Making it in the East End and on Broadway (The Irish World)
The Dublin actor Sean Mahon told David Hennessy about his new film The Edge of Chaos which tackles the effect of addiction on the family, his time in Walford and just when he realised the film Philomena was something special.
The actor Sean Mahon might be recognisable for playing Ray Kelly in Eastenders or his award-nominated portrayal of maverick cop Brian McGonigle in the Irish soap opera Red Rock.
He also played Michael Hess, the lost son, in the lauded emotional drama, Philomena adapted by Steve Coogan and starring Dame Judi Dench.
But before all of that he shared the stage with Ciarán Hinds and Jim Norton in the first ever Broadway production of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer. He would also take over the role of Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps on its debut run on Broadway.
Sean’s most recent film sees him playing a manipulative father and politician Derek Keenan in the psychological thriller, The Edge of Chaos.
When his daughter Carrie, played by Aoibhinn McGinnity of Love/Hate, threatens to expose his corrupt business dealings in order to force him to sign the successful family business over to her, Derek calculates an intervention with all the family there to speak about Carrie’s troublesome drinking.
Derek may have planned it to put Carrie on the back foot and take the focus off him but like a cornered rat, she goes for the throat and reveals she witnessed her father’s infidelity as a child and that he convinced her to keep it quiet. She may have kept quiet but at a cost.
With the whole family together for the first time in years unhealed wounds and trauma are exposed, revealing further family secrets.
Sean told The Irish World: “At the end of the day, it’s a story about addiction. It’s a story about fear. It’s a story about secrets and lies and families but also the possibility of redemption.
“The movie is a story that really journeys the life of an alcoholic and the impact on the family and the reason that the alcoholism was probably initiated.
Sean in a scene from The Edge of Chaos with Aoibhinn McGinnity.
“I think everybody is impacted or touched by alcohol and how it affects people’s lives, either directly or on the periphery.”
Sean told us that he was attracted to the rogue and politician because, like so many of his characters, he is nothing like Sean himself.
“For whatever reason, as retiring and as an introverted as I say that I am, I think the ability to play complicated, edgy authority figure people allows me to express an aspect of myself that I don’t get to do.
“Derek has his own form of addiction. For him, it’s about control: His desire to control his environment, his desire to control his family, his desire to get what he thinks he needs in order to be safe and successful.
“So I approached it like that. His addiction is control. His daughter’s addiction is alcohol. Both are bred from this terrible secret that they’re both holding.
“The ability to have him at least acknowledge and see who he is and have the mirror held up to him in terms of his who he has become was very interesting to me.
“A lot of my characters- certainly on Red Rock, and certainly on EastEnders- are people who are just completely consumed with themselves and never really have a moment of redemption.
“I think Derek at least gets to see himself and realize where a change is needed.”
The film rests on the uneasy relationship between Derek and Carrie. Sean is helped bring this to life by Aoibhinn McGinnity who Love/Hate fans will remember as Nidge’s wife Trish.
“Aoibhinn was marvellous. She just shows up and delivers. I had met her two years before very briefly. We were both doing a film down in Galway. We had no scenes together. I went up and said, ‘Hi, my friend knows you’. We took a selfie. Flash forward three years and we’re playing father and daughter.
“I was in the US when Love/Hate was going on, when all this stuff was happening.
“I missed the Celtic Tiger, I missed the property boom, I missed the the surge of quality television.
“My first experience was really going into Red Rock and seeing, ‘God, these actors are amazing, these filmmakers are amazing’.
“Then I went back and watched Love/Hate and I was like, ‘Wow, this is fantastic’.
“The reason so many people left in the 80s and 90s is because there was no opportunity, there.
“Now there is funding and there are tax credits, there’s Game of Thrones and there are these studios.
“Irish talent is getting the opportunity to be seen and to really excel. We’re such a creative people.
“Aside from the builders and people who went to London to make it, the Irish people who somewhat excelled in the UK and overseas were the creatives.”
Shot on the eve of lockdown and all taking place in and around a family home, Edge of Chaos feels like it could very well be a lockdown production.
How would the Keenan family of the movie cope with being locked down together? “That’s like throwing a grenade.
“If lockdown were to happen, hopefully Carrie would dry out and we’d all be okay by the end of it. I have a feeling that would not be the case.”
Sean was in London having just completed the filming of Edge of Chaos when the pandemic was about to hit and he made the decision to get back to America for the ensuing lockdown.
“I moved back.
“It was an overnight decision. I was living in an apartment in Dalston. And I was there one day and the next day I was gone.
“I got into New York on 14 March. The city was like a ghost town. People were kind of like, ‘What the fuck just happened?’
“People are very observant of the masks because the city was hit so hard. But the US is nothing like the UK or Ireland with the level of protocol or shutdown. I mean Americans are very free spirited and will do what they want. But the city certainly has changed its tone. There’s more of an edge to it.”
Sean has been long term based in the states having first moved there to study acting in Chicago. He has lived in LA and New York for long spells with some stints in London and Ireland in between.
“I moved to the US when I was 24. I’ve been pretty much all over but New York is definitely my base now.
“As immigrants there’s always that kind of, ‘Who am I?’ Your heart ‘s in one place, your foot is in another place and you’re always kind of pulled and now finally I’m able to commit to being in one place.”
Sean Mahon played Ray Kelly in Eastenders.
Along with Ciaran Hinds, Jim Norton, Conleth Hill and the American actor David Morse, Sean was part of the cast for Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer when it was performed on Broadway for the first time in 2007.The play would be lauded with multiple Tony nominations.
“It was a big moment.
“Red Rock was a big moment. Eastenders was a big moment. And Broadway in and of itself and The Seafarer were big moments.
“My background is in theatre. I started in the theatre. I love theatre. It’s home.”
Not long out of training, Sean did not anticipate actually getting the role at all.
“I was like, ‘I’m not ready for this. They’re not gonna give this to me. I’ll just go have fun’.
“I got it. Two weeks later, I’d relocated to New York and was starting in the show.
Sean played Michael Hess in Philomena.
“The show opened: Very positive reviews, got nominated for a number of Tonys. We got to go to the Tonys. Jim Norton won the Tony.
“It was just like being shot out of a cannon at 100 miles an hour.
“If I could go back and tell my younger self to relax and enjoy it more, I would. I think for the first four months, I was just trying to catch my breath and in the last month I really enjoyed it, I settled in. Because just being on that stage, it’s the world stage and just feeling the intensity of that was huge.”
Sean was a part of the original Broadway production of The Seafarer by Conor McPherson.
It was in 2018 that Sean entered Eastenders as Ray Kelly, the detective who married Mel Owen while already married to someone else. The character would come to a sticky end when he was shot in the chest.
“EastEnders was unexpected. In this career, you never see half the things coming. It’s just such an iconic show. My first scene was shot in Albert square outside the Vic, and just to be part of that world was intense.”
Playing Ray Kelly presented much more than a professional opportunity. After so long in America, Sean desired some work closer to home.
“At that point, I had been in America for maybe 20 years and I was starting to lose what I felt was my Irish identity and closeness to family. And I was 40. I started to feel the call for home.
“I made a decision. I said, ‘I’m going to go back. My mum’s a certain age. My family’s in Ireland. I can go to London, work there, and then go back and forth and see what it’s like.
“So I went to the UK, and I think I misinterpreted it. I moved to the US in my 20s. And in your 20s, you can run around like a lunatic and just kind of like settle in.
“Moving to a new country, again, at a certain age is a different thing so assimilating into the country took longer both personally and professionally.
“The biggest thing I think I did initially was Philomena. And that obviously got a lot of attention from the BFI and the Oscars and the BAFTAs and all that kind of thing.
“What that did was it somewhat opened up the world in Ireland for me and shortly after that I got cast in Red Rock. It was meant to be a one season thing. It turned out to be two seasons.
“The character took hold, the storyline took hold. Some of the producers from Red Rock were also producers on EastEnders and then they asked me later on to go over and do some work there.
“It was great. It’s great to go back somewhere with a job, back knowing the territory. It’s great to go back understanding the culture, understanding all that kind of stuff that I hadn’t before.”
However, Broadway and films failed to prepare Sean for the level of recognition that comes with being an E20 resident.
“I didn’t really know what to expect. The producers do have a conversation with you, ‘This is what’s going to likely happen: You’re going to be recognized’.
“And it does happen. You’re walking down the street, and there’s a huge level of recognition.
Sean’s days of Red Rock.
“Most people call your character’s name. I wasn’t used to that. And it’s not something I’m entirely comfortable with.
“I’m kind of private. I’m shy, introverted. I’m quite contrary to the characters I tend to play so it was certainly an adjustment.
“It certainly took me aback a little bit.
“I wasn’t unfamiliar with the experience. It happened with Red Rock. I would be in bars and people would be telling me to leave Sharon alone and all that kind of thing.
“So I was somewhat familiar with it. But still, it’s never something you get used to.
“But that’s the gig. That’s the job. And it’s all great.”
The story of Philomena Lee and her search for the son that was taken from her in the Roscrea mother and baby home captured the world’s imagination when it was released in 2013. It would go on to be nominated for four Academy Awards.
Sean played Philomena’s son who was born Anthony, had his name changed to Michael Hess and grew up to be a lawyer.
Michael made several trips to Ireland in attempts to find his birth mother while Philomena was also looking for him.
Sadly, they never met as the convent would help neither party by putting them in touch with the other and Michael passed away from AIDS.
Sean speaks warmly of his experiences of meeting both Philomena Lee and the woman playing her, Dame Judi Dench.
“I got to meet the real Philomena Lee, spent time with Dame Judi Dench, I got to spend time with Steve Coogan and Steve Frears. It just felt like, ‘Okay, I’m part of something that’s amazing’.
“Judi Dench asked to see me. I walked on set and we didn’t talk. She just took my hand looked into my face to really absorb who this man was and who her son was.
“Certainly, it’s the one-on-one chats with someone like Judi. It felt like I was really given something.
Sean in The 39 Steps.
“And then I met Philomena. And I sat with her, and she held my hand and she looked into my face and did the same thing in terms of, ‘Who is this guy that’s playing my son?’
“And we just chatted. And it was very special.
“During the whole process, I got to hang out with Philomena Lee and her daughter and just the humanity, the reverence, the beauty that that woman has, the lack of scorn and that she’s worked through all that- That was a beautiful gift to see as well.
“But then it was done and I was just massively grateful.”
Having moved back to New York, Sean almost missed out on the premiere not realising what a big moment he would have been giving up.
“I decided to leave London to move back to New York. I was settling back into New York and I got a phone call saying, ‘Do you want to go to the premiere of the movie in London?’
“And true to form, I gave my usual kind of like, ‘Well, I don’t need to do that’.
“And then my friends were like, ‘Are you out of your effing mind? You have got to fly back and do it’.
“I flew back. The premiere was in Leicester Square and it was jammed.
“But I knew the minute I saw the film, ‘This is going to be something’.”
Silver Mountain Productions is distributing The Edge of Chaos.