FROM a “not terribly nice” terrorist chasing Liam Neeson’s brooding assassin in upcoming Netflix film, In the Land of Saints and Sinners, to avaricious kidnapper in 2015 short, The Captors, Seamus O’Hara is familiar with playing shady characters on screen.
The versatile Newry actor, who has appeared in everything from Games of Thrones to Hope Street and Line of Duty, is next up in Kabosh Theatre’s Silent Trade, this time playing a “curious stranger” – and undercover cop – in the production which aims to shine a light on modern slavery in Northern Ireland.
With “pretty heavy” themes, disturbing “grey areas” and sometimes questionable ‘good guys’, the actor - most recently seen as Turlough in the Oscar-nominated and Bafta-winning An Irish Goodbye – says the play has never been more timely.
“This is an important issue. Last year there was a huge police operation when several brothels were raided across in Northern Ireland,” he says, “so this is pertinent – it’s a timely production.
"I have played a few characters in my time who aren’t necessarily good guys and it’s difficult on one hand because you have to stand up and look somebody in the eye and tell them these terrible things, but I approach it the same way I would any other character – you speak that person’s truth and let the writer do the work.”
In this case, it is playwright Rosemary Jenkinson who exposes the human misery lurking in leafy Belfast suburbs. As part of her research, she spoke to members of the Nigerian community with knowledge of human trafficking, using those conversations to inform the fictionalised story of ‘Precious’, a young Nigerian woman – played by Nigerian-born Lizzy Akinbami in her first stage role – who is forced to work as a domestic servant for an affluent family and who later ends up in a brothel.
Playing alongside actors James Doran and Louise Parker, O'Hara plays undercover cop, Niall, who “on paper” is a good cop, trying to rescue Precious and “bust the ring”, but who shows how “liberties can be taken” and how boundaries can often be muddied.
Subject matter aside, there are still moments of levity in the script asserts the actor who is hoping audiences will be “spurred into action” by what they see and hear on stage.
“It’s not about shoving a message down your throat, but more about provoking action,” he stresses. “I think Kabosh and Paula [McFetridge], the director, want people to come away not just feeling thoughtful about this or being more informed, but being ready to be spurred into action, by being more vocal or campaigning in some way.”
He was speaking ahead of packing up his “lovely new suit” for two major awards ceremonies – the Baftas in London and the Oscars in Los Angeles – after low-budget Northern Ireland film, An Irish Goodbye was nominated for Best British Short Film and Best Live Action Short Film respectively.
Written and directed by Tom Berkerley and Ross White – and produced with the help of Northern Ireland Screen – the story is set on a farm in rural Northern Ireland and follows the lives of estranged brothers Turlough (O’Hara) and Lorcan (James Martin) who reunite following the untimely death of their mother who left behind a 'bucket list' of dreams - which her sons attempt to fulfil on her behalf.
“I just fell in love with the film instantly – it has so much charm and I knew when we had finished it that we had done something special,” enthuses the actor who is married to casting director Mary Ellen O'Hara with whom he has a son, Henry (6) and daughter, Eileen (3).
“James [Martin], who plays my brother, Lorcan, who has Down’s syndrome, is really phenomenal in it. After I watched the first screening, I thought his performance was so strong and so beautiful and so moving that I genuinely felt, in that moment, that he was pushing boundaries for performers with a learning disability.”
Brought up in Cushendun as part of a “literary family” – his mother was “constantly reading books”, while his father, an English teacher, wrote the first film course for Queen’s University and is now a professional storyteller – O'Hara was “painfully shy” as a child, not speaking until he was three and later developing anxiety which plagued him into adulthood.
“I would describe myself as someone who still suffers from anxiety and depression, but it’s manageable and not as scary as it was,” reveals the Queen's drama graduate – who fittingly landing his first acting job with BBC Northern Ireland drama, 6 Degrees about a group of university students living in Belfast.
“Acting for me was always just about the joy of telling stories – that exquisite temporary pretence of being someone else – and it remains the best kind of therapy. It’s like a superpower and the greatest gift I’ve been given to deal with my feelings.
“Back then, though, becoming a professional actor seemed such a ludicrous concept to me, but, luckily, when I came out of Queen’s, Game of Thrones had just come into town, so I stepped into the industry just as it was being built here.
"I was lucky to get on the final season, getting a nice little feature part – a character called Fergus – which I was delighted with. It felt like good timing because the received wisdom at the time was that you had to go to London and train and then just exist until someone noticed you.”
He counts it “a small miracle and huge privilege” to have been employed on a steady basis since, acting in television shows such as My Mother and Other Strangers and on stage with Ciaran Hinds in the National Theatre, London, for Brian Friel’s Translations.
More recently, he reprised his role of Manus – one of his all-time favourite parts – at the Abbey in Dublin, standing in for Marty Rea who came down with Covid during the play’s 2022 co-production with the Lyric in Belfast.
Away from the stage, recent film work has included Viking revenge thriller The Northman, alongside Nicole Kidman and Willem Dafoe, horror film, Mandrake, and In The Land of Saints and Sinners with Liam Neeson and Kerry Condon which was shot in Donegal.
“Being on a film set is fascinating because everyone is so driven and so talented and so determined to make it the absolute best thing they’ve ever done,” he adds.
“ It makes it a really fertile ground for growth and learning, but my passion will always be for live theatre because you get a much more intimate experience with the text, with the director and with cast and crew – and that’s how I like to work.”
“It means, as an actor, your sense of ownership over the material is profound – and that’s when magic happens. There is no feeling in the world like stepping out on a stage and genuinely not knowing what is going to happen.”
:: Silent Trade premieres at the Lyric Theatre on February 22, running until February 26, before going on the road to the Old Courthouse in Antrim (February 28), the Market Place Theatre, Armagh, (March 3), Dundalk Institute of Technology (March 4) and Ranfurly House, Dungannon (March 5). Tickets and info via kabosh.net/production/silent-trade