Ex-JLS star Aston Merrygold on becoming an actor in Belfast and helping young cast members cope with online abuse
The pop star whose mum comes from Dunmurry tells Claire O'Boyle why he's taken a role in a kids' TV drama and banning his toddler son from the set
He was front and centre in one of Britain's biggest ever boybands, winning awards, selling millions of records and singing to besotted fans around the world. And now former JLS star Aston Merrygold has turned up for work in Belfast.
The latest in an ever-growing list of talent to join Northern Ireland's thriving TV scene, the singer, whose mum Siobhan hails from Dunmurry, is returning to his roots - in more ways than one.
"I have loads of family from here," says Aston. "And I've been in The Crown a few times already, which was the bar my Grandad drank in.
"The Guinness is so much better in Belfast. When I'm at home, I put a splash of blackcurrant in, which is criminal I know, but when you're here you really don't have to.
"Belfast has always been good to me and it's weird because I know it's a bit like working somewhere new, but I know where I'm going, too.
"There's a gym I like and shops I can go to. I don't have to panic because I know where I am when I'm here. It's great," Aston says.
Opening up for the first time today about his move into acting, Aston reveals it's not such a turn up for the books as it might seem - and in fact was a career he first pursued as a teenager.
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"Acting is actually what I started out doing," says Aston (31). "It was the first thing I did coming out from school, long before the band, and I was doing extra work in kids' TV when I was 13 or 14.
"I got my first proper role when I was 15 on a show called Fun Song Factory so I guess this is me just going full circle, back to what was my main thing as a teenager. Getting into music happened later.
"I moved to London when I was 16 and I did every job going from pot washing, table service, cold-calling, on-street sales. I just wanted to make it in entertainment. TV, all that stuff on the telly. It didn't work out too badly."
But it's not just acting he's come back to, it's childrens' TV in particular, because Aston's new role is as Jordan, manager to teen boyband The Wonderland in CBBC show Almost Never which is filming in Belfast.
Joining I'm a Celebrity's Emily Atack and ex-EastEnder star Michelle Gayle for the comedy drama's second series, Aston admits it took a week or two to settle in. "It's not been too intense as of yet, but I was coming into series two and I thought, 'Okay, let me check the dynamics here'," says Aston.
"It's just I'm so used to working on my own now, you don't know how things will be. But everyone's so welcoming that it's been an easy start."
And with the backdrop of the show so closely linked to his own background in music, Aston hasn't moved too far from what he's used to - albeit an industry that's famously tricky for ageing in.
"You have a certain amount of time to hit it," he says. "But I think it's the same for all these industries, for footballers, actors.
"It's just when you feel people feel you're past it, it does play on your mind. I'm 31, but when I was 14 or 15 I was working with people in their late 20s and 30s and thinking, flipping hell, they've been in the industry for a long time.
"Now I'm working with kids that are 15, 16, 17, 18 and I think, oh my gosh I remember. It's not that long ago."
But, says Aston, even in the short time since he and his JLS bandmates Oritse Williams, Marvin Humes and JB Gill were runners up on X Factor back in 2008, the music industry - and almost every other aspect of life in the limelight - has transformed.
"Back then everything was face to face," he said. "Now they're going into a different world."
And pressure hasn't just mounted for celebrities, says Aston, with social media heaping expectations on youngsters everywhere as more and more people live out their lives in public.
"It's hard because it's all eyes on you in this day and age, regardless if you are in the public eye or not," he says. "People feel you've got all eyes on you because you're putting your life out there for everybody to see.
"With all of the younger cast, every day we have a conversation about Snapchat or Whatsapp or Instagram or whatever it is. It's just there, and you say, guys as long as you're happy, healthy, having fun, what does it matter?
"Turn the comments off. It comes down to how you feel, but for me, I'm very thick skinned. I know in this industry there's only going to be opinion and not facts.
"Nobody's going to be able to say you are the best singer, and that's it. In their opinion, maybe, but for somebody else it's a different singer they love."
And turning to the pressure faced by his former bandmate Oritse Williams, who was found not guilty of rape earlier this year, Aston said his friend is back writing music.
"He's good," said Aston. "He's back to himself, back to working, back to normal life. He's had good people around him. That's all you can do in certain situations, have a strong support network."
Despite the band splitting almost six years ago, the lads from JLS, which formed two years before their life-changing appearance on X Factor, have stayed close.
"I feel like I'm still part of JLS," he said. "I'm never not going to be because on paper, that's the biggest highlight of my career so far because it brought the most success and it's allowed me to jump into all these other endeavours.
"Marvin was in first with Oritse, and then Marv was like, 'I know a guy, he's alright'. That was me, thanks Marv.
"Then it was the three of us for a month or so until JB came in. We clicked. It definitely helped that we were friends first.
"Marvin's family knew my dad's side of the family before we knew each other, and it was just the weirdest situation. It's all about timing and we all met at that time for a reason. We're family."
And back home, life on the family front is better than ever for Aston along with dancer fiancée Sarah Richards and their son, 20-month-old Grayson Jax.
"It's amazing," said Aston. "I've got my little boy running around, although I have to say I get more sleep here in Belfast. I wouldn't complain though. He's the best thing ever and Sarah's a saint.
"I get it, I've got a lot of energy, the missus has a lot of energy, but he has the energy of four kids. He just wants to wake up, he's afraid of missing out. He came to Belfast the second week of filming for a few days and he came to set. He ran around and I was like, 'Right, you're not coming back to set.'"
And with another string to his bow with his part on Almost Never, along with music production, running a top London dance studio and a stint on Strictly Come Dancing in 2017, what's next for the former pop idol?
"Well this show has been great so far," he said. "And it would be great to continue the journey if all goes well. I've got music coming too. The difference now is it's only when it's ready. I'm my own boss in that world because everything's online and when it's ready, I'm ready. I just enjoy entertainment as a whole."
With more filming still to go before Almost Never hits the screen, Aston is enjoying the experience - and looking back at his time in JLS for inspiration.
"There have been conversations in the script I've had in real life, so I've definitely drawn a bit of inspiration," he said. "Reading the scripts I've laughed a few times, like 'Oh yeah, I've been here, I've heard this a few times.'
"It's even lines like, 'Don't be late'. We were always punctual but it was always kept in your mind. Don't be late. It was reiterated every single time 'til it was embedded, and managers would always say it, regardless. It's nice to be able to relate to the characters as an actor. It makes life so much easier than going to the bottom of the barrel and working your way up."