The Moone Boy actor shot to fame aged 12, now he’s showing he can mix drama with comedic turns
“As I got older, my features completely changed and nobody recognised me anymore. That was fantastic. It meant I could just have a very normal life.”
So says actor David Rawle of the natural transformation that has taken place between his 12-year-old self – when he was the star of Moone Boy with Chris O’Dowd – and now, 21, as he is about to appear on stage in David Horan’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship.
It’s a very sane inversion of the whole ‘don’t you know who I am?’ brand of celebrity; more of a contented ‘you don’t know who I am’. And it seems very consistent with Rawle, who appears no more inclined to drama or fuss than his Moone Boy alter-ego Martin.
In The Blackwater Lightship he plays Declan, a young man who has been estranged from his family for years, during which time he has kept from them both the fact that he is gay, and that he has Aids. Now, he is dying, and it’s time to reckon with all that hasn’t been said. The play, like the book, is set in 1990s Ireland, and therefore – inevitably – Declan isn’t the only person keeping secrets.
So, how did Rawle come to audition for the part? “That’s actually kind of a mad story...” he says. "I’d just graduated from the Lir Academy and David Horan was a tutor there. When I was in first year, David gave a class. He brought in a script that he’d written and got us to read, talk about it, break it down. It was The Blackwater Lightship. I remember thinking, there were a few specific moments that really stuck with me.
“Two years go by, David got in touch, wanting me to read for the role of Declan. I re-read the script, and thought it was absolutely beautiful.”
And so he was asked to audition?
“It was kind of an offer,” he says modestly. “I didn’t have to audition, which is great.”
How has the rehearsal process been?
“A lot of actors in this are incredibly experienced and miles better than me. But I’d worked with David and so it was easier to come into this. It wasn’t as daunting.
“I think every first day of rehearsal is going to feel like ‘first day at school’, a little bit, where you’re just looking around going: ‘Who do I know? Who do I talk to?’ But you get over that.”
It’s a role that takes in many serious things, not least the full realisation of what Aids meant in the 1990s. In the US, between 1981 (when Aids was first recognised) and 1990, there were well over 100,000 deaths. The toll peaked in 1995 with around 50,000 deaths that year, before starting to fall – 59pc of deaths were gay men, most aged between 25 to 44.
Was he shocked? “That it’s still ongoing is the worst thing,” he says. “Obviously the height of the Aids crisis happened before I was born, so I had to do a lot of research to work out specifically what it was.”
We talk about the way the Aids pandemic has been explored culturally recently – Russell T Davies’ It’s a Sin; Before I Go by Phillip McMahon at the Gate Theatre; Ryan Murphy’s Pose on Netflix.
“It’s interesting that it took another global pandemic – where everyone was at risk – for us really to be able to go back and analyse that last pandemic, where it wasn’t at first affecting everybody. How people responded at the time, how they were suddenly pointing fingers, calling it a ‘gay plague’, how there was such a stigma around it for years, so much misinformation, so much uncertainty...”
But here, too, he is ultimately positive. “Isn’t it lovely to see how far we’ve come? There’s a long way to go in a lot of ways, but in the play there’s a gay character who’s married. I always have to remind myself that up until four years ago that wasn’t allowed. It feels so strange for me, because we’ve just gotten used to it now, whereas back then it would have been a huge thing.”
I ask does he have a preference for comedy or drama – after Moone Boy, he took on some much heavier roles, including Brendan O’Donnell in the 2016 film, Property of the State.
“I think I’m equally interested in all. What I love about this part, Declan, is that even though he’s in this horrible situation and knows he’s going to die, he keeps upbeat and positive for the others. There’s the darkness – but also a lot of love. That’s been really fun, to explore those things at the same time.”
Rawle, who grew up in Leitrim, started in youth theatre very young – although not as young as some accounts would have him. Was he really four, I ask?
“That’s just something the internet says,” he laughs. “I don’t think I would have been doing much acting at four. We would have done speech and drama from about seven, then on to youth theatre around 11. My sisters were doing it, so I was like ‘I want to.’”
What was it that attracted him?
“It just really appealed to me. I was terrible at football, I didn’t enjoy all that stuff, the GAA. I was looking for something else.”
He was lucky in where he lived. “Carrigallen in Leitrim, there’s a very strong am-dram scene and a lovely theatre, the Corn Mill, where I would have gone to see plays.”
As it happens, Moone Boy is 10 years old this month. And still, rightly, one of the best-loved Irish shows. How did that part come about?
“It feels like by accident. It was a lot of coincidences. I was going to youth theatre, and I was told, ‘they’re looking for a lad of this age, from this area, who suits this description’ and I thought, ‘well that’s kind of weird. But I’ve never done an audition before, maybe I should do that…
“I won’t go for the main character, because obviously I won’t get that, so I’ll go for Padraic instead.’
“I just wandered blindly down this path, going, ‘this could be a bit of fun.’ It was all very laid back, and every time I did an audition for it, I was like ‘well that was a good experience, I’m glad I did that’. And then the second round, they asked me to come back for the main character part… ‘Can we see you as Martin?’
I always felt like we maintained a level of ‘let’s have a bit of craic’.
“I thought, ‘that’s a bit strange but OK’. Then on to the third round it was down to me and two other lads. I met Chris for the first time, some of the other people in the cast and thought ‘this could kind of be real’ but I was trying not to get my hopes up too much. And then, suddenly, I had the part.
“It was just such a lovely experience. I was looking back over old photos – 10 years – and I couldn’t believe how happy we all looked. No matter how stressful some of the shooting should have gotten, I always felt like we maintained a level of ‘let’s have a bit of craic.’”
Of O’Dowd, he says: “He was always so wonderful, really down to earth and fun to work with. The kind of funny that’s almost like, ‘how?’ We’d be doing interviews, and I’d be like, ‘I’m not even going to say anything, this guy will have them in stitches in 30 seconds…’ He’s just the wittiest man in every room he walks into. I’ve a lot of time for him.”
How did filming work with school?
“I’d go off for about six weeks, I would do some tutoring in the evenings, keep up with homework, and my school was very accommodating. Basically when I came back to school everyone was like, ‘oh, where were you?’ ‘I was sick…’ and everyone was like, ‘OK, whatever’. Then when it came out, people were like, ‘wait a second…’ I didn’t want to go on about it. I just thought they’ll see it when it comes out.”
And, when it did come out, was he a celeb? “Not at all,” he says with relief. Not even a tiny bit? “D-list maybe?” he laughs.
“I resisted all that stuff, and I was lucky that I was able to have a very ordinary life. I remember when I went to secondary school – suddenly I didn’t know everybody – people would come up and go ‘Moone Boy?’ I’d be like, ‘yeah,’ and they’d be like, ‘grand…’ It was always a very small thing. I was glad I could just stay in school and focus on that. I was grateful that I didn’t try and go professional at that time.”
Was that ever a likelihood? “Not really. I suppose I was very practical minded. And my family were very good for keeping me grounded, because people can start to have all kinds of notions about themselves.
“Just because I was very lucky that I got to have this wonderful experience it didn’t mean that I was different to anybody else. I could just go back to having a normal upbringing, and I was very appreciative of that and I still am.”
So he finished school in Leitrim, went to study at the Lir Academy, finished up in late August this year, on a Friday, and started rehearsal for The Blackwater Lightship on the Monday. It might seem he is well on his way. But he’s smart enough to know that isn’t necessarily how this career works. Alongside the glamour, there is plenty of rejection, disappointment and frustration.
“When young people are considering taking a career in acting, it’s easy not to see those things,” he says, “and those things are very hard to deal with. I think that the two hardest things to deal with in this industry are rejection, and success.”
So, how does he handle them?
“In terms of rejection – there’s all these different things about the way you think about it when you’re going for something in the first place. It’s very easy to fall in love with these roles. But at the end of the day...Bryan Cranston has a great quote, he says when you’re going for an audition, you’re not going to get a job, you’re going to do a job. My job is to go in, and have as much fun as possible, not to get caught up in the stakes of What Could Be.”
It’s important that you be happy for other people’s success
Very sage. So that’s the rejection side of it. What about success?
“It depends on how you view success. For some people it can be quite alienating. I don’t think I know a huge amount about success, but I know what success feels like to me, and sometimes, in terms of where it’s difficult, that can be in making it harder to see the people who matter most.
“Because suddenly you’re working more, but actually you might be happier at home with your family. Doing all these kinds of press things, is that success? No, that’s just part of the job.”
Success doesn’t change you, it changes the people around you, I suggest?
“Absolutely. Jealousy is something that creeps up on everybody. It’s so human, so common. And so awful. It’s important that you be happy for other people’s success, even more so potentially than yourself.”
Really? More so? We both laugh.
“Well maybe not, but it’s really important that you learn…”
David Rawle is in the world premiere of ‘The Blackwater Lightship’ by Colm Tóibín, adapted and directed by David Horan at the Gaiety Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival, from September 27 to October 2. dublintheatrefestival.ie