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Simon Delaney: Simply Simon

His career may be taking off, but IFTA-nominated Simon Delaney tells Brian Finnegan that he will always make time for his first love: amateur musical theatre

You'd get less for armed robbery," quips Simon Delaney with a wink and a nudge. He's talking about the 800-odd performances he's done of Marie Jones' perennially popular, 'Hollywood comes to Kerry' play, Stones in His Pockets, which returns to Dublin's Olympia Theatre this month. "The audience keep it fresh," Delaney adds, when asked if he's still got his heart and soul in the show. "It's unlike any other theatrical experience, because the device for the play is the reason for its success. It's two actors playing 16 parts, and, believe me, that keeps you on your toes. I would describe it as a magical theatrical experience. Every character has a very strong physical signature, so it gets to the point where you know who is on the stage at any one time, even though it's the same actors playing all the parts. Having said that, I swore after the first tour never to do it again, because it's so exhausting, but in this business you should never say never."

When I met Delaney several years ago to talk about Bachelors Walk, the RTÉ drama that made his name, he was like a kid in a sweet shop who couldn't believe his luck. This time around, he's a little less wide-eyed -- the kid has grown up into the bloke next door, who just happens to have a celebrity day job. In the intervening decade, he's been interviewed countless times, yet he remembers me instantly and greets me like an old friend.

Unlike other celebrities, Delaney has a kind of unself-conscious charm that I expect comes from the fact that, when he's not starring in sell-out plays, making television shows or movies, he spends months of his year working with ordinary Joe Soaps in amateur musical drama groups across Ireland.

"That's where I come from and where I'm happiest," he affirms. "The first musical I had a part in was Godspell with Cameron Musical and Dramatic Society in Raheny. I auditioned because a girl I was going out with at the time plagued me to. I got a part in the show with a song, did it for a week and just fell in love. If you're a man on the musical society scene, you're a rare commodity, so soon I was being asked to guest for other societies. I ended up working the length and breadth of the country and I haven't looked back. My career has come from that."

It's no wonder then that, despite turning down several all-singing, all-dancing celebrity reality TV shows during the past few years, Delaney jumped at the chance to be on the judging panel for RTÉ's new reality talent show, Fame the Musical. It will search for stars to appear in an Irish run of the West End musical Fame, and begins on our screens in April. "This is Willy Wonka, golden ticket stuff," he says. "We're offering two kids the opportunity to star in a major musical in a 2,200-seater theatre, which will afford them a career after that. I'm on the ground working with these kids, all around the country, all year round. If you look in the right places, you'll find the talent. We're going all over Ireland holding auditions and from those we'll pick 50 people to go to Fame School for a week, and then from the 50 we'll pick 12 for the live shows, which will go out every Sunday night from April, from The Helix."

Before that, we'll be seeing Delaney writ large on our cinema screens clad in a red latex jumpsuit. The madcap comedy Zonad is John and Kieran Carney's follow-up to their Oscar-winning Once. "It's like an Irish Mel Brooks comedy," says Delaney, who plays a rehab escapee who ends up masquerading as an alien in a tiny west-of-Ireland village. "After it was shown at the Galway Film Fleadh last year, a critic from Variety magazine in LA gave it a five-star review. So there's a great buzz building for it."

That buzz is being helped along by the six IFTA nominations Zonad received this month, including Best Film, Best Script and Best Director. Delaney has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but for another film, Stephen Burke's Happy Ever Afters, which co-stars Sally Hawkins.

While Delaney waits to see if Zonad gets him the kind of American notice Once did for the Carney brothers, while travelling the length and breadth of the country to pick hopefuls for Fame the Musical and playing to habitually packed houses in Stones in His Pockets, he'll still find time for his first love. He's directing a production of Guys and Dolls in Longford, which will open in April. Doesn't he worry about stretching himself too thin?

"People used to think I was exactly the same as Michael, the shiftless character I played in Bachelors Walk," he says, as another journalist arrives to talk to him. "But myself and Michael differed in the sense of the work ethic. Michael didn't have one; I do." HQ

Stones in His Pockets runs at The Olympia from March 8th to 12th; Zonad opens in cinemas on March 19th; Fame the Musical is on RTÉ in April