Once in a generation a gifted actor finds a role that turns him into a living legend. For Tom Vaughan Lawlor that role was Irish criminal kingpin Nidge in the award winning Irish TV drama Love/Hate. Now the gifted 33-year-old is coming to New York to play both roles in playwright Mark O’Rowe’s gangland caper Howie the Rookie at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to him about the play, his breakout role and the sharp contrast with his real life.

The Irish love a rebel. Anyone who can tilt the balance in favor of the little guy even for a little while is a man after our own hearts. Even if he’s a sociopath with no moral center, apparently.

Playing Nigel “Nidge” Delaney in the critically acclaimed, hugely popular Irish gangland series Love/Hate, actor Tom Vaughan Lawlor, 33, found himself filling out the role of a lifetime. He knew it too.

First broadcast in Ireland in 2010, Love/Hate just concluded its fifth season last month, broadly in step with the Irish banking collapse and the biting austerity that followed, where the squeeze on the little guy was suddenly back in the news again. It’s by the far the most popular TV series to ever hit Irish screens.

U.S. audiences will finally have an opportunity to see what all the fuss is about next weekend when Lawlor will be in New York to perform both roles in playwright Mark O’Rowe’s acclaimed 1999 Irish underworld drama Howie the Rookie at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Love/Hate is also available to watch on Netflix.

Arriving here on the back of his Love/Hate fame (for which he won a well deserved Best Actor Irish Film and Television Award) Lawlor’s no red faced unknown taking his first bite of the Big Apple.

Instead he’s already spoken of with the kind of hushed reverence reserved for the most gifted artists. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why his Nidge created such a profound response from Irish audiences, there’s no question that he did.

Mention that you’re interviewing Lawlor and Irish people will rubberneck the way people do when you mention Madonna or the Pope. To be on the receiving end of people’s interest in that character has been remarkable, he says.

“It’s very strange the reaction to Nidge because I often play quite full on intense characters but my wife would say I’m quite the opposite,” Lawlor tells the Irish Voice.

“Nidge is an underdog, he’s anti-establishment. There’s something anarchic and punk about him. He flies by the seat of his pants and he’s kind of bonkers. The Irish can respond to that.”

They certainly can. At airports, in bars and restaurants they would come right up to him and confess their admiration.

“People tell me things like, ‘My son is in Australia and we’ve sent him the boxed set of season one for Christmas.’ To be part of something like that is really special,” Lawlor says.

But Lawlor didn’t grow up on the mean streets of the inner city. Instead he was raised in leafy south Dublin and attended Trinity College where he studied drama and classics.

“It was an academic course and library based, so it was more to do with theory and history, an academic approach. I found it quite difficult because I can be quite a daydreamer. I needed the structure of a drama school,” Lawlor says.

Structure came via the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London, the famous actor training school where he came into his own.

“I was stretched and tested as an actor every day there and it was a liberating experience. It was liberating moving away to London where I didn’t know anyone and I felt free. I am indebted to them,” he confesses.

Getting cast as a kingpin criminal in Love/Hate was a turnaround moment in his career, he says.

“We all, the entire Love/Hate cast, were really young hungry actors who wanted to be on the set testing each other every day. These parts don’t come along every day and it’s better to leave the floor having given your all than to come back saying you could have given twenty percent more,” Lawlor shares.

“The intensity of filming it because the schedule was tight also lent the show its own energy.”

Lawlor will bring more of that intensity to BAM when he plays both roles in Howie the Rookie next week. The play has already enjoyed sold out runs in Dublin and London so New York seems like a natural progression.

But for all his accolades, Lawlor is taking nothing for granted.

“Just looking at what’s playing in BAM at the minute, we’re really honored to be invited to be there,” he says modestly.

“The company we’re in is kind of heady. We’ve been in Dublin at the Olympia and then the Barbican in London for the past couple of weeks. I’m fascinated to see how American audiences will respond to it.”

Usually a two hander, Lawlor is this time playing both parts at the playwright’s request.

“It came to O’Rowe as an idea, because there’s so much duality in the two roles, there’s a bleed between these two men. He thought it would be interesting for one actor to play both men” says Lawlor, who had no idea if it would work until he got in the rehearsal room.

“I had faith in it and Mark did too. But right up until the first couple of previews I had no idea how it was going to go. Thankfully audiences really went for it, and as a result we’re coming to New York.”

Asked where the Vaughan part of his name -- which is Welsh in origin -- comes from, Lawlor has a simple response.

“My dad’s an actor so for Equity reasons I couldn’t be Tom Lawlor. My middle name is Vaughan on my dad’s side, so I just sort of double barreled it,” he says.

Next up on Lawlor’s slate of projects is the controversial Citizen Charlie, a television drama about the life of former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Charlie Haughey. Lawlor will play Haughey’s wily political advisor PJ Mara in a production that will remind viewers how much and how little has changed in Irish politics.

“When I first read the script I wondered how much was fact and how much was fiction?” Lawlor confesses.

“Then I realized it was such an extraordinary time – the late seventies and early eighties – and to go back and see the dynamism and charisma of those guys, and to see what went on, was extraordinary.”

There’s so much message management and spin around politicians nowadays he says, but Haughey and Mara were big personalities and challenging roles to get into.

“It was amazing to be with Aiden Gillen (best known for Game of Thrones) playing Charlie Haughey, with his intensity and the integrity he brings to his work. I think that Haughey’s such a divisive figure it will be fascinating to see how the show’s received, and if it will square with people’s memories of him.”

Playing hot button characters is as far from Lawlor’s daily life as it could possibly be. Home now is a seaside town in Kent in England, where he’s happiest at home with his wife and son Freddie.

“My wife’s an actor and she’s doing a play in the West End at the moment and I have a week off for cooking my son’s dinner,” says Lawlor. (The son lets out a roar in the background and Lawlor utters a quick, “All right love,” to calm him).

“We used to live in London but now we’ve moved down by the sea. London’s an amazing town but it’s also sort of full on to have a child in.

“So we live in Kent, in a gentrified part of England, although I played a sort of archetypal Dublin character in Love/Hate. It’s kind of bizarre to go backward and forward and have feet in both camps. But I’m very fortunate to have those kinds of opportunities and I’m under no illusion about how lucky I am.”

One question Lawlor is weary of hearing is whether Love/Hate is too violent. Worse, does the show actually glamorize violence?

“The question about glamorizing violence is a question we get plagued with. I don’t believe it does that, but equally the seductive nature of these lawless guys is very potent,” he says.

“There’s a draw to them, but you really have to be careful who you’re falling for. Because when the writer pulls the rug from under you and asks, ‘Are you sure you really love these guys? Look what they’re doing.’ That was always brilliant to play.”

And it’s as far from his own life as Dublin is from Sydney.

“I’m making sausages and potatoes and carrots for my son right now,” he says, and I can actually hear him chopping them on the board. “I’m not as great as my wife at cooking but I’m doing my best. My wife is doing a play and I’m at home, so it’s a nice payback for me and I’m delighted to be able to do it.”

Howie the Rookie plays December 10 through 14 at BAM. For tickets call 718-636-4100.