Lenny Abrahamson : Home Bird Blues vs Hollywood Highs

It’s tempting to glamourise and say I’m meeting director Lenny Abrahamson for a coffee and a chat between award ceremonies. And it is true to an extent. A few nights before this I watched him accepting the BAFTA for best actress on behalf of Bree Larson. In a couple of days he’ll be flying out to LA with Monika, his wife, to attend the Academy Award ceremony. More specifically however, I’m meeting him between dropping his two kids to primary school and a check up at the family dentist. Apparently there are some things your Hollywood-style assistant just can’t do for you.

Director & Screenwriter, Lenny Abrahamson

Director & Screenwriter, Lenny Abrahamson

Three oscar nominations for Room, Abrahamson’s intense but life-affirming film of Emma Donoghue’s book, has certainly propelled him into a high pressure world of offers, meetings, possible projects and, yes, assistants. “You find yourself saying ‘I’ll get my assistant to call you’”, he admits. “And you say it without any irony and without trying to be a twat, because you suddenly go: I simply can’t handle the stuff I’m supposed to do!”

He wears it well, for all the world a relaxed smiling 50-year-old Dublin 6 Dad fresh from the school run. But this Dublin dad is Hollywood hot, and relaxed though he is, you can feel the undercurrent of energy and excitement and get the sense you’ve caught him briefly in mid buzz, and it won’t be long until he pings off again. I suggest that, exciting as it is, his new level of recognition in the industry must be presenting him as much with decisions as choices.

“It is! I suddenly have access to everything. Room is the elusive breakout – there’s room for one or maybe none in the oscar nominations every year. So now I’m on the lists. Basically any good script that’s in Hollywood, I will get to read it. The big dramas, the big books, the huge sweeping epic stuff.” He shakes his heading smiling at the surreal nature of it all. “I open up my laptop in the morning and look at my inbox, and you look at the names and you go: that’s just crazy”.

But while he’s excited by the plethora of potential projects, Abrahamson’s reflective nature is kicking in at the same time. “When everybody opens the doors, do you just walk through the glossiest door with the most glamour and money behind it?”. It’s a new challenge for someone who takes his craft very seriously. “It’s easy to sit in your house, like I was, saying: That’s all bullshit, why would I do it? Nobody was asking you at that point.”

Despite the novelty of the situation, in some ways it seems Abrahamson has been here before: half attracted to a contemplative artistic life and half needing the engagement of actual activity, even if it’s not the perfect thing he seeks. He went to Trinity College Dublin to study Maths initially “because I thought it was the cleverest thing I could attempt”, then switched horses to English and Philosophy. He was very successful academically and was invited to Stanford to pursue [philosophy further, but then decided that wasn’t right either. He returned to Dublin and spent five or six years “trying to write, not really liking anything, feeling really depressed”. Finally he gave up seeking the perfect path through contemplation and started doing commercials. “Crafts-wise it was the minimum I could do to keep things ticking over”.

Abrahamson’s successful collaboration with writer Mark O’Halloran started with Adam and Paul after that. All along it seems he is drawn to push himself in the next level of his film, while never being sure if it’s exactly where he wants to go. Yet he says “I need to keep moving. Otherwise the grey clouds start to gather above my head. So whether it’s right or not, my feeling that I’m not digging into the real stuff, I just let that sit for a while and then started to realise: look, while I’m thinking about this, why am I shying away from just embracing this weird crazy industry that I’m kind of good at?”

Abrahamson thought that before engaging with Film 4 which led to him making Frank, but didn’t dream that the weird crazy industry, and specifically Hollywood would be calling to him quite so vociferously as it is now. He’s about to spend four months in San Francisco working on Chance, a new tv series for the US streaming network Hulu starring Hugh Laurie. Monika and their two children are moving over to San Francisco with him for that period, but he’s not at all sure about a longer term move to the States. Certainly his wife isn’t stopping him:

“Monika is intrepid. She’s completely gung ho. She’d go: the kids’ll be fine, we’ll work it out. We’ve talked about moving to LA, but that’s also a major artistic and career decision.”

Abrahamson is torn between moving straight into making another film, which is ready to go, in the autumn after he finished directing Chance, or trying to take time out and take stock.

“Here’s the thing with me,” he explains “I am simultaneously genuinely drawn to the kind of monkish contemplative life (without the celibacy) and on the other hand, I need to be emotional, I need the stimulation, the human contact. I need the bizarre excitement of it in some ways.”

It’s time for Abrahamson to head for the bizarre excitement of his dental check up so we don’t have time to resolve these conflicts for him. He’s clearly buzzed about dealing with the industry in America, but equally clear that I’m talking to him in his natural habitat in this Dublin 6 café.

“I’m basically a home bird”, he admits. “There’s a reason I never really lived anywhere else but Ireland. I don’t know if it’s a good thing in me or not, but it’s certainly a thing.”

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