Super Mario aims to make an impression
He started imitating people in order to get his parents' attention, now Mario Rosenstock uses his skills to entertain delighted audiences. He tells Barry Egan about living with his grandmother, how he almost lost the love of his life, and how much he likes making people laugh
AMERICA'S foremost funny man in the 1950s, Jackie Gleason, said that comedy is the most exacting form of dramatic art – because it has an instant critic: laughter.
Mario Rosenstock, cur- rently Ireland's king of comedy, made an instant, even dramatic, impact when he met his future wife Blathnaid O'Neill in 1995. It was "across a crowded dance floor" in the Kitchen Nightclub in The Clarence Hotel in Dublin.
"I have to say something embarrassing," he begins. "It sounds a bit awful. The first thing Blathnaid and I did was kiss. We didn't even speak. We just walked across the dance floor and kissed. It is embarrassing but I am happy for it to be out there. Sometimes the truth is so obvious that you just can't deny it."
The subject of Mario's lust on the fateful night was wearing, he remembers, a brown suede mini skirt and a white angora top. "She looked the image of Vivien Leigh."
Once their ultra-spontaneous snog was completed, they had a bit of a chat then arranged to meet two weeks later. When Mario came into the Globe Bar on George's Street at the appointed hour, however, Blathnaid, he claims, "didn't recognise me. She didn't know who I was." (I think he means that there was a fair bit of drink involved on both sides in their initial meeting on the dance floor of Bono's nightclub in Temple Bar.)
The next morning, Mario Rosenstock's Vivien Leigh was gone with the wind for three months. Blathnaid had gone to America, on a student visa working in Minnesota. "There were no mobile phones then," he explains. "Apparently, she wrote me a letter that got lost."
Mario also seemed a bit lost at that time himself. He was a jobbing actor who wasn't getting much work at the time. "I had given up Glenroe" – or the producers had sent his character Dr David Hanlon ("a bit of a square") to Tanzania on the missions. "If RTE want to get rid of you, how cruel to send you that far!"
Mario managed to resume communication with Blathnaid only when she arrived back in Ireland. Their first proper date was in Tosca restaurant on Suffolk Street. For their second date, he brought her to The Picture Of Dorian Gray at The Gate Theatre.
This romantic rendezvous was almost ruined by Mario practically shouting up at the stage "Yer man is crap!" because, he recalls, "I had auditioned for the part and didn't get it."
That date mishap aside, Mario and Blathnaid were engaged in Amsterdam in 2000 – "on the day Brian O'Driscoll scored three tries against France" – and got married in 2001. "It is brilliant feeling having someone that you love so much ... " he says.
Born on August 31, 1970, in London – "in the same hospital that Prince George was born," he says with a laugh – Mario is the comic virtuoso who inhabits the personas of Miriam O'Callaghan, Louis Walsh, Linda Martin, José Mourinho, Enda Kenny et al on his RTE show, his Gift Grub performances on the Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show on Today FM and on his stage show Gift Grub Live.
The star admits he gets "hurt" sometimes by what the critics say about him. "Oh absolutely, but not to the degree that I wouldn't do it, or that it would put me off doing it. But, yeah, it does. I loved being told something was good. I don't like being told I was crap."
Mario says he tries out his new characters on his loyal audience of one at home in Dun Laoghaire – his wife. "I'd run them by my wife. She's got a good nose for it, because she's not involved in the business at all. So she has a good idea of what the person who I'd like to hear the sketches would be thinking."
Asked which bits of himself he would hold up to caricature for the purposes of comedy, Mario laughs: "There is a friend who does a rather cruel, I think, impression of me: 'Hi, it's Mario. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. You for a little bit. OK? And then me again.' I think it's a little bit cruel."
Is it a form of gentle madness or schizophrenia to be constantly lost in other people?
"I think there's something of maybe boredom with the reality of everyday existence," the comedy savant muses. "Maybe you prefer to go into a bit of a dream world. You prefer to live maybe in a world where you can play: play games with characters, invent scenarios."
Mario was five when he first realised that he could perform and get people's attention – and their laughter. "I did an impression of my father arguing with my mother," he remembers. "They were arguing and they didn't listen to me. So I did an impression of my father. I did his voice with a kind of Eastern European accent" – possibly because his father Paschal is half German – "and it got my parents' attention. That startled me. I suddenly realised that I could get someone's attention by doing an impression of them."
I ask him did his father rate his impersonation of him.
"No, he didn't," smiles Mario now, 35 years later, a big star in Ireland. "The first of many not to! Typically, like most people who are being impersonated, he said: "That's not me, is it?' And my mother went:'That is you!' And then he said again: 'That is not me!'
"When my mum and my aunts would be sitting around gossiping with each other," he continues, "they would get me out of bed to come down and put on a little show for them. They would go – 'Do Caroline! Do Caroline at the shops!' So I would do Caroline at the shops!" he laughs now looking back of his youth in Waterford. In 1983, the Rosenstock family moved to Dublin, where Mario attended Newpark school.
So he always wanted to be an actor?
"No! I wanted to be a professional tennis player. I wanted to be Bjorn Borg actually," Mario says, referring to the long-haired tennis heart-throb of the Seventies. At 14, Mario played one of the better 13-year-old girls from England – "and she hammered me."
"Then I discovered student theatre after that when I went to boarding school," he says.
In 1985, Mario went to Ashton School in Cork – and was a boarder at the school's Rochelle House in Cork – with his little brother Rene, now a solicitor. He made first stage appearance when he played Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman in his mid teens.
"On the last night, I remember bawling my eyes out. It had a transformative effect on me. I said at that point: 'I'm going to be an actor. I'm going to enter somebody else's experience and play them.' That's what I do really.
"I think I'm an actor who does characterisations of people," he continues. "In fact, sometimes I believe my impressions aren't even that good. I just love projecting and heightening the character that I see in people and pushing it out there and bringing some of myself into it, if possible, and letting both work at the same time. I am also putting my own character into it."
What is his own character? How would his wife describe him?
"She would probably say that the closest character that I do to me is Vincent Browne. I asked her why once and she said: 'I think it is just the mischief.' When I am at my best I am mischievous and am liable to do or say something mischievous."
His mischievousness manifests itself towards his wife, he believes, "in maybe saying something controversial to her when she least expects it. My son is like that as well."
As well as six-year-old Dashiell, Mario and Blaithnaid also have a one-year-old daughter, Bellamie. "It means beautiful friend," he says as he takes out his iPhone and plays me a video of his little cherub crawling across the floor to him at home. He goes, "Ahhhh."
On the rare occasions that Mario has a row with his wife he admits to reverting to his acclaimed comedic repertoire to smooth the waters at home. "If I ever have an argument with my wife where I am wrong – and there is no comeback – I sometimes, pathetically, go into a Mourinho impression under the idea that I can win her back. So she goes: 'What you just did just there was awful.' And I go [puts on Jose's deep sexy Portuguese drawl]: 'Was it very bad? How bad was it? Was it retrievable in any way? Can I still be a champion? Can you make me a champion?' And she'll say: 'I'm not buying it!' So if the Jose impression doesn't work, I'm snookered!"
I ask him does his wife ever ask him to be Jose in the bedroom.
"No but once I did a film with Mia Farrow called Miracle At Midnight in 1998.I played a Nazi officer called Colonel Langer. She [Blathnaid] did ask me to dress up in that outfit one time after filming. Just to have a look at me."
In hindsight, Mario rates his performance that night in the Rosenstock bedroom as "good. I had a rider crop as well, and leather boots up to there," he says pointing to his tennis-toned thighs. "You can stop me there!"
Intriguingly, when Mario was six years of age, his parents moved to Germany for four years. They asked him if he wanted to stay in Ireland or go. He couldn't leave, he said, because he loved school – Waterpark in Waterford – so much. He lived with his maternal grandparents in Waterford for a few years.
"My grandmother Dorothy brought me up for quite a while in Waterford," he recalls. "That was a very formative experience for me. We used to listen to Radio 4 together. She was a wonderful woman.
"When she died in 2003, that was the saddest point in my life, probably, because it was my first encounter with death and of someone who I really cared about dying. In her case, she was a person who championed me and told me I was great. Everybody needs someone like that in their life."
His grandmother would be proud of him when he premieres Gift Grub Live 3 next week at the Olympia Theatre.
"The show is all brand-new sketches but it also features brand-new characters – Bono and The Edge." (He takes out his iPhone to show me images of him as the aforementioned U2 rock stars and I have to say the likenesses are uncanny.)
"There'll be lots of surprises. A boy band. I also have Mary Lou McDonald and Dave McCullough, Miriam's (O'Callaghan) sidekick on Primetime," Mario says adding that Miriam – the subject of one of his most famous impersonations perhaps – came to the last show and took a bow to the audience from a box near the stage when Mario introduced her. An Taoiseach wasn't quite as eager to be associated with him.
Mario says that he was in a hotel in Killarney in 2012 checking in to do Gift Grub Live 2. "I saw this man come beside me to my left at reception and he seemed to be acting in a kind of important way. Then on the right hand side I saw what appeared to be the Taoiseach coming through the door. I saw this man grab the Taoiseach and take him to the left and then I was told to go into another room and have a sandwich."
"I was then ordered a plate of sandwiches that high and I was told to eat all the sandwiches. After I ate through the sandwiches I came out and I said 'What was all that about?' and I was told that was the Taoiseach's spin-doctor or whatever. I said, 'What was I brought in there for?' 'I don't think they wanted you to meet him.'
"I think they feared that there were would be, quote, some sort of embarrassing incident if I met him! How ridiculous! He's the Taoiseach. I'm merely a comedian! But I think that they're over-protective of him and I think they wanted to avoid any potential reputational damage," says Mario who grew up in "probably a Fine Gael house" and studied politics and economics at Trinity College from 1989 to 1993.
There was no immediate reputational damage done last Friday when super Mario came into Independent House on Talbot Street as RTE's Francis Brennan – furiously going around the building critiquing the toilets, the canteen, the sofas and the general "dated" design.
Mario's own house is in Blackrock which he bought five years ago. "We live just off the village, near the sea," he says.
Having spent over eight hours with him last Friday – and then an hour over coffees in the Westbury Hotel the following Tuesday – I have to say that Mario Rosenstock is not what I expected. He's complex but fun to be around.
His parting shot to me kind of summed up his whole raison d'etre: "The nicest experience I've ever had in this business is seeing a text message that comes into the Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show every so often," he said of the show where his legendary Gift Grub sketches started in May 1999.
"It is pretty much always the same text – not from the same person – 'In stitches in the car laughing. And I've just looked around and everyone in other cars was laughing as well.'
"Not being over the top, that is as close as a communal experience as you can get. I think we want to do something with our lives that has a lot of meaning and if I can do something that a lot of people are laughing at at the same time, that's the biggest meaning I could get," super Mario smiles.
Mario Rosenstock's Gift Grub Live 3 is at the Olympia Theatre Dublin: April 24, 25 & 26, May 14, 15, 16, 17 Tickets €35.00 & €37.50 from Ticketmaster telephone 0818 719 300 Online www.ticketmaster.ie Ticketmaster outlets nationwide
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