Interview – Tom Vaughan-Lawlor on playing an IRA soldier in BALTIMORE

In 1974, Rose Dugdale, an English heiress turned IRA activist, pulled off one of the largest art heists in the history of the state when she robbed 19 priceless paintings from Russborough House, Wicklow. Her story and how she became an IRA sympathiser is now the subject of a new film, Baltimore, by husband-and-wife team Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, who shot to fame with his breakout role in Love/Hate, stars alongside Imogen Poots as Dominic, an IRA soldier and member of Dugdale’s heist crew. We spoke with Vaughan-Lawlor to find out more.



What drew you to the film?
The biggest draw was Joe and Christine, whose work I admire. They are incredible artists. From watching their work and reading the script, I knew they would do a very different take on a biopic. My character is strange and unusual, which was also a draw; an IRA man was training to be a priest. It’s still a heist film, but it felt like an actor’s performance film, which excited me, and the fact that Imogen was doing it was very exciting.”

Going into the film, you expect it to be a standard heist film, but it’s doesn’t follow the standard formula.
What they’ve done is clever. They have used the heist genre as a jumping-off point to study this woman’s journey from aristocrat to Marxist revolutionary art thief. It’s talking about identity, class, politics, and faith. It’s an offbeat, subversive examination of this person’s life and journey. It has this amazing pace and jumps back and forth between the heist movie and a more pensive drama.

What is the dynamic like when you have two directors?
They are married, know each other so well, and know when to pitch in about different things. They have an amazing sense of humour, so you never feel rushed or pushed despite the tight budget and time. The subject matter was intense and serious, but the shoot felt very relaxed, allowing us to take the time we needed.

There are many pressure cooker scenes, particularly during the robbery. Do you take a break, detach, and go back into it again? Or do you keep shooting and keep that momentum and that intensity?
It depends on the kind of actor you are. As I get older, I like to take a break and have a cup of tea, but I don’t want to lose the momentum of those scenes. During the heist, they come in guns blazing, but some scenes within the house are pensive and quiet. When my character looks at the Beit family and sees, yes, they are lords, but they are also elderly people who are afraid because we’ve come in with guns. At one point, Dominic has a kid at gunpoint. You can have all the experience in the world, but you are still pointing a gun at a child, at a civilian. On one level, even though you don’t think of these people politically as civilians, it is still something that is baked in; Dominic knows this is just a child. I think that’s what the film is doing. It deals with class, identity, ownership, and who has the right to own art. I think it’s a wonderful film.”

It is not your first time playing a Northern Irish character. What was it like getting to grips with the accent again?
Sometimes, you have to be careful about how far you go down the road and the intensity of an accent. You want it to be specific and decipherable. It’s a balance between authenticity and clarity, which is a tricky thing. You want to be as truthful to the sounds of the accent, but on some projects, the producers might point out that it is too strong, say if it is for an American audience. No one will understand what you’re saying if it is too specific. Someone will say I’m glad you’ve got it; you’ve nailed the authenticity, but no one understands you. It’s a balance all the time. It’s about clarity, diction, and pace. You are trying to make sure you’re spinning all those plates and being accurate. You could be doing the best performance in the world, but if no one understands us, there is no point. It is part of your job; finding that balance is a huge responsibility.

An accent is partly muscle memory, so if you play two characters with the same accent – like Dominic in this and your character in Deadshot, how do you get that muscle memory to separate one character from another?
There’s a weird alchemy when a character is well-written. They’ve got a different tempo, a different internal timing. Dominic is very experienced and calm, even when he is pointing a gun at someone, allowing you to place a slightly softer and more sensitive sound. The duality is also quite interesting for me, and that’s where acting is interesting, especially when you highlight contradictions in people. We’re full of contradictions, and it’s about those contradictions that live side by side. That’s why acting is fascinating: all the time, you are like a detective trying to uncover the truth from someone and figure out all their nuances and contradictions. Acting is endlessly fascinating because people are endlessly fascinating and surprising. Thank God for the difference in people. Thank God for uniqueness and individuality.

Are you a researcher, or do you prefer to work with what is presented in the script?
I research, time permitting. I like to research because it bolsters your work on the script and underpins it. All the stuff you bake into your performance in terms of research pops up by osmosis. I know actors who do no research who are amazing and have all the colours required by a part, but I know I need to do as much research as possible as bedrock. It’s a jumping-off point for the performance, something to fall back on. It can be very helpful on set if someone is trying to understand the meaning of something. You can use your research to explain or give insight.

Do you ever get jealous of actors who can land on set without research and pull it off?
I do get jealous sometimes. Also, before a take, certain people are very chatty. Other actors like to be in character or stay away from everyone and be quiet. I would like to be more relaxed on set; I think I’m getting more relaxed. Relaxation affords a certain degree of access. The more relaxed you are, the more open you can be because intensity can lock you in. It’s about finding what’s right for different characters and different projects. It’s exciting; different projects require different skill sets, and you always try to expand your skills.

When you have worked on large-scale projects like the Marvel films, is it hard to return to small projects?
My experience with big-scale Marvel is that when you work with the Russo Brothers, they are still looking for the truth of the scene; they are just operating on a different scale. It’s more epic, but fundamentally, they are looking for the same thing—what’s at stake in the scene? What is the context? What were the previous circumstances? With great directors, the intention is the same, and I’ve been fortunate to experience that.

I presume the trailers are a bit nicer?
It is quite seductive because you are treated very well. All the stuff around it is very different operationally on a big set. With an independent film, you can have a conversation with the director, the DP, or the designer. In a large-scale production, it becomes a bigger conversation with lots of people involved and that can be harder to do time wise or logistical. You’ve got to switch your mindset in terms of what your level of creative contribution will be.

Depending on your experience and politics, Baltimore could be quite polarising. Are you prepared for potential backlash?
Art that causes controversy or debate is a good thing. We don’t want to live in a world where our art is bland and doesn’t ruffle feathers. The purpose of art is to create debate, and what Joe and Christine have done with this film is present a character who acts within a context. They never say she is a villain or a hero; they show a human who made a set of choices. Within her story is a jumping-off point to deal with big topics like art, politics, and identity. Any film that causes debate is a good thing and a job that has been done well.

Words – Cara O’Doherty

BALTIMORE is at Irish cinemas from March 22nd