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The young Antrim hurler who chased his dream and landed a place at the New York actors' studio that nurtured Brando and De Niro

GAA player Shane McNaughton on why he turned his back on sport to pursue a career on stage and screen... and how he nearly ran away when the curtain rose on his first big play

By Declan Bogue

For some time now he's been living a double life. The hurler with the acting problem. The actor held back by the routine and regime of hurling; having to be there at that time, to do that drill, eat that grilled chicken, get to bed by that hour.

Now, Cushendall man Shane McNaughton has burned the boats.

Two weeks ago his old friend and fellow hurler Neil McManus dropped him off at the Europa Bus Centre in Belfast and he boarded a coach to Dublin to catch a plane. Next stop: LaGuardia Airport.

It's going to be a new life among the grime and glamour of New York as he enrols with the Stella Adler Studio of Acting on the West Side.

Alumni include Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando and Harvey Keitel. It's a big deal. And it represents a quantum leap in his own mind.

Previously he held a healthy scepticism about his abilities as an actor, despite never failing an audition and picking up roles in theatre plays and even a fleeting appearance in The Fall television drama series starring Jamie Dornan and Gillian Anderson.

But Stella Adler, with its auditioning process in the major cities of the world, is a paradigm shift. So when McNaughton was accepted from among thousands of candidates, it nudged him onto a novel, interesting and ballsy path of life.

Chris O'Dowd's dalliance as the Roscommon minor goalkeeper aside, it's hard to think of many examples of GAA players pursuing the insecure and challenging world of acting. There is not so much an oil and water relationship at play here, but rather that both crafts require total immersion.

This new direction in life might not have come about but for a debilitating hip injury that destroyed his hurling season in 2014.

He might have been in some school plays, but his college of St Aloysius in Cushendall was chosen because it had the best hurling team in the area. There was no drama department.

Nevertheless, he grew up on a diet of John Wayne westerns favoured by his father, current Antrim hurling manager Terence 'Sambo' McNaughton, along with classics such as Robert Redford's The Natural. Acting was something he craved from a distance.

"I just had more free time on my hands in 2014," he explained.

"I wasn't going to training, so I went to some classes. I can't sit still."

He attended the Crescent Arts Theatre, began auditioning for plays, and landed the part of an Oxford student from Fermanagh (he refuses to recite the accent for the amusement of this writer) in Gareth Russell's Say You'll Remember Me in September 2015.

When the curtain came up he experienced his fight or flight moment and knew he had the actor's in-built insecurity.

"At one stage I was going to run away. I was so out of my comfort zone," he said. "Once you come from playing hurling… like, you know if you are good or not. If you score 1-5, you can say: 'Yeah, I'm good here. I'm doing well enough'.

"Whereas, with the acting, it's all subjective and you are a wee bit lost at the start. At that time it didn't matter because you are just going in to learn."

However, he kept being accepted, even for The Fall. He shot a number of scenes and thought he was on the road, but he got that sinking feeling when he watched the final version and discovered most were left on the cutting room floor.

In the meantime he had hurling, and his home town team Ruairi Og were going well.

He would travel back from Belfast to training in the car with his brother Christy and McManus putting him over his lines for his latest audition. Banter of a whole different kind.

The All-Ireland club hurling championship came and went.

Two weeks before, the cream of RTE came up to Belfast to do an off-beat piece on the hurling actor.

Famous GAA commentator Marty Morrissey was there and bounded up to the receptionist at The Mac Theatre asking if they could shoot some scenes of Shane onstage. As impressive as Marty's clout is, with one flag at the Glastonbury Festival sporting his visage last summer, it didn't stretch to the world of Belfast drama.

"He actually used the 'do you know who I am?' line," howled McNaughton as we spoke in a Cathedral Quarter coffee shop.

"I was like: 'All right Marty, I am away here!'"

Cushendall were beaten out the gate by Limerick's Na Piarsaigh in the club championship, but it was noticeable how McNaughton poured himself into his own performance. Somehow, he knew it was almost a farewell to the sport.

A few weeks later he was in the Big Apple. He balanced his time between volunteering for theatre groups, handing out leaflets so that he could then enjoy the show for free, and working for fellow Cushendall man Brian McNaughton in construction.

His job was to travel around the various sites delivering lumber, tools and materials. Occasionally, he would find himself parked up on the West Side of Manhattan, staring at the building that houses the Stella Adler studio.

"I used to pretend I was in there," he said.

"I wouldn't feel that religious. But I put good store in the belief that what you put out there you get back, and I genuinely believe that. That's why I would be very careful about the people I hang around with or talk to, or the thoughts that I let into my head."

And he began attending Maggie Flanigan's studio, where he underwent a process of self-examination.

He recalled: "You are asked to question everything. It's like: 'How do you feel in this moment?' You need to have a great sense of yourself before you can have a sense of someone else. If you wanted to portray someone else, to enter their character and not just imitate someone, you need to have a good sense of what you are, what you believe in, what you want out of life."

What he wanted was a life less ordinary.

On the face of it, what McNaughton had would be enough for most. A profile as a county hurler and success with his club. His working life was rewarding as a mentor to young offenders in Hydebank Prison.

"If you are talking about why you want to do anything, it is to give me meaning to my life, a focus to get up and do something in the morning. To care about something and care deeply about it," he said.

"It is no different than a young boy starting to play GAA, or a young boy who wants to go and march every weekend with an Orange band. You simplify it to the humanistic level. Maybe it's just to have purpose and add meaning to your life. I am scared to sound like one of those crazy Christian preachers. But I think it's just very simple."

He admits that the acting classes peeled away some layers.

"I wasn't living a truthful life. I didn't feel… there was just something a bit off. Now I know that. I am doing what I want to do. I would rather get up in the morning and chase my own dream rather than getting up and chasing somebody else's dream. That's what I felt I was doing for a long time."

There is a soft, alternative side to McNaughton that has gifted him an artistic bent.

In the past he wrote for GAA paper Gaelic Life, which although starting off in the standard player column formula, soon took a turn into rich pastures, discussing identity, the music of The Rolling Stones and the philosophy of a man born and reared in the Glens of Antrim.

The other evening, he recalls going out for a walk with friend McManus and their conversation reached the conclusion that: "You spend so much time in the your mid-twenties constantly thinking of what you need to do."

Shane added: "You are confused a lot of the time, I think. The other day, there was a good bit of clarity. It was: 'Right, I know what I need to do, and it's just a matter of doing it'. And that was quite refreshing."

The conversation closes with a final question: will he play hurling in New York?

"I have no real interest if it is not for Cushendall or Antrim," he answered.

"That's one thing the acting has taught me, you have to have passion for whatever you are doing. Care about something and care about it deeply."

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