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.