Why proud Meath lad Killian is at home in theatre of dreams
Having graduated from the local am-dram scene, Killian Donnelly is now an in-demand West End performer, writes Emily Hourican
THE day I meet Killian Donnelly, he is due on The Late Late Show that evening. The last time he was on, in, he thinks, 2006, he was part of a line-up performing a scene from the Full Monty. What scene I wonder, rather stupidly. The scene, of course, the full monty scene. Did he actually take all his clothes off ? Yes, it turns out. All of them. Clever things were done with lights to ensure no one actually saw anything, but still, there he was, naked, on RTE1, with Pat Kenny. “Jimmy Carr was interviewed just before we got the willies out,” Killian says, remembering with a laugh.
To do that, I figure, you need to have a sense of humour. To not be precious, or difficult, or any of the things we associate with successful actors. And indeed, Killian, who will shortly be appearing as Valjean in Les Miserables at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, part of a year-long tour, is the first to push back against all that.
Killian (34) is now one of the most in-demand West End performers, having been twice nominated for an Olivier award, and appeared in Phantom of the Opera, The Commitments, Kinky Boots and Billy Elliot, among others, as well as the 2012 film of Les Miserables, as Combeferre, alongside Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway. And yes, he is still, to some extent, pinching himself. Unusually for one in his position, he has never formally trained as a singer or actor — “three years of doing Les Miserables was my professional training,” he says.
“I grew up doing am-dram, in Kilmessan, Co Meath. Mostly, you start doing am-dram for the social end of things — it builds your confidence, gets you out of your shell — and then, jump forward 17 or 18 years, and you’re in this hotel, with the theatre across the road that’s going to be your new office, and you think, ‘this is unbelievable, this is incredible…’”
It’s a stretch, and he gets that. More, he’s willing to admit it.
“I hide behind the character,” he cheerfully admits. “I love performing, being a character. But the moment someone says ‘ here’s Killian Donnelly singing Bring Him Home’,” the hand goes” — he mimes a tremor — “and I’m nervous. Because I’m me; I’m exposed. I think too much and I get so nervous.”
As a child growing up in Meath, performing was what gave Killian confidence in his daily life. “I’m from Kilmessan, and you have to come out of the womb holding a hurley,” he jokes. “I remember the first time I hit a sliotar, going home afterwards to my mam and saying ‘my fingers are in bits, I’m never doing that again…’ So I wasn’t sporty. When it was time for PE at school — I’d rather have a leg off! Whereas I’d see a piano at lunch break and I’d go and sit, playing, eyes closed, loving it. That’s what I loved doing.”
Luckily for Killian, the middle of three children, “Mam and dad always encouraged whatever you wanted to do. And in our family, that was music. There was a slightly out-oftune piano in the front room, and dad had a guitar, so we called it ‘the music room’, and we felt amazing saying it,” he laughs.
“My Mam started the local church choir, and I joined. Dad, when I was eight or nine, said ‘right, do you want to hear a voice?’ and he gave me a recording of Colm Wilkinson, the tenor, and track seven was Bring Him Home, and I remember hearing that, and going, ‘what is this?’ That changed everything.”
When he was 15, Killian started drama, on Saturday mornings, and “that’s when I came out of my shell. There, I had a club, a gang. You meet girls! The most beautiful, dancing girls ever. That built my confidence too, knowing these girls. And these bearded, beer-drinking lads who loved football, suddenly asking me ‘did you ever hear the 1976 recording of Jesus Christ Superstar?’ and me going ‘Yes!’”
And then, he continues, fast-forward a few years: “And you’re in the film, and there’s Hugh Jackman beside you and he’s going ‘did you ever hear the 1976 recording of Jesus Christ Superstar…?’”
Through the am-dram scene, which in this country crosses over frequently with the professional scene, Killian got to know the acclaimed and much-missed musical director Brian Flynn, who began casting him for roles in shows “he’d say ‘I’m doing Fiddler On The Roof in Leixlip, I need a Tevye, I’ll give you petrol money’, often out of his own pocket.” He did backing “oohs and ahhs” on recordings; “little nixers” for about two years. “Then, when I was 18, and just about to do the Leaving Cert, all the teachers at school were saying ‘you’ve got to give up the shows just for this year, and con- centrate on getting your Leaving.’” He was, he says, “failing miserably at algebra,” and they wanted him to knuckle down, get serious.
But, he says, “My Mam would always encourage me to keep going, and one teacher — my geography teacher, who did the drama at school as well, he grabbed me by the arm in the hallway and said ‘I know every one is saying concentrate on the Leaving — and I didn’t tell you this — but don’t give up the shows!”
Killian did not give up the shows. He did Into The Woods, in Dublin, while also doing his exams and, when the show transferred to the Waterford International Festival, Killian won the award for Best Irish Singer. “From that, the musical direc- tor of the Gaiety Panto saw me and I got offered the part of the Prince that year. That was my first professional job — with Ronnie Drew and Susan Mcfadden. I was 19, playing Prince Charming, and I was awful, but it was professional!”
Again encouraged by Brian Flynn, Killian decided to try his luck in London when he was 23. “In Ireland, by then, I was ‘Killian Donnelly’ when I walked into auditions because it’s a small pot. Over in London, I was ‘Number 6752’ and it was bizarre. But,” he says, “even though everyone was dressed in these amazing clothes and I was in a tracksuit, I could sing, and I had energy.”
He got a list of “maybe 20” agents from a friend, and sent CVS to them all. “I got one reply. I met with this agent, and he said ‘ Les Mis is coming up for auditions. I’ll get you an audition, and we’ll go from there’. And after three recalls, I got the show.” And when he heard the news, Killian says: “I rang that geography teacher. I hadn’t spoken to him in six years, but I rang and said ‘I just got Les Miserables. Since then, he and his wife have come to so many shows.”
The downside of success is that, from coming home four or five times a year, Killian now makes it back maybe once. “I miss it so much,” he says. “I miss it every day. The second I see the Irish translation of the road signs, I’m like ‘ahh!’ I love it. The best thing is when you’re in Dublin airport and going through passport control and they see you have an Irish passport and they go ‘welcome home Killian’. That’s just beautiful! This is always going to be home — as Dad said, ‘if it doesn’t work in London you can always come home, we’re not going anywhere’.”
Romance, too, can be hard. “I was in New York for a few months and I went out with a girl there, we tried to keep it going long-distance for a few months, but the distance killed it. We still loved each other and we still keep in touch, but it just wouldn’t work.” And so, he says, “This tour couldn’t have come at a better time. All I have is a little dog, who can come with me. We’re just going to cruise around for a year, seeing the sights.”
From a practical point of view, Killian’s fate is tied up in one very tiny part of his body. “The muscle I’m dealing with is smaller than my baby fingernail. That muscle — that’s my mortgage, my car, that’s everything, so I need to look after it.” How does he do that? “Singing a song is like running the 100 meters,” he says — meaning a lot of warm-up for even the shortest dash. “I won’t drink during the week when I have a show. Alcohol dries the throat and mouth. I’ll have one on a Saturday night because I know I can recover on the Sunday. Also, in a bar or club, you’re talking at a level that strains the voice.”
Is that kind of self-discipline hard? “I grew up in am-dram,” he laughs, “it was all about going out on the raz. When I first got Les Mis at 24, it was like, ‘rehearsal then pub?’ ‘First show, pub?’ ‘Second show, pub?’ By the fourth show, you realise you gotta take it easy. That’s when I realised I had to grow up, stop drinking, start going to the gym.”
In 2016, Killian appeared in Donegal by Frank Mcguinness at the Abbey Theatre. So which does he prefer, theatre or musical theatre? “They’re both amazing,” he says, “but I do love singing. As Victor Hugo said, ‘Music expresses that which cannot be put into words’.”
‘I’m from Kilmessan, and you have to come out of the womb holding a hurley. But I wasn’t sporty’
‘Les Miserables’ is at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, December 5-January 12 2019. www.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie
Killian Donnelly is taking the West End by storm. Photo: David Conachy