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An interview with actor Killian Donnelly

20 June 2017 | Will Rathbone

Killian Donnelly is an Irish actor who has, over the last decade or so, performed in some of the most iconic musicals in the West End and on Broadway – Phantom of the Opera, Billy Elliot, Kinky Boots, The Commitments, Memphis and Les Misérables. Instantly recognisable to anyone who has seen him perform, he is charming and extremely likeable. As he prepares to take on the role of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables in the West End, we spoke to him about his remarkable career to date.

It’s a hell of a CV. Taking in reigning classics like Phantom of the Opera and fresh blockbusters like Memphis, there’s no denying Killian Donnelly’s résumé is seriously impressive. From his first London role as a swing in the iconic, revolutionary musical Les Misérables – “I didn’t even know what a swing was” – to his recent casting in the same show as lead character Jean Valjean, things have very much come full circle for Donnelly.
 
Back in Ireland, Donnelly had no real ambitions to act. “I wanted to be a primary school teacher bizarrely. I just love teaching kids, and I tried to focus on that, but sort of fell into this. I started in am-dram, and I would get connected with professional directors who’d say ‘come and work with me on a three month job in Dublin’. I’d say ‘er…’ and they’d say ‘and you’ll get paid’. Soon after, I realised I had to move to London and just give it a shot. It was one of those things that if I didn’t try then I’d regret it forever.” It turned out to be a very good call.


Image courtesy of Killian Donnelly
 
Jumping from amateur dramatics to eight shows a week was a big leap, but Donnelly used the experience to learn as much as he could. “Les Mis was my training; it sort of made me the actor I am. As a swing I got to cover 10 actors and I was constantly changing each night. It really made me learn and get a strong enough singing voice to sustain eight shows”. In his second year he was offered a supporting role, Grantaire, but asked instead to continue swinging, though with more responsibility. “They gave me a Jean Valjean emergency cover, and through learning Jean Valjean my voice got stronger and I started thinking “I really, really like this role”. When he was offered the role five months ago, “it really felt like coming home. It was my first job. When I came back to the Queen’s, 'Stagedoor Mark' gave me a big hug and said ‘welcome back. Welcome home’. There’s a beautiful family feel here at the Queen’s Theatre.”


Image Credit: Johan Persson
 
Donnelly exudes an easy charm but often plays characters that aren’t necessarily so easy to warm to. “I guess that’s the hidden quality that makes a character likeable - you look for a contrast, rather than going with the same ‘leading man’ quality. Just add a bit of charm to them - take Deco [from The Commitments]. I’m not sure if I can say this, but he’s just a prick. He’s a complete arsehole but the crowd loved it. So then, you flip it, and Huey Calhoun [Memphis] is the sweetest, ‘not the brightest ball on the beach’ type of guy and people fell in love with him too for the same reason: he’s something different”.
 
Memphis was a show, and Huey Calhoun a character, that really cemented Donnelly’s status as a leading man. Based closely on real-life DJ Dewey Phillips – one of the first white DJs to play black music in America – the show was driven by Donnelly’s enigmatic and energetic performance. “That show was sort of a badge of honour – kind of like Les Mis – where people still come up to me and say ‘I saw you in Memphis. My God, I loved that show.’ You’re so proud of it – you’re proud of all the stuff you do – but Memphis was such a special, special show to be a part of”. Would he ever want to play a bad guy? “Do you know what? Everybody wants to play the baddie! In Les Mis though, Jean Valjean is really the main one that you want”.


Image Credit: Johan Persson
 
If Jean Valjean is very much an ambition achieved, then another on that list would be appearing on Broadway in 2016 – reprising the role of shoe factory-owner Charlie Price in Kinky Boots. Did he enjoy Broadway? “Oh, it was incredible. It’s a beautiful thing. The people over there – the Broadway community – are amazing, and that goes for audiences as well. In the West End we pay £60 for a ticket and we’re sort of reserved. We’ve heard it’s good, but we’ll let you know at the end if we agree. On Broadway people will applaud halfway through sentences, they’ll whoop and holler, and there’s this great atmosphere. That support is the same with the casts and crews too. We were on West 45th Street in the Al Hirschfield Theatre, and down our street were Dear Evan Hansen, The Great Comet and Come From Away, so we’d all chat to each other and send each other cupcakes and doughnuts. It was just a wonderful, wonderful community”.
 
Musical theatre is undoubtedly a strong suit, but Donnelly is no stranger to more traditional acting roles. “My favourite role so far is actually Tony – the brother from Billy Elliott. It’s not really a singing role – more of a straight part – and it’s one that really changed me as an actor. Recently, I was lucky enough to do Donegal, written by Frank McGuinness, at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Growing up in Ireland that’s the pinnacle of what you want to do – it’s Ireland’s National Theatre – and I’ve always wanted to act there”. So are more straight acting roles on the horizon? “It’ll probably be wise to give my voice a rest after a year of Jean Valjean! I take it day by day though - the problem is I really love musical theatre. I love its community, I love talking to the people involved in it and I seem to be good at it. I’ll see what happens.”
 
Killian Donnelly is currently starring as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables at the Queen’s Theatre. Tickets start at £14.75.
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