Killian Donnelly, who until recently was playing the part of Raoul in the West End production of The Phantom of the Opera, is joining the cast of Billy Elliot The Musical to play Tony. His previous theatre credits include Enjolras in Les Miserables, the title role in Michael Collins for Cork Opera House and the 25th Anniversary concerts for The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall and Les Miserables at the O2 Arena. He is also due to appear in Tom Hooper’s feature film version of Les Misérables, in which he will play Combeferre. His other screen credits include Showbands II, The Last Furlong and The Tudors.
Killian recently took time out from rehearsals to answer a few questions about himself and his new role.
The Phantom of The Opera and Les Miserables have become a significant part of your life during the past year. How much of a transition will it be to perform in Billy Elliot?
When I got the role of Tony I was over the moon. Coming from Raoul it’s very easy to get labelled a certain type of performer. Many actors before me have gone from Enjolras to Raoul and vice versa so Tony is a complete change. You couldn’t ask for a better transition. A more earthy working man with a love for the community and what he believes in. It’s a heavy acting role with little singing and it’s the most emotional part I’ve played yet. It’s definitely something I’m enjoying more and more with each day of rehearsals. The entire production team are all associated with the original production, therefore at no point have I felt I’m filling someone else’s shoes. It’s all about creating something new with each cast. Day 1 our associate director (Julian Webber, who has been there since the start) said to me “Ok you’re 28, therefore we’ll create your Tony aged 28”. I can be myself, react and act as I would when playing the scene. It’s treated as a complete clean slate, which is AMAZING! It’s an incredible rehearsal process. I’m also pirouetting my socks off. Something I wish my Raoul could have done during “All I Ask Of You”.
What is it about Billy Elliot The Musical, and in particular the role of Tony, that appeals to you?
I was “dragged” to see Billy Elliot 6 years ago by an ex-girlfriend. I’ll be honest and say that when I’m in a musical, the last thing I want to see on my day off is a musical. But she brought me and I’ll be forever grateful to her (despite the fact she still has my Les Miz 25th anniversary jumper, which she’s probably burnt to pieces now). ANYWAY- Billy was something I’d never seen before. I didn’t see it as a musical because the acting scenes were so real and it had none of that “musical” glitz about it. It was raw, it was between the eyes and it was the BEST thing I’d ever seen on stage. It made me cry with tears of joy and despair and I’m not afraid to admit that. Watching it was an incredible lesson in performance. I left the theatre remembering everything about Tony that night. I thought “Ah I’d love to play that”. I’ve never watched a show before where I’ve wanted to play a part. I’m so grateful with the parts I’ve played. Every role is different but I never go wanting a role because it may never happen. That’s why we’ve directors and casting agents who can see a character in you. However Tony was the one part, I left Victoria Palace thinking I would love that. He’s raw, temperamental but does it out of love and sheer drive to accomplish his goals. He has some incredible speeches throughout the show and the role just stuck in my head for weeks after. But happy days, 6 years later I get an audition. Typical me though I show up 15 minutes late for my first round. Hadn’t had a chance to shower either so I stank……think that got me the part though!
How would you describe Tony and what are his key characteristics that you will be looking to focus on?
Tony can come across as this constant angry young man, when there’s a lot more to him. It’s only through rehearsals of discovering back stories that help me find different ways of getting his story across. I mean he and his fellow miners go on strike at the start of the show. Tony I feel is following in the footsteps of his Dad so is driven by that. It becomes pent up rage as the story unfolds. There are so few moments where we actually see a moment of joy for Tony, but it’s as soon as that happens that he constantly receives another blow to the system. To play Tony I dived into a lot of memories from growing up with my older brother Ciaran. He was Tony in our house and I was Billy I guess. He’d be out late whilst I was in my room watching movies. He liked nightclubs whilst I liked computer games. When I’d be doing a show on the am dram circuit back home he’d literally be dragged there and afterwards would have a face on him of how much he HATED it. But in fairness to him most of them were muck! However now we’re grown up, he’s excited to come along. His words I believe were “Billy Elliot? Oh right okay. We’ll pop along. Is it one of them where they’re singing the whole time or is there talking?” “No there’s talking Ciaran” “Oh we’ll be over so!”
Now that’s love!
You enjoyed a mischievous time backstage with your John (Owen-Jones) vs Killian challenges at Her Majesty’s Theatre. What can the cast and crew expect from you at Victoria Palace Theatre?
Well I don’t know really as I’m still in the shy stages. Those are the days you’re still getting to know people, so I’m shy and trying not to come across as a prat. Everyone is so nice and before every rehearsal the whole company is at warm up, where you get to greet everyone. There’s also a quick-change area where, today, we were waiting around so there was about 20 cast and crew all involved in the one conversation. It wasn’t long until the wonderful Ann Emery who plays Grandma, said something, which made everyone laugh. I’m in week 4 so I’ll give it a while before I start coming up with any ideas. I remember myself and JOJ thought of JohnvsKillian to have a laugh on the Thursday and Saturday matinees. We’d no idea they’d get so many hits on youtube, so we made some more.
You mentioned previously that you didn’t go to see The Phantom of The Opera while you were in rehearsals, have you been to see Billy Elliot?
I have. I went again in my 2nd week of rehearsals. Number one because I’m a fan and number two we had done so much work in those 2 weeks I wanted to link the scenes together. I saw Michael Peavoy play Tony who was fantastic. I’d usually make it a rule not to watch the show I’m about to go in. I saw Les Miz a week before I started rehearsals for it, but that’s because I’d never seen it. I know, I know, shock horror!!!! I’d seen Phantom 2 years before going into it so that was pretty fresh and then I just really wanted to see Billy.
I’m not very good at abiding by my own rules eh?
Which is your favourite song or scene from the show?
I know this answer straight away. No thinking about it for a second. READY?
Favourite Song- Grandma’s Song. This is one of the greatest pieces of staging I’ve ever witnessed. I use the word witness as I genuinely thought I was witnessing something magical and would never be captured again. It was, in a word – beautiful. In another word – perfect. In a few Geordie words – “Summick else like”. I saw Ann Emery play the role and she sang the song with such love. Then the choreography on stage mirrored every vowel she sung and inflection she gave with such precision. It was amazing. My ex at the time was in tears at that stage. I wasn’t (until she broke my heart and burnt my jumper…..sniff!)
You are popular on Twitter with over 11,500 followers, how important is it for you to regularly communicate with people that are following your career?
I love twitter. It’s so interesting to keep in touch with people. I don’t know why 11,500 people follow me, but I thank you. I also get weary with the word follow as it suggests something else but am very grateful to those of you that enjoy the downright weirdness and carefree crap I put up there daily. It’s also lovely to hear about when someone has just seen the show or it has opened their eyes in some way. These tweets make going to work all the more worthwhile.
Any message to say to your supporters…
You are all like a lovely bunch of flowers. Perhaps a few weeds here and there and a couple of pansies but I love you all the same. I only know 11,000 of your names but I’m still trying to get the last 500 off by Xmas so bear with me. Thank you for your gifts, pictures and hugs at stage door and please keep tweeting. Thank you again and I hope to see you at Victoria Palace Theatre soon x
Follow Killian Donnelly on Twitter @killiandonnelly
Interviewed by Neil who you can follow on Twitter @LondonTheatre1
Thursday 8th November 2012