This is something I experienced when talking with actor Fionn O’Shea. That, or maybe it was the very strong coffee we had both consumed that morning. We first met Fionn in 2017 for our print issue, Tales of a New Generation. Under the watchful gaze of photographer Doreen Kilfeather, Fionn was photographed at home in Ireland upon the UK release of Handsome Devil, a performance that earned him a nomination for Lead Actor at the Irish Film and Television Awards.
Three years on, as Fionn quarantines at his family home by the sea, and on an increasingly impressive trajectory that shows no signs of slowing down, we felt it right to return to that day and that scene in a previously unreleased series. Space characterises the beginning of any journey, and the camera documents this as stylist Paula Hughes encouraged comfort in neutral tones and authentic self-expression.
Fionn is fresh off a self-imposed haircut (he attributes to the coffee) when we meet online to talk about his two most recent projects that are now taking the UK by storm. Dating Amber is an intimate, queer coming-of-age story and showcases two brilliant performances from Fionn and his co-star, Lola Petticrew. Whilst Fionn’s portrayal of Jamie, love interest to Marianne in the screen adaptation of Sally Rooney's Normal People, stirred some seriously impassioned responses. Overly caffeinated, we marvel at the day’s freedoms - of time, of opportunity, of friendship. Of being comfortable in your own skin. Of being able to reach out and affect strangers with your art - even if they take a hating to your sunglasses because of it.
Dating Amber is now available to watch on Amazon Prime.
Where are you quarantining?
I live in London, but I came back to be closer to my family - my sister is a frontline worker - so now I'm just outside of Dublin. By the beach, it’s lovely.
I heard you were isolating with Lola at one point?
Yeah - so we were in London together and then we came back to Ireland together. From the lead up to making the film, we just became best pals and have been inseparable ever since. We’d obviously done the chemistry reads together, but then to make something that you feel so strongly and passionate about - and also come out of with a best friend - is a really nice thing.
I watched Handsome Devil last night and I understand you and Nicholas became very close after that?
Yes - I spoke to Nick two days ago. Nick and I got really close - and we both did pieces with Boys by Girls too! I'm actually doing something with him now. He has a project that he's working on for charity and I’m going to be reading a short story for him on that. We hadn't spoken for a while, for no other reason than that he was in LA and I was in London, so it was nice to catch up properly. I guess this is kind of something nice about having time in quarantine: you can catch up with people you haven't spoken to in a little while because your schedules aren't all over the place.
Have you had much downtime, or have you still had many work commitments what with Dating Amber coming out?
To be honest, at the start I was a little bit put out because I was meant to be starting a film and obviously like everything else, that got pushed back. I'm fully aware that that's not the end of the world; there are people in far worse conditions than me not getting to do a film. Then with the release of Normal People and Dating Amber, everything got really busy again which was nice. I think a lot of actors do this: you can be really hard on yourself if you're not being productive. This is a time where you can actually just let go. There's no point in being hard on yourself and thinking, ‘God I need to do X amount of things every day' because everyone's in the same position, you know, and no one expected this to happen. I think this is just the time where you need to really take care of yourself.
We first met Fionn three years ago in 2017 for our print issue 13. Who is the Fionn we meet in 2020?
Oh, wow. I was thinking this earlier. I think I've grown and have learnt so much in the last few years, but my ability to answer that question eloquently is still something that maybe hasn't changed. If I remember correctly, in 2017 I said something along the lines that I was - was it honest? Or sociable? I think I said extroverted.
Yep, it was extroverted!
Okay, extroverted. Well, I think I'm still extroverted. Maybe a big difference between 2017 and 2020 is that I've managed to balance my work and social life better. Maybe at that time, I was focusing solely on work, and not giving any time to family or friends, whereas now, I think that I'm able to balance that. There was a tendency before for me to be like, ‘unless I give absolutely everything to the work, and nothing to my family or friends, the work won't be good'. Whereas I learned that those things don't have to be independent of one another; you can be fully satisfied in work, and also in your social life. I'm still trying to be like I was then: caring and nice to people. I'm sure that maybe I don't succeed all the time, but I definitely try my best. Sorry, I'm rambling. This is even more catastrophic than the last answer I gave.
Have you any other major learnings from the past three years?
I think that was probably the biggest one. Dating Amber is actually a good example because that was something that I just had so much fun on and met my best friend doing it, and also felt so creatively satisfied, as well. Being able to enjoy the making of the work and not feel that you have to suffer in some way to make something good: that's something that I learned particularly with Normal People and Dating Amber.
Another thing I've learned is, sometimes you have to create your own opportunities - or put yourself in a position that you can be given an opportunity. I think that sometimes people have a tendency to sit around and rest on their laurels a little bit and be like, ‘oh, the phone's not ringing.’ And maybe I've made that mistake in the past. But there are things you can do to create opportunities for yourself simply by being present or doing little things.
Do you think that you're able to enjoy the work more now because you're slightly further along in your career, so perhaps there’s a bit more security and confidence?
I think it came from maybe naivety, a little bit. I just thought that those things couldn't exist together, which is silly. I think it just comes from learning, and I've learned so much on every job I've done. You can never know enough. I just try and sponge up everything as much as I can. So, I think part of it comes from seeing actors I've worked with and who I admire, 'oh, look, they can have both of those things so I can, too'. That definitely led to me enjoying the work a lot more.
Let’s dive into Normal People. It seems to have come out at the perfect time and has been incredibly well-received. How has it been to have the show out into the public?
I'm so grateful for anyone who's watched it and enjoys it. It's funny because it's become this huge success, which is amazing, but you still just wake up in quarantine and can't go anywhere so you don't really see the effects of it too much. Everyone worked so hard and was such a massive fan of the book, so to be able to make something that satisfies the fans of the book and also brings in new eyes as well is really special. I feel so lucky to be given that opportunity. When I heard that Lenny Abrahamson and Element Pictures were going to make Normal People, I had to read the book. I'm obsessed with Lenny and always have been; he was a filmmaker that I always wanted to work with. This was before I even knew if I was going to be seen for it or not. I found the character Jamie and I was like, ‘oh my God I would love to play that part so much’, and I rang my agent and I was like, ‘please can you get me seen for that?’. They said they weren’t seeing anyone for anything yet. Long story short, I got to go in and be seen for it and then ultimately got the part which was kind of amazing. I guess that actually maybe goes back to what I was saying about creating your own opportunities. Although I relied on so many people taking a risk and giving me that opportunity to play that character, picking up the phone and ringing my agent made some difference too. That's a very long-winded answer to say: it's very exciting having the show out at this time.
What drew you to Jamie as a character?
People would be surprised that his character would jump out from reading the book. I don't know, I read it and I just thought I could do something really different with this. It was so different from any character I'd played - you’ve seen Dating Amber and Handsome Devil and it couldn't be further from either of those. I also grew up in a very similar environment to Jamie and I knew people like that. Although I knew on paper, I wasn't the obvious choice, I thought that perhaps I'd be an interesting one - maybe or maybe not. But I wanted to put my best foot forward and be seen for that character.
Correct me if I'm wrong, didn’t you say in a previous interview that you had ambitions to play a villain type?
I'd love to play a villain. It's funny, I think I said that in i-D. I was only looking at that the other day and I was like, that's so mad because that ended up happening. I don't know if you've seen any of the stuff on Twitter about the character, but the comparisons between Jamie and King Joffrey I think are a little bit unfair. I don't think he's that bad!
It was something that really excited me at that time to play someone who people just have that visceral reaction of hate because I guess I play characters where people have that visceral reaction of love. I feel so lucky to be here but actually forgot that I even said that until the other day! It’s really funny when you go on Twitter and see what people are writing about Jamie in Normal People. But it's great to have that reaction to characters, it’s something that really excites me - whether it's love or hate.
And in so many ways Jamie is not even a villain! At the end of the day, he is someone that is in love and it's not reciprocated, which is hard.
For me, when you're making the show and obviously had the conversations that I've had with everyone on set - you're looking at that character like a human being. Of course, he has flaws, but you have to be able to understand why he thinks the way he thinks and why he's saying the things that he's saying. I can completely understand the things that people dislike about him: there are moments where he's misogynistic, and a chauvinist, and classist, and racist. There's a lot of ‘-ists’ that he is in the show. And although I don't agree with any of his actions, when you're playing that part you at least have to understand why he's doing them. That’s probably the best way of putting it. But I'm in no way defending any of the actions - he can be really despicable, but you have to be able to understand them.
Yes, you can never judge a character you're meant to be playing.
It's funny when you read stuff online, because ultimately when the show comes out, it's not up to me what an audience takes. I didn't expect the level of hate for that character - but I think anyone who gets in the way of Marianne and Connell is subject to that because you're vying for them to be together so much! A good example is Helen, one of Connell’s girlfriends. She is an objectively nice girl, I don't think she does anything bad in the whole show and she's a lot more palatable, but people seem to really dislike her too.
You seem comfortable managing the negativity you receive online. Is that something that you're easily able to balance?
I think so. To make people feel something like that is great, whether it’s love or hate. But also, I mean, hopefully from talking to me you can see that I’m far from that character! It’s funny ‘cause when I was reading a lot of this stuff, they were literally like ‘I want Jamie dead’. ‘I want to punch Jamie in the face’. And ‘Jamie's worse than Coronavirus’. I was like oh my god, this shocking! All of that I find so funny. And then there was one and it was like ‘I hate everything about Jamie down to his stupid fucking sunglasses'. And that was the one I took personally because they're my own personal sunglasses! But also, they’re prescription sunglasses - like I need them to see! So I was like, ‘ah man now I need to buy new sunglasses…’ But no, I think it's easy for me to separate this stuff because it's not me, it's the character, and what excites me about acting, in general, is to be able to play such a diverse range of characters.
How did you prepare for your role of Eddie in Dating Amber?
One thing that we were really lucky to have was a lot of rehearsal time. So David Freyne, who wrote and directed it, was able to get us together a couple of months before the film started which was invaluable. Usually, you don't get any rehearsal time, so to have that much was definitely the most valuable thing we could have had and the most rewarding as well, because as it goes on, you find out different things about your character, and about the scenes and how to hit comedy beats better. Maybe something you thought was funny, actually is quite tragic; and maybe something you thought was quite tragic becomes quite funny as that goes on. It also allowed Lola and me the freedom when we went in to improvise to try new things. Dave is such an exceptionally talented filmmaker. He’s also written such a beautiful screenplay, but he's able to look at something and go, you know, ‘maybe try something different here’. He’s not married to what's exactly on the page which is something that's really exciting.
How does this experience compare with previous projects you've worked on? You've mentioned the rehearsal process.
We literally didn't want to leave shoots. Lola and I both had maybe one day off in the whole shoot, and we just wouldn't want to leave. We’d get out of costume and put on our clothes and then we'd be able to get the cans, the headphones, that you can listen to the scenes with, and we'd stay for the rest of the day just because we loved being there. I've never experienced that, where you just want to be on set all the time. That was amazing.
That genuine chemistry and joy definitely comes through in the film and is beautiful to see.
I hope so! Lola is extraordinarily talented and just such a beautiful human being. She definitely brought out the best in me and hopefully, she would say the same. But yeah, the chemistry that you see on screen is definitely pretty close to what it's like off-screen as well. That rehearsal time meant we could spend so much time together; even going out for a drink and just being able to talk as people and get to know each other. Sometimes you'll get to the end of a production and you'll look back and go, 'oh, I wish we could have filmed the stuff we filmed at the start now because we all know each other so much better'. Whereas we went into filming and just enjoyed every second of it. Also, not every day is all laughs and sometimes you can have a really hard day and that was important to have each other around for. When I look at the film, I think of it as one central performance, and that’s Eddie and Amber together. I find it kind of hard to separate them because they're so reliant on each other. It’s certainly the way that we approached it.
You have starred in a couple of ‘coming of age’ projects. How was your personal experience of this transition? Do you feel like you’ve reached the other side of that?
That's a good question. I hesitate to say that I have because I've always felt that I've so much to learn. I think last time we spoke, it was about finding a voice and the idea that you’re consistently finding your voice and your voice changes over time. So, I don't know if this might sound slightly pretentious, but I kind of wonder if you ever actually come ‘of age’ in a sense and you're constantly chasing something.
That makes perfect sense. A major theme in Dating Amber is repressed feelings - something Eddie really struggles with. Are you able to talk about feelings easily?
I grew up in an environment where it was very easy to do that. A very open family. We could talk about everything. Identity and sexuality. That was something that was really special. Also, I work in a profession where we have an outlet to do that, which is something that I feel really lucky to be able to do. I do think though, I've gotten better at doing that as time has gone on, but I mean, that's definitely down to my family and my upbringing because we were always so open - maybe too open, at points!
How do you get yourself out of a rut?
I treat every situation so differently. As I've grown up, I think I've realised that my relationship with my mental health changes, like any relationship. How you address it. What works for one person might not necessarily work for you. Although talking about it, I find incredibly helpful. That's actually something I didn't do enough of when I was younger - probably because when I was in school, people saw me as someone who was very funny and outgoing, and I didn't want them thinking something else. Whereas you grow up and realise that everyone is dealing with something.
Can you tell me about the upcoming film Cherry and your character Arnold?
Cherry is a wild, kinetic, coming of age story. It’s about a disenchanted, college dropout played by Tom Holland. He joins the army and serves in Iraq as a medic and forms PTSD and subsequently an opioid addiction, and starts robbing banks to fuel the opioid addiction. I play Arnold, who is one of Cherry‘s (Tom Holland’s character’s) friends who's serving in Iraq as a gunner. Oh, I should also say that it's directed by the Russo Brothers!
Do you have an onset ritual to get you in the zone?
That actually changes from job to job. Most of the time, it's something to do with music. Usually, I’ll pick a song that I'll play every morning, so I'm pretty sick of the song by the time the film ends. For Dating Amber, it was Babies by Pulp. And then for Normal People, it was 102 by The 1975. I think for Cherry it was something Kings of Leon.
Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome?
Oh my god, I think every actor has experienced that in one way or another. But I think that's entirely human. We work in a very insecure profession, so you question any kind of security. I think everyone has experienced that feeling where they're on set and they're like, ‘I'm not good enough’, or maybe, ‘I'm not the person for the job’, or, you know, ‘why did they pick me if it could have been someone else and blah blah…’ I remember someone once told me on set, ‘you've just got to trust that you were the perfect person for the job. And that’s why you're here', and that really helped me. You have to trust everyone who made that decision, and not let that kind of stuff get in the way. I think every actor has that feeling of like, ‘oh my god, I'm going to be found out and everyone is going to know that I'm actually really shit!’ It can be really destructive if it's not addressed, but it’s human.
Do you think that anxiety is related more to the scale of the production - for example, Cherry - or the role itself?
I would say it's more the role. The first time I really felt this was when I did Handsome Devil. We had our first day of filming, maybe, we had rehearsed and it was this one scene that I just couldn't get right. And also then, you're carrying the responsibility of the story being semi-autobiographical and there's that added pressure that there's only one chance to tell someone’s story - so that's probably where that stuff comes in. I felt more pressure on something like that or Dating Amber - and that's what I was saying about the importance of being around Lola and having such a close relationship. The other person won't allow those thoughts to get to you, because they’ll make sure that you push them out as quickly as they come in.
What has been your most challenging role so far?
I think it would be Eddie in Dating Amber because I think both of those characters, Eddie and Amber, go through so much over the course of the film and there are moments that are hopefully laugh-out-loud funny, but also really tragic. I could say it was the most challenging but the most rewarding as well. Those two things exist together usually.
I can imagine the more challenging a role is, the greater the sense of achievement when it's finished.
Absolutely. And we're all so proud of the film. It's a really important story, and I think it's going to be a very important film for a lot of people. One thing that's really important to Dave is that this is a queer story with a very optimistic outlook. In the past, there have been a lot of queer films that are very pessimistic or tragic, whereas this is very hopeful and joyous and I think it's important that queer stories are represented in that way.
And it’s been picked up by Amazon! Congratulations.
Thank you so much. Historically, it was hard for LGBTQ films to be made full stop, let alone get picked up by such an amazing studio. Now you have films like Love, Simon that has had such a massive impact on everyone. It means that so many people will get to see it, which is great.
That is the beauty of streaming as well: people can stumble across films, sometimes unintentionally. There is access to so much more.
I completely agree. And there are so many films that I've seen that maybe I never would have seen. In certain countries, as well, it can be really hard for people to see films that represent their experience. Streamers have provided that opportunity. We were made up when we heard that Amazon acquired Dating Amber; we were just dancing around.
Outside of acting, what are you passionate about?
I am passionate about my friends and my family and their well-being. At the moment I'm very passionate about helping frontline workers. My sister is one, and at the start of this, I had to help her move into the basement so she could be away from mum and dad because she didn't want to bring anything into the house. I'm constantly inspired by her and the work that she's doing. I'm passionate about queer rights. I'm just about to start reading Just Kids by Patti Smith and also Paris Syndrome by Lucy Sweeney Byrne. It’s a book of short stories my sister gave me and she said it was really good.
What is next on the horizon once lockdown is lifted?
So, I was meant to start filming something, but I don't think I'm allowed to say what that is! I'm hoping as soon as a lockdown lifts that I will go straight into that, and then be able to talk about it. But in terms of what's on the immediate horizon - giving my mum and dad a hug. Little things like that. Just getting back to reality and being able to be around the people that I love. Again, that's one thing that's been really amazing about quarantining with Lola is that we're so comfortable around each other it's been really effortless. Whether you're having the best day or the worst day, we're just there for each other. Something that has made quarantine very easy.