For Irish actor Sean Mahon, a Broadway dream has become a reality — twice.
When the Dublin-born actor first moved to New York in 2007 he instantly won a role in Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer.”
Now Mahon’s back on Broadway playing to packed houses in “The 39 Steps,” an irresistible comedy caper based on the 1939 Alfred Hitchcock film.
Back in 2007, when Mahon auditioned with a long line of other hopefuls for a part in the McPherson play, he thought it would be a long shot. He was astounded when the playwright cast him right away.
He was soon sharing the stage with seasoned Irish veterans like Jim Norton and Ciaran Hinds, and his own subtle performance was one of the hits of the 2007 season, striking a chord with audiences and critics alike.
Acting on Broadway does wonders for your confidence, Mahon discovered, and he soon saw his star ascending when he was later cast in “The 39 Steps.” He was on a roll.
But it wasn’t just his boyish good looks (Mahon has starred on soaps like “As The World Turns” and the drama "ER") or his acting skills that won him the part in “The 39 Steps.” It was also his physical fitness. Mahon has moonlighted in the past as a personal trainer, and his natural athleticism really comes to the fore in this new show.
Their countless scene changes and knockabout antics of “The 39 Steps” mean the actors must do all the heavy lifting. Plus Mahon is on stage from the first scene to the last.
Marathon stamina is required for the starring role of Richard Hannay, the stiff upper lip era Brit on a desperate mission to clear his name for a murder he did not commit.
Seeing your name in lights on Broadway is certainly a thrill, as is playing to packed houses and taking curtain calls and standing ovations, so it’s hard to believe that Mahon got his start in amateur dramas back in Dublin. He had always loved performing, but there didn’t seem to be a future in it.
“What do you do if you grow up dreaming of being an actor in Ireland in the recession hit eighties?” Mahon said during a recent interview. “You go to marketing school, that’s what."
“It was the only option open to me. I’d acted as a kid and I’d always wanted to pursue it. But in Dublin in the eighties there was nowhere to go. There was no Gaiety school of acting or anything like that. It just wasn’t an option. My mum thought I should get a job at the bank and get serious about life.”
Mahon grew up in Dublin and went to school in Rathfarnham at the Christian Brothers-run Colaiste Eanna. Later he studied at Dublin’s College of Marketing, where he got his business degree.
“I got a job in the lending department of the Industrial Credit Corporation. After a few years of that I thought, God this isn’t for me,” he says.
Then America beckoned.
“I was lucky enough to get the Donnelly visa in 1988. A friend told me about a job with An Bord Bainne. For the hell I just applied. It was a job marketing Kerrygold cheeses to America. I ended up getting it. I was the marketing director in their head office in Chicago.”
Being the face of Kerrygold was a more interesting gig than it sounds.
“I traveled around the country, I got to know America in a great way. I would drive to all these distribution outlets in all the major cities, in Florida, California and so on. It was a great way to discover America, but eventually I got wanderlust and set off on my own.”
Then at the age of 33, when most aspiring actors leave Hollywood for another career, Mahon did the opposite and moved there in search of fame and fortune.
“People usually go out there when they’re 18. The nerve of me to even do that amazes me now. I was there for seven years and had a decent amount of success with TV and film work. But the thing that was best of all was it was a great, great life. It was a wonderful place to live,” he says.
When he hit 40, Mahon decided to step out of his comfort zone again and move to New York.
“I just felt I was too far from home in California. I wanted to move closer to Ireland,” he reasoned.
“I had an agent in New York and so I decided it would be my halfway house, an easier option. When I got a call for the audition for Conor McPherson I thought, why not? I flew out on Tuesday, got the audition on Wednesday, got the call back on Thursday and was cast on Friday. It was like being shot out of a cannon, in the best possible way.”
“Being in a cast and play like that raises the bar, it pushes you in a tremendous way. If you can get out and do your thing in front of a Broadway audience it will really give you the character and confidence to do anything. It also gave me the confidence to do ‘The 39 Steps.’”
“It’s theater at its best. It’s all about sound and light and the actor’s performances. We create the whole world of the play,” Mahon enthuses.
“It’s like a musical without music. It’s so choreographed; you have to learn every single precise step down to the minute detail. It’s such a thrill to work that way.”
While he wows them on Broadway, Mahon is continuing to audition for film, TV and theater.
“What I’ve learned is you take nothing for granted. Nothing at all. I have no idea what next but that’s part of journey, isn’t it?” he says, laughing.
"The 39 Steps" is now playing at the Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th Street, New York. For tickets call 212-239-6200.