As I chat to Billy Elliot The Musical star Killian Donnelly, the Irish actor admits “I waffle a lot. You ask me a question and in 20 minutes time we’ll be talking about marmite.” I’d only said hello and asked how the show was going, but had already learned much about the rising star’s life; how he worked his way up through amateur dramatics, how he stood out like a badly prepared sore thumb at his Les Misérables audition and how he’s now performing the one role that has really captured his imagination when he was an audience member.
I can probably get away with writing that as 1 – it’s Christmas, and 2 – Donnelly’s comes across as one of the most genuinely laid back, self-deprecating and loveliest people I’m ever likely to meet. After taking the gamble to come across to the West End from Ireland to have a crack at making it as a musical theatre star, he hasn’t looked back. From earning an ensemble role in Les Misérables, he progressed to the leading role of Enjolras, took another leading role as Raoul in The Phantom Of The Opera and is now playing Billy’s angry older brother in his third West End long-runner Billy Elliot The Musical. But with his first taste of blockbuster film about to be released and a try anything once attitude, his future could hold anything.
CV in Brief:
2008: Makes West End debut in Les Misérables
2011: Joins The Phantom Of The Opera to play Raoul
2012: Plays Combeferre in Les Misérables movie
2012: Joins Billy Elliot The Musical to play Tony
Where did you grow up and how did you become interested in acting?
I grew up in County Meath in Ireland near a small town called Navan, which is kind of known for Pierce Brosnan. My Mam taught a choir and I was thrown into it by the age of 7 or 8. When I was 15 I got into an am-dram production of Oliver! and played Noah Claypole; four months rehearsals for a two week run. I loved it. I just loved the social aspect and the banter between everyone on stage, the little in-jokes and all that stuff. I couldn’t believe people did it as a profession.
I was about 17 and a producer of the Gaiety pantomime in Dublin saw me in a show. He asked me to audition and before I knew it I was doing my first professional pantomime. I was doing Prince Charming with Susan McFadden as Cinderella. That was my foot into the door into professionalism.
In Ireland there’d be a pantomime at Christmas and then there’d be a summer show. I’d fill the other time doing gigs with a friend. Five or six years ago I said “If I want to do musicals I need to go to London and start knocking on doors.” Someone gave me a list of theatrical agents, so whilst I was in a show in Dublin I sent all of them CVs, headshots and covering letters. Out of about 25, one got back. I met with that person and they got me an audition for Les Mis.
I was doing Sweeney Todd in Dublin at the time when I was sending those letters off and David Shannon was in the cast playing Sweeney. Whilst I was there the Executive Producer and Musical Supervisor of Les Mis came over to see Shannon to look at him for [the role of] Valjean. Shannon took that opportunity to introduce me to them. I was just meeting these two people and I hadn’t a clue who they were. Little did I know I’d walk into my first audition and the two of them were sat there behind the table.
How did that audition go?
People who have trained, they all dress properly and they handle it so professionally, which is the way to do it. I have a bad amateur attitude, I’ll just walk in, because in Ireland, you kind of get a text saying “Auditions are tomorrow, will you come in and sing a song?” I walked in wearing a black t-shirt and green combats with trainers that I’d just thrown on. Everyone ahead of me was in black. Black slacks, shirts, black ties. All the women were wearing black gowns. I thought “I’m out of my depth here.” I walked in and said “I’m really sorry, was I meant to wear black today or dress up?” They laughed and said “Don’t worry about it.”
Do you worry about not training?
I guess the only way I’ve ever learned is by doing. I’ll always be that annoying person that asks questions. The only place I was ever answered was when I was acting and when I was singing and asking “Why does my character go over there?” It’s the only thing I ever became interested in.
Tell me about Billy Elliot The Musical and your character, Tony.
I love acting and I love performing, but on my day off I’d rather sit on my couch all day. About six years ago my ex-girlfriend dragged me to Billy Elliot. I watched it and I couldn’t believe this was classified as a musical because yes, there were songs that fuelled the narrative, but it was so raw, and the acting… I saw Grandma’s song for the first time and thought “That’s the most incredible storytelling.”
I looked at the show and thought Tony’s a brilliant part, he’s so emotional, so raw. It’s an incredible acting role and he sings and does a bit of dancing. I’d absolutely love that. I’d never done that with a show before, left a show and gone “I’d love to be in this.” Tony was the only character I ever said I’d love to play one day. But I gave up. I thought that would never happen. I never chased it.
Les Mis happened, Phantom happened and at the end of Phantom they said I’ve got a Billy Elliot audition for the part of Tony. Instantly, leaving the theatre that night, I knew the take I’d put on it. All those memories came flooding back to me.
Now you’re a London stage regular and are in the new Les Misérables film, how are you feeling about your career?
I thought I was coming over from Ireland to do Les Mis and then I’d go home and work in a factory, but singing and acting are the only things I’ve ever been good at. I like to do a bit of writing.
The dream is to have a family one day. Then you have the “Where would you live?” conversation. Would you live in London, would you live at home? But if I want to do what I love I need to be in London. To climb even further up the ladder, the next step is to move to New York and do exactly what I did over here.
A lot of people ask “How did you do it?” I’m forever in auditions saying I didn’t train. It can be hard doing it that way, but I think it stood me well for Billy because of the rawness.
If you could have anyone’s career, whose career would you have?
That’s a good question, but a weird question because I’ve said to people and agents, “Who do I remind you of?” They say “You remind me of a young such and such.” The agent I’m with now said “You don’t remind me of a young anyone. You’re your own person, so we’re going to make your career.” It was the best advice ever.
I originally wanted to be a primary teacher because I loved teaching kids, influencing people and fuelling their minds. But then acting came. I guess career-wise I want to do everything. If someone asks me to try my hand at something, I’ll give it a go. If they say it’s not for me, I won’t get really upset and really depressed about it. Some people go “I didn’t get that audition, I hate myself.” I think hold on, that’s because you’re completely wrong for that. If you don’t get the part you want, get over it, move on, see what’s next.
What do you love the most about performing?
At the end of a day’s work you get a round of applause and cheers and a standing ovation from the audience. That’s me clocking out of work. I love that sort of thing. I absolutely adore it.