The Fall’s John Lynch on alcoholism, getting sober and growing up in The Troubles

For the Northern Irish actor, the serial killer drama is a story that feels close to home

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The Fall’s John Lynch has a great face for sorrow, the look of a man who’s peered into the abyss. “I’m half Irish, half Italian,” he says, by way of explanation. “That’s quite combustive. And I take things seriously. I always have done, and I suppose that shows.”

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Let’s just say that Lynch is not your go-to actor for the larky roles. His recent performance as Bill Douglas in the BBC1 drama One of Us (which finished recently) is a study in heartbreak and fury. And now he’s back as the tormented assistant chief constable Jim Burns in series three of The Fall.

For Lynch, 54, a Catholic, who grew up in South Armagh at the height of The Troubles, the fact that The Fall is set in Belfast is a masterstroke. The series has been hailed as a welcome and necessary evolution from political drama about Northern Ireland but, as Lynch points out, the tangled roots of tribalism are just below the top soil.

“I think the writer, Allan Cubitt, has been very clever, because he’s used those shadows – the shadows I grew up in, and tried to escape from – really well. There’s this overpowering sense of trapdoors to darkness.

“The North [of Ireland] is just starting to get over what has happened, and out of that shadow of death, this very unusual killer emerges. Belfast carries that resonance, and I think it’s totally believable that the city would spawn somebody as cocky and as lethal as Paul Spector.”

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The same innate darkness, indissoluble from sense of place, Lynch argues, is in Bill Douglas, the character he played in One of Us. The thriller, set in the Highlands (“Beautiful,” says Lynch, “but brutal, too.”) kept viewers guessing until the last frame, but Lynch felt the danger in Bill from the beginning.

“I’d only been sent the first three episodes when I met the producer and director to discuss the role. Their first question to me was, ‘Who do you think did it?’ and I immediately said, ‘Bill, because he’s got nothing to lose.’”

Lynch left Ireland in 1981 as a teenager, and was glad to leave. “It wasn’t just what happened on the streets or on the barricades, with petrol bombs or Armalites, it was the echoes of violence that went through every household in Northern Ireland, each family got touched.

“I had an English teacher, Sean Hollywood, who used to put me in plays, mainly in the Irish language, and he said to me, ‘I think you should go to drama school.’ That seemed scary and different, but Sean helped me audition and get a grant for drama school in London. I arrived just before the Falklands War. It was Thatcher’s time, a dark time, but it was just good to get away.”

Lynch has since worked across the globe – he collected a slew of awards for his leading role in the Australian feature Angel Baby (1995) and played opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in the Hollywood comedy Sliding Doors (1997). Ireland, however, has never been out of his focus. In In the Name of the Father (1993), he took the part of Paul Hill, one of the Guildford Four who was wrongly convicted and imprisoned for the IRA bombing of two pubs in 1974.

In 1996, he portrayed IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in Some Mother’s Son. Such politically charged roles were not without repercussion. “In 1995, around the time of one of the cease-fires, I made a film with Thaddeus O’Sullivan called Nothing Personal, loosely based on the Shankill Butchers [a notorious Ulster Loyalist gang].

“The director decided it would be a good idea to do some local research and, like a twerp, I ended up doing this pub-crawl with some English actors round the Shankill area. I had minders looking after me, but naturally the minute women arrived, they forgot about me, and some people started to have a problem with the fact that I was there, because I’m a Catholic and because of some of the films I’ve done. It was quite a brutal night.”

The shoot-out that ended series two of The Fall has left the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan) fighting for his life, while his softly spoken nemesis, Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), waits anxiously to resume her investigation.

Plotlines are strictly embargoed (and, on previous showing, unguessable), but it’s fair to surmise that Lynch’s character, Jim Burns, hasn’t had his last dance with Gibson – in the last series he tried, disastrously, to rekindle their long-dead flame.

“It’s a tremendous obsession,” says Lynch. “He obviously can’t get over what happened between them, but she also infuriates him and there’s envy in there, too – he knows he’s not the police officer she is, yet he’s still fighting fires for Stella.

“And he’s drinking again and has ongoing issues with that. Jim’s a complicated character, but then they’re all complicated characters in this drama. In essence, The Fall is about things coming apart at the seams – what makes people tick, what makes them dysfunctional.”

If, in speech, Lynch observes a certain economy – what Seamus Heaney called “the tight gag of place and times” – he takes fight in his “alternative profession” as a writer. He’s published two novels and is working on a third. Torn Water (2005) and Falling Out of Heaven (2010) are intimate interrogations of Ireland, despite (or, he might argue, because of) the fact that Lynch now lives in the South of France.

“I think you need to put some distance between yourself and where you began, so you can look back with some kind of objectivity,” he explains.

“Writing is more exposing than acting. With acting, if you’ve been around long enough, you’re bound to pick up technique – I don’t mean that it’s about hiding, but it’s about leading yourself into emotional trouble and getting yourself out of it. Writing has to be total.”

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Alcoholism is a dark, autobiographical stream running through Lynch’s fiction. “There’s a proverb that goes: ‘The man takes a drink, the drink takes a drink, the drink takes the man.’ That’s how it was for me.” He started writing around the time he stopped drinking, not as therapy, but as a way of being honest with himself. “When I got sober, I was obsessed by definition, by clarity.

“I started digging, really digging into me. It’s tough, it’s an alone thing, but when I’m not acting, it keeps me sane. And my life has completely changed since I stopped drinking. I’m much more outgoing and, believe it or not, I’m less sorrowful.”

France, too, has been a new start. Lynch has “always felt European, given my blood and my heritage” and regrets Brexit (“a bad decision, made for wrong reasons”). He now lives in Nice and enjoys having Italy just over the border.

The “old time” came hurtling back on 14 July this year when 86 people died when a lorry ploughed into the crowd during the terrorist attack on the Promenade des Anglais.

“My partner, Christine, is French,” says Lynch. “A couple of days after the truck drove down the Promenade, we went down there together. There were flowers everywhere, people lighting candles, and it was like a muscle went in 
me. Christine said to me, ‘I know now 
why you’ve always been so alert, so 
vigilant. You grew up with that.’
And we did. We all grew up with 
the possibility that, at any time, 
anything could happen.”

Finally though, for Lynch, hinterland is shading into new horizons. “I love the challenge of existing in a new culture. With Christine, I speak in French. We kiss in French. I’m doing my second film in French. And it’s tremendously liberating. Being an exile has done me the world of good.”

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The Fall returns tonight on BBC2 at 9pm