Robert Sheehan in Ari Gold's Silver Lake backyard.
Ari Gold and Robert Sheehan in Ari's Silver Lake backyard.
Ari Gold and Robert Sheehan in Ari's Silver Lake backyard.
Ari Gold and Robert Sheehan in Ari's Silver Lake backyard.

Robert Sheehan
& Ari Gold

In conversation with Ari Gold
Edited by Holly Grigg-Spall
Images by Cameron McCool

“I’m much more intrigued to see this film 
than some kind of big budget studio effort, because you’ve got much
more emotional investment in something like this.”
— Robert Sheehan


Robert Sheehan is an Irish actor best known for his television role as Nathan Young in the dramedy Misfits (2009-2013) and Darren in Love/Hate (2010-2013). He also portrayed Simon Lewis in the film adaption of bestselling series The Mortal Instruments (2013) and currently stars in the Peter Jackson-produced film series, Mortal Engines.

American filmmaker, actor and musician Ari Gold created “Helicopter,” (2001) an experimental short film made in the aftermath of his mother’s death. The film won a student Oscar and garnered other festival awards. The Song of Sway Lake, featuring Rory Culkin and Robert Sheehan, is Gold’s second feature premiering at the 2017 Los Angeles Film Festival. Beyond films, Gold is also a member of the bands The Gold Brothers and The Honey Brothers, in which he sings and plays ukelele.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013) stars Lily Collins as Clary Fray, a young girl who discovers her lineage as a warrior against demons. Following the death of her mother, Clary joins forces with other warriors to fight the powers of Downworld, New York City’s alter ego.

Entourage is an HBO American comedy and drama tv series that aired eight seasons from 2004-11. Vince Chase (played by Adam Grenier) is a movie star who has moved with his childhood friends from Queens, New York. Together with Vince’s agent, they navigate the new territory that is Los Angeles. Mark Wahlberg and Stephen Levinson were the executive producers of Entourage and Doug Ellin its director.

Rory Culkin is an American actor from New York. He began his career in acting by playing the younger versions of his brothers, Macaulay and Kieran Culkin. He has starred in You Can Count on Me (2000) and Signs (2002) as well as a number of independent films.

Born in Iowa in 1940, Peil is an American singer and actress. In the 60’s, Peil toured with Boris Goldovsky opera company and the Metropolitan Opera company. She has appeared in major stage roles such as Tennessee Williams’ Summer & Smoke, Kiss Me Kate and The King & I. She has starred in films such as Jersey Girl (1992), The Reagans (2003), and Mirrors (2008) and also in TV roles such as Law & Order and The Good Wife.

Directed by Ari Gold, Adventures of Power (2008) is an American comedy film featuring Gold, Michael McKean, and Jane Lynch. Gold plays Power, a young man from Lode, New Mexico who dreams of taking his air-drumming to the next level. When he is fired from his mining job, he goes in search of an underground air-drumming club and the competition of his life.

Right before making the blockbuster fantasy movie “The Mortal Instruments,” Irish actor and producer Robert Sheehan spent some weeks hanging out with indie writer-director-actor Ari Gold (no, not that Ari Gold – although his name was inspiration for the Entourage character) in a lakeside mansion in upstate New York. The project, The Song of Sway Lake, a drama also starring Rory Culkin and veteran actress Mary Beth Peil, is a follow-up to Gold’s vastly contrasting cult comedy classic about air drumming, “Adventures of Power.”

Here Ari and Robert catch up in Ari’s Silver Lake backyard.

Ari Gold: Hi Robbie.

Robert Sheehan: Hey Ari.

A: I’m interviewing you, but you’re also interviewing me.

R: Well, I’d just like to say for anyone listening that I’ve been brought here against my will. Anything I say is under duress and therefore it should be discounted.

A: It’s only because I promised you that we could do the interview naked. And you’re really disappointed not to be naked.

R: Yes, yes, because I’m a naturist by nature. Naturist or naturalist?

A: Well, I did provide you with a green environment in which to do that.

R: There’s a fair whack of nature here, yeah.

A: So we met doing a film that is currently called “The Song of Sway Lake.” It might be called “The Sway Lake” at the end of the day, or “Sway.” Or it might be called “”

R: “Robbie’s Great Big Bogus Adventure.” Or maybe you said to me “On Sway Lake,” which had a certain cadence to it. You know what I mean?

A: That’s an option too.

R: I suppose you always talked about how you wanted a dreamlike quality for the film. “The Song of Sway Lake” sounds almost like the kind of story that you tell your kids. But it sounds a bit twee as well. You know what I mean?

A: So you want to have something that’s more like “The 9mm Glock on Sway Lake” to give it a more masculine energy.

R: Yes, but just subtlety, you know. That’s all I require. Subtlety. The title sums up the experience of the film perfectly. I wanted to call the film “Loonies” or “Loons,” because there’s this species of birds that lives on the lake named loons.

A: Actually the song in “The Song of Sway Lake” does mention the loon birds. But we were the loons on set.

So yes, the film is about memory, obsession, beauty, youth, and age. Robbie plays a Russian who becomes transfixed by a great American matriarch who represents everything that he wishes he could have and then be.

R: Nicoli, my character, says, “We were born at the wrong time.” He’s got this very romantic idea of this iconic age of America where people wore Brylcreem in their hair and swished around on speedboats and drank scotch. It’s a very romantic idea of the fifties era, really.

A: I think there are a lot of people in this country, but also around the world, who are maybe smelling that America’s greatest hour may have already passed.

R: Yes, it’s like Ancient Rome. You extend yourself too far, and then the edges of the empire start to crumble. That’s exactly the same thing that’s happening with the U.S., I think. They’ve stretched themselves much too far, militarily and all that, with the business. And now they’re crumbling, and the next empire is China. So, you should have Chinese subtitles on this film.

“I don’t think it’s worth telling a story
unless it provides something healing
for people watching it…”
— Ari Gold

A: The nice thing about your take on the character Nicoli is that he is somebody who’s romantic about the past, but also very funny. Within the romance with Charlie, he sees himself as somewhere between a knight and a court jester. He’s coming to serve his queen, he wants to serve his queen. He wants to deliver the dead enemies of the queen to her doorstep. He’s confused ultimately about romantic love in the traditional medieval sense where the great knight would express devotion to the queen, but not necessarily fuck the queen. He’s confused about that difference, I think. Do you think you’re confused about that difference too?

R: Yes, constantly.

A: I think you’re a romantic and you’re a court jester, all at once.

R: Yes, that’s true. I think with Nicoli, he has this libidinous desire, this constant libidinous thing. Almost like the sense of responsibility to fuck.

A: Not something you can relate to at all, then.

R: Never. No, no, no. I’m deeply monogamous as a human being. I think there’s that kind of instinct to Nicoli though. He has to be that kind of alpha male. But then there’s still this kind of love of the romantic age that he’s expressing in his loyalty towards Charlie in the script.

A: You think there’s any kinship between you being Irish and Nicoli being this Russian character who has that sense of honor whilst at the same time a total recklessness?

R: I’d say there are a lot of similarities in the sense that the first few times that you come to America, you realize what people mean when they say “a European sensitivity,” or “a European temperament.” I suppose European-ness is not something I considered until I left Europe. If you’re from Europe your cultural identity goes way, way, way back and it’s drenched in history, and it’s drenched in war, and it’s drenched in religion, and all that shit. So yes, there’s a similar sensibility in that regard. Both nations are ridiculously kind of patriotic and stuff.

I was quite surprised because I got sent the script, and then Ari sent me a nice letter saying, “I’d love you to come and play this part.” At first I did think that you were a lunatic, because you were asking an Irish guy to play a Russian guy in a movie in America. It seemed quite, let’s say, stretched and imaginative casting. Hopefully it worked out!

A: I was looking for somebody who had a sparkle. The character is inspired by somebody that I know who has this mixture of extreme romanticism and destructiveness with humor. That was the most important thing to find, and you have that.

R: The guy you are talking about, he also has an incredible knowledge of Russian military vehicles throughout history. We met in Brooklyn recently and he goes, “Yes! The F496P, which is a fighter jet from 1976, looks like a mosquito. You know this? You know this?” to me. I sat there just kind of going, “Who the fuck do you think I am?” But yeah, he’s one of the most interesting individuals I’ve ever met. And it was a shame, because before we made the film, I’d only talked to him on Skype. We’d talked a fair whack, but I only actually met him recently.

A: I remember sending him some of the rushes and he was really impressed that you had picked up his rhythm and were convincing. Some people who don’t know this kind of over-the-top Russian might think it’s an exaggeration, but it’s not an exaggeration at all.

R: No, no. He is incredible.

A: But you’re now an internationalist, not just playing a Russian in America, but you also just co-produced a movie in India, so I’ve heard.

R: Let me elaborate. Two years ago these guys came to me and said, “Would you like to be in this film? We haven’t written the script yet, but we have written the treatment.” It’s based on a section of a novel that was written in the nineties. And the section of the novel is mainly set in India, with a little bit in the U.K. It’s about these two boys who have to run from their homes because they’ve gotten themselves in all sorts of trouble.

Before I met them, I thought that the producers were going to be like eighteen or nineteen-year-old fledglings just trying to get something off the ground. And I thought, yeah, I’ll go along to the meeting and I might learn something about producing, though I’m not going to hold out much hope. And then I got there, and they were quite well-seasoned producers who had thought that they would get an actor who they wanted to help birth the script and have him help to cast and help to come up with the film from grassroots level. So me and the director and a couple of writers, we all kind of co-wrote this script together.

So it’s been quite a gratifying experience, because it actually came off. We got to go and make the film in India for four weeks. Now it’s in the edit. Now it’s the producer bit for me where the first cut is kind of ready or nearing readiness. I have to go in, and watch it as objectively as possible. But that’s impossible. Especially if you’re an actor and a show off and somewhat self-obsessed. You can’t watch a film objectively that you’re in, because you’re just watching yourself and constantly thinking, “Is that alright?”

A: Yes, there was a scene when we were doing our film and it was one of the few times you kind of snapped at me on set. It was when I had set up the camera in such a way that it wasn’t focused on you, it was on the back of your head.

R: Oh, anyway… So tell us this Ari Gold, tell us this. Two-pronged question. First of all, why do you make films? Why is this the thing that you’ve decided to dedicate yourself to? And secondly, why this film? The subject matter is incredibly niche and specific.

“There was one morning I woke up on the dock spooning someone…I woke up just half-naked…Not sure how we got there.”
— Robert Sheehan

A: I make films because, for me, it’s the closest form of storytelling that allows you to go into a dream space. I’ve been trying to figure out why I haven’t tried to get into television. I don’t know, but it’s something about the lights going down. In the traditional way of watching movies, the lights go down, and you go into this dream space.

The stories that I want to tell, although on the surface they’re not necessarily advertizing their spirituality, I do think that there’s an opportunity there, with movies, to go into the way storytelling, going back all the way through human history, back to when tribal gatherings were around the firelight, where someone is telling a story that is healing in some way. I think when a movie is done right it can, in unconscious ways, provide some kind of healing to the people who watch it.

And this story is very specific, but any good story, I think, is very specific to what it is and yet it touches on something universal. The movie is about three characters on the lake going through this strange dance with each other. But on a deeper level, all of them are connecting with the water. The water represents life, and sex, and fun, and summer. And in the winter it represents death. And when I say represents, the movie starts with someone committing suicide on the ice. By engaging with the water, these people are trying to reengage with life itself.

So I can’t say that there’s a message exactly to the film, except I don’t think it’s worth telling a story unless it provides something healing for people watching it. And maybe I’m traditionalist in that sense, but I do think there’s a responsibility as a storyteller to imagine that you’re with your tribe and you have their attention for an hour and a half and the fire is glowing and you want to give them the right kind of dream so that the next day they feel better and they’re better people.

Each of the three main characters has a language of dreams. Your character has dreams. Charlie, the grandmother has dreams. And Oli, your friend and the grandson, has dreams. And they all have the different flavor, but each is based on their relationship to the water.

You’re above the water dreaming of the past, dreaming of the beauty that might have floated on the water – the beautiful young Charlie floating on the water. Charlie is in the water, dreaming of her skinny dipping with her husband when she was eighteen. And Oli’s dreaming of the ice because that’s where her father’s died. All three of you are processing your struggle to feel in the present, through the way you relate to the water.

Directed by Kelly Reichardt and written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond, Night Moves (2013) stars Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard as three activists who scheme to blow up a hydroelectric dam.

Reichardt is an American screenwriter and director from Florida who studied film at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She debuted her first film River of Grass in 1994 and is known for her films Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008). Her film Night Moves debuted at the 70th Venice International Film Festival in 2013. Currently, Reichardt is the Artist-in-Residence at Bard College’s Film and Electronics program.

So maybe “On Sway Lake” is how you see the title because your character is on the surface of the lake, “In Sway Lake” would be Charlie, and “Under Sway Lake” would be Oli.

R: “Under Sway Lake”? “Under Sway Lake” is good.

A: But it starts with a U. Really we want something that starts with an A, because when movie listings come up, they’re alphabetical. So I was thinking we should call it “Aardvark Lake.” It would be first on the list.

R: Call it “Abacus, Advantageous Lake.”

Well this is profundity that I wasn’t aware of.

A: Subconsciously, you will be aware. It’s all about how you feel the day after you see a movie. For me, my favorite movie experience is when I go to a movie by myself. I don’t have to engage with anybody, except with other people in the audience… and then you check in with yourself the next day and see what shifted.

R: Yes, I saw a movie recently in Belgium. I went on my own. I enjoyed some of it, didn’t enjoy part of it. And then spent the next couple of days thinking about it. It was called “Night Moves,” from Kelly Reichardt.

A: So what’s next for you Robert? Any big plans?

Directed by Antoine Bardou-Jacquet, “Moonwalkers” began production in Belgium in May 2014. Set in 1969, Ron Perlman plays CIA agent Tom Kidman, on a mission to find Stanley Kubrick and ask him to film a fake moon landing in case the Apollo landing fails. Instead he runs into Jonny (Rupert Grint), the manager of a sleazy rock band. Although they are each other’s worst nightmares, the two must work together to accomplish the biggest scam of their time.

Known for his part in the Hollywood New Wave movement, Kubrick (1928-1999) was a renowned American director who worked primarily in London. Kubrick’s filmography spanned a vast variety of genres. Noted films include Lolita (1962), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and The Shining (1980).

R: Well, there’s a few bits and bobs. This film that I’ve been doing for the last five weeks in Belgium is called “Moonwalkers.” It’s about the CIA, who send a specialist operative to London to find Stanley Kubrick in the sixties to persuade him to film a fake moon landing, because the Apollo 11 is on its way to the moon and they’re not sure whether or not the transmission will work so they need to film a back up.

And, then, this CIA guy is having a nervous breakdown at the time because he has just come from Vietnam. And so he gets conned by this kind of wheeler-dealer bad guy who gets the budget money off him.

So it’s this kind of madcap comedy. I’m the guy who pretends to be Stanley Kubrick so I can get the money off of the CIA agent.

A: Did you go to the Stanley Kubrick exhibit at the LACMA?

Written and Directed by Gren Wells, The Road Within (2014) stars Robert Sheehan as Vincent, a young man with Tourette’s syndrome. Together with his OCD roommate Robert (Robert Patrick) and anorexic Marie (Zoe Kravitz), Vincent breaks out the residential home where they live and goes on a journey to deliver his mother’s ashes to the ocean.

R: I went last year. I went because I was rehearsing for this other film where I played a guy with Tourette syndrome, a film called “The Road Within,” which is the reason I’m in L.A., because it was opening at the L.A. Film Festival. So the director and I went to LACMA, to the exhibition, so I could have Tourette syndrome in public, so I could tick in public.

A: You got to see what it felt like.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) was an American photographer from Queens, New York. He is famous for his large, stylized, black and white photographs. Subjects included self-portraits, nudes and still lifes. Mapplethorpe was especially well-known in the late 60’s and early 70’s for his homoerotic work and controversial sadomasochistic and bondage scenes.

R: Yes, yes. And upstairs, there was a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition of all of these kind of soft focused, black and white images of like men with fists up other men’s asses. And in the middle of that, I was doing all the ticking. I was going, “Fuck!” People just thought I was having an adverse reaction to the pornography.

What about you? You’ve been editing this movie for the last ten years now… (laughs)

A: You know, I’m a perfectionist. But yes, the light is at the end of the tunnel. And I’m writing two other things right now. One is set in the future – I wouldn’t exactly call it sci-fi, but it’s more what might happen two weeks from now if society were to fall apart. Things are still hanging on by a thread.

R: So, when I joined the team, the old Sway Lake team – basically, I flew to New York, got driven six-and-a-half hours from New York City up to this lovely mansion house on a lake, in the middle of nowhere. And me and you had only ever spoken on Skype, and we’d spoken quite a bit on Skype. I’d seen some of Ari’s directorial methods coming through.

A: Such as? Yes, tell me?

Leigh is an English writer and director for film and stage. His career as a theatre director and playwright began in the mid-60’s, and soon he was working within in both theatre and BBC films. Critic Michael Coveney describes Leigh’s work best as comprising “a distinctive, homogenous body of work which stands comparison with anyone’s in the British theatre and cinema over the same period.” His most greater-known works include Secrets & Lies (1996), Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), and Vera Drake (2004).

R: You were trying to find out, I suppose in a Mike Leigh way, about your actors, in a personal fashion.

A: Was I getting too personal?

R: Family life and stuff. You’d ask, “What in your life can you equate to this scene?”

We did like a week of rehearsal and, in that week, I think me and Mary Beth Peil, who plays Charlie, kept saying to you, “We don’t have to associate real events in our life with things that happen in the script. We’ve just got to rehearse the scenes to make them feel good.”

But it was good because it was like a learning process, we were all just in the wilderness together.

A: It’s a two-way street. We went for a long swim from one location to another location where we talked about our families.

R: We were swimming on the lake, essentially from one side of it to the other, and having a chat at the same time, which is not an easy task, to be honest with you. And about halfway across I did feel sense of panic. I’m like, “Right! I’m not talking anymore, I have to concentrate on swimming.” Because you know, had I failed, you would have had to drag me to the edge. It was no easy task.

“What’s interesting is that you would joke that it was your “practice movie,” because you were about to go shoot a movie that actually had a budget, The Mortal Instruments.”
— Ari Gold

It was mad, because we would work 6 days a week. And then we got one day off. And so on the Saturday night before our Sunday off, we’d all just go mad and in the wilderness together, get pissed drunk.

There was one morning I woke up on the dock spooning someone. And there were this kind of epic fog that descended right across over the lake. And I woke up just half-naked on the dock. Not sure how we got there.

A: What’s interesting is that you would joke that it was your “practice movie,” because you were about to go shoot a movie that actually had a budget, “Mortal Instruments.” We actually had to start six days earlier then we intended to because you were going to go off and shoot that movie. The practice movie got shoved into a new position, so we scrambled to try to get the shoot going so that we could finish in time to release you to your multi-million dollar extravaganza.

R: Oh! And we’ve all seen the benefits of that, haven’t we? We’ve all seen the benefits. Oh God! I’m the new… I’ll tell you…I’m the new…

A: The new Robert Pattinson.

R: Yeah, my profile rocketed after that baby came out. I’ll tell you that.

A: I would love to hear about working with someone like Rory Culkin, who is so different from you in himself and as his character.

R: It was interesting because of our wildly different energies, myself and Rory. Rory has a very intriguing, very engaging shyness that just emanates from. I think people find Rory very intriguing because, I suppose to some extent, he offers just bits and bobs here and there, insights into the world and to his reality. And so people have the tendency to bridge the gap, but they bridge it in very exaggerated ways. So there’s a certain kind of mythology that he’s inadvertently created for himself.

Best friends do tend to be chalk and cheese. At first it was trying, to be honest with you, it was a bit trying because my character was always wanting more from him, even though he was just being, which was lovely. I was probably over-compensating because I was like, “You know come on! We should both be high energy!” You know?

A: You have a guy, this depressed kid whose father has just committed suicide and is naturally shy gravitating towards someone who’s like a wild lion. And the wild lion is constantly saying, “Get up! Get up! Get up!”

R: It was lovely to let that whole relationship breathe. Then all the stuff with Mary Beth, who plays Rory’s character’s grandmother Charlie. She’s like this icon of a different age. She’s this very authoritative, matriarchal figure. With her scenes it was just like doing a play.

A: That was a really great thing for me – to be able to just set the camera and let it run. It’s such a pleasure as a director when you spend so much time preparing something and then you get to this point and you can be just hands off, you get to watch it. And that last scene where you guys danced together…

R: That’s one of my fondest fucking memories.

A: The whole crew was totally transfixed and felt like we weren’t meant to be there. It was like a private moment between you and Mary Beth. And that scene, we would let it run for like four or five minutes, the conversation and in the dance.

“You can’t watch a film objectively that you’re in, because you’re just watching yourself and constantly thinking, “Is that alright?”
— Robert Sheehan

R: She took me by the hand, and she just led me into that scene. I was like a child and I just completely went with it. It’s a testament to her, she completely takes the lead in that scene. And it was beautiful, it was beautiful. I think at one point I’m crying. That was completely natural, I just burst into tears. I got reduced to an infant.

I was reading an interview with Irish actor Cillian Murphy and he said, “The great thing about theatre is that if in a run of doing a play for, say, three months, you get just a handful of moments where you’ve utterly transcend time, space, everything… despite the fact that it’s a contrived experience, where there’s an audience and a stage…if you as an actor can completely forget about all that stuff and just be in the ether of the moment, then it’s worth it. That’s worth twenty years of practice.” And I kind of feel that that scene was one of those moments.

A: It felt like it, from the outside watching and filming it, it felt like both of you went somewhere else. You went into the life force, you went into the water as it were. Even though that scene wasn’t on the water, it felt like you touched the life force. And that’s beautiful.

R: And bear in mind, we’re talking about this, but this was two years ago, wasn’t it?
It feels like longer because of course, we’ve gone away, we’ve done different stuff. Whole life shit has happened in the mean time. I’m so fucking intrigued to see this film from start to finish with all the bells and whistles in place.

And you know, the thing is, I called it the “practice film” because after I went off to do the studio film. But a film like this, I’m much more intrigued to see this film than some kind of big budget studio effort, because you’ve got much more emotional investment in something like this.

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