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Thursday 2 October 2014

Tackling the dark side of life pays off for McDonnell

Owen McDonnell's hit TV show is back, but, as Andrea Byrne discovers, the actor's paid his dues in full

Andrea Byrne

Published 31/10/2010 | 05:00

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Single-handed, the police drama that launched three years ago on RTE has become a sleeper export hit.

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Following a relatively low-key launch on RTE, the show, which follows the travails of a country cop responsible for keeping law and order in a crime-wracked rural town, was picked up by ITV and won rave reviews across the sea as well as an IFTA nomination. Now it's back again, with bigger budgets, a higher profile and a whole new team.

The success of Single-Handed is in no small part due to its lead, Owen McDonnell, who plays the show's star, Garda Jack Driscoll.

Before Single-Handed, Owen was a veteran of the Irish and UK theatre scenes, quietly notching up a range of heavy-hitting credits in everything from Ibsen to Frank McGuinness. Single-Handed was his first real telly job. Luckily for him, it was a good one. Jack O'Driscoll has undoubtedly moved his career along to a different level.

McDonnell lives in London, where we meet over coffee -- me late and flustered, he patient and charming. Originally from Galway city, he's been here for more than 10 years, since coming over to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama. He seems settled and has a British girlfriend.

Things are good for Owen here now. Being on television has raised his profile significantly and the result has been enough "interesting meetings" to keep him inspired and happy. But London hasn't always been so kind. "It can be tough. I've been here and been absolutely broke, and I've run pubs and worked in horrible call centres and stuff like that. So it has not always been gravy. But if you're working, it's a great town. I don't see myself leaving. Maybe if we had a family I might consider it. But up until then you don't have to think about it."

It's a blessing, I suggest, that his girlfriend works in finance -- a completely different industry, and most of the time, a rather more stable, reliable life than that of an actor. "I don't know how reliable she is," he says, laughing, before adding drolly, "but the steady income is excellent. It does make a difference. It means that I earn fun money and she earns the boring stuff."

Much of the praise for Single-Handed has focused on the way in which it confounds a more typically soft-focus view of Irish rural life. The setting may be Connemara, but the crime and social problems the show tackles are as high drama as we might normally associate with a more urban setting. It doesn't back away from difficult subjects, but tackles them head on, even trying to make sense of them.

"It's not dealing with issues," Owen says, but rather "is more about how those issues affect people ... And the issues are universal."

The new series covers similarly dark terrain. In it Jack O'Driscoll wades into the murky world of teenage prostitution. And while Owen accepts dramatic licence must necessarily be taken, he insists the themes are authentic.

"It would be ridiculous to say that anywhere has this level of crime in a given period of time. But those elements are there. Even though it's a rural drama it throws up myriad issues that affect the whole of Ireland... There was someone sentenced for having several brothels recently," he says. "But one of the cast members said: 'It's the big secret now that nobody talks about, but everybody knows about -- that there are these brothels happening all over the country.'"

It's the complexity of Owen's character, however, that is the peg on which all the stories are hung. "He struggles with decisions and he struggles with making sense of the facts he has. He makes mistakes. He's not [a] super sleuth. He's very human and very flawed in his own way," he says.

Does McDonnell actively look for dark and gritty roles? "I don't seek out the weighty and the gritty necessarily. I tend to play a lot of it, so it probably seeks me out more than I seek it," he says, laughing. "I don't know why, because I'm not really that serious a person. But maybe that's it, I get an antidote at work. I get to get all that out of my system and then I can come home and have a bit of a laugh, and just enjoy... Yeah, maybe it's therapy."

Though his career has undoubtedly taken a new turn with Single-Handed, Owen is not at the point yet where he can pick and choose roles, or can decide to turn down jobs in favour of having a life, without feeling a touch of anxiety.

It's an unsteady life. But it's worth it to him, for the moments, like now, when things are going well. And theatre, he says, is as much an addiction as it is a job.

"Having spent months and years where the end of a night's work would be closing up a pub and kicking everybody out, to then have 400 or 500 people," he mimes applause, "going 'that was marvellous'. That's a much better way to finish your night's work. You go home feeling much better about yourself, and less drunk."

Single-Handed airs next Sunday on RTE One at 9.30pm

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