John Byrne talks to Cillian O’Sullivan, the Cork actor who’s landed a lead role in new Netflix spy series, In From the Cold.
The greatest thing about my job is that I get to interview some amazing people. I get to Google them as well, but sure anyone can do that.
I also occasionally get to meet the odd person I wish I hadn’t met, but every now and then there’s someone who makes a huge, positive impression, even after the briefest of encounters. That’s when my job becomes a joy.
Within seconds of sharing hellos with Cillian O’Sullivan, it’s obvious that he’s a lovely bloke. No Hollywood bull – no bull at all. Just a regular guy happy to be doing what’s he’s doing, who he’s doing it with, and where.
If you get those three things right, you really are living The Life.
Despite a false start (my fault) to the interview, Cillian remains chirpy and chatty in that confident Cork way. And why wouldn’t he be a compendium of 'c’ words? His career’s enjoying a seriously upward curve.
Previously, Cillian is probably best known for his series regular role as Conor Martin in the BBC series 6Degrees, which follows six Irish university students as they move from youth to adulthood.
He’s had a recurring role in US TV show The Blacklist, as well as making guest star appearances in the likes of Vikings, Bull, Chicago PD, and FBI’s Most Wanted. But now he’s got a major role in a new Netflix drama series, In From the Cold.
He's no stranger to the stage either. But suddenly, everything’s gone up a couple of notches.
Created by Adam Glass (whose wide-ranging CV includes TV shows such as Supernatural and writing Marvel Comics’ Deadpool), who also acts as showrunner and exec-producer, In From the Cold sees Cillian O’Sullivan play CIA agent, Chauncey Lew.
There’s a familiarity to Cillian’s response when I ask how he landed such a prominent role.
"Like everything else, I auditioned for the part, and then forgot about it," he admits, summing up the life for the vast majority of actors outside of the absolute A-listers.
But this time was different. This time was true. And the news came right out of the blue.
Cillian recalls: "About a week later, I was in NBC Studios auditioning for something else when my agent called me and said that I had got the part. And I said: 'What?' Great news, obviously. You just don’t know whether or when the parts will come your way."
And so, to the show. Cultivating a beard - more of that in a moment - for the role, Cillian lays down a career marker as a CIA agent who may or may not be what he seems.
"It’s pretty obvious from early on Chauncey Lew’s not a regular CIA operative. That he’s more a rogue agent – but there’s so much more to him and to the story," he insists. He’s also keen to praise his co-star Margarita Levieva.
"She’s great," he says. "She’s got a real dynamic role as a single mother called Jenny, who Chauncey knows is a former Russian spy called Whisper, who developed special abilities. But she turned her back on that world to lead a normal life. Now Chauncey has to convince her to get back in the game and take on some really bad guys."
As for the beard, it’s very impressive, with not a strand of hair out of place. A right Captain Haddock job. Cillian refuses to accept the credit when I point out its aesthetic qualities. Imagine a man not boasting about his beard?
"Chancey is very well-dressed and the beard looks great," he agrees, "but I can’t claim credit for any of that. None of that’s me. Wardrobe did a great job of making me look good, while the beard was a work of art that was cultivated over a couple of months. It’s real, but they did all the hard work making it look right."
Cillian’s now in that twilight period, where you’ve filmed everything, it’s all been edited and completed, but it’s yet to air. So you don’t how it’s going to go down or effect your career.
Will viewers like it? Will viewers like it in significant numbers? Will the critics pan or praise it? Will your performances go down well? Will your agent ever call again? It’s impossible to second guess how the show will go down. All you can do is wait and see.
"It is a weird feeling," he admits. "I don’t know how it’s going to be received, but I do know that we put a hell of a lot of work into it. And I’m proud of what we’ve come up with. I think that’s the only way to look at it, really."
When I tell him that I found In From the Cold as quite ‘moreish’ he reacts as though I’ve sworn at him in Swahili. "What did you say there John?" I explain, and he responds with a tongue-in-cheek remark: "I’ve been living in the United States for far too long."
Thing is, the good oul’ USA really is a home from home for Cillian O’Sullivan. It's also the first one he ever had. "I was born in New York," he recalls, "and the family moved back to Cork when I was nine. I grew up there, and was very happy there until I decided to return to New York and give that a go."
Acting jobs aren’t exactly easy to come by in Cork - or Dublin for that matter - so necessity was the mother of his reinvention as Cillian headed back to the land of his birth to further his career. Or earn a living, to use a more realistic phrase.
"The simple fact is that the acting work is on either side of the United States," he says. "Los Angeles is largely where film and TV work is, while if you’re looking for stage work, then New York is the place."
So, I says to him with no evidence other than his obvious trajectory from stage to small screen, you decided to leave the stage and New York behind, and head to the West Coast to get work, such as he found in Netflix’s In From the Cold?
"Eh, that’s not it at all," he informs me, denying that his path to Netflix drama is part of some master plan of his making. "The only reasons I left New York for Los Angeles were for the weather, and the fact that I’ve loads of mates out here."
What? You mean you didn’t leave New York on a Greyhound bus with nothing but a suitcase full of dreams to head off across the country, seeking fame and fortune in Hollywood? The romantic in me feels wounded.
"It wasn’t like that for me," he insists. "You can see that there’s loads of people who do head out there on their own and end up doing whatever, and it can be very lonely. But I knew plenty of people, so my experience is quite the opposite."
So neither eking out an existence while living in a rented cardboard box, nor hosting lavish parties up on the Hollywood hills, Cillian’s pretty much living as he would in Cork. "Without the rain," he emphasizes. "I don’t miss the rain. It’s great here. Coming from Ireland and every day is full of sunshine. It just makes life easier.
"There’s nothing I like better than meeting up with a few friends from home," he adds. "It’s very far removed from the cliches about Hollywood lifestyles. I just don’t mix in those kind of circles."
Well, not yet.
In From the Cold is on Netflix from January 28