On the day of The
Jack’s latest assignment comes from Mark (Jack Fox), a deceased journalist wishing for him to pass a posthumous message onto Sarah (Tamzin Merchant). With so much media and police attention surrounding the tragedy, however, Jack can’t make contact without drawing attention to himself, and to his misunderstood abilities. That’s the last thing his sister (Lily Cole) wants, particularly as her lawyer husband is involved in the case.
The project had been around for a while before Sheehan became attached; Andrew Kirk’s script being a long-gestating passion project for director David Blair (or Overlord Blair, as Sheehan dubs him, “with the most wonderful moustache in the universe”), who had previously worked with the actor on BBC drama Accused back in 2012.
“He sent me the script and asked: was I interested in doing it? And I said: yes. I jumped two feet first in — the script was absolutely dynamite. It was really strong from the get-go, and I thought the main character — the Jack character — was the strongest written out of the page. And it just seemed ridiculous to pass it up.”
Even then, however, it still took about eighteen months to two years for everything to come together, with the film having to navigate the “quagmire of indie film” to secure the necessary funding. During this time the script went through a number of minor changes, “answering questions that David [Blair] wanted answered”, and the other actors came on board — including Joely Richardson as Jack’s psychiatrist.
It isn’t just Sheehan who plays Jack in the movie, with newcomer Rhys Con
nah embodying the character in flashback, his scenes with on-screen mother Deirdre O’Kane duly shot first. Only so much could be done to correlate their performances, but the filmmakers went to great length to ensure that there was a physical resemblance.
“They had to dye his hair, and curl it. They found a straight-haired blonde lad and they were, like: yeah, but the face, he looks good with the face.”
Sheehan had to undergo a transformation of his own, too — vocally, at least. Having played American in both The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and The Road Within, his other film at EIFF 2015, the actor this time tried his talents at a northern English accent. The week he had off while Connah shot his scenes must have come in handy for practice?
“In fairness, you have to have an ear for accents. Because I’ve met some people who just can’t do accents, that’s it — the same way I can’t draw pictures. You might be embarrassed in front of shop keepers for the first three or four days, and even more embarrassed in front of people you know, but after that it’s a simple thing — so that’s my approach.”
In terms of affecting an American accent, the actor admits that it’s sometimes odd to be doing so alongside other British and Irish actors on an ostensibly American set. On The Mortal Instruments, for instance, Lily Collins, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Jamie Campbell Bower all hail from either the UK or Ireland, while The Road Within saw him affecting a US accent while Dev Patel kept his own.
“That’s just one of many oddnesses”, Sheehan continued, prompting further discussion of the differences between an American set and a British one. “The only difference really occurs when the job of principal photography on a film is finished. In America they expect you to do so much press that I’ve come to realise that acting in America is 50% acting and 50% sales.”
“Like that film with Lily Collins [The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones], there was just an avalanche of press that went on for weeks. She was an absolute trooper — did it all, you know, not a bother — but I think me and Jamie [Campbell Bower] struggled a bit.”
It’s hard not to ask about The Mortal Instruments, especially after the sequel to City of Bones was so unceremoniously shelved in favour of a TV reboot called Shadowhunters, after the story’s protagonists. Sheehan played Simon in the first film, but had he made any preparations for City of Ashes?
“I didn’t know anything about it – I hadn’t even read the friggin’ books! I was like a week away from going to Toronto to shoot the second one, looking at pictures of apartments, and then they pulled it.”
Instead, Sheehan turned his attention to The Road Within, in which he plays Vincent, a young man with Tourette’s Syndrome — using the extra time to research the disorder and spend time in the company of people living with it. In many ways a method actor, he practiced the tell-tale ticks and vocalisations whenever on set.
“That was insanely difficult, because you’re representing real people. This is something that people have to live with every day, so the idea of misrepresenting that was just a nightmare. We got a really nice letter from Tim Howard, the goalkeeper for Everton, who has Tourette’s. It’s a strange disorder, and whenever he’s playing — no Tourette’s.”
Elsewhere on the festival circuit Sheehan is also promoting Moonwalkers, which he saw for the first time at SXSW in Austin. A British comedy directed by Antoine Bardou-Jacquet, Moonwalkers takes the conspiracy theory that Stanley Kubrick was somehow involved in staging the Apollo 11 moon landing and runs with it. Sheehan features in the trailer in what looks like Amish-garb.
“You have to see the film to get the tone of it. That’s me having been dressed up to look like Stanley Kubrick. I looked like a rabbi in The Matrix. It’s a really strange, really funny movie.”
The Messenger is out in UK cinemas from Friday.