Deranged hijacker, Batman villain, apocalypse survivor—if that’s how you think of this striking Irish actor, he politely asks that you take another look.
You’re known for avoiding the Hollywood spotlight in favor of the peace and quiet of your home in Dublin. Was that attitude instilled in you, or did you just not like the way celebrity felt when you first experienced it?
The concept of Hollywood has always been strange to me. I’ve never lived in Los Angeles. It’s always been, you go to work, and then you come home, and home life is just this normality. And when I’m not working I have very little to do with “the industry.” They’re two separate entities for me. It’s always been that way.
You went to law school before you got into acting. What inspired that choice, and what drove you away?
I’m the eldest of four kids, and we come from a long line of pedagogues, so the academic route was strongly encouraged. At the time, I thought it could be interesting. There were hardly any lectures, so you could go away and do a lot of work by yourself. But I realized very quickly that it’s not a creative world at all. Law is all about precedent, so you’re always looking backward, regurgitating cases. It was just the wrong choice for me, but making a misstep like that can actually be more revelatory than anything, because you very quickly realize what you don’t like.
Is it true that as a teenager you played in a Frank Zappa–inspired band, the Sons of Mr. Green Genes?
Yeah. My brothers and I really liked him. We saw some concert he did on the BBC late at night; we had never heard of him before. The process of discovery was very slow in the pre-internet days, but you felt as though you were unearthing gold when you discovered those records. So yeah, he appealed to us in many ways: his sense of humor, how cynical he was about everything. Compared with hardcore aficionados I’m probably very fair-weather. He made something like 150 albums, and some of them I find unnecessarily dense, but there are 10 or 12 that, at that time, blew our minds.
Do you still get together with your brothers and jam?
No one really has time for that, but at weddings or family gatherings or boys’ weekends, the instruments come out. There will always be some drunken jams.
Your show Peaky Blinders is returning to Netflix, and several more big-name musicians have done covers of the theme song, “Red Right Hand,” including Iggy Pop and Laura Marling. If you could pick any artist, living or dead, to cover the song, who would it be?
I’m a huge music nerd, so it still really tickles me that somewhere in the world these musicians have actually had to sit down and watch the show. It’s humbling. But it would be pretty extraordinary to hear Jeff Buckley do a version of the song. No one has had a voice like his since or before, so that would be kind of magical.
You sort of backed into screen acting through music and theater, right?
Yeah. It was initially music and then theater, and then I slowly got into film, then television. Theater is still very important for me. It was never my burning ambition to be on the silver screen. It was a desire to perform—that was clear to me from a very young age. The medium was secondary.
Was there a moment in your performing career when you decided to commit to film and television acting?
No; it came gradually. I’d been doing theater for about four or five years, touring plays around Ireland. Then I got an agent who said, “Look, there’s this part in a short film. Do you want to audition for it?” So you go, “Well, that sounds interesting.” You get a part in a short film, then a few months later it’s this tiny part in a feature film, and do you want to audition for that? So you audition for that, and you get it. And then they say, “There’s a slightly bigger part.…”
But you could just as easily have said no to each of those opportunities. You had to at least have had some curiosity to try out those things, right?
Yes, exactly. And that word is really important: curiosity. I think that has been my main drive—like, “Wow, wouldn’t theater be interesting to try?” Then that led to the next thing.
You’ve declined to be part of the Peaky Blinders musical currently in development. Do you draw the line at musical theater?
I actually think the musical is such a bizarre idea, it could work. [Peaky Blinders creator] Steve Knight is an incredibly inventive man as a writer and as an entrepreneur and original thinker. But for various reasons, it wouldn’t work for me. I have a limited range as a singer, and professional musical-theater actors? They work. Eight shows a week, singing those songs—it’s relentless. I admire them tremendously, but I could never do that.
Isn’t filming a season of Peaky Blinders pretty full-on?
Yeah. It’s a four-month shoot, and it takes about five or six weeks to limber up into the character. So it’s about a five-month commitment, then there’s generally about 18 months in between each series, because Steve has to go write it, and then it’s a logistical nightmare getting everybody back together.
I’m interested in what pressure does to the human psyche and to the human condition.
You say it takes time to settle into your character, the Birmingham gang leader Tommy Shelby. What does that involve for you?
You can’t be fooled into thinking you can just wake up and step back into a character; you really have to work at it. A friend of mine likes to call it conditioning. I genuinely don’t share anything with Tommy Shelby—not one bit of DNA. Every year Steve really pushes the character into strange places and unfamiliar territory. I have to readjust my way of thinking, because the way Tommy reacts to situations is completely the opposite of how I would react. There’s also the physicality of him and the way he carries himself, his physical energy. I also need to spend time refreshing the accent and making that feel authentic. He’s a decorated soldier, and he commands incredible respect—God, I’m sort of intimidated by him. I’m not that, you know? But I love going that distance with the characters.
The show takes several significant leaps in time, and in this new season we see that Tommy and his family are even going a little gray. Do those jumps make playing the role more challenging for you?
Well, that’s the beauty of these long-form dramas—you mature with the characters. We decided this season to give Tommy some glasses, because he’s a middle-aged man now. All the violence and physical brutality have taken their toll. But I like that you can see the characters mature and carry the burdens of the kind of lives they live, both mentally and physically.
What do you think makes a script worth taking on?
I mean, every part is a gamble, because film and television are the most collaborative of all art forms—there are so many people involved. But for me there are several criteria. It has to be good on the page. It has to read well, it has to be compelling, and you have to want to get to the end of the story in one sitting. And then it has to represent something different, something that you haven’t explored before. Then it needs to have a good director attached. If any one of those things isn’t present, you just can never tell. That’s the exciting but also occasionally frustrating thing about being an actor: You give your best work, and then you hand it over, and it’s up to the editor and the director and the distribution company and the marketing company and everybody else to make it. You take a leap of faith every time, but as long as you can tick off some of the boxes before you engage, then you should be at least part of the way there.
Was there ever a particular project that surprised you in terms of the risk you took and what came out of it?
Oh, gosh, I don’t really know. I tend to do a part and move on. I don’t really think about things retrospectively, really.
That was the problem with law school, right?
Well, yes. That’s also why Tommy Shelby is strange: because I keep coming back to him. I’ve never had that experience before, except in theater, I suppose, if you do a second run of a show or something. You do the part, and then it’s on to the next thing. You don’t really think about the work again, other than hopefully learning something from it.
You have made your career playing some really intense characters—including the terrorist Jackson Rippner in Red Eye and the Dark Knight trilogy’s Scarecrow—and you don’t appear to be anything like those characters in real life. Is that a balance you maintain, as though each of these parts of your life provides a catharsis for the other?
First of all, I would kind of take issue with that. I’ve played two villains in my career; one of them happened to be in a big franchise. Again, I hate looking back, but look at my characters in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Breakfast on Pluto, The Party, Broken. I think that shows a wide range of characters, some intense, some introverted and withdrawn. A lot of the characters I’ve played onstage are actually quite gentle and soft. When I said earlier that I look for something challenging or different, I would be contradicting myself if I were playing the same types of characters all the time. I think that’s a problem that happens a lot with journalism, trying to reduce a career to “That’s that guy.” It only takes a little bit of further inspection to see that’s actually not the case.
Having said that, I’m interested in what pressure does to completely normal characters who have normal lives, and in what pressure does to the human psyche and to the human condition.
What would be in store for you next, if you could pick? Do you have any bucket- list projects?
I don’t, really. I’ve enjoyed the experience of long-form television, and eventually Peaky Blinders will come to an end. I like the idea of finding some other television project that could offer me a different challenge. I’m also going back to theater this year to do a play with my longtime collaborator, the playwright Enda Walsh. But I don’t think any actor would be able to answer that question. It’s so unpredictable, and the vagaries of getting a film financed are so complicated—a film can be just about to happen and then collapse in front of you, or you can suddenly get offered a part you’ve never heard of and the film’s ready to go. My whole career has been completely haphazard, you know?
Does that mean actors have to be built for that unpredictability?
Yeah, I think all actors need to be inclined that way. You have to get used to things not working out, to being patient. That was something I wasn’t very good at when I was younger.
So if you could go back in time and give your younger self advice you’ve learned over the past couple of decades, would patience be part of it?
Yeah. Also, it’s such a privilege to actually be working in an industry where there are far too many actors and not enough jobs. That’s a vital lesson. Then, every job you take, whether it succeeds or fails, whether you have a good time or a bad time, you can learn something from it. I don’t always get to that place, but as I get older I really think that’s important.
For a while after Red Eye came out people would freak out when you sat next to them on planes. Does that still happen?
No. Movies come and go and disappear; they’re sort of ephemeral, transitory. So yeah, there was a while back in 2006 when people would say, “Oh. Fucking. God.” [laughs] But that time has long since passed.