Johnny Ward on his colourful career trajectory: 'The bills have to be paid - I'm not in a position to turn that sort of work down'
Best known as Love/Hate bad boy Pauley, Johnny Ward is swapping gangland for glee club for his latest role in Copper Face Jacks: The Musical. Here, the actor tells John Meagher why he's happy doing anything from Fair City to panto - and how his romantic lead was inspired by Conor McGregor
Johnny Ward has some tongue-in-cheek advice for aspiring actors. Hungry for a particular part? Go and book a holiday when the work is supposed to be filmed - or staged - and then be forced to cancel your holiday, and maybe lose plenty of money, when you're offered that very part.
The Dubliner and his girlfriend Rachel had booked a two-week break in Orlando, Florida when the call telling him he had got a large role in Love/Hate came through. The cancellation of a fortnight in the sun was the last thing on his mind when he heard. "I was just so happy to get the part," he says. "It was for the fifth season [and what turned out to be the final one] and Love/Hate had long become this cultural phenomenon by then and every actor in the business wanted in. I'd watched it from the start, and loved it, so it was a like a dream come true when they said yes."
The experience of playing the villainous Pauley was everything he hoped it would be. "But you felt pressure knowing that you were making the sort of TV that people would talk about the next day in work like they talk about a match. It's that sort of water cooler thing. As an actor, I thought, 'I really want to nail this part'. Hopefully I did." He did, and then some.
The 31-year-old is talking to Weekend from the beautifully refurbished Maureen's Bar at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin. It's day-time and the theatre is empty and it's here that he will star in his latest project, Copper Face Jacks: The Musical. He's just come from rehearsals and is buzzing. "It's such good fun," he says. "I could have stayed on for hours more. Work? It really doesn't feel like it."
It's unlike anything he's ever done. For a start, most of the cast are puppets. "It's a bit odd at first, but then you get it. And it'll be the same for the audience. Have you seen [the Broadway musical] Avenue Q? It's a bit like that."
Copper Face Jacks hardly needs an introduction for anyone aged 18 to 45, but some may not be aware that it's a stupendously popular nightclub in Dublin's Harcourt Street. It used to be seen as a 'culchie' hangout, where guards and teachers and nurses went, but now it's for everyone, true blue Dubs and all. Who could forget Dublin captain Bryan Cullen and his "see yiz in Coppers" line during the speech that greeted the capital's first All-Ireland win in 16 years back in 2011?
Ward may not have attended the nightclub religiously, but he's no stranger to Coppers. "Who hasn't been there?" he says. "I think everybody of a certain age has been there at least once. Say the word 'Coppers' to people of my generation and they instantly know where you're talking about."
The musical was penned by the prolific writer Paul Howard, author of the Ross O'Carroll series of books. Buoyed by the success of his Anglo: The Musical in 2014, Copper Face Jacks also employs puppeteers alongside regular actors.
"The story is brilliant," Ward enthuses. "I play Gino Wildes, the star of the Dublin football team. He hates Kerry people and then he goes and meets a girl from Kerry in Coppers and they fall head over heels. But there are complications... she has a boyfriend."
The part allows Ward to put his singing to good use and also to embody Conor McGregor every night because it's the UFC fighter rather than any current Dubs player that he's modeling Gino on. And when he spits out a line of dialogue it's as if McGregor is in the room. "I'm trying to grow this beard," he says, pointing to a light dusting of whiskers on his chin, "but it might take me three years!"
Johnny Ward has been acting for as long as he can remember. He and his two sisters were enthusiastically thrown into drama classes as kids and he took to it quickly. "I love the creativity of it," he says, "and the sheer joy of playing someone else for a while."
His CV is packed with theatre, TV and film roles and while he enjoys the differing demands of each medium, he's especially enthused by television. And he has done a lot of TV of late. He had a big part in Fair City and revelled in playing a character, Ciarán, that made life uncomfortable for the residents of Carrigstown. A reminder: there were kidnappings and a box involved.
Ward is proud to have been in a soap that celebrates its 30th anniversary next year but acknowledges that for some actors it's "Fairly Sh**ty" and they wouldn't touch it. "There's a snobbery around it, but it's their loss," he says. "For a start, it's an opportunity to play in a show that's watched by an awful lot of people, and it's particularly popular outside of Dublin. They're mad for it in Cork. And the funny thing is, I'd meet people and they'd say they never watch it and then to proceed to tell me everything my character has done.
"But, as an actor, it also really challenges you because you're working on one or two takes and you have to record four episodes a week. To put that into context, we'd months and months to work on six episodes of Love/Hate. So you have to come to work on Fair City every day being fully prepared. It's really tough. At the end of filming, I needed a holiday - I wouldn't have been able to do any other role."
Ward's career has been characterised by a willingness to do all sorts of acting work, such as panto and TV commercials. "The bills have to be paid," he says, simply. "I'm not in a position to turn that sort of work down and the way I look at it is it's an acting job and I bring a professionalism to everything I sign up for. Sure, some people won't do panto - but it's something that's great fun and I really enjoy it."
He also teaches drama classes to young people in a school he founded with his agent sister, Maureen. "I love it," he says. "It's great to see a kid who might be very introverted, or bullied maybe, and they're very shy at the beginning but then a few months later and they've come out of themselves and they've confidence."
It hasn't all been plain sailing for him. In his early 20s he landed a part in a Martin McDonagh play that toured England. He grew homesick and a bit fed up of life on the road. "I was a bit lonely," he recalls. "I was the youngest of the actors and while it was great to get such regular work for months at a time, I didn't really appreciate it and I didn't enjoy it. I was glad when it finished."
Three years ago, he got a part in what sounded like a huge production. It was a show called Clan of the Cave Bear and it was filmed in South Africa. "You had people like Ron Howard involved," he says. "It was supposed to be a TV series but we made the pilot and then it was cancelled. Those sort of things happen. You just have to move on."
Ward has starred in several acclaimed Irish films, including Kristen Sheridan's Dollhouse, but he admits that nothing had as much impact on his career as Love/Hate. "It opened the doors for many other things," he says, "and it was such a great learning experience to work with such talented actors. You look at someone like Tom Vaughan-Lawlor [who played the main role of Nidge] and you see him morph from this very well spoken, gentle person into a fearsome character who's exceptionally believable. It was incredible to see him snap into that part so quickly."
Ward says he sometimes employs a technique used by Vaughan-Lawlor to get into role. "It was funny, he'd open his mouth wide, like an exaggerated yawn, and that sort of helped him slip quickly into the role."
The figure sitting and chatting happily today could hardly be more different to Pauley. He was utterly believable as a ruthless gangland figure who liked to do his dirty work and then speed off into the night on a motorbike.
Ward's obsession with bikes helped him get the part - and he's even more taken with these machines than he is about his beloved Celtic FC, and that's saying a lot. He's long enjoyed the thrill of a powerful two-wheel ride on the open road and he put the money earned from Love/Hate into a Suzuki that bike nuts go crazy for. "I love it so much," he says, somewhat ruefully, because last year it was stolen outside his mother's house in Walkinstown.
"They must have lifted it into a van," he says. "I was advised not to go public about it but I did anyway and there was an incredible response to it. But I never got it back. It ended up in Ballymun and I went out there to see these young lads riding it. It was heartbreaking, but the guards said there was nothing they could do. I just didn't understand - it was clearly my bike. I was told to let it go, not to mess with the people who had taken it. It's one of those things."
Luckily for him, his insurance paid up and he was able to replace the bike. He says there's little he enjoys more than riding around the country, Rachel sitting behind him, and eating up the miles.
He says he is fortunate to be in a relationship with a woman who understands the demands of a creative profession and how job insecurity is part and parcel of the work. "She's a dancer and she gets it," he says. "You don't know where you'll be next month, or the month after. You have to go with the work."
Unlike many of his peers and former Love/Hate co-stars, Ward has little interest in upping sticks and trying his luck in London, say, or Los Angeles. "I really like living in Dublin," he says. "And I keep busy. It's nice to have a routine and there's plenty of work if you're lucky and willing to do very different things. Maybe it's that time I was in England in my early 20s and I found it tough... I don't know, but I'm happy here." He says he likes not living out of a suitcase and having routine in his life and believes those desires and that of being a fine actor are not incompatible.
He looks around at the photos of famous actors and performers in this fabled old bar and says he is blessed. "It's a privilege to get to play somewhere like this and to walk upon the same stage as these people. And it's fun to think of something like this [Copper Face Jacks] and know how funny it is and how an audience will react to it every night. I think they're in for a treat, but as an actor I am too. And I don't ever want to forget that."
'Copper Face Jacks: The Musical' opens in the Olympia, Dublin, on July 5