Monday 19 November 2018

Ferdia Walsh Peelo: The Next Big Thing

Ferdia Walsh, star of new movie, Sing Street, had no formal training but found himself in the right place at the right time at the auditions. Now he's riding the crest of a wave. Esther Hayden reports

Ferdia with mum Toni at home in Ashford last week
Ferdia with mum Toni at home in Ashford last week
Ferdia and other cast members

Esther Hayden

Grab a pen and jot down this name - Ferdia Walsh Peelo. He's going to be the next big thing in the film industry and with his good looks and charm Colin Farrell and Michael Fassbender should watch their backs as this teen looks set to steal their crown.

The son of a Wexford town woman, born and reared in County Wicklow, Ferdia has a very unique claim to fame in that he was actually born in Ashford in the family home in a planned home birth. Of course this pales in significance to his latest claim to fame which is as a budding film star.

Ferdia is fresh from the success of his first film role and a lead role no less. Not for him waiter number 1 in the crowded restaurant scene that ended up on the cutting room floor. Instead the talented lad walked into an open audition and impressed the socks off director John Carney who was looking for a musical teen to take on the lead role of his new film Sing Street.

The film, which is set in 1980s recession-ridden Dublin, has been described as 'a semi-autobiographical tale inspired by the filmmaker's love of music'.

Sing Street tells the story of a fourteen-year-old named Cosmo (played by Ferdia) who finds life at home difficult after a change in circumstances force the family to downsize.

A loner at his new tough inner city school, his only friend is his music-obsessed elder brother played by fellow Wicklow man Jack Reynor. When he spots a mysterious girl across the playground he asks her to star in a music video for his band. The only problem is, he has yet to find his bandmates or his own musical style.

Young Cosmo decides to form a band with school mates, with whom he writes songs and shoots videos. When family trouble strikes, he runs away to London with his fifteen-year-old girlfriend who aspires to be a model.

The film, which is set to open the Audi Dublin International Film Festival this Thursday, February 18, got its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah last month. It has been receiving rave reviews and has been hailed as a 'wonderfully authentic and sweet natured tale of how music can save your life'.

Although he was born and reared in Wicklow Ferdia has strong links with Wexford town as his mother Toni Walsh is a native of Fisher's Row.

The daughter of Rose and the late Tony Walsh, Toni went to St John of God School before attending the Loreto.

She then moved to Dublin where she met her husband Mick Peelo and the couple and their first two children, Tadhg and Oisin moved to Milltown Lane in Ashford. The couple's third and fourth child Ferdia and Siofradh were born following the move.

The entire Walsh Peelo clan would make anyone ashamed to have packed in whatever musical instrument you played as a child. Music seeps out of their very pores. It's an innate gift, one that many would give their right arm for.

Toni herself is a soprano and also teaches at her former alma mater, the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama. Sons Tadgh and Oisin are also talented musicians while youngest Siofradh was just leaving a violin lesson when we spoke.

Ferdia himself started studying as a boy soprano when he was seven years old, winning all sorts of plaudits for his voice, appearing on the Late Late Toy Show and singing solo at Wexford Opera House.

At the mere age of 12 he secured his first professional contract with Ireland's national touring opera, the Opera Theatre Company.

He is also a classically trained pianist.

Toni said that having grown up in Wexford in a house that was always filled with music it was only natural for her to pass on her great love of music to her children.

'Both Mick and I have a great love of music. Music is very important to us and all four of the children were sent for formal musical training from a young age. We didn't know if they would keep it up but you throw them a line and hope they bite and they all did.

'In fact they've taken it to a whole new level. We didn't want to impose music on them but they really took to it.'

Toni said that the hype around Ferdia's role in Sing Street is really increasing now in advance of its Irish release.

'He riding on the crest of a wave right now. He never did any formal acting training but was obviously used to being on stage and performing. The film thing was a real fluke.

'He walked into an open casting because he heard they were looking for a musical teen and he fit the bill. You have to have a bit of luck and indeed a look. He suited the look what the director John Carney had in mind for the role of Cosmo.

'Musically he had no problem because when his voice broke he started branching out into his own stuff.'

Ferdia, who is now 16 years old, was just 14 when he shot the majority of Sing Street, turning 15 while on location filming in Dublin. He attended Wicklow's Educate Together as a child and is currently on a year out from Coláiste Ráithín in Bray.

During the filming of Sing Street Ferdia had a tutor which helped prepare him for his Junior Cert which he completed last June.

Last week he jetted across to London to do a photoshoot with Vogue magazine and from there he flew to Toronto to do some publicity for Sing Street at the New Wave Film Festival in Toronto.

Despite his young age, Toni said that Ferdia has taken it all in his stride. However she said that the cast and crew of Sing Street had been very mindful of his age.

'I was on set with him and the people there were just so lovely. Everyone had a great bond and they were just really a great bunch of people. People were so, so positive especially John Carney, the director. When Ferdia and all the younger actors were on set everyone was very mindful of their age and it was really a wonderful experience.'

For Ferdia international stardom is 'great craic'.

'It's been really amazing. A lot of the hype hasn't really kicked off yet because it's not on release here. When we were over at Sundance [Film Festival] it was really quite surreal. There was a great buzz over there. Even in the airport people were asking for photos and that.

'Park City is such a lovely little town and they had snow which was quite unusual for us to see.'

'It's all very new to me but so far it's been absolutely the best craic. Mark [McKenna, Eamon in Sing Street] and John [Carney] have become great friends. Being on set every day was so much fun. There was such a good atmosphere there. The vibe was really good. It was great and you knew that everyone was there because they love making films. It created such a lovely atmosphere on set.

'For my first ever film it was just one big laugh all the time. Everyone was always laughing.'

Ferdia is nonchalant about scoring a lead role in what looks certain to be a hit film both here in Ireland and also internationally, but is aware of just how lucky he was.

'I heard about the open audition and went to it. I was queueing for hours but even that was fun. I wasn't really expecting anything to come out of it - especially not the lead role - but I felt it was worth going along.

'After a couple of auditions it was in my mind but I tried to put it out of it. At one stage I was on set and I had gotten the role but I was the only person there who didn't know! I couldn't understand why they kept getting me in to read with different girls but they were looking for the right female lead.

'I know I was very lucky. I happened to be the right person at the right time. If I had been a year older or younger it probably wouldn't have happened. It's all been very jammy', he said laughing.

'I'm just really enjoying this time. This whole process is very new to me. I'm not thinking of the future really. I will be busy with Sing Street until the summer probably and I'm auditioning for stuff. I still have a huge interest in music.

'I'm only 16. I'm really just living in the now'.

His former Coláiste Ráithín schoolmates are starting to feel the excitement in the lead-up to the film's release. But he said that he has also made some great friends through his role in Sing Street. 'I made some really good friends on set. We've all become really close. We are all so different yet we have acting in common.'

Despite being very handsome, Ferdia laughs off any suggestion that he is gaining a lot of female attention and says he doesn't have a girlfriend. 'I haven't noticed any attention. I'm the same as normal. When we were at Sundance Mark and I went to this after party and we were just playing music 'til about 2 a.m.. We were just totally exhausted but still playing away.'

Ferdia is taking to the mantle of responsibility that his new found stardom is bringing with it with aplomb. He said the fashion shoot with Vogue in London was very exciting while going to Toronto would be his first time in Canada. 'It will be a totally new experience and I will be dealing with the press on my own. I'm the only person from the movie going over and I'm looking forward to it. The New Wave Film Festival is aimed at younger movie buffs so it should be fun.'

Although destined for stardom Ferdia is like a lot of 16-year-olds and isn't a massive fan of school.

'I don't know what's happening school wise. I don't think I'm going back to Coláiste Ráithín. School was never really for me. It wasn't because it wasn't a good school, it's just I seem to be the one who couldn't handle it. It drove me nuts going back, especially after Sing Street. It hit me really hard.

'I felt like an adult. I have had my own apartment in Dublin. I might go and study a few subjects that I like. I've plenty of time to decide.'

Although clearly gifted musically and in the acting field, Ferdia is keen not to pigeon-hole himself or any future career. 'I love doing what I'm doing and just want to live in the moment. It would be so tough having to choose between music or acting so I'm not going to. I love different things about them both. Music is something I will always do. Acting is all new to me but I love it. I've really gotten into it. When I went back to do the Sing Street reshoots I really loved it. You could get so into character.

'I love lots of things, music, acting, painting, poetry. Hopefully I'm going to do it all.'

Sing Street hits Irish cinemas on St. Patrick's Day.

Gorey Guardian