Move over Colin Farrell, there’s a new Irish screen hunk in town – and he’s making his big screen debut by starting at the top. Meet Colin O’Donoghue, 29, the Co. Louth-born actor who can be seen going head to head with Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins in The Rite next week. CAHIR O’DOHERTY interviews Ireland’s latest breakout star.
If you’re going to be Ireland’s next big movie star, it won’t hurt if you look like Cillian Murphy and Tom Cruise combined.
With his striking good looks and his leading man aura, Colin O’Donoghue, 29, seems certain to make a big splash this year when The Rite, the new supernatural thriller that sees him going head to head with Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins, opens on Friday, January 28 nationwide.
But the question now is just what kind of film star is O’Donoghue going to be? Will he be the action movie type, or the romantic leading man? And will he keep his head together, or will he go that well-worn bad boy route like his namesake Colin Farrell?
“I have no idea what way things are going to pan out, or what the reaction to the movie will be,” O’Donoghue tells the Irish Voice with a laugh.
“I don’t think you can ever really plan anything. This time last year I would never have thought I’d be doing a press junket for a movie and seeing my face on a billboard all over Hollywood. What I’ve already learned from this business is that you can’t really legislate for too much, you know?”
He’s not kidding. Talent and looks certainly help, but sheer good luck is also a big factor when it comes to breaking stardom.
And O’Donoghue is lucky. How would you describe a man making his big screen debut opposite legendary Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins, one of the most celebrated actors in the world?
Some actors would say it’s too much too fast, but the ambitious young Drogheda, Co. Louth native said yes to starring in the supernatural thriller The Rite the moment it was offered to him.
In this jump out of your seat thriller, O’Donoghue plays Father Michael Kovak, a young American priest who doesn’t believe in exorcism -- or in the priests who practice it -- until he meets Father Lucas (Hopkins) and Father Xavier (Irish star Ciaran Hinds).
Kovak arrives in Rome, one of the holiest cities on Earth, convinced that demonic possession is just mental illness that hasn’t been properly classified. The possessed don’t need exorcists, Kovak believes, they need psychological help.
But his 21st century skepticism is put to the test when he witnesses events that science and psychology can’t explain.
The thing about the Devil is that he doesn’t care if you don’t believe in him, Father Lucas tells him. Choosing not to believe in him won’t protect you.
The Rite spends the next two hours proving this point and scaring the pants off you -- and you’ll love every minute of it.
“I’ve never done the press promotional tour before so this is all new to me,” says O’Donoghue, who was talent spotted in Hollywood when he appeared in the popular Showtime drama The Tudors (also starring Ireland’s Jonathan Rhys Meyers).
A graduate of Dublin’s famous Gaiety School of Acting (“I was 18 and it gave me a sense of professionalism that I’ve followed”) O’Donoghue took the scenic route to success, and that’s given him a solid professional grounding that will stand to him as his career takes off.
“What happened was I did an episode of The Tudors last year -- and it was only one episode -- but someone over here in Los Angles took an interest. Soon I signed with an agent in Los Angeles and a few months later she sent me the script for The Rite, saying she thought I’d be perfect for the part.”
O’Donoghue made an audition in a friend’s home studio in Drogheda and sent it to the U.S. “I thought I’d chance my arm a bit. I didn’t think that people really watched those show reels but it turns out that they do, and eventually I was invited over to LA to have a reading with Anthony Hopkins,” O’Donoghue recalls.
“This was over the course of a few months and I didn’t think I was going to get it. But then I got the call saying I did get it and I just couldn’t believe it, you know? It’s something that you’ve worked on for 10 years and you just think is never going to happen.”
Getting cast was a stroke of good luck, and a major step up in his career. But being Irish and growing up in a predominantly Catholic country gave him a good insight into his character, even though the cleric is American.
“The priest I play has his doubts about the supernatural, and he’s going though a crisis of faith. So it was important to me to be as prepared as possible,” O’Donoghue says.
“I read a lot of theological books about demons and possession and the spirit world. I spoke to Father Gary, the priest the film is loosely based on, and I actually went to some exorcisms in Rome. I saw some real ones.”
Some people might say that actually attending an exorcism was going above and beyond the call of duty, but O’Donoghue dived in. What he witnessed fascinated and sometimes terrified him.
“I was more daunted by the thought of going to see an exorcism than when I was actually there. It was the thought of it that was disturbing,” he says.
“Remember that the film The Exorcist was banned in Ireland for years. I remember growing up as a kid seeing a bootleg copy of the film. But it was shunned out of the house by my mother. The mother would come and see it and shout, ‘Get that out,’ as if the video itself was an evil entity.”
Before O’Donoghue went to Rome to see genuine exorcisms all those famous Linda Blair scenes from The Exorcist were playing at the back of his mind, he says.
“What fascinated me was that when I got there it was ordinary people going in to be blessed. It was so ordinary for them; it was nearly like a weekly or bi-weekly event. They sat there and the priest laid his hands on them and prayed. I didn’t see anything majorly extreme,” he says.
“But there was one woman whose head turned very sharply as she walked past me. She just stared at me the whole way, without blinking. And she did the exact same thing on the way out. I found that unnerving.
“I asked the exorcist how could you tell these people aren’t suffering from psychological disturbances? He told me that they had all been psychologically evaluated. So the question is always going to be open, and I think this film tries to be as unbiased as possible, as much as a Hollywood movie can be.”
O’Donoghue’s life isn’t all acting and exorcisms, of course. In his spare time he plays in a band called the Enemies home in Drogheda. The question for the other lads in the band now is, will he ever be back?
“They’re still playing without me and are probably even better without me. We were actually in the studio before Christmas recording different songs” he says.
“They came out to the party we had on set in Budapest and Anthony Hopkins got up and introduced us as the five lads from Drogheda. It was a great experience for all of us. I was home for Christmas there and we did a few gigs.”
Has his mother gotten over her dislike of exorcist movies now that her son is starring in one?
“She was just delighted I got a part! She knew I was very passionate about this particular script and she knew I really wanted it to work out. I’ve always been very fortunate in that my family and my wife have always been there to support me,” O’Donoghue says.
“As an actor you go through tough times as you try to make a career. To have their support is invaluable, they pick you up when you don’t think you can do it any more -- and there were moments when I didn’t think I could carry on.”
But that’s all water under the bridge now. O’Donoghue has just bought a ticket to the big time, and it will be fascinating to see how his career takes shape, now that he’s going head to head with the biggest stars in the business.