Changing faces - Mario Rosenstock and Al Foran reveal how to do a great impression
They're the men most famous for, well, sounding like someone else. Here, Mario Rosenstock and Al Foran tell Lauren Murphy the secrets to doing a great impression…
The trick to the whole thing, reveals Al Foran, is to put your whole body into it. He furrows his brow, hunches his shoulders and frowns, wringing his hands. "Like this, yageddit?" he says loudly. "You gotta look the part, and ya gotta swear... a lot. When I do Joe Pesci, I own the room - nobody can say s***! I become that absolute lunatic in Goodfellas and Casino, and people love it. Ya see?"
The woman at the table next to us peers cautiously over the edge of her newspaper, but she needn't be alarmed: an icon of mob acting has not entered the room. Instead, one of Ireland's most promising young impressionists is running through his best-known skits, taking off Robert De Niro, Mike Tyson, Donald Trump and Caitlyn Jenner in one fell (and admittedly hilarious) swoop.
Dublin native and aspiring actor Foran, 26, is adamant that anyone can learn how to perfect a voice - even if, like me, you find yourself reverting to a strangled hybrid of Welsh, American and Indian accents with every attempt. "Absolutely, it can be taught," he nods enthusiastically. "If you watched one of my videos from eight years ago, you'd see the difference - but I worked at it to make it better and better and better. For example, with Robert De Niro I started off doing the early De Niro from Goodfellas and Raging Bull, and then I gravitated slowly towards the older, grumpier De Niro. Obviously, the face factors in too; with De Niro, it's almost more of a visual impression more than a voice. I didn't actually have the voice for years, but I went back to the drawing board and studied how he sounded. I watched Meet the Parents and his more recent films, and I just practised and practised. I suppose it's about being adventurous with your vocal chords. It's hard to explain - but I know that people can impersonate anyone, if they put their minds to it."
You shouldn't be afraid of getting things wrong, either; it can take him between a minute and a month to master a voice and there are still some characters that elude him, even now. "Everyone says, 'Do you practise in the mirror?' but I don't do any of that; I actually pace up and down," he explains. "The shower is a great spot, too, because you're on your own. People sing in the shower, but I practise voices - which is a strange one for the neighbours. I don't do enough of the likes of Jay Z... and Woody Harrelson is another one, and Jeff Bridges. I'm working on The Rock at the moment, he's a tricky one; I can only do his laugh."
Like many impressionists, Foran unwittingly began his career as a kid by impersonating "aunties and uncles at birthday parties and family weddings". These days, he continues to foist his voices on his family (and even enlisted his proud mother for a recent video as she displayed her own impersonation talents. Spoiler: she's not half bad). Growing up with the likes of Jim Carrey and Robin Williams as comedic heroes, he watched a lot of television: "And I'd observe a lot - especially people's characteristics and mannerisms. Like every impressionist, it just started off as a bit of craic, but about eight years ago I made a few YouTube videos with a couple of my mates, and they went viral... well, in Portmarnock, anyway!" he laughs. Having become something of a minor celebrity in the locale, Foran's star properly ascended when he began uploading videos - particularly his impressions of Conor McGregor - to Facebook, just as the MMA star was becoming a global name.
"Conor McGregor did catapult me. He just took the world by storm, and it was a massive help that he had become so successful and was so outlandish. Social media was a huge thing, too, making Facebook videos; any time I'd put up a video, especially of McGregor, it would get massive hits. I had been doing De Niro and Pacino and all of those other characters before him, but people know me as the 'Conor McGregor guy' now," he says, adding that he has met the brash star in the past. "He said I sound nothing like him - but he loved my De Niro and Mike Tyson."
Foran studied Film Production at college, which he says helped him in terms of figuring out how to shoot and pace videos. Although he is now pursuing his comic career on a full-time basis - he recently did a show at Dublin's Vicar Street - he is also interested in pursuing a career in front of the camera, having appeared in a short film, Kubrick By Candlelight, last year and "seriously getting the acting bug". "I have a huge, massive interest in films. I'd love to act more; I want to be known as an actor in the future. I feel if I can morph myself into these different characters and different accents, acting doesn't feel like too much of a stretch. There's a methodical approach to impersonating characters that can be applied to acting."
Mario Rosenstock would agree with that summation, too. As the godfather of the Irish impressionist scene, the Dubliner started out as an actor before his impersonation skills eventually led to his enormous success on various platforms - most famously on radio as the lynchpin of Today FM's Gift Grub for the past 18 years, but also on TV and a thriving stage career, too.
"I found it was a good way of getting attention from my parents - especially when they were having arguments," he recalls of his early forays into impersonations. "You wouldn't believe how narcissistic people are. People absolutely love seeing themselves and I kind of copped on to this. I'd be doing my father, and my mother would say 'Look at him, he's doing you!' and my father would indignantly go 'That's nothing like me!'"
His career as an impressionist got an unexpected start when he was sharing an apartment with two New Zealand girls in the late 1990s, one of whom worked for Radio Ireland, as Today FM was known at the time. "She used to hear me going around the apartment doing impressions, and I used to give them great laughs," he recalls. "I was always doing voices. One of them might walk by the bathroom and hear, to all intents and purposes, Gerry Adams showering with Martin McGuinness; 'Here Martin, pass the shampoo there, will ya?' 'Alright Gerry - would you like a bit of Pantene or Timotei?' and that sort of thing," he says, nailing both voices with ease. "Then she said one day: 'Mario, would you ever ring into the radio station and pretend to be Gerry Adams giving out about Britney Spears and her song Toxic?', and I said 'No problem' and rang in the next morning. And... that's really how it all started."
He says that the most important thing for an impressionist is the ability to put their own amusing spin on a character. "I can't do everybody; no impressionist can do everybody," he explains. "I usually don't even call them impressions, I call them 'characterisations' because it's my take on their character, my take on their voice, my take on their actions. It is an impression as such, yes; but 'impression' usually denotes a simple vocal impression, which basically tries to parrot somebody's voice. Often, I'll take something that I hear and I blow it up and try to make a feature out of it. For example, on the radio show, our Daniel [O'Donnell] is obsessed with watching Fair City and is a TV reviewer for Ian Dempsey. He adores rugby and especially Rob Kearney; he loves death-thrash metal bands like Toxic Dump and Infested Graveyard. So this is the 'secret' Daniel; in other words, we've given him a whole alter-ego."
He has never had serious run-ins with the people he impersonates, but says that most of them have disputed his accuracy. "Daniel O'Donnell will say I'm very good at doing somebody else, but I can't do him," he says, laughing. "Michael Noonan used to say 'You're great at doing Bertie, but you can't do me at all'. So nobody believes that I can actually do an impression of them at all - in a way, I'm the worst impressionist in Ireland."
Adopting the persona of so many different characters can be tricky, he admits (not least for someone attempting to interview him as he peppers the conversation with various voices), but not in terms of keeping him grounded. At the end of the day, he is still just Mario to his friends and family - albeit a good man to have around in social situations that require entertainment. After 18 years in the game, he says it's the source material that has kept him going this long.
"No way I thought I'd still be doing it," he says, shaking his head. "There's so many things that have happened with it - there's been 13 albums and 500,000 sales; two No.1 albums in the Irish music charts; a No.1 Christmas song; three TV series; five stage shows, 10 tours of the country... it's been a long and fantastic road. I thought you'd run out of material but I discovered fairly early on that it's the actual people themselves who keep the material coming. There's so much to pick from and so much material to use, so it's impossible to get sick of it. It's changing all the time."
Some of his characters have naturally fallen by the wayside over the years as they have slid out of the public eye for whatever reason, but there are some evergreens that he will always return to, he says. "I wouldn't be doing Roy Keane at all now, did I not feel that he was still 1) interesting and 2) relevant," he nods. "He's a complicated, fascinating character, as is someone like Ronan O'Gara. I used to love Joan Burton, for the craic; I love doing Miriam O'Callaghan, because I can really look like her and act like her, and I love the buzz that people get when I do her. Women, especially, love it when I do Miriam; people come up to me and say 'Genuinely...' - so that's fun," he laughs. "At the moment, I'm really enjoying doing Paschal Donohoe and a lot of people are getting a kick out of that on the radio; it's his politeness and his niceness that's really funny."
And there is one particular character that he always loves returning to. "For pure madness and pure comedy, I love doing Flatley," he says, laughing. "He is the perfect storm for what I do; the look is fantastic, the sound is fantastic, the 'Bejaysus' Irish-American accent - but the satire is the funniest thing, because he can't see it himself, and everybody else can. Everybody else is going 'This is preposterous, this guy!' and he's going, 'Y'know what, I'm really proud to be an ambassador for Ireland and shining the Irish flag, god, bejesus and begorrah.' For me, it's pure joy to do something like that."
Above all else, he says, it's important not to forget the golden rule of being an impressionist: mimicking someone's voice is not enough when it comes to keeping people engaged. "Whenever I'm in a bar, I'm dragged over to people and they say, 'Our mate here does a great Roy Keane' - but it's not Roy Keane, it's me doing Roy Keane," he laughs. "Another person will say, 'Mario, this person over here does a great Eamon Dunphy' and they'll do the whole 'He's a good player, he's not a great player' thing. And I'll say, 'Okay, you can do the voice, so what have you got?'... but they won't have anything else. And none of that is funny.
"Impressions are only funny for a second, because it's just a sound; it's a parrot, a trick. It's like when you see a person juggling, and they make the clubs rotate three times; you go 'Woo! Nice trick. Next?' If they do that over and over again, you go, 'Okay, that's boring me now. Is that all you can do? Can you maybe stand on your head and do it?' It's the same thing with impressions; what you say is more important than how you're saying it."