Killian Donnelly
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Interview with Killian Donnelly: Raoul in The Phantom of The Opera

At the time of the interview Killian was starring as Raoul in The Phantom of The Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Inspired by his parents Killian started singing in the choir while at school. His first stage performance was in Oliver of which he says: “Fagin aged 10 was my stage debut in Kilmessan Hall. Held 50 people (60 if 10 stood at the back) and WE had to put out the chairs.”

Killian achieved considerable success on the stage in Ireland Killian Donnellybefore he headed to London where he made his West End debut in Les Miserables.

Having performed in the 25th anniversaries of both Les Miserables and The Phantom of The Opera, Killian is now performing as Raoul opposite The Phantom!

Earlier this week Killian answered some questions about his career and his current role, I am sure that you will enjoy what he has to say.

I believe that you were born in the small village of Kilmessan in Ireland. What was it like growing up there?
Kilmessan (when I was there) was a small village. It’s much bigger now but still regarded as a small village. No ATM so for cash it was a 15 minute drive to the nearest town. No Chinese deliveries either. Too far out. BUT I loved it. Shaped me into the person I am. We all knew each other and loved the communal parties. I grew up in Ennistown, a mile from the village, so it was lovely growing up in the country but it made me crave the city life. Now the way I’m describing it makes it sound like I grew up like one of the Waltons. I didn’t, but it was amazing. It’s actually living in London, that I now appreciate how amazing and peaceful it was growing up in the countryside.

When did you or someone else ‘discover’ that you had a talent for singing?
Both my Mam and Dad sang. It was my Mam who conducted a choir so she threw me into it because she needed some alto to sing Oh Holy Night at the Xmas school bash. Luckily Elaine O’Neil called in sick therefore it was 9 year old Killian’s time to shine. But after that I sang in the church choir and did school plays. Fagin aged 10 was my stage debut in Kilmessan Hall. Held 50 people (60 if 10 stood at the back) and WE had to put out the chairs.

Who inspired you to join St Mary’s Musical Society and what memories do you have of your time with them?
I remember seeing a production of Jesus Christ Superstar by St. Mary’s and asking my Mam “How can I join?” –  I was 14 and was too young to join. Next year I saw their production of Joseph and kids were in it. KIDS! My age. My Mam saw an advert in the local paper saying St. Mary’s were looking for members so we went long. I was 15 but my Mam said “He’s very good though”. That was all they needed. That and the €60 membership. In the end both myself and my Mam joined and we were in rehearsals the next week for Oliver. I was cast as Noah Claypole. Loved it. Played to packed houses over 8 nights. This time 300 fitted this theatre/community hall and again we’d to put out the chairs.

In 2005 you performed in the chorus of The Wireman at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. What do you recall of this performance?
Well before The Wiremen I had done the Gaiety panto Cinderella so that was my “professional” debut. But as regards a first musical where there was no broken 4th wall, The Wiremen was an amazing experience. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from growing up on the am-dram background it’s the family atmosphere when performing a run of a show and The Wiremen taught me that. As a show, starting off, it wasn’t that successful so that too was an experience of knowing how producers can change bits during a run to make it work.

Before making your West End debut you performed in numerous stage productions in Ireland. What are some of your favourite memories from your performances there?
Instantly Cork Opera house panto  – Babes In The Wood. I had to swing onstage and have a sword fight with the Sheriff. I swung on for the sword fight. But had no sword. I just said “Gimme a minute” and ran off. It got a laugh which I loved. I now write their pantomimes. I was also part of the ensemble in The Gate theatre in Dublin’s production of Sweeney Todd which got amazing reviews. That was the last show I was in before moving to London and through that I was introduced to some of the production team of Les Mis who came to see it. I also had to shave my head for the production which I loved. I love having to take a drastic step to suit a role.

How do the audiences in Ireland compare to the West End?
There’s not much of a difference. Ireland are very appreciative of a show, much like the West End when they see one. I think it’s because shows/plays are so accessible in London that people compare them to others. They’ll compare a Valjean or a Phantom to someone whose done it before, where in Ireland they watch the show and don’t care about people’s biogs, simply because they’ll have only heard the music on a CD up to that. At home you’ll hear “I saw the Les Mis tour in Dublin last week-Amazing!” “Who played Valjean?” “Haven’t a clue, but he was brilliant!”. There’s such a huge demand for musical theatre across Ireland.

On joining the cast of Les Miserables: What was it like understudying and performing two opposing roles in Jean Valjean and his antagonist Javert?
I couldn’t believe it when I got it because I loved being a swing in Les Mis. So much to do, always working and a different character each night. I loved it. Then to get Valjean was incredible. I’d been on for Factory Foreman a few times and I think from that, the production team asked would I be interested in covering Javert. When I went on as Valjean it felt like it was over in a half hour. He never stops. When he’s off stage he’s changing AND ageing. It’s an amazing sing and the only way to do it (I believe) is give it 100% every time. A week later I was on for Javert. Two shows and it was completely different. Having done Valjean it allowed me to anticipate moves being thrown at me and I loved every minute of it.

You then played the role of Enjolras in Les Mis. Which of these three main roles did you enjoy playing the most and why?
Without a doubt, Javert. Valjean is an incredible sing and so demanding physically. The part is written beautifully and so wins the audiences hearts by who he is, what he sings and where his story takes him. Enjolras is very similar in that respect. I loved playing that role and coming off every night after the barricade sweating buckets. But again his singing, physicality and sex appeal wins the audiences over. But Javert is this dark authoritative figure who endlessly applies pressure on Valjean throughout the show. The constant chase I fed off of and how this figure just walks on stage and instantly takes control is incredible. He experiences so many emotions in such a short space of time and for the audience to feel sorry for him by the end is the payoff. He’s always regarded as the baddy. He’s so much more than that.

There are some incredibly emotional moments in Les Mis, do you have a favourite scene and song from the musical?
Favourite moment is the Enjolras dead body reveal. What an incredible visual. There’s so many moments throughout my time at Les Mis that I’d have a “Les Mis moment”. It just catches you. Whether you’re watching Javert sing Stars from side stage and you think “I’m in Les Mis”. I’m now having them in Phantom. But I love Valjean’s death. It’s so beautifully staged. Simple yet effective.

How would you describe the event that was Les Misérables 25th Anniversary concert at the O2 Arena, where you performed as Courfeyrac?
To be amongst the ensemble was a gift and I thanked my parents for having me when they did so that my life was timed perfectly with the 25th concert BUT to stand on that stage and sing a character was amazing! I’ll never forget when we all entered for Paris and the entire ensemble was on stage, the audiences cameras just flashed constantly. I’ll never forget that experience. And now it’s so lovely when people at stage door say “I saw you in the 25th, love your Courfeyrac. Proves there’s no such thing as small parts. Courfeyrac was my favourite student to play when a swing. So much fire in his belly wanting to fight and being driven by Enjolras.

You were part of the ensemble in The Phantom of The Opera 25th Anniversary at The Royal Albert Hall. Can you describe this experience.
Again I thanked my parents for their impeccable baby making timing AND I thought to myself “This will be a lot easier than the O2, as the chorus aren’t in as much”. I was wrong. So much work going into putting on a show that scale. Not a concert, but a full length new adaptation and it was remarkable to see the original cast members AND production team. Gillian Lynne working is such an amazing sight. She is so lovely and approachable that just makes everyone feel at ease. I’d never thought I’d get to sing in the Albert Hall. That’s ticked off the bucket list.

You are now performing as Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny in The Phantom of The Opera. How would you describe your character and the ‘love triangle’ that he finds himself in?
The one thing I wanted to do with Raoul was make it my own. I purposely didn’t go see the show whilst in rehearsals. I read the book, which I discovered is a very different character to the musical version. I wanted him to be more of a challenger to the Phantom. For there to be a valid reason why Christine would choose him at the end and also to show the hurt, bitterness and torture that he has gone through after she is gone. This is revealed at the start when we meet old Raoul. There’s also Raoul’s ego I wanted to explore. He’s too proud to back down. Raoul comes from a rich family and militant background. A young man, rich enough to be the patron of a theatre. Learning all this background excited me more and more to start the role.

Phantom of The Opera and Les Miserables are two of the most iconic musicals in the world. How do the two compare and why have they been so successful?
I think the success is down to the stories. They each have such incredible stories that go through so many stages of emotions that people can relate to. Also the music is unstoppable. When coming into Phantom, after Les Mis, the one thing I was excited about were the dialogue scenes. Because Les Mis is sung throughout, it’s difficult to make an acting choice as it’s all timed to music. There’s only so much you can change. Whereas for example, with the dressing room scene in Phantom, I like to change it now and then, entering the room with a different energy. Completely changes the scene. I love that.

What is it like backstage at Her Majesty’s Theatre?
Like the 1st 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan……joke. I was looking for somewhere to put that in. It’s one big family backstage but very, very busy. There’s more people off-stage then there is on and they just make the show flow. I actually said to one of our A.S.M’s the other day before I went on in a scene. “I love this building”. She has been there 4 years and said she’s never found anything like it before. And when I got the gig, Ramin Karimloo said to me “Dude you’re gonna love that building. Such a lovely energy”. He was right.

John vs Killian Challenge questions:
How did John vs Killian get started?
I was bored and in early one day, so I stole a costume of John’s and tweeted a pic of me in it. He then did the same and war began.

Everyone wants to know…. Twister – Did John fall or was he pushed?
John FELL! If you watch it back, he goes for left hand yellow and decides to try for one directly behind him, rather than under him. I didn’t push him. Should have though.

Not sure what the judges were looking at in the cracker challenge – was there a sleight of hand in this challenge and you really only ate one cracker?
No I ate 4.5 but half of John’s were on the floor and table because he laughed. He burst out laughing and it went everywhere. He’d to clean up.

Is it true that the guitar challenge was in fact an audition tape for Blur The Musical?
Hope so. We’re in talks.

Not to put too fine a point on this but national pride is at stake (Wales vs Ireland) and you are getting whipped! Is there time for you to make a comeback before John Owen-Jones rides off into the sunset with the John vs Killian trophy in hand? What are your plans?
Well for now we’re stopping filming them for a while, simply because we’ve no time. I’ve to go to Ireland for work commitments and John’s leaving so we’ll leave it for now and start it back up again when he’s settled on tour. #johnvskillian #tourvstown maybe??

Away from your successes on stage you have also appeared on television. Would you like to do more television work and what type of TV programmes would you like to appear in?
I’d love to be in more TV I love the subtleties of acting on camera. Myself and a friend from home have been writing this pilot script for a moc-umentary Irish show. We write then shelve it for months but luckily we’re in the stages of screen tests to see what works and doesn’t work. It’s an experience if anything.

Apart from The Phantom of The Opera and Les Mis are there any musicals that you would one day love to appear in?
I never have a goal, job wise. I’m an actor, not a fan. I like to see what comes along and then give it my all. I’ll take each day as it comes I guess.

Is there anyone that you would love to sing on stage with?
My Dad. He’s a legend.

What do you like to do on your days off?
REST!!! Since I only get Sunday off I like to do as little as possible. I’m not one of these “Hey we’re all meeting at 10 a.m to go shopping and have a wonderful day off”… I’m thinking that’s NOT a day off. Stay at home, watch flicks, go to pub, roast, cinema (that’s pushing it), home, tea, crap telly. That’s my Sunday.

What message would you like to say to your fans and supporters?
You peeps are amazing! Thank you for your constant support and lovely chats at stage door. Whenever I’m having a bad day, it completely gets turned around by a tweet or a kind letter waiting for me at stage door, so genuinely, from the bottom of my heart, thank you all for being lovely legends. Come say hello at stage door or follow me on twitter @killiandonnelly

Many thanks Killian for taking time out from a very busy schedule to give this interview. Best wishes!

Interviewed by Neil Cheesman

Her Majesty’s Theatre
57 Haymarket

Updated 27th November 2015

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