The young contender... Cork actor Chris Walley
With a box office hit and follow-up series already under his belt, The Young Offenders star Chris Walley is certainly one to watch - and he hasn't even finished drama school yet. Darragh McManus meets the Cork actor
In virtually every way, Jock Murphy, lead character in The Young Offenders, couldn't be more different from the actor, Chris Walley, who plays him. Jock swaggers through the northside of Cork in this rudely hilarious film (and now TV series) as bold as brass: thieving bikes, stealing roof-lead, snogging the headmaster's daughter in front of him, and generally getting up to all sorts of mischief. He's obnoxious, foul-mouthed, irredeemably stupid. Chris Walley, on the other hand, is softly spoken, perceptive, erudite and unusually thoughtful for a mere stripling of 22.
They're barely even recognisable as the same person. Chris has curly hair and looks like a regular young man; Jock has a shaved eyebrow, gammy haircut, gammier 'tache and the sort of shiny tracksuit that screams out, well, young offender. And yet, Chris admits, there are "definitely elements" of Jock in the real-life actor behind him.
When asked if they're much alike - and to pardon the question but there's no insult intended - he laughs and says, "No, that's not insulting at all! Me and Jock are different, yes, but there are a few similarities. It depends who you ask, I suppose. Some people say I'm very like him… that in itself might say something. I can be a bit mischievous at times, although not to the same extent as him.
"What's nice about Jock is that there are elements in him that I really enjoy when I get to play them. They can fully flourish and come out in me."
He describes Jock and Conor (his partner-in-juvenile-crime, played by Alex Murphy) as being "more eejits than really bad. Now, if you owned the bike Jock has stolen, obviously you're going to hate him. But he isn't without remorse. He feels bad for doing stuff… although that doesn't stop him from doing it again. He's young and stupid, and really doesn't know any better. That's all these two have ever known. They're clueless."
Clueless is just about the last word you'd use to describe Chris Walley. He'll be playing Davey in this summer's West End production of Oscar-nominee Martin McDonagh's semi-legendary play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, as part of a stellar cast including Aidan Turner and Charlie Murphy. Rehearsals start in May; Chris will be doubling up with his final year of studying at London's prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (Rada).
Meanwhile, Young Offenders is still going gangbusters. This rollicking black comedy became the fastest Irish film to take in €1m at the domestic box-office on release in 2016, and was commended and awarded at film festivals everywhere from Los Angeles to Austin and London to Galway.
Now we get a six-part series - which began on RTÉ2 and the BBC's iPlayer last week. It reintroduces the gruesome twosome and their madcap adventures. But it also expands the universe and - perish the thought - even allows for the possibility that Jock and Conor might learn something along the way.
"This series is very funny," Chris says, "but it also has some great drama, and Jock's story really progresses. What was nice about the film - and we delve into this even more in the series - is that we always get to see why they're doing what they do: the complications and dilemmas they face.
"They don't want to do these things, but they have to. Then, when they actually go to do it, you've been on the journey with them, you know their thought-
processes, so in a strange way, part of you wants them to succeed. Your morals get changed!"
With all the principals from the original - writer/director Peter Foott, actors Hilary Rose, PJ Gallagher, Alex and Chris - back on-board, Chris was confident the show would work. But, he admits, there was a "sense of pressure" in carrying on the story of such a well-received film.
He says, "We felt that we had to do it again - the original was enjoyed by so many people - but if the follow-up isn't as good as the first one, it's always a big let-down. Then Peter sent us the script and I knew we were onto a winner for sure. He's just so intelligent, in all aspects of writing and film-making. I'm very happy with it. It's filmed on location in Cork, so the sense of place is still there - that's very important and was a big part of the film's success."
Chris grew up in Glanmire, just outside Cork city. His mother works for Enterprise Ireland, his dad for the Cork plant of multinational engineering firm Flex. His brother is a sub-lieutenant in the Irish Naval Service.
While he wasn't reared in the northside sink estates depicted in Young Offenders, Chris does "know the city well". He attended the Christian Brothers school and, as a basketballer, "would have been going to different places in the northside for matches. I grew up around that kind of environment, alright; I'd have friends who would have been like Jock. I was exposed to it, it wasn't a shock to me."
The runaway success of Young Offenders was, he recalls, "a lovely surprise". Chris got the role of Jock through open audition, after his drama school emailed a casting call.
"You had to send in a video, talking about yourself," he says, "to see how confident you were in front of a camera. Then I auditioned with Peter and Hilary - she was brilliant, she read opposite me - and after that, another audition where I met Alex and we read together. We found out that day we'd got the parts."
It was his first real screen acting job; prior to that Chris had only done theatre, and even then, at an amateur (though high) level. He speaks very highly of Peter Foott, both as an artist and a font of film-making wisdom:
"Peter taught us the art of screen acting through an enjoyable rehearsal process. He was very patient with us. And he also taught us about the mechanics of film-making, how to understand what way things will look on screen."
Chris loved the Young Offenders script, but confesses that he had "no idea" what to expect, either on set or in terms of the film's reception - mainly because he had nothing to compare it to.
He says, "I'd done the odd short film but never a production of that size, albeit this was a relatively small shoot. And it's hard to know how something will work, just from reading a script. But filming it, we had fun every day. And I saw bits and pieces as it was coming together, and it felt like it was something special.
"We premiered at Galway Film Fleadh. It felt so strange to have been a part of something and then you're watching it. But everyone was laughing when they should have been, quiet when they should, and I was looking around, thinking, 'Wow - they're really enjoying this.' I came out of the cinema and was nearly overwhelmed by the response. The momentum sort of gathered after that. I'd had no expectations, but it was such a pleasure to be part of."
There's no history of acting in his family, although his brother had begun - and quickly left - drama classes as a small child. Chris, on the other hand, always wanted to be an actor, as far back as he can remember. (There was a brief interlude where the dream was to play football professionally; that ended, he says wryly, "when I realised that my athletic ability didn't match my ambition".)
He started taking classes around the age of eight: first in the Gaiety school, then Cork School of Music. He performed in plays and took one-to-one tutorials. He was also in the National Youth Theatre and studied drama in "regular" school, as part of the curriculum, and appeared in school productions. He read a lot of plays: Enda Walsh, Shakespeare, the Classics…and Martin McDonagh, whose Pillowman provided Chris with the monologue he used to ace his audition at Rada.
He is rich in his praise of the "fantastic" teachers he's had: people like Regina Crowley, who ran the School of Music youth theatre, and Trina Scott, his one-to-one tutor.
"Through them, I learned so much," Chris says. "Acting training was very important to me, I've always known the value of it. I got introduced to various methods through the School of Music, we'd go into plays in such detail. And that gives you real confidence: when you go into a rehearsal room, you know that you've learned different methods of approaching a text."
Rada was, in some ways, an inevitable endgame. Chris had his "eye set" on attending the London acting school "really from when I first heard of it". He would Google actors he admired and discover that many were alumni.
He says now, "I remember telling my mum, 'I want to go to Rada', and her saying, 'There's no way you'll go there, it's too expensive to send you over to London.' I auditioned once and didn't get in, then auditioned the following year and got a place.
"So I rang my mum to tell her and she was like, 'Okay… okay.' Then there was silence. I could nearly hear her, thinking, thinking. Finally she rang me back and said she was over the moon, delighted, and we'd work something out. My parents have been nothing but supportive, they've been great."
He was one of only 28 to gain entry, from some 3,500 applicants. Chris got the good news, over the phone, while shooting a Young Offenders scene on Three Castle Head (in West Cork). He laughs, "I must have been in the only square metre of phone signal. I got the news, got off the phone and roared at the top of my lungs. I was a very, very happy man."
Chris loves London, though naturally, he didn't know how he'd react to moving abroad at 19: the first time he'd lived away from home.
"I'm a very restless person," he says, "and London affords me so many opportunities to just walk around the streets. I go to Camden, go to the markets, Soho, Brick Lane; in summer you can go swimming in Hyde Park. There's always something to do, and I love that. I like to keep busy. It's exciting, the buzz of a big city. It's great fun. A big change from Glanmire.
"Having said that, I'm a huge advocate for Cork, I'm just mad about it. I love that you can walk from one side of the city centre to the other in 15 minutes; you've got everything there, every side-street has something happening. Cork is big enough that, if you want, you can get lost in it; it's the perfect balance. And I'm lucky in that, when I'm in London I don't miss home; then when I'm at home, I don't miss London. I'm always happy to be where I am."