From troubled gang member in Love/Hate, to supernatural young offender in Misfits, Robert Sheehan is no stranger to the dark side. Now, as unwilling superhero Klaus in Netflix’s next big thing, The Umbrella Academy, he’s headed for the shadows once again.
It’s a very cold, very wet winter’s day in London, but Robert Sheehan is dressed for the sun. When I arrive at the cosy-cool hotel in Soho for our interview, the Laois actor is lounging barefoot in one of Netflix’s suites, wearing a pair of stretchy orange and black patterned leggings with a thin tank top under a hooded vest. “To be honest, I’ve just come back from the Orient,” he starts to explain, pausing to ruminate on his choice of wording and crack in a theatrical British accent, more for his own amusement than for mine or that of the Netflix PR joining us in the room, “That’s an old-school word — ‘I’ve just come back from the Orient with some silks and spices! Anyway, I’m basically still there in my head,” he shrugs, leaning back in his armchair and crossing his legs on the coffee table between us. “I’m dressed for Bali sunshine and I refuse to give up the ghost.” A week of meditation on the Island of the Gods is a long way from afternoons playing the spoons at school in Portlaoise. The youngest son of former Garda Joe and Maria Sheehan, he landed his first job at age 12 after his mother brought him along to an open audition for Song for a Raggy Boy. Sheehan went on to study film and television at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, until he failed his exams a year in and didn’t return.
Following appearances in RTÉ’s medical drama The Clinic and BBC period show The Tudors, Sheehan’s breakthrough role came in Channel 4’s supernatural dramedy Misfits, in which he played charismatic young offender Nathan. The part earned Sheehan a Bafta nomination and legions of ardent fans, turning him into a global heartthrob — but among Irish viewers, he’s best known as gang member Darren in RTÉ’s crime saga Love/Hate. Since Darren’s infamous exit from the show in 2013, Sheehan has combined work in prestige TV series Fortitude and Genius: Picasso with blockbusters such as Geostorm and Duncan Jones’ neo-noir Netflix film, Mute.
It’s Netflix, again, that prompted his trip to “the Orient” (or, more specifically, Singapore, followed by a holiday in Bali): a promotional tour for his new show, The Umbrella Academy, based on the cult comic book series by Gabriel Ba and Gerard Way, former frontman of US rock band My Chemical Romance.
It’s the story of a group of seven children, adopted by billionaire industrialist Reginald Hargreeves after a bizarre worldwide event sees 47 infants born by women who had previously shown no signs of pregnancy. Hargreeves forms the ‘Umbrella Academy’, a relentless training programme to raise his children as superheroes, but as they reach adolescence, the team starts to splinter. The first episode picks up 17 years later, when the six surviving members, now in their 30s, are brought back together in the wake of Hargreeves’ mysterious death.
The cast includes Ellen Page, Tom Hopper and Mary J Blige, along with a CGI chimpanzee butler voiced by Adam Godley. We meet Sheehan’s character, Klaus, as he’s checking out of rehab for the umpteenth time, and learn that he has the ability to commune with the dead — when his mind’s not addled by drugs, something with which he’s far more preoccupied.
Sheehan admits he’s “not too well-versed in the whole comic book world”, and had never heard of the comics before the show. He’ll occasionally read British graphic novels from the 1970s, such as his current favourite, DC’s Swamp Thing, but says he’s not a big fan of superhero stories. “It sounds slightly ironic to say, but I’m not sure if I’m the best authority on superheroes, because I haven’t seen many of the more recent [movies]. The last one I saw was Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” he says. When I point out that Star Wars doesn’t really count as a superhero film, he scrunches his face trying to recall another example, eventually offering 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and later, Black Panther.
“What’s interesting about the superhero landscape is that it’s kind of mirroring television, oddly. Cinema has become television and television has become cinema,” he muses. “A superhero movie can’t exist without world-building, and that means it becomes episodic, like a TV show. I think we’re at an odd crossroads in terms of cinema, and the superhero landscape is at the epicentre of that crossroads. It’ll be interesting to see if cinema carries on surviving in the traditional sense — I’m not sure if it will.”
It’s an interesting time for superheroes on television, too. Netflix recently cancelled three of its major Marvel series: Luke Cage, Iron Fist and Daredevil, which doesn’t bode well for the remaining shows, Jessica Jones and The Punisher. While the platform doesn’t release official streaming figures, the latest seasons were poorly received, in particular crossover series The Defenders. Some critics have pointed to the upcoming launch of a competing streaming service from Disney, which owns Marvel Entertainment, as a possible reason for the bloodbath, but in any case, it’s not an encouraging time for TV heroes.
Which may be why Sheehan is quick to describe The