Hugh O’Conor: the long road from Young Poisoner to reluctant stag
Hugh O’Conor’s brilliant childhood performances are seared into our collective memory – and as his grown-up self gets a big-screen outing in new Irish comedy The Stag, he sits down with Donald Clarke to talk early success, turning 40 and everything in between
Michael Legge, Hugh O'Conor, Peter McDonald, Andrew Scott, Andrew Bennett and Brian Gleeson in 'The Stag'
Hugh O’Conor mentions the fact while we are arranging coffee and cake. So, I presume he won’t mind me repeating it here. The fresh-faced star of My Left Foot, The Young Poisoner’s Handbook and Lamb will be 40 next year. How can this be? Well, Mick Jagger is 70. So, I suppose anything is possible.
This oddness of this situation is heightened by his stubborn refusal to look even vaguely middle-aged. Still smooth about the cheek and sparkly about the eye, the perennially likable actor has changed surprisingly little since emerging as a juvenile lead in the mid-1980s. If anything, he’s a tiny bit too old to play a groom caught up in a chaotic stag party. But few such thoughts will cross the minds of audiences watching him romp nakedly in John Butler’s very funny Irish comedy The Stag (the closing film at the upcoming Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, see panel, right).
“I don’t really have much experience of stag parties,” he laughs. “I did go to Peter McDonald’s stag party and we went to Lahinch. We went surfing and we went to a pub. It wasn’t so raucous.”
So he has never, on such occasions, ended up tied to lamp post wearing nothing but socks?
“No, no. I kind of wish I had,” he says.
Written by the director and McDonald – one of our more experienced actors – The Stag does take in its fair share of unparliamentarily behaviour. A reluctant stag, O’Conor’s character is lured to the country for shouting, taunting and one particularly striking outbreak of mass nudity. Andrew Scott, Brian Gleeson and Andrew Bennett are also along for the ride.
“We actually spent the first three days naked,” he says casually. “That was a good way to start. There is a scene where Andrew and I fight after waking up naked and upset. That was the first thing we shot. That was a good way in. It was either going to be a great way to start or the opposite. It was embarrassing on a huge, collective scale and that’s the way to go.”
How different from the home life of our own dear Hugh. Born in 1975, the actor is the son of eye-wateringly acclaimed concert pianist John O’Conor. One assumes, therefore, that there can’t have been much parental objection to Hugh drifting towards the arts. Yes and no, he explains. He remembers being sent to Betty Ann Norton’s theatre school and drifting almost unconsciously towards the actor’s life. When O’Conor was just eight, he secured a part in the popular TV series The Irish RM and then ended up opposite a rising Liam Neeson in Colin Gregg’s film of Bernard MacLaverty’s Lamb.
“I remember my mum coming on set and we didn’t know if I was going to be any good,” he says. “It was a sort-of summer job that I ended up being quite good at. Then again, I was too young to have a summer job. I remember not being able to see Lamb because it got a 15 as a result of my character smoking and swearing. Ha ha!”
In 1989, O’Conor found himself playing the young Christy Brown – and thus the young Daniel Day-Lewis – in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot. It is easy to forget that initially nobody expected very much of the film. Who, outside Ireland, would be interested in the story of a working-class writer coping with cerebral palsy in mid-century Dublin? A great many people, as it happened.
“We did actually feel we were doing something special,” he remembers. “We had a nice premiere. It got great reviews. But it didn’t do much abroad until Harvey Weinstein decided to pick it up. It needed that push. I was terrified doing it.”
For obvious reasons, he didn’t share any screen time with Daniel Day-Lewis. But they did meet frequently and O’Conor confirms that, as rumoured, the older actor maintained his tortured posture away from the camera.
“If you met him in the lunch break, he really did stay in character,” O’Conor says. “He would be himself, but he was talking to you as Christy. That was disconcerting.”
By this stage, he had caught the eye of the studios. After all, kids that talented can become valuable assets. Eventually, O’Conor did run up against a few parental misgivings.
“I did get asked to sign a deal and go over to America for a few years,” he says. “My parents said: ‘You can’t. You need to go to school.’ And that was the right thing. There was one film in Hollywood and there was a three-picture deal attached. They said no. And I was all: ‘I want to go to Hollywood.’ The response was: ‘Go to your room.’ That didn’t seem like an ambition you could have then.”
O’Conor seems sincere when he claims that he never regretted how things worked out. He studied drama at Trinity College Dublin and eventually secured a scholarship to study film at New York University. Over the past two decades, he has allowed both strands of his career to blossom. When not taking roles in series such as Lewis, Ripper Street or Moone Boy, he spends his time directing commercials, TV comedy and music videos. Always eager, O’Conor tugs out an iPad and plays me his excellent video for a new track by Dublin band The Hot Sprockets.
“I really love this work,” he says. “To be honest, I have been doing that more than acting now. It nice that you’re writing this, because I am not sure I have been doing enough acting to warrant a piece.”
Oh come along now. He’s an essential part of the national furniture. Anyway, he’s hardly been slacking of late. Just last year, he played the role of Lear’s Fool opposite Owen Roe in the Abbey Theatre. Now that’s nobody’s idea of an easy gig.
“That was daunting. I finished The Stag on the Friday and started rehearsals on the Monday. That was such an extreme difference. The change from something light to something serious was really good.”
“Oh yeah, I was terrified.”
Well, fair enough. He’s only about 16. Isn’t he?
The Stag will screen in the Savoy, Dublin, on Sunday, February 23rd, the closing night of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. For more, see jdiff.com