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Damien Molony: Magic moments

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Last year, Damien Molony was plucked from drama school to perform at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. This year he’s already playing the lead role in Travelling Light at the National Theatre, alongside Anthony Sher, and is about to appear in a BBC drama. Jonathan Watson discovers how limitless energy and determination to succeed have fuelled Molony’s rapid rise to success

Before I have the chance to get set up, or even think about asking any questions, Damien Molony gives me a big hug. He lets go, beams a grin at me, shrugs off a nasty cold and bursts into an excitable tirade about the surroundings. I ask him to take a deep breath and sit down. “Unbelievable… magical,” he says, nodding. Little do I know then that he’ll use the phrase, and mean it, a hundred more times.

To be honest he has a point. We meet in an interview room towards the top of the National Theatre on London’s South Bank. It juts out over the Thames and the views from the balcony are, well, magical. To the east, St Paul’s Cathedral is being bullied by ‘progress’ – high rises and cranes – and below, tourists on Waterloo Bridge clamber for photographs of Big Ben before the winter sun sets. There’s that and, not only the impending broadcast of his role as suave vampire Hal in BBC’s Being Human, but also the promise of performing in Nicholas Hytner’s Travelling Light at this very venue, in which he is the lead. I tell him some critics have already billed it as the must-see for this year. “Ah,” laughs the Kildare-born actor, “I bet after that it’ll be shite”.

I don’t think I’ve met anyone in the industry so animated before, or with so much fervour for the craft. He smiles a lot, gesticulates when the coughing gets in the way, concedes when you stump him with a good question and is visibly thrilled to be part of the history that festoons the NT. Were he not so energetic, so canny, I’d worry he might be spreading himself a bit thin. Isn’t any of it catching up with him? Or is he an automaton? The play’s author, Nicholas Wright, says this is a story about “when somebody becomes completely, passionately committed to their art, and what the cost is for them, and more to the point the cost for the people around them. That always makes people slightly inhuman, in a way, ruthless”.

I can’t help but worry the same might be true of Molony. “Absolutely,” he says with a glint in his eyes. “Passion exudes from every gesture of [the character’s] being, it takes him over, and I understand that.”

The production tells the tale of filmmaker Motl Mendl in a remote Jewish shtetl (Yiddish for ‘little town’) in Eastern Europe, circa 1900, as he learns to harness the then untapped power of cinematography. Is it a happy coincidence, after the five-star success of the film The Artist, that this play is capitalising on the growing zeitgeist for the Hollywood backstory, and in particular silent film? An avid movie fan, filling hours of his spare time in Cardiff when he was filming Being Human with inane IMDB trivia, Molony is the perfect fit to answer the question.

“Part of this is a story of iconic foreigners who turn the expectation on its head. That they came to America and taught them how to tell stories through cinema. That’s fascinating.”

Molony’s career took a while to get out of the blocks. The drama department at Trinity College, Dublin, turned him down for picking a sweeping camera shot at the start of The Lord of the Rings as the most important cultural moment of 2002. Then, after graduating from a four-year degree in business and politics, he slogged his way across Ireland in a one-act play to fill his portfolio with enough notches for performing arts schools to take notice. Eventually, in the shape of the Drama Centre, they did. “That’s when my feet really started to get itchy.” Meaning? “You know, the desire to get out and really show the world what you’re about.”

The breakthrough came in 2011 when he was plucked from his final year before graduating to star in John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. “It was such a great role to have coming out of drama school,” he says. “Because you’re not in the glare of the press, or the London critics, or the London theatregoers, it’s slightly more protected up there in Leeds. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t got it”.

True, perhaps, but while that role was a relative success, it didn’t guarantee anything for the future. “No, but it helped,” he says. “And I’ve learned to work my bollocks off. With auditions I read the play twice if not three times before. You work out the story and the character and the corners and the beat changes of the text, and I feel you have to want to try and make it as specific as you can, that this is Damien’s version of the character.”

Was that his sell to Hytner and co? “A good actor is someone who gives everything. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, don’t be afraid to make a prick of yourself on stage, because that’s what people want to see. That’s what I try to bring.”

It reminds me again of the obsession Wright talks about, or the “impossible, arrogant talent” Hytner says he sees in the play’s protagonist. I wonder how Molony manages to shirk that image and fit in anything other than acting. “I don’t,” he smiles, but looks worried I’m about to take chunks out of his private life. Only a week ago, a women’s glossy was more interested in his girlfriend’s erogenous zones than anything to do with his career – the price of more fame perhaps. I assure him that’s not my intention. But still, “How she put up with me during drama school and since I’ll never know,” he says, and I’m surprised he’s willing to open up. “She keeps an eye on me, and that helps. And with that I know as I go forward I’ll learn as much as I can.”

And the character? What can audiences glean from a forgotten, faraway mystic landscape in eastern Europe, inhabited by someone who sounds so complicated? “This is a journey of Motl, where you see the rise and fall, and ultimately a glimmer of hope or redemption, which is the charm, what I latched onto.”

Even so, as a young actor engulfed by similar motivations, hyper-aware of his current standing on the industry ladder, there must moments when he feels eclipsed by others in the company. I ask how he manages to stay focused when he’s working with titans like Hytner or Antony Sher, his ebullient co-star in Travelling Light.

“It’s ridiculous. Antony has a few long speeches that my character is supposed to listen to, albeit reluctantly, while shrugging him off saying get on with it. It is so difficult not to be taken into his world and be completely charmed by all his stories.”

Surely he’s capable of resisting for it to work? “Well, yeah, Antony is so eloquent and so well spoken and so gentle in real life, but his character can’t string two words together and has a big beard and is grizzly…” He pauses for a second, chews the air and growls like a bear to make the point. “It’s nothing like him and is an amazing transformation.”

And Hytner? “He just knows exactly what works and what doesn’t. He is so open and available, and you can latch on to his way of thinking, from day one. You’re on the same page immediately. It’s a cliche, but he didn’t have things worked out precisely from the start, he encouraged a real process of people coming together and allowing a melting pot of ideas.”

Something which I assume helped him shirk the rabbit in the headlights syndrome. “Completely,” he agrees. “Suddenly it gives me so much confidence that my opinion matters. I went from that nervousness to being able to look forward to telling the audience the story, all of us, together. That’s ultimately what it’s all about.”

That, and, what’s the word, magic? “Ha, yeah, you’ll have to see.”

Travelling Light is at the National Theatre until March 6, then touring.

Being Human, series four, starts on BBC Three at the end of January.

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