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Tom Vaughan-Lawlor: 'If Love/Hate had happened when I was younger, I might not have been able to handle it'

The Love/Hate actor plays a troubled father in his new film, Rialto.
Oct 3rd 2020, 8:30 AM 41,223 7

IF THERE’S AN Irish TV character who’s made an indelible mark on our screen in recent years, it’s Nidge from Love/Hate.

But Dubliner Tom Vaughan Lawlor, who played the shaven-headed gangster in the RTÉ One series, couldn’t be further from his breakthrough TV character. Softly spoken, funny and introspective, he’s the polar opposite of Nidge.

Now in his latest film, Rialto, he plays yet another troubled man, but this character is worlds away from a threatening thug. He plays Colm, a married man and father who works in the docks in Dublin city. One afternoon, he gets involved with a male sex worker.

The film, written by Mark O’Halloran, explores how Colm’s burgeoning relationship with the young man highlights the fractures in his life, and the emotions he has been repressing for years. 

The film is an at times difficult watch. Colm says very little, but what he does say betrays how he feels about himself and his life. His clothes are bland, his hair and beard are almost unkempt. He has a wife who can’t understand what’s happened to her husband, a daughter who loves him, and a son who can’t tolerate him.

What was it like to play such a role? “It was intense making it,” acknowledges Vaughan-Lawlor. “It kind of was hanging around my psyche slightly for a while afterwards. So I was glad to have the space between then [when it was made] and now.”

When we chat, he’s in a hotel room in Belfast, where he’s filming the series Frank Of Ireland with the Gleeson brothers, Domhnall and Brian. Rialto first debuted at the Venice Film Festival in 2019. It took five weeks to film, but Vaughan-Lawlor had a few months to prepare for filming.

He’d meet up with O’Halloran and director Peter Mackie Burns in London regularly in advance, to go through background material and research.  He paid particular attention to the script, he says. “It’s so beautifully written I didn’t want to be mangling the text,” says the actor.

I wanted to do full justice to the script. There’s so much underneath the text, especially in the domestic scenes with his family. There’s so much he’s hidden. His use of language is so particular because he’s so hidden. It’s very, very specific, so I had to be very, very conscious of that.

Much of the work Vaughan-Lawlor does in depicting Colm’s various crises is through his body language. His eyes are frequently downcast,  his shoulders stooped. “He’s a man who hates himself, he’s a man who has body shame and hates his body,” says Vaughan-Lawlor. “He’s a man who’s trying to disappear into the wallpaper all the time, he doesn’t want to be seen. The costume design, hair and makeup choices are all about concealing.”

This all fed into the playing of Colm, “how that self-loathing is manifested in his movement and his body, and how he speaks and his speech patterns”. He found playing such a rich part “a bit like being back at drama school”.

“It was so exciting because, you know, you don’t always get these parts to play that are so rich, and where you can do so much research and biographical study that will bolster your work,” he explains.  

The easiest scenes to do were with Tom Glynn-Carney, who plays the young male sex worker, Jay. “He’s so weighed down by [his problems] and that’s why this young man comes along, this young rent boy comes along and frees him from that,” says Vaughan-Lawlor, referencing how Colm tells Jay “there’s no lies between us”.

“The family scenes were the hardest” to film he says, as Colm is “so repressed and alcoholism is so burnt into the walls [of the house], it’s a very heavy place to be”.

Overall, Rialto gave Vaughan-Lawlor space to explore a new type of role.

“I’ve often played to high tempo, you know, dynamic, sometimes alpha male characters in my career,” adds Vaughan-Lawlor. “This is an opportunity to go the total opposite on the scale, to a man who is so repressed and hidden and quiet and isn’t alpha, and is very low tempo. And so that was huge.”

Love/Hate

Tom Vaughan Lawlor

When Vaughan-Lawlor was in drama school 20 years ago, he says “all my ambitions for my career were all theatre based”.

“They were all like, theatre writers – Ibsen, Chekhov, Brecht. And so I never really, I never really considered screen work. Really. It was all theatre.” But as he left college, the golden age of TV was  beginning. That led to him taking the life-changing role of Nidge in Love/Hate.

“The discipline of being a theatre actor is really useful to have, I think in terms of the screen work,” he says. But he also found that coming out of drama school “you have to give up control” over your career. When he was cast in Love/Hate, his life changed – not quite overnight, but near enough it. What does he think of that time, looking back?

“I really realise why young actors, rock stars, musicians go crazy sometimes,” he says. “I was in my early 30s – I was married, I had a child. And I know that if that [fame] had happened to me as a younger man, I would not have been able to handle it… even when I was older, being able to handle it was sometimes tricky.” The “intense gaze” on you “can be hard”, he explains. “You want to acknowledge people’s enjoyment of the work you’ve done and you don’t want to be rude, you don’t want to upset people,” he says. “And then you find that that can be, you can become very paranoid. And so I was lucky that I lived in England, and I was lucky that I was married. And I was lucky that I had children. I could have my domestic life and that could be normal.

“But I think, had I been younger. And had I not had a domestic kind of grounding? I genuinely think I would have gone a bit potty.” By way of example, he explains that when they filmed the first series of Love/Hate, they were able to do so “totally, totally anonymously”.

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“Even a second season, like totally, anonymously and totally untouched. To by filming the fourth season, having like hundreds of people, hundreds of people around the set.” Vaughan-Lawlor says that having the fans around while filming did bring “positive energy”, but it’s clear the shift in interest had an impact.  But he’s keen not to sound like he’s complaining.

“I realised I’m properly, properly lucky to have had that affirmation in my job,” he reflects. “Look at what nurses and doctors are doing now, what teachers are doing, and they don’t get in a lifetime, they might not get what I might get in one day. I’m so like, I’m so fortunate to have that.

“But it was also hard sometimes to be able to do your job. Just because people wanted to speak to you and… but that’s just part of the success of that show.”

Moving from Love/Hate, he went to an even bigger fandom when he was cast as Ebony Maw in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. The Marvel Comics Universe (MCU) has millions of dedicated fans, but at least Ebony Maw – a supervillain who’d even scare Nidge – was rendered mostly in CGI form. There’s no chance of Vaughan-Lawlor getting recognised from that role on the street.

The experience was a memorable one for the actor, not least because of the sheer scale of it.

“The biggest film I’d done before that might have had a budget of like 20 million. And then you’re on this set of these two films Infinity War And Endgame where the combined budget was like, a billion dollars or something,” he says.  “It was an amazing experience because the reason Marvel is such a huge success is because … when you take away all the franchise stuff, the marketing and the merchandise and you take away all that stuff and you strip it back, they have brilliant storytellers, brilliant writers, brilliant directors, brilliant actors who are proper artists. They’re just top of their game.”

From gangsters to repressed dads to supervillains, Vaughan-Lawlor has had quite the career so far. “That’s the dream,” he says of his varied career.

“You don’t want to be playing the same part over and over and have the same experience over and over again.” 

“So to be on a set that size with those actors, those kind of movie icons – and then to do like a one man show at a Theatre in Dublin or to be in the West End or to be an independent films or to be in radio plays… That’s a rich career for an actor.”

Rialto is in selected cinemas from 2 October.

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Aoife Barry

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