next?’ The zombie apocalypse is the start rather than the end, and draws parallels with disenfranchised minorities and Brexit and the refugee crisis. It was also an excuse to appear in a film with Ellen Page who, like Rooney Mara, doesn’t mind getting changed in the toilet. There’s no airs or graces.”
Daphne (September 29)
“It’s a Woody Allen-type journey through London. A gorgeous, very contemporary film which was good fun to do. Ryan McParland, from Armagh, is in it as well.”
Avengers: Infinity War (April 2018)
“On one hand, it’s crazy appearing in a film that has Robert Downey Jr., Josh Brolin, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Olsen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Benicio del Toro, Scarlett Johansson – and that’s just for starters! – in it. On the other, it’s the same thing as a small independent budget just filmed to a different optic. They might be global superstars, but the actors are still asking, ‘What’s the truth of this scene? What’s the motivation of these characters?’ For all the headiness of that environment, you’re doing the same as you did on Love/Hate. It was an amazing experience full of very generous, welcoming people.”