SUCH a wicked right hook
Actor Colin O'Donoghue is riding the crest of a wave at the moment after landing the role of Captain Hook, but he's careful not to forget the lean times he endured
Colin O'Donoghue, much feted as the new Colin Farrell, seems adorably wet behind the ears at The Corinthia hotel in London. He's in the midst of an international journalist scrum because of his hot new TV role, as Hook in the Disney series Once Upon A Time, currently available for your viewing pleasure on RTE. And though he's all the things a seasoned star should be; articulate, self-deprecating, well-groomed, you can tell he's also a little bit nervous.
It was only supposed to be a guest role, his take on Hook. But the producers so loved him that they had his rendition of the classic storybook villain written in as a permanent character.
And what a charming pirate! Smooth witty, desirable and wicked. If he's short on swagger in real life, it must be because he's using it all up on screen.
When he got the audition, his initial thought was "I can't play Captain Hook. I'm not old enough." And it's true; one does tend to think of Hook as a bit gnarled. There's nothing gnarled about O'Donoghue. He's all dewy skin and sparkling blue eyes.
But this was Hook version 2.0. "There's no way I'm ever going to play it as good as Dustin Hoffman," he says, acknowledging what's come before him. "So it was important to try and make him our own ... I'm nothing like Captain Hook, so it's great for me to be able to play a character that's incredibly flirtatious but also can be quite devious and also on the other hand funny and charming and all of that kind of stuff."
O'Donoghue, who is from Drogheda, got into acting by accident after some friends in the local youth theatre asked him to stand in for a reading. He stuck at it because he saw it as a way to overcome his natural shyness.
"Because I was so quiet and shy, it was a way for me to not have to be myself anymore. I get to be this other person that's completely different to me, and in some way experience life a little bit through somebody else's eyes for a while."
It was this same impulse that led him to a few different kinds of creative expression as a teenager; playing the guitar (he was in a moderately successful Irish rock band until recently) and even painting.
"I've always played the guitar," he says. "It's probably a similar release to be able to express yourself. If I can't articulate it then I'm able to try and emote some way either through somebody else's words, in the form of a script, or through music. I used to paint. I was going to go to art college. I'm not saying I'm any good at any of them," he says. "I don't know if they all come from the same part of the brain."
Acting, however, took precedence after a defining moment on stage at the Olivier Theatre in London, when O'Donoghue was just 16 years of age. "I ended up joining the youth theatre. And when I was 16 I did a play that won a competition and we were invited to do a show in the Olivier." So there he was, on stage on the British national theatre, playing to a "sold-out audience, and... getting an award off Anthony Minghella. We got a standing ovation in the Olivier, and I was like, 'I like this'."
Not so wet behind the ears after all then. In fact, though it appears that O'Donoghue has vaulted right out of Drogheda into international telly, the truth, as ever, is more complicated. In fact, he's been a jobbing actor for almost 10 years, "touring around nearly every town in Ireland at one point or another".
When he got his big break, in the exorcist thriller The Rite, alongside Anthony Hopkins, he'd been out of work for a year and a half.
"And I didn't know if I was going to get work again. Because as an actor you just never know. I got the phone call, I went through quite a rigorous process to get the part and everybody was saying they wanted me, but you just never know. Because if somebody really famous had come and said, 'I'll do it', then it wouldn't have mattered if everybody liked me or not, because I was an unknown. But it was a shock when I got the phone call saying I was going to do it. All of a sudden I was playing the lead in this Warner Brothers movie that cost, I don't know something like 45 million to make. And that's certainly very different from doing a play in Drogheda that costs maybe €1,000 for the whole run."
Dauntingly different, in fact. "You don't really think about it, because if you do, it's easy to get freaked out. Essentially the job is the same. You have to give 100 per cent to what you do."
His first step to stardom took the form of a small part in The Tudors, aka almost every Irish actor's rite of passage. It was here that fate intervened on behalf of our hero. Important people in LA saw his appearance in the show – all eight minutes of it, and on the strength of that, invited him over to LA to sign with a Hollywood agency. The only snag was that all this happened just a few weeks before he was due to marry his childhood sweetheart back in Ireland. To the enormous credit of his now-wife, who is clearly not a Bridezilla, she encouraged him to seize the chance. Unsurprisingly, this stands out in his mind as one of the many reasons why he adores her. "When (Hollywood Person) got in touch with me about going over to LA the first time, Helen said, 'If you don't take this opportunity you're mad ... you should go over and just see, because if you don't do it now, you might never take the opportunity.'
"I was very lucky that Helen and my parents and my brother have all been really supportive to me," he goes on. "Because there are times when you are out of work and you do question whether or not you want to stick with it or whether you should try and do something else so that you're earning money to pay your rent and all that kind of stuff.
"I was really lucky that they were like, 'look it, we believe in you and we're there to support and help you through'.
"Not financially," he's quick to clarify, "but with love. Without having Helen there to support me I probably wouldn't ever have had the chance to do those things."
He seems to recognise that he's on to a good thing with Helen. "She's also the best person I know, so that helps," he says, with a little smile. She's from Gormanstown, a town near where he grew up, and they've been together since they were both 18. It sounds like a proper childhood sweetheart love story – a romance narrative worthy of Once Upon A Time. "Touch wood!" he says with a laugh, when I mention it. He doesn't think it's unusually to have married young. "My parents, they got married in their late teens, early twenties, so it's all relative to modern society. But there's no explanation for it. We were in love with each other and why would we not?" he says.
He's wearing a big, silver crucifix – he seems to wear it all the time when he's not on screen, and I can't help wondering if it's a fashion statement or a statement of faith.
"My wife got it for me, " he says, "because I'd always sort of wanted one. I guess my faith is important to me. It's just one of those things where it's not about a religion, it's just about what things mean to you. Especially with the way things are back home in Ireland ... I guess faith is important to me," he repeats, a bit uncertainly, trying to carefully sidestep his way around getting drawn into a big discussion about Church, State, scandal and hypocrisy in the middle of Disney press junket where he's supposed to be talking about fairytales.
"Especially having done a film about exorcism," he says finally, finding his way back to the work. It makes you question a lot of stuff as to whether or not you believe in stuff, and what people believe in and why and exorcisms, and whether or not people believe in demons." Phew!
Last year, he left Drogheda, which has continued to be his base all along, and headed off to Canada for an eight-month stint to film the show.
This year, he's back for another months-long stretch again to film series three, but this time as a newly minted long-term character.
"Technically I'm still based in Ireland," he says. "I've been with Helen (for years) and she's a school teacher, so you wanna be with your family and your friends as well.
"So I never wanted to go right, I'm moving to London to try it out."
He's always been hesitant about moving away, but now it seems the work had made the decision for him, so he's taken his wife with him. It meant leaving his beloved band, which he admits was a wrench.
"I set the band up 10 years ago with the singer and we're all very close and still are. The guys are all great because they've understood. They've always been accepting of me going off to do this or a film or a play or whatever. It was a tough decision. But it was in a sense made for me because I was away for so long."
It's also meant getting his first taste of life as a budding celebrity. "I went with my wife to get some ice-cream recently, and one person recognised me. And then they started shouting, 'Captain Hook! Captain Hook!' And then everybody turned around, and my wife was just sitting there eating her ice cream just laughing ... You don't get that back home in Ireland," he says.
Well, it's only a matter of time for Colin, no doubt. But in the meantime, that unassuming humility remains intact. "I'm just delighted to have the opportunity to have a job," he says.
Once Upon A Time continues on Saturdays at 4.20pm, RTE One.