Interview: Killian Donnelly talks Memphis: “I just like trying different things really”

Killian Donnelly talks Memphis: “I just like trying different things really”

We spoke to Donnelly ahead of the Olivier Awards.

Irish actor Killian Donnelly has been wowing London audiences with his energetic performance as DJ Huey opposite Beverley Knight in the award-winning musical, Memphis.

Appearing in Les Misérables, Curtain Up! and The Phantom of the Opera, Donnelly’s portrayal of Deco in The Commitments alerted the creators and producers of Memphis who thought they may have just found their leading man

We spoke to Donnelly ahead of the Olivier Awards where he was nominated in the Best Actor in a Musical category.

You’re nominated for Best Actor in a Musical at The Olivier’s on Sunday and the show is nominated for loads. That must be quite exciting!

Yeah it’s unreal. This week alone has been unbelievably busy for Memphis because we’re the most nominated show. We’ve got 9 nominations and everybody is just calling us up. The show is busy but also we’re up for rehearsals. Today we were at the Royal Opera House itself for a rehearsal with the orchestra. The cast are performing about two numbers in a sort of montage of about four minutes but our band at the show every night is a nine piece band and we just did it with a hundred-plus orchestra. It sounded sensational! That was at 10.30 in the morning and then straight after that you’re brought somewhere to get clothes… I’ve never experienced this before but it’s exciting I absolutely love it.

Along with the excitement there must be some nerves as well as you’re going to be performing in front of some big names, many of whom are also nominated…

Yeah it kind of adds to the adrenaline that pushes you through where you’re actually performing it and stuff like that. I think on the night the nerves will hit but as regards to moment when they’re doing my award for Best Actor in a Musical and Beverley’s for Best Actress, those two minutes will be terrifying!

Have you practised your winner/loser face for TV?

The applause and sort of: “Oh yeah he deserves it, he deserves it.” I don’t know what I’ll actually look like, this big angry face [laughs]. I’m excited about that but I’m terrified at the same time. Everyone by the way, everyone in the world texts you. I’ve never seen my texts number 106, you go: “What is this?!” And it’s just because they are the people that make you nervous. You sort of forget about it and think: “I’m going to have a great day on Sunday and think of it as a big party and really enjoy myself,” but then you get texts from your Mum going: “No matter what happens we still love you”, [laughs]. “Put more pressure on me why don’t you?!”

Is there anyone attending the awards that you’re particularly excited to see?

Kevin Spacey, I couldn’t believe he was announced! Now I’m a big Lenny Henry fan and he’s hosting it but I’m a huge House of Cards fan and they said Kevin Spacey is gonna be there so I’m just gonna be like: “Hello Mr Frank Underwood,” that’s incredibly exciting. I’m trying to play it down.

You should take him some ribs and he’ll be your best friend forever.

Exactly! I’ll go: “Tell me what happens to Freddy in Season Three…”

I loved Memphis despite not being a huge fan of musical theatre. I came out grinning from ear to ear. Are you getting a similar reaction from audiences?

We are really. You’re going to remember where you were when you saw Memphis and what will happen is in years to come people will go: “Are you into musicals?” and you’ll actually say: “I’m not really but I did go see one called Memphis.” It’s so nice to be a part of that, you know you’re part of something special. I was involved with Les Mis and that’s been running for 30 years and this is an incredibly special show but we don’t know how long Memphis will run. If it’ll run and run or just run for another year or two, but at least you’re part of the first cast that ever happened in London and people don’t know anything about it, they just heard word of mouth about how brilliant it, how amazing Beverley is and the cast. And now we get a lot of people who come back to see it again, they call it their ‘Memphis fix’.

So are you seeing a lot of the same faces?

Yeah you really do because they do day seats for like £20 or something like that. So you can walk up and get a day seat. Now there’s a queue for the day seats because people want to get those seats. So it’s exciting when you’re part of all that and of course when they turn around and you’re the most nominated show and people know nothing about it… What I like it it’s an original musical, Dave Bryan from Bon Jovi sat down at the piano and wrote 15 original songs that are not part of an album that he had or a jukebox musical. Jukebox musicals have hit a certain niche, a great night out. But I think the thing with Memphis is that the music is so compelling and thrilling and original that people literally turn around and go: “Where’s this album? I want to buy this album, I love this musical”, so it’s sort of flying the flag for original musicals, it’s really something special.

Your character Huey is insanely energetic. That must take it out of you physically every night, it’s must be knackering.

It is and it isn’t. It’s like basically if you think about it I have to be onstage for 2 and half hours every night and if I just really go for it the show for me feels like about 35-40 minutes long because it just skips through and it’s really, really fast and that helps me. That adrenaline gets me through. There’s no, as I call them, ‘crisp packet moments’. The moment the story needs to get out people go: “Oh pass the wine gums will ya?” it literally skips through and before you know it you’re at the interval and that’s what people like and that’s what audience members want. It’s been brilliant. The show’s been going for like seven years in America so they have a well put together show, that’s what people like. People want something fast, in your face, energy, energy, energy and that’s what Memphis does. I have lost I think a stone but I welcome the Memphis diet!

As you said it’s been going for a while in America so it must have been flattering that they decided not to bring over the American cast and cast it here…

Yeah. I had three auditions and on my second audition that’s when I went to meet Beverley because they wanted me to read with her. As daunting as that sounds I was excited to meet her. I walked in the door and I smashed my elbow on the handle and it was one of these big heavy duty doors. I got myself together and I said: “How are you? Nice to meet you..” and we did some scenes and the moment that we did the scene there was a trust between me and Beverley, just looking at each other. I like to look an actor in the eye if they look back and there’s a trust they will go with you. Beverley was just sensational from the word go and when I sang Beverley was like closing her eyes and clapping. You’re not meant to give anything away but she couldn’t help herself [laughs] and when I finished singing, usually the panel will be very stern, very quiet and go: “Thank you for coming in,” but Bev was applauding me going: “Yeah that’s our boy.”

Chemistry with Beverley is key to the role and you guys have it in abundance. What is she like to work with?

Beautiful. It can be such a cliche when you say she’s just amazing to work with but she really is. She’s giving on stage. If you come up with a new idea and you phrase something differently or just a little inflection which makes the sentence sound different she goes along with whatever emotion you’re going with and that shows a true actress. Hence why she just got the Olivier nomination. It’s amazing from her background of singing in pop that she has this really clever actress inside her. The research she did for the role, she went out to Memphis, and that just shows so much passion because we live in an age where if you lose the X-Factor you’ll get a lead in a West End show. You suddenly put Beverley Knight in, not just because of her fantastic career but also because she’s an amazing actress. It just shows onstage every night just how much passion she puts into it.

Huey is loosely based on the DJ Dewey Phillips. Did you know much about him before you got the role or did you research him at all?

YouTube was the first step. I remember talking to a friend of mine who was talking about Dewey Phillips and he said: “I know a lot about Dewey Phillips, he was the first to play Elvis in the centre of the radio dial.” Even that phrasing confused me because we live in a digital age although of course I did have a radio that you had to wind to find the proper frequency. But then I just went on Youtube and up comes this amazing interview with him and Jerry Lee Lewis. Dewey Phillips is talking to him but doesn’t let him get a single word in. He just rattled off this information about everything. I wanted to get his accent down so I did base his speech and the pace and his energy on Dewey Phillips. We do a thing where I take over the DJ booth by finding that the door is open and I run into the booth. So I was wondering about these moments in the show going: ” What are these based on?” That particular moment is loosely based on when Dewey Phillips first walked into a radio station, he lit a trashcan on fire so people had to go and put that out and he ran into the booth to take over. So you hear these little things and it’s just so interesting to know that there is truth behind it which can give it a bit of heart and a bit of soul as you should do it on stage every night. He was quite a character.

Have you thought about what you’re going to do after Memphis?

I have but I’m with Memphis until about October. Towards the end of September is usually when the phone rings and someone is interested in you auditioning for something. A few months before the end of my previous show, The Commitments, the phone rang and said: “There’s a show called Memphis coming to town…” and Huey’s description was like: “Energy. A little bit dopey, lovable, quirky.” So I was like: “Ok I’ll give that a go.” So yeah from July-September the phone will ring. Whether it’s a musical or whether it’s film I don’t know. I just like trying different things really, especially with the Olivier’s going off, which I never thought I’d be involved with at all. Growing up in the am-dram background back home in Ireland it was always a joke you’d say about the diva in the show. In Oklahoma in the community centre if you didn’t help put the chairs out you’d all: “Oh. He’s up for his Olivier next week.” I just keep going along with anything that comes along really whether it’s writing or singing in a concert.

What are the fans like?

I get some lovely cards, some lovely drawings of me as Huey. You come out the stage door and it’s the same faces. The passionate fans of Memphis will go: “Really well done tonight. Really enjoyed it. You lifted your hat which I really enjoyed on that line.” And you’re going: “Did I?” But they will notice things, like gospel they will notice every little thing you do. That stage door is always pretty mental and we’re still blown away by the reaction we get because we’re getting standing ovations every night. Touch wood you don’t want to jinx it but they don’t stand when the people take their bows, it’s like the last note hits and then they’ll explode and then they stand up. That’s like old Memphis passionate fans. There’s new fans and then they come to stage door going: “I didn’t know anything about the show. I was dragged here by my girlfriend.” And you’ve got like, I always refer to them as my brother who would be someone who doesn’t go to musicals, who turn around and go: “That’s a brilliant show. I really enjoyed it.” And that’s what you want at the end of the day, just to touch the hearts of people who don’t really go to musicals or think musicals are top hat and tails. Yeah I think we’re getting new fans by the day.

Memphis is on at The Shaftesbury Theatre now. For more information and to book tickets visit memphisthemusical.com.

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