When Killian Donnelly arrived in London from Ireland a decade ago, he had 2,000 Euros to his name and a plan to “see how I get on”.
Three months later the actor from County Meath had an agent and a promise of an audition for a West End show.
That show was Les Misérables – and in the intervening 10 years the Claud-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil blockbuster has become the backbone of the 35-year-old’s stellar musical theatre career, the last two seeing him in the role of Jean Valjean, first in London and now on a UK tour which arrives in Liverpool next week.
But it wasn’t always top billing and Bring Him Home.
Donnelly recalls: “Because I walked in looking fresh-faced and could sing in key and had acting choice and ability, they saw potential and they knew I’d fit in as a swing.
“I had no idea what a swing was. I got offered this role and I thought it was some French character called Le Swing or something! I went to see the show and I was waiting for Swing to pop up. I realised about three days into rehearsals that it meant I was covering all the ensemble boys.
“It was actually the best role I could have got because I was playing 10 roles rather than one. And when you get a 12-month contract, all you do is constantly change. I never went to musical theatre school - Les Misérables was my training."
When he wasn’t covering other parts, Donnelly could be found at the side of the stage, watching the actors playing leading roles like Javert and Jean Valjean and making mental notes about the sections of their performances he admired and wanted to emulate.
Above: Killian Donnelly as Jean Valjean. Photo Matthew Murphy. Top: Photo by Johan Persson
Now he’s the Valjean in the spotlight, and he says he’s relished taking on the part in this fresh interpretation of the 35-year-old classic.
“There’s so much new stuff to discover with this when you open that book, there could be a third version or a fourth in years to come,” he says.
Technological advances since Les Mis’s 1985 premiere have also widened the scope for storytelling, from cinematic projections and bigger orchestrations to realistic make-up which allows Donnelly to age from his 30s to 60s over the course of the evening.
Along with Les Mis on stage, he also appeared in the 25th anniversary concert and later starred in the 2012 film, manning the barricades alongside Hugh Jackman who, with Russell Crowe (playing Javert) was keen to quiz Les Mis regulars on the ins and outs of the musical.
Donnelly laughs: “I remember being in a conversation with Hugh Jackman and Tom Hooper the director. I was in the scene with them, and they said ‘well let’s just talk about the scene’. So, I’m in the middle of this conversation with Hugh Jackman and Tom Hooper, who has just won an Oscar for The King’s Speech – and there’s Killian from County Meath.
“They were talking about how much violence can be seen. If you have too much blood you’ll get a 15 rating on the certificate, so they needed to pull it back.
“And Hugh – I call him Hugh because we’re BFF! – he was like ‘well in Wolverine I got shot in the head and I pushed the bullet out but there was no blood and we still got a PG rating’.”
While Les Mis is the line running through his career, Donnelly’s CV is packed with other juicy roles and shows – including Deco in The Commitments and Charlie the beleaguered shoe factory owner in Kinky Boots, for which he was nominated for an Olivier.
The “actor who can sing” was so keen to be involved in The Commitments that he gave up a holiday to Greece to take part in a three-week workshop.
He smiles: “On the last hour of the last day, the director Jamie Lloyd came up to me and he went – ‘when this happens, make sure you’re available’.
“Three years later it actually went to the Palace Theatre and I got a call to audition and went in and was so nervous – and got the role.”
Commitments film fans will remember teenager Andrew Strong as Deco, but with no physical description of the character in Roddy Doyle’s original book, Donnelly made the decision to take on a completely diametric look for Deco’s stage debut, shaving his head and growing a beard.
And while Kinky Boots had opened across the Atlantic, the London cast fought to put their own stamp on the production – to the point that their interpretation was adopted by the show’s New York run. Donnelly later reprised the role of Charlie on Broadway.
Still, while the musical's fans will see changes with this new production of Les Mis, Donnelly says he is still “fully aware at this point that the show is 35-years-old and if I’m trying to come in with this character, who is so iconic, and try and make it my own and try and change things, I’m fighting a losing battle.
“Because every possible choice that could be made, acting wise, for this character has been done over the last 35 years. I’ve just taken the best bits. I’ve researched!”
Shows to catch in Liverpool this season
One thing that is new to him is the Liverpool Empire – in fact the city in general, although the Irishman has heard about the warm Liverpool welcome.
He explains: “Friends of mine who have done tours with other shows always name the places that you’re going to love. Dublin is one, but then they immediately say the Liverpool Empire is just the most incredible place to play – the audience reaction and everything; it’s like a concert they say. So I’m dying to get there.
The Liverpool Empire
“Because I’ve got a dog touring with me, my first thing is – where are the parks? Where are the beaches?”
Liverpool is also at the tail end of his Les Mis tour of duty, after which Donnelly plans to head home to Ireland for Christmas with his family and girlfriend.
But Christmas also means panto – not to appear in, but to pen.
“I have been writing pantos for the last 10 years,” he reveals. “They’re kind of my little side project.
“I grew up in an am dram musical society and they’d always do a fundraiser, be it a little concert or going to the shopping centre to bag pack, to raise a bit of money. So I said ‘I’ll write you the panto’. That was back in 2000, and ever since then I’ve been writing for am drams.
"But then professional theatres in Dublin got hold of some of my scripts, and then the Cork Opera House. I’ve been writing for them in and out for the last 10 years. This year it’s Peter Pan.”
As for 2020? While he may have spent the last two years being Jean Valjean, the New Year will mean getting back on the audition horse.
“You need to go in to the room and not get the job, go in to another room and not get that job…you need to do that six times and then you get one job and you go ‘oh I got it!’”
Les Miserables is at the Liverpool Empire from October 9-26. Check ticket availability HERE