Fionn O'Shea is walking, slightly dazed by the sun, towards a shuttered cafe on an empty street in a coastal village. We wave awkwardly from our two-metre vantage and it all feels very 'Dr Livingstone, I presume?'
The toast of Normal People, Handsome Devil and now a new film, Dating Amber, has been self-isolating in a place in Brittas Bay in Co Wicklow since he returned from London in early March. Neither of us has met anyone we don't live with for months. We need haircuts.
But while he's been hiding out with actor Lola Petticrew (who is cooking all his meals, he later tells me), screen Fionn is massifying. In two heartfelt coming-of-age films, 2017's Handsome Devil (now on Netflix) and the brand new Dating Amber, written and directed by David Freyne, O'Shea plays not dissimilar schoolboys struggling to accept themselves.
Then there is Normal People in which he overturns type as the south Dublin sadist who briefly usurps Connell as Marianne's boyfriend.
The first thing we might get across is that O'Shea is nothing like Jamie, whom he portrays with chilling entitlement in the smash series. O'Shea, who is just 23, is gracious and thoughtful, picking his words carefully and expressing enthusiasm for just about everything. He's also, I learn, an understated success, and has been quietly working in Irish film and TV since he was a boy.
His ambition had long been to play a villain. "There's something about people having that visceral reaction of hatred towards a character that really excites me," he explains as we plant ourselves on some improvised seating at the seafront. O'Shea cuts an edgy dash in a long-sleeved black top and ripped black jeans.
His most dramatic scene in Normal People is when Connell visits Marianne in her Italian villa to find a fuming Jamie, who wants cream with his strawberries and can't cope, what with the bothersome heat and his engrained misogyny, with having to go into the kitchen and get it himself. A row breaks out, and valiant Connell saves Marianne.
"I hate Jamie already DISGUSTING FELLA" was just one of the responses on Twitter. Something Normal People mania might be teaching us is that people crave to see good, trusting relationships and consent represented on screen. This is also the reason it's important on the internet to hate Jamie.
O'Shea has been amused, if a little surprised, to watch from afar as his loathed creation is compared online to everything from PMS (yes, really), to Game Of Thrones' evil King Joffrey, and the coronavirus itself ("generally malevolent", O'Shea helpfully explains).
Two years ago when O'Shea first heard Lenny Abrahamson and Element Pictures were making a series of Sally Rooney's novel, he got the book and started combing it for parts in the hope he would be seen by the casting agents. That's when he came across Jamie.
"The character jumped out at me," he says. "I got my phone out and started recording voice memos of the lines on the book. They were not good, but I was playing around with how I would do it."
What drew him to play someone he describes as "horrid" and "detestable"?
"A lot of people know a Jamie," O'Shea explains. "In a friend, or a partner, or someone you know's a partner. Someone who's really toxic."
Does he know a Jamie? "When I read the book I knew instantly that person. Absolutely."
His job was to try and understand why this privileged "spawn of millionaires", as Connell puts it, is the way he is. "Jamie is an extremely anxious and insecure, jealous person and he's hiding it underneath a veil of arrogance and hostility and out-of-taste humour. He grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth and will never have to work for anything."
It's notable that O'Shea does have Jamie's accent - a point about which he laughs. "I am from that part of Ireland and I definitely came from a similar world to what he came from, though it wasn't at all like his," he qualifies. He grew up in a close family in Sandymount, Dublin 4. His father is a solicitor, his mother stayed at home, and he has an older sister who is now a doctor working on the front line.
Like his co-stars in Handsome Devil, Andrew Scott and Hugh O'Conor, and Jack Gleeson, who plays Jamie's 'soulmate' King Joffrey, he went to Gonzaga College, a private school "and that's where the similarities between Jamie and I end".
Unlike the schoolyard cruelty we see in his films, and indeed Normal People, O'Shea's own school days were very happy. He was involved in skateboarding and playing football, and at one stage played eight different sports, he was so keen to sign up for anything. He "idolised" his older sister and copied everything she did, including following her down the road to drama classes at the Independent Theatre Workshop.
He was a child actor starring in a short film, New Boy, when he was 11 despite having done "the worst audition in the history of auditions. I was really outgoing and extrovert as a child, and I became painfully shy. But I think that's maybe what they were looking for". His performance in New Boy - you can watch this one on YouTube at your leisure - as a bolshie schoolboy with a proper Dublin accent is gritty and adorable. The short, based on a story by Roddy Doyle, received an Oscar nomination, while O'Shea went on to act in the kids' TV show Roy and more films.
Drama school wasn't for him and after his Leaving Cert he started a business course. Three months into learning about Henry Ford's cars and the fundamentals of marketing and accountancy, he was cast as a 16-year old soldier in Richie Smyth's The Siege Of Jadotville, and after this he came to the attention of John Butler, who directed Handsome Devil. He never went back to business school.
O'Shea captured boyish vulnerability with an intensity not seen perhaps since Cillian Murphy made Disco Pigs, first in Handsome Devil as the effete, sensitive Ned, an ostracised schoolboy in a rugby-obsessed environment, and now in Dating Amber as Eddie, the weedy and confused son of an army man (Barry Ward) and long-suffering mother (Sharon Horgan).
The quirky storyline sees two gay, bullied schoolkids, Amber (played by Petticrew) and Eddie, pretend to be boyfriend and girlfriend to get through their conservative schooling.
Originally called Beards, for obvious reasons, the film is set in the 1990s and features an array of memorabilia, from disputes over Blur and Oasis to Amber's Alanis-like dyed red hair. It is a reminder of the misery people went through for being different, and the thrill of escape to more tolerant places.
"One thing that was really important to Dave (Freyne) was that this is a queer story that's joyous and hopeful. It's really important to see queer stories framed like that."
I wonder if he can imagine the kind of homophobia people were subjected to in the 1990s and beyond. "I was born a year after the film takes place. The film takes place in 1995, two years after homosexuality was decriminalised (in Ireland). I grew up in a really different time. I think that young people are more comfortable with ambiguity. And when it comes to sexuality, more open-minded." He feels privileged to be "trusted" to tell this story. "Ireland has progressed so much," O'Shea says, "but there's still a long way to go and I think we're going to need to keep progressing. It's underestimated how hard it is for LGBT kids in school."
So the perception that people in their 20s are completely adjusted, having found all the confidence missing in previous generations, might be optimistic?
"Every form of identity and belonging is something people struggle with and continue to struggle with. It's easier, but that doesn't mean by any means that it's easy."
He elaborates: "Saying 'gay' to describe something different or not cool - that was still so ingrained in people's vocabulary when I was in school. And homophobic language, like the f-word. A lot of people were using it not knowing the harm it was causing."
His co-star Lola Petticrew has been a vocal advocate for trans rights, and describes herself as a "queer lil Irish actress". "Lola is a great example, I think it's really important to be vocal about things like queer issues, and she does a great job."
Fionn doesn't post much online - when I searched I only found photographs of sunsets - describing himself as "private, but not secretive". I ask is he careful about what he holds back and he explains a little.
"I get that some people love posting everything they do, and that's fine. But I think as an actor, if you're posting banal stuff like taking the bins out, you're giving so much access to your life that you're going to be less believable as different characters, because the more people know about you as a person the less they'll believe in a character."
He's still playing teenagers, but has worked with big names in acting: Andrew Scott, Hugh O'Conor; Sharon Horgan, who is "everything I'd hoped for and more"; Peter Campion is "amazing"; Keira Knightley (his co-star in The Aftermath) is also "amazing," and "so normal, she just puts you at ease"; Lola Petticrew is his best friend.
They met during the chemistry reads for Dating Amber and formed a bond much like we see in the film. Both returned to Dublin together earlier this year just before St Patrick's Day. "We can't get rid of each other." Petticrew has provided glimpses of their downtime, eating vegan pizzas and discovering queer cinema. "Lola's vegan. I'm probably a fairweather vegan," he says.
As they observe from their laptops, is it strange to have mastered a villain in Normal People while two of his best friends, Paul Mescal (Connell) and Daisy Edgar-Jones (Marianne), enjoy universal popularity? "It's a character," O'Shea says. "People say nasty stuff online all the time. I'm good at separating that."
He breaks into a laugh when I ask how it feels to be the foil for some physical comedy, for instance comparisons between Jamie and Connell. "That Paul (Mescal) is six foot whatever and ripped, and I'm neither of those things? I really enjoy playing on that, I find it hilarious, and very exciting that the way I look or something I say, might be worked into a script."
He didn't have the chance to portray the beautiful consensual sex everybody is talking about. O'Shea's one sex scene with Edgar-Jones (alert: more spoilers...) was the first he has ever done and involved, like the others, an intimacy co-ordinator, a stunt co-ordinator, and some anxiety. It's not a very intimate scene, and the actors had to find a "shape" in which they felt safe representing a degree of nastiness.
"When I'm holding her hair, yeah," O'Shea says. "A scene like that is never going to be enjoyable. The first thing in my mind is that I in no way want to hurt Daisy. It's a really brilliant thing that we're seeing intimacy co-ordinators in the industry now."
He had to be philosophical when he read a tweet about Jamie's "stupid f**king sunglasses".
"But they were just my own personal sunglasses that made it into the show," he says. "They're prescription sunglasses, I need them to see. Now I'm, like, 'Oh God, I can't wear my sunglasses out'."
Seeing the time, I probe on behalf of new fans. Considering young love is in the news now, has he had a Marianne and Connell-style relationship of his own? He thinks about this. "I haven't. Definitely not like the one in the show. This is a really boring answer, but no, I haven't."
Would he like to fall in love? "The way that Jamie does? No. The way that Connell and Marianne do? Of course! I think you'd be mad to not want to fall in love. I'd like it to be easier than that, but yes, of course I would."
He doesn't have much time on his hands - last year O'Shea moved to London and hasn't actually had time to live there yet, what with shooting Normal People and Dating Amber and then the lockdown back in Ireland.
Later this year another film, Cherry, comes out, directed by the Russo brothers. He plays a gunner in Iraq alongside Tom Holland and Jack Reynor. "It's a wild coming-of-age story about a disenchanted college dropout," he explains.
"It's also very odd, you can't celebrate those things with anyone at the moment. But it's not lost on me that's a really privileged position to be in," says O'Shea.
We wave goodbye and this new star disappears back into quarantine, which might be the best place for him right now.
Dating Amber premiered on Amazon Prime Video on June 4 and opens in cinemas later this year