Such is the glamorous facade of acting, it can be easy to forget that behind the polished product we see on screen can be a gritty real-life tale of determination and endurance.
Cillian O’Sullivan has, aged 32, secured the biggest role of his career, as rogue CIA agent Chauncey Lew in the Netflix drama ‘In From the Cold’. He’s the mysterious male lead in an international thriller with a camp sense of humor and global appeal, which has all the ingredients to become a hit for the streaming giant. If you like your drama served up with a tasty portion of pulp, this could be your next streaming binge.
Here, boxing fan Cillian describes his fight to become a Netflix leading man, overcoming commitment issues, anxiety, and Covid to excel in this life-changing gig. And he explains how finding a calmer type of self-confidence changed his approach to his work for the better, as he enters the most exciting period of his career.
How was the experience shooting ‘In From the Cold’?
It was an amazing, crazy, and unique experience. We were all in Madrid preparing for a month back in 2020, then three days before we started shooting the pandemic hit. Then almost a year later, in January 2021, we went back to shooting, when we were one of the first major productions to return to work after the lockdown.
Did that delay, and filming amid the pandemic, add to your nerves?
Certainly. This is a huge opportunity for me, playing an American leading man, in regards to me working in America and making a living out of doing what I love. Then when we were about to shoot this thing, it got shut down, so we then had a whole year to think about it. So on the first day of returning to shooting, I was waiting for something to happen, like a PCR test to come up positive, or something to come and shut us down again. But once that nerve-racking first scene was out of the way, and I finally became this character I’d been thinking about for 12 months, I really enjoyed it.
How did you find the year that the project was on pause?
Well, I’d got rid of my apartment in New York because I was supposed to be spending six months in Madrid. So when the pandemic came, I was like, ‘I guess I better go back to Ireland.’ So one minute I had a lead in a Netflix show, and the next I’m back at my parents’ house, back to square one. And I had Covid at the very beginning, the OG strain. So I was sick at home, tucked away, and trying to stay away from my parents so they didn’t catch it. I remember ordering buffalo wings and nachos one day and realizing I had no sense of taste or smell, before that symptom was even on the news. It was scary, and then I started having some post-Covid symptoms, my head wasn’t good at all, and I was definitely dealing with some serious anxiety.
Was the anxiety a direct result of having Covid do you think, as in a medical symptom, as opposed to just due to your uncertain situation?
I don’t know if it was something chemical as a result of Covid, which I had heard was possible, or just the situation I was in. At this point we didn’t know how serious Covid was, we were hearing about young people having heart attacks in New York, 21 year olds having strokes. And I’m at home and my heart is doing weird shit. I was getting heart palpitations, and I’m like, ‘Is it anxiety, or is it Covid?’ But I also wasn’t living properly. I wasn’t eating right, I wasn’t sleeping right, I wasn’t exercising at all, and I was playing a lot of video games. The doctors told me there was nothing wrong with my heart, but they didn’t know enough about Covid to tell me anything else. So I thought, ‘What’s in my control?’ So I went back out running, started meditating again, started putting vegetables and good food into my body, and focusing on getting a good night’s sleep. And a few weeks later, the anxiety had gone. But since getting Covid, the behavior of my heart has definitely changed.
Whether they got Covid or not, I think a lot of people had a similar experience, and that this time in lockdown, away from the rough and tumble of our regular lives, just got us to notice how we were feeling in a way we didn’t before.
Yep, that situation was tailor made to f*** with everybody. We were all glued to our phones already, then the pandemic comes and we’re locked indoors, looking at our phones more than ever, and all it’s showing us are horror stories of what’s going on in the world.
I found it interesting what you said earlier, that all you’re really trying to do is do what you love for a living. That’s true of so many people, in all different lines of work, primarily you just want to do good work so you’re hired again. Tell us about your journey as an actor that has got you to this point, landing the biggest role of your career.
I’ve been a few different versions of an actor, and a person. I started acting very young, and played Tiny Tim in an Off Broadway production in New York, where I was born and lived until I was nine. Then I went back to Ireland, and I didn’t think acting was cool, so I got into boxing instead. But I used to get in trouble in school, and one of the teachers asked my mother, ‘What is he interested in?’ She told them I used to act, so they put me and another troublemaker in the school Christmas play as a punishment. We were so embarrassed to have to do this in front of the school. So we rewrote the play, and we made the students laugh, we made the parents laugh, and that felt pretty good. I joined a weekly drama class after that. I was a very insecure and angry teenager, and all of a sudden I had something I was good at and being rewarded for. But I still didn’t want to work hard at it, I didn’t want to work hard at anything at that time. Next, my grandmother saw in the paper there was a production looking for a 17-year-old scumbag who speaks fluent Irish, which I did, so I went to the open audition and ended up getting that part. From that I got an agent, and I started working more. But even around the age of 24, I was still in a place of not really wanting to commit to anything or work too hard. Then at around 28 years old, I finally started to think about what I wanted out of my life, and I decided I wanted to be as good an actor as I can be, because up until that point, I was definitely not as good as I could be. I did the minimum amount of work, so if I didn’t get the part, I could tell myself it was because I didn’t do the work. It was covering up some kind of weird insecurity. So I then started to work very hard. And about a year later, aged 29, I moved to New York with a backpack and $1000 in my pocket. I didn’t have anywhere to stay, or even a plan, but I knew it was where I needed to be. I did a lot of auditions, and started to develop a different type of confidence. I always had a cockiness about me, especially coming from a boxing background where a lot of my idols were boxers, but that changed into a calmer confidence that was not based on fear, but a genuine belief I had something to offer. I trusted my instincts more, rather than worrying what people were looking for. Then I started working a lot more, getting lots of guest star roles, then got this Netflix show.
That’s an interesting point, that things took a positive turn for you when you started doing what you thought was the best thing to do, as opposed to what you thought other people wanted from you. That could apply to a lot of crafts… Needing to balance what you think the client wants with what you think it should be.
Yep, if I get a character brief, and it says, ‘This man is extremely quiet and mild mannered’, and then I come in f**king screaming every single line, that’s not going to work. It’s always based on what’s on the page. But I used to come at my performances from a point of view of worrying about what they might be looking for, and imagining what they might be seeing. I just stopped doing that, and trusted myself as someone who know what the f*** they are doing.
Tell us a little more about how boxing has shaped you as a person?
I remember my first time in an amateur gym, getting rocked by a guy half my size. He caught me with a left hook, everything was black, and I was hooked. Then I kept coming back, and getting battered, until the batterings weren’t so one-sided anymore. I stepped away from it for a little bit, then I went to an MMA gym aged 24, where I got battered again until I wasn’t getting battered so much anymore. It gave me this combination of true confidence, because I legitimately learned how to defend myself, and it was also humbling, because you get beaten up by people half your size. And you learn about yourself, I would be laughing and joking in there, when things weren’t going so well, and I liked that about myself. I mentioned that in the beginning of my acting career, in my teens, I was a super insecure, angry version of me. Combat sports really helped with that, and some of the healthiest male relationships I’ve had have come from those gyms.
Cheesy question to finish… The leading lady in ‘In From the Cold’ is a single mom with secret super powers. What’s your secret super power?
Self-awareness. I spent a long time knowing that I wasn’t necessarily the person that I wanted to be, or thought that I could be, or the best version of myself. But because I was aware of that, it allowed me to take steps in the right direction.
Grooming by Ric Pipino
Styling by Margrit Jacobsen
‘In From The Cold’ is available to stream on Netflix.