On a misty, rainy day in London, with the crackle of a mild winter in the air, Jason O’Mara was having breakfast at the Palm Court at The Langham, a historic grande dame hotel where the James Bond “Golden Eye” was filmed. Jason was starting his day right, with poached eggs on avocado toast coupled with roast tomatoes, an orange juice and a latte. It was an early Friday morning, and the award-winning actor was radiantly passing through the UK, honoring one of his old fashioned family traditions to spend winter holidays in Dublin and London, a long-standing tradition interrupted for the past two years because of the pandemic.
“It’s been really hard over the last couple of years during the pandemic, not to be able to go back whenever I want,” he began. “I didn’t travel much unless it was for work and absolutely necessary,” he shared, recalling the time last year when he was only boarding a plane to film in Canada his latest psychological thriller Hypnotic, streaming on Netflix, and Departure, which is streaming on Peacock.
This Irish born, award-winning actor debuted on the silver screens of American cinematography throughout a rich opus of work, including The Siege of Jadotville, Life on Mars, Terra Nova, One for the Money, Vegas, Complications, The Good Wife, Sons of Liberty and The Man in The High Castle, just to name a few.
His love for acting, however, started in Dublin with William Shakespeare’s school play The Merchant of Venice where he played Gratiano. Realizing for the first time the power “to change what an audience is thinking or feeling,” the theater spell was cast on him. Jason did The Merchant of Venice for three nights, but once it dawned on him that it was all over, he “wanted to do it again.” He wondered how he could place himself in a situation where he could pursue acting and found himself at this vocational crossroads. At the time, he was playing rugby. “It was hard to balance rugby and theater,” he said. “The sports and the arts are kind of hard things to reconcile.” His full blown love affair with acting was about to take off.
His sporting passion taught him valuable skills for life and for an acting career emerging on the horizon. The impact of rugby showed up in ready-made guideposts useful in getting him through the ups-and-downs of an exhilarating, but uncertain, profession. “When you play a sport, you learn how to lose, you learn how to pick yourself up, and you learn how to put the loss behind and move on,” he shared, going on to say, “and, you know, my life is still– because of my career– full of rejection on a regular basis.”
Moving on to the next goal is how he sailed through life, securing a successful career that spans over two decades in America so far. ”It’s really important as an actor to have goals, whether they’re professional or personal,” he said, adding that focusing on a hobby or another passion makes the life of an actor easier to navigate. At the Santa Monica Rugby Club in California, Jason tried his hand at coaching while his son, David, was on the team, before taking up American football.
While O’Mara was sworn in as an American citizen he remains connected to his Irish roots. “Having a strong sense of where you come from is important, because of the, kind of, gypsy lifestyle and moving around. I really do get itchy feet after a few years. I really want to change the scene. Even though I don’t think I’ll be leaving LA anytime soon, unless it’s for work, I’m quite happy to move from house to house or place to place every four or five years.”
As a result, in 2022, Jason will be spending more time in Ireland, where he took a role in the third season of a TV series, Smother, a BBC/Peacock co-production he will start filming in February.
“It’s lovely to be asked to come and join something that’s already up and running, something that’s quintessentially Irish but not in a cheesy way. It’s very contemporary, a much better reflection of Ireland, I think, than how Americans, for example, see Ireland,” he said brightly. This year in early August, Jason will turn fifty and will be celebrating “back at home with my family,” making good on his promise to see them more as the world emerges from the pandemic. About his forthcoming role in Smother, Jason could not reveal much yet except that the character he will be playing is a “psychologist.”
Hypnotic on Netflix soared to the top-ten trending movies at the time of its release. Jason plays a good looking and intelligent antagonist, Dr. Mead, a character he portrayed so realistically that the viewer is kept on the edge of their seat. “It’s always more fun to play the bad guy,” he revealed. “They’ve always got more going on. Most people repress their id, try to control their dark side. But when you’re playing a sociopath, narcissists, those people are too focused on getting the outcome that’s right for them to care about anything else or for anyone else.” Artistically, it is interesting for an actor to “go there,” he shared.
“It’s almost like loosening your tie, or loosening your belt,” he revealed, going on to say that there’s “something really freeing about playing someone who doesn’t care about consequences, society, or their own moral compass. They just want to achieve their goal. And that’s it. They don’t care what happens on the way. But of course, they’re intelligent.”
The intelligence, single-mindedness, and the obsessiveness in a character is what draws him to complex roles. In Departure, Jason O’Mara plays Max, a protagonist on the run. In a deep life crisis, Max is experiencing moments of anger and confusion and is constantly on a mission to survive. “I like playing characters who are quite singular in their goals, who have a mission. I don’t know what that says about me.”
The common denominator for all his roles to date are strong and complex characters. Jason O’Mara is no stranger to emotional depth.
“Maybe I have another bit of obsessiveness myself, with my work and with life,” he clarified. “I like to focus on certain singular things. I’m not very good at balancing everything. Maybe I am getting better at that. I love being able to focus on work, and not much else. Maybe it’s a form of escape,” he suggested.
—Escape from what? I put the question in front of him.
He paused before responding. “Escape from the mundane,” he said. “For me, work is exciting. It’s like going to a different place. It’s like trying on new clothes or going on a trip. You’re going to be someone else, and you need to figure out who that person is going to be. You want any story you tell to be transporting for the audience, and you want them to forget who they are for a minute and just be transported by the story. For me as an actor, I too want to be transported into that story, into that world and into that character.”
In ABC’s Life on Mars, a fictional crime drama television series that pretty much launched his career in the United States, Jason O’Mara played alongside Harvey Keitel. “He [Keitel] is just one of those incredible actors, who trained at the Actors Studio. He’s from a certain time in New York, from a certain generation.” O’Mara made a special emphasis on “from a certain generation,” to make a point. “He would come to work with anecdotes about Robert De Niro—they are friends— and talk about conversations he’s had with his contemporaries over the years. He would talk about how he helped Quentin Tarantino get Reservoir Dogs off the ground and just, all these incredible stories.” He added, “He’s a very ‘dangerous’ actor. When the camera’s rolling, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know how the scene’s going to end. That’s incredibly exciting,” he said. “When you’re working with someone like that, you don’t know what’s going to happen moment-to-moment. There’s a sense of excitement and unpredictability there. In the moment, so truthful and honest, anything could happen. And Harvey would improvise, dropping F bombs and stuff, which we couldn’t use because it was an ABC network TV show. But he didn’t care. I found his approach to his work really exciting and almost life changing.”
Politics is part of Jason O’Mara’s family heritage. Jason’s great-grand-uncle James O’Mara was an Irish politician who was part of Dáil Éireann, the first independent Irish government. In the 1920s, he went to America with Eamon De Valera on a bond drive to raise money for the new Republic of Ireland. Part of Jason’s family legacy is St. Patrick’s Day. James O’Mara introduced the bill which made Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland in 1903 a national holiday. Whether it is a coincidence or not, Jason and James share the same August 6 birthday.
During the 2020 election in America, Jason O’Mara was very vocal about his politics and the importance of fighting for democracy. Did the role of Wyatt Price, which Jason played in the Amazon TV drama The Man in The High Castle, inform his views on the importance of political resistance, I wondered? “Well, certainly doing The Man In The High Castle highlighted the dangers of fascism, unchecked fascism, and how fascism can rise in society, how it can be given opportunities. When fascism has given sort of half a chance, it can gain steam, and get out of control very quickly,” he said with caution.
Jason’s role in getting people out to vote in 2020 was considerable.
“Voting is important. People have died for the right to vote. Voting should give you the feeling that you have a voice. Making that voice heard is integral to democracy. I just felt like, during that time, I was not a fan of Donald Trump. I thought he turned American politics and democracy into a circus, a laughing stock for four years. It was very dangerous, too. I felt like anything could happen. I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t trust him. He had too much power and he was wielding it like an oligarch. I didn’t like it. It made me feel uneasy. I’m not sure I would have been as vocal in any other election year. But I really wanted that guy gone. I felt the themes in The Man in The High Castle were pertinent for that moment in time,” he said.
Jason O’Mara’s Instagram “Quarantine Diaries,” where he filmed himself on his cellphone during the pandemic, open up in a luxury hotel suite in Toronto. At the beginning, O’Mara is just getting into town to film Departure and needs to go through a mandatory two-week quarantine and not leave the room. From room service to modern art on the walls, everything looks picture perfect against the backdrop of boundless opulence, but then it takes a viewer through the lonely condition of man.
“That year, I spent a month of those 12 months in quarantine because I went over again to Vancouver to do Hypnotic. I did two weeks of quarantine there as well.”
—No diary from Vancouver? I asked.
“I think I probably should have done a diary [in Vancouver as well] because at that time I went way into my own head. It was a lot. You know something’s going wrong when by 12 of 14 days you start to get anxious about leaving the room and going outside. So it goes the opposite way. You think, ‘I can’t wait to be ticking off the days,’ and by day 12 you’re like, ‘I don’t want to go out. I have my routine here. I feel safe here. I don’t want to see anyone or talk to anyone.’ That’s weird. I started to get anxious about going outside, as if an agoraphobia started to set in.”
During the pandemic, Jason became quite interested in the psychology of isolation and quarantine, especially as people have a shared experience of the pandemic. “I’ve been working on writing a script that’s about mental health and isolation and how to reconcile those two things,” he exclusively revealed, adding that the story he is writing takes place on a spaceship.
When, in 2015, Jason lost his stepfather to cancer, he was on a lookout for a charity he could start a relationship with around the worthy cause. He met up with the people in charge of Movember, a leading charity “changing the face of men’s health,” and thought their approach was interesting. Movember encompassed all issues Jason found important for men’s health: prostate cancer, physical exercise, and trying to motivate people to continue efforts to open up a dialogue about mental health, at large. “Men don’t go to the doctor unless they’re sick. As we all know, with cancer, sometimes that can be too late. So it’s about preventative medicine. It’s really about communication. Once men are talking about communication in terms of things going on in their bodies, they also realize it is important to communicate because of things going on in their heads,” he said.
“I’ve always been interested in mental health,” he revealed. “I stopped drinking when I was 22. I have been sober for almost 27 years,” he shared. Jason’s experience in going through his 20s without drinking taught him to “still have a good time” and not be influenced by peer pressure to drink.
“The thing is, men aren’t good at talking about their mental health and making themselves happy,” he said, making it clear that over time he himself got better at opening up and encouraging other men to do so.
“I think I’d be more communicative than your average male,” he declared. That, indeed, is the case. On closer inspection, Jason O’Mara does not seem successful at small talk. He approaches life with deep self-reflection, and makes personal well being his priority. Jason regularly practices meditation and “finds that very useful” against the daily stresses of life.
One of the important aspects of Movember’s work is prevention of sucide. Having had friends who died from suicide, he found it to be a worthy cause. Himself, O’Mara has been through some dark moments of depression and is a believer in therapy. “I can understand how someone could get there. I think the problem with suicide is that you don’t know. Those people tend to be very good at covering it up. That’s why you hear when somebody takes their own life, ‘If only I’d known, if only they told me’,” said O’Mara, pointing that people prone to depression or sucide are very good at covering up their condition and not talking about it.
— What gives you purpose in life? I asked.
“The sort of knee-jerk answer is my son. I adore him,” he said warm heartedly. “We’re very close. We spend a lot of time together. That constantly gives me a sense of purpose,” he revealed. The values he wants to pass on to his son is to “show up” in life. ‘Boot up and suit up,’ he recalled an old English adage. “There’s a basic discipline to that. Showing up and committing to things, having work ethic, bringing something to the table and learning how to collaborate with others. I think these are important qualities.”
Jason O’Mara is privy to a life of fame and riches, but he is not easily swayed. He’s been starstruck only once, when he saw one of the Monty Python guys at a restaurant. “I just think all that stuff is so arbitrary. If someone has seen my work, I’m famous to them. But to someone who hasn’t, I’m just a guy on the street. It’s all about perception,” he said candidly, adding that he never understood how, in America, “some people become like royalty just because other people know who they are.”
Speaking of transient aspects of celebrity status in Hollywood, Jason O’Mara recalled the time when, at a party in LA, he talked to the executive producer at the time of Terra Nova, Steven Spielberg, just the day before FOX decided the fate of its season renewal.
“I asked Spielberg if he thought the show was gonna go again for another season. ‘Yeah, of course, why wouldn’t they?’ he responded. And I just thought, ‘Well,’ and then when I found out the next day that the show had been canceled, I thought, ‘If Steven Spielberg doesn’t know what’s going to happen, then nobody in Hollywood knows what’s going to happen,’ which is an old William Goldman saying – ‘In Hollywood, nobody knows anything.’ That’s true,” O’Mara pointed out. “Nobody knows. If something’s gonna be a hit, if someone’s gonna bomb. Nobody knows where their career is going. Nobody knows what’s going to happen moment to moment. Even more so now during the pandemic.”
—Sounds like Washington DC, I said.
“I think Washington, DC and Hollywood have a lot in common,” he remarked. “When I was in Washington DC, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a bit like Hollywood, everybody’s kind of playing a role.’ I started to wonder, ‘Do they really believe in what they’re saying, or are they just playing a part?’” His question was rhetorical.
As Jason O’Mara stepped out of The Langham, the rain drizzle faded away. The future was looking, to him, just the way he wanted it to be. Exciting. Unexpected. In the moment, so truthful and honest, he knew that anything could happen.