“Mindfulness, I think, is the ability to remove the
truth and look at the insanity.
Seán Mahon is an actor and a poet, who has been on Broadway in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer and the revival of The 39 Steps. He was in the 2013 film Philomena and has two films due to be released in 2015. He will also be seen in a PBS special about the assassination attempt on President Garfield in 1888. Currently, Seán is working in a recurring television role for an Irish TV series. Seán lives between Dublin, Ireland, and New York City.
Kim Terrell: Is the artistic expression separate from the rest of your life, or does it weave in and out of all aspects of your life?
Seán Mahon: I don’t see them as separate or compartmentalized. I don’t see life that way. I see it all as experience—all ingredients of life’s soup. When I was much younger, I was interested in looking at my identity as a person, as a creative type, as a businessperson—all those different facets. But as I’ve gotten older, that has changed, and I don’t see life as separate bits. I see it as just one whole composite of many things, creatively and artistically—that includes making the bed, and making coffee. It’s just part of what I am, and part of what I think we all are.
It’s interesting, though, because I hang out with a variety of people: bankers, accountants, computer people. And a lot of our conversation revolves round, “Well, I’m not artistic,” or “I’m not creative.” But I beg to differ. With accountants, even though they play within certain guidelines, they’ve got to be creative in terms of how they do their numbers. Bankers are the same way with their deals. The creative process is part of life! To create is to bring forth something else, right? So it’s not just in the traditional form of how you think about art.
Kim Terrell: You worked in the business world…
Seán Mahon: Yes, and I was very conflicted in the business world. I felt as if I had to leave it, because I was not engaging the creative side of myself. That’s when I was younger.
Kim Terrell: When you defined creativity in a very specific way.
Seán Mahon: Yes. So, I turned my back almost completely on that world and focused entirely on a creative life. But I wasn’t very happy doing this, because it didn’t give me the reward I wanted it to. I thought the creative focus would elicit some kind of response that I didn’t get from my business life, or my family life, or other aspects of my life. But it didn’t, because it can’t. It’s just one more thing. So life for me is not about focusing on one specific area. It’s about completely incorporating all facets of it and being true to what this expression of life is. That’s what creativity is.
Kim Terrell: You said the creative life didn’t meet your expectations… Have you found that you’ve redefined your expectations?
Seán Mahon: It’s hard to be a person and live in this world and not have expectations and not think that something is going to happen if you put a certain amount of effort into it, but I’ve learned to take my expectations with a nice big pinch of salt. I move in the direction of something, but the expectation is that it will work out the way it works out, and not that it’s going to work out a certain way.
Kim Terrell: You’ve been on Broadway twice—in The Seafarer and The 39 Steps. How is the Seán who is sitting here, talking to me today, different from the Seán that did those two shows?
Seán Mahon: Well, it’s baptism by fire, really. Acting is a huge part of my life at the moment, because I’ve been focusing on it so much. I’ve just done a fringe piece show: 2 nights performance, 2 weeks rehearsal period, 3 different short plays, a small black box in an off-Broadway house, 100 people watching. My expectation of it was that I would have fun, and also that I would work really hard at it, and do the best I could do to dig in and enjoy it from the creative discovery perspective. The expectation wasn’t that people would like it or not like it; there’s fallout from that.
The experience I had with the 2 performances in the little black box was wonderful, because I’ve had these other big experiences, and I realize that they don’t give the return you think they are going to give you. So I’m able to look at everything with very adult eyes and not from the excitement of youth. The chronology of the first Broadway show, the second Broadway show, is just that; it’s a chronology, and an evolution of how I see things. At the time, the expectations were that the shows would make me feel better about myself—that they would make me feel different, and that they would give me the pedigree and the caliber to move me to whatever place I thought I needed to get to, in order to be whatever I needed to be. Certainly they had a very positive impact from an outside career perspective; people look at you and they think you have pedigree! They think you’re this and you’re that, and you nod your head and say, “Yes, yes, yes.”
But from the inside looking out, it was difficult. It was emotionally very hard. I had to step into a situation that I was not very comfortable with. There were very high expectations set for us from producers, directors, and other actors. The work schedule, the intensity of performing under those conditions, under a microscope, with such high financial stakes as well… It’s not just about the art, it’s about reviews, and money, and Tony Award nominations, and all that kind of stuff. They all come into the equation.
Kim Terrell: The Seafarer was nominated for four Tony awards?
Seán Mahon: Yes. You try to remove all that aspect from your work when you’re in the room, but it’s always sitting in the back of your head. So, when you have the luxury of being able to do something that’s not affected by all that, or if you are able, at a certain point, to distance yourself from all that, it’s great. But back then, all of it mattered in a big way: nominations, being seen, and being recognized. All of that mattered, and it doesn’t matter to me as much anymore. What does matter is the opportunity to work, to play, to dig in, and to investigate character.
Kim Terrell: To that end, I believe you’re doing some writing.
Seán Mahon: I’m being quite careful about my writing, because I would like it to evolve in its own natural way—which of course it has to, that’s the nature of things. I don’t want to force it or push it, in the way that I pushed acting. Writing, for me, is a very cathartic means of expression, and it is very, very personal. I share it personally and anonymously. In London, I just stand up at anonymous talk-outs and open mics—go up and read my stuff—and no one knows who I am, and then I leave. The minute you start being somebody and attaching a name to it, people have expectations again. It becomes a different thing, and you’re open to criticism.
Kim Terrell: You’re talking about poetry.
Seán Mahon: Yes. My particular form of writing at the moment has taken the form of poetry, or poetic prose, which is all somewhat investigative and analytical about the condition of living, of being human, of having this experience.
Kim Terrell: As opposed to?
Seán Mahon: I don’t write an awful lot about sunsets, or flowers, or the beauty of things from an observational standpoint. It’s very much from an internal curiosity about what it’s all about anyway.
Kim Terrell: What is it that Vince Delaney said? That he’s fascinated with what it is to be human?
Seán Mahon: Yes. I was reading your interview with him, and you were talking about similar types of things. For me, poetry, and even acting, is a way of connecting with the human condition, because in life, I typically tend to either live in a bubble or live on the fringes outside and observe. I don’t engage in a lot of the drama of life; I don’t watch a lot of TV; I don’t get stuck in people’s business, because that doesn’t interest me. I’ll observe that, but when I write, or when I perform, that’s where I connect with the human condition. I can completely reenact those types of things, and that’s a safe environment to explore them from—but not on a daily basis.
Kim Terrell: When you were talking about observing, it sounds like the writer in you is more prone to observation, and the actor too, perhaps. Maybe that is why you stand and watch.
Seán Mahon: It’s more an analysis of the experience and less from the outside observing. I think my life in general is about observation, but when I get into whatever creative process that I have going, it’s about actually getting into what is being observed and processing it.
Kim Terrell: What does “whatever creative process I have going” mean?
Seán Mahon: I think it’s different for different people; my Mom loves to garden; some people like to knit; some people like to make computer apps. I don’t do any of that kind of thing. I’ve learned I don’t need to garden.
So, what’s open to me is this: conversation is creative, discursive. Relationships are creative, because when that energy comes together, something new can be born out of that. Acting has got a lot of buttons now, because it’s so loaded with celebrity, fame, and money, and it being a profession as well takes away from it just being a creative process, a story telling. But I’ve made it a source and form of profession for myself. I walk the line of that.
Kim Terrell: You were born into the Irish culture, where storytelling is huge. Up until maybe 100 or 150 years ago, it was, and still is to a great extent today, oral in its tradition.
Seán Mahon: Music, poetry, writing plays, all of that stuff, very much so. I think it is in the blood, certainly.
Kim Terrell: I think we’re all on journeys, but I think some people recognize that more so than others. Have you always had a sense of being on a journey?
Seán Mahon: Less and less now, to be honest. I think, again, that’s something that has evolved. There was the idea of a journey at the beginning of things, when I was less self-analytical. But now, there is this whole idea we talked about, past, present, and future, and the idea of being present within the evolution of life as it evolves. There is the expression, it’s more about the journey than the place, but what I’m talking about is from a different perspective, that there is no rhyme or reason and no direction to be taken. That just to be with what is, is enough, and to fall into that and give up control. If I were to think I was on a journey, I would feel like I was directing myself in a certain way.
Kim Terrell: So how does that translate into your day-to-day life? For instance, you have an audition tomorrow. Is part of what happens before you go into the audition that you prepare?
Seán Mahon: Completely. That’s what’s happening. It’s not as if I sit in bed and think it’s all going to unfold the way it’s going to unfold. Part of what’s unfolding is me preparing: my involvement, my enthusiasm, getting nervous, and taking care of myself. That’s all part of it, and that’s all without judgment.
Kim Terrell: When you say without judgment… I know there are times when judgment comes into play.
Seán Mahon: That’s all part of it, too. Judgment comes up, fear comes up, anger comes up, and jealousy comes up. Again, that’s all the soup and part of the experience—rather than focusing in on one particular thing and making it more important than anything else.
Kim Terrell: So, when you’re in the process of, for instance, preparing for an audition, the preparation is what’s important?
Seán Mahon: Yes. Getting ready for this live show, there’s rehearsal and a lot of work involved, dialect and movement. There’s so much going on, but it’s all part of the being there without being on a journey at all. All of a sudden, you’re on stage, and there are moments when you’re not observing—you’re actually completely, really there. And that’s where I find the fun of it is, because I can be overly analytical and overly observational, and that can disappear when you’re all of a sudden doing what you’re doing. When that happens on stage, with somebody in some kind of dramatic situation, there’s a huge rush for me out of that—more so than when that happens in real life. I’m uncomfortable around dramatically difficult situations in real life.
Kim Terrell: How does mindfulness play into all of this?
Seán Mahon: Mindfulness is really about observation of the mind, right? As opposed to going down the rabbit hole of the mind’s analysis of trying to understand things, solve problems, understand why we do what we do—that’s what the mind does. Problem solver. Analyzer. It doesn’t mean that you’re completely in control of anything, but you do observe when you’re losing the plot. I observe when I’m being very anxious or nervous, or not engaged, not centered. Mindfulness, I think, is the ability to remove the truth and look at the insanity.
Kim Terrell: So, you say it’s day to day with you. Are you ambling down the path, and are you okay with that?
Seán Mahon: The more I just let it take me, the better. Some days, I’m not successful with that. Some days, I think to myself, I’m driving, I’m in charge and my putting my foot on the gas will get me where I want to go. But I’m not in charge of anything but my own actions. Once I get out of the way, I seem to have experiences where I get to spend time, with great people, and do great things. I get to work on great projects with great directors; I get to write; I get to do wonderful things that don’t seem to have a path towards anything—but they’re great experiences. But I’m not doing the driving.
I did one small film in May, and one day I showed up on the set and just did what I did, made no excuses, and they responded with, “This is fantastic!” The last film I did was in Prague, a movie for PBS, about the assassination attempt on President Garfield in 1888, and I got to play a character I typically don’t get to play, but I hope to play more of as I get older and move into more character roles. He was a belligerent, preening, self-involved, egomaniacal bully…
Kim Terrell: (laughs)
Seán Mahon: He was the senator of New York at the time. That was fun, because that’s not how I exist in the world. But to get to do that and come from that place is very interesting. To access that part of what exists within me. Do that and then leave it alone. What happens a lot, for the good or the bad, with me, as an actor and as a creator, is that once I’ve really investigated and re-delved into a specific character trait, style, emotion, or personality—once I’ve done it to the extent of exhaustion, and I don’t mean physical exhaustion, but taken it to whatever limit within the process, I’m not very interested in doing it again. So, the idea of playing the same role again and again is not so interesting. It’s good to know this about yourself—I think it may somewhat curtail your opportunity to work on a more regular basis.
Kim Terrell: Like on a series.
Seán Mahon: Like on a series, yes, If you’re on there for six or seven years playing the same thing, I’m sure you can find reasons to engage, engage, engage, but my personality would get a little bit….
Kim Terrell: Bored?
Seán Mahon: Yes.
Kim Terrell: So, you’re living your life.
Seán Mahon: I’m living a life. Not even my life, but a life is being lived. Up until relatively recently I was prone to anxiety and depression, but far less so now, because I’ve given up my fixed idea of where I was going, how it should look, and what it should be. That didn’t work and caused anxiety, so I had to stop.
You know, it takes a lot of trust to free fall, to stand on the edge, put your hands out, and just go down and say it’s going to work out. You have to have the wherewithal to be present to all of that and be subject to adjustment, change, criticism, what have you, and have that be part of the creative process, as opposed to taking something personally. There was a time when I would do something, and the director would make an adjustment—rightly so—but I would literally disappear, because I thought I had been criticized.
Kim Terrell: It’s a tough business.
Seán Mahon: Yes, it can be if you take it personally. It’s also indulgent, to be perfectly honest, because it’s really a constant lesson about getting to a place where you’re totally cool with being you. You know? And if you don’t end up where you think you’re going to end up, it’s not because of anything other than that’s just not where things were going. For me, learning about “being me” is so much of what this life experience has been about, even my poetry. Everything I come back to is about self-love, complete acceptance, and being okay with who I am. Not trying to change myself for other people, and not looking to other people to approve of me.
Kim Terrell: Thank you, Seán.
Seán Mahon: Thanks for having me.