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Young Offenders star Chris Walley: ‘What is it about Cork? I dunno. That’s a dangerous question to ask a Cork person’

The actor on his dream role, making his Abbey Theatre debut and why Cork is a hotbed of talent

Chris Walley: ‘It’s a massive bucket-list thing to perform on your national stage.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Chris Walley keeps a list on his phone of all the directors he’d like to work with. “Here, I’ll show you,” he says, grabbing it off the table in front of him. “I’d love to work with Lenny Abrahamson. I’d love to work with Martin McDonagh again. Steve McQueen would be a big one. Shane Meadows, Sean Baker, Quentin Tarantino,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “Sam Mendes again … Armando Iannucci, Yorgos Lanthimos, Harry Wootliff … Andrea Arnold … Yeah.” He looks up, smiling. “There are a few.”

We are in the empty bar of the Peacock stage, in the basement of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where Walley is taking a break from rehearsals for The Sugar Wife, Elizabeth Kuti’s Dublin-set play originally commissioned by Rough Magic, in 2005, and staged at Project Arts Centre for its world premiere. Although he has appeared on the Peacock Stage before – as a teenager, in a production of Gulliver’s Travels alongside his friend and fellow Corkman Éanna Hardwicke – this play will be his Abbey debut proper. “It’s a massive bucket-list thing,” he says, “to perform on your national stage.”

Walley has had a few of those bucket-list moments in recent years. Although still best known for his role as the hapless but lovable Jock in the sitcom The Young Offenders, the 28-year-old’s star has been firmly on the ascent thanks to increasingly prolific roles in both film (including last year’s horror The Last Voyage of the Demeter) and TV (most recently in Irish-set Netflix series Bodkin).

Walley is a little more serious and certainly less recognisable than his Young Offenders alter-ego, a mop of curls replacing the razor-sharp fringe and a light beard in place of the trademark tash. Theatre is not how he came to acting, he says, but is something that he loves. As a teenager he attended the Gaiety School of Acting in Cork, alongside Hardwicke, his neighbour and best friend. He then got into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London, where he was a year ahead of his fellow Cork actor Máiréad Tyers, who is now the star of the hit Disney+ superhero comedy Extraordinary and the forthcoming Prime Video dramedy My Lady Jane.

Robyn Cara and Chris Walley in the Netflix dramedy Bodkin

He points to the success of other Leeside actors, such as Alison Oliver and his Young Offenders costar Alex Murphy, too; in London, where he’s currently based, Walley is part of a gang that includes his girlfriend, the musical-theatre actress Claire O’Leary, the Small Things Like These actor Liadán Dunlea and the Wheel of Time star Dónal Finn. There was clearly something in the water.

“What is it about Cork? I dunno. That’s a dangerous question to ask a Cork person,” he says, laughing. “I think growing up and seeing stuff on TV that was always set in Dublin … maybe it was feeling that you had something to prove. I do think that we were very fortunate, coming up at that time. The School of Music was such an amazing place, and the teachers there were incredible. And y’know,” he says, grinning, “Cork is just amazing.”

Young Offenders star Alex Murphy: ‘For Roy Keane to be eager to be on the show was just mad’Opens in new window ]

He recalls his audition for Rada with a grimace. “I remember it very well,” he says. “I did the ‘bastard’ speech from King Lear, and then I did a scene from The Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh. And then you have to sing – but I can’t sing. I used to be asked to mime in Rada in choral singing because I was bringing the collective group down.” His rendition of Whiskey in the Jar, he says, was “like I was shouting in a pub”.

Chris Walley, Aidan Turner and Denis Conway in Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore in London's West End in 2018. Photograph: Johan Persson

Just a few years later Walley would make his West End debut, in the 2018 revival of McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, opposite Aidan Turner; his portrayal of Davey earned him an Olivier Award for best supporting actor. His next theatre role wasn’t until last year, when he starred opposite Alison Oliver in Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan in London. That play instilled him with a newfound confidence, he says.

“I feel you develop most as an actor when you’re on stage,” he says. “When you are dissecting things over and over again in the rehearsal room, you’re finding new things. And then, when you go up on stage every night, it has to be alive, and you have to try to be present with the other actors. And that repetition is like building a muscle. After doing Portia I just felt like a better actor. I felt like I didn’t care about things as much. Going into rooms and having meetings just didn’t feel as important, because my craft was getting better.

“You put so much pressure [on yourself] - ‘I have to get here’ and ‘I have to be there’. I do have ambitions and goals, but I think we often forget that you just need to get better to get there, as well.”

Chris Walley as Jock and Alex Murphy as Conor in The Young Offenders

Walley points to three of his favourite actors - Gary Oldman, Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris - and their backgrounds in repertory theatre. “They were doing three plays a week, and that’s why they’re so good, that’s why they’re chameleons, because they get to be three different people three times a week. I feel like that’s been lost a small bit. So if I can get back to the theatre as much as I can, absolutely – but my first love lay with film. So I want to always do both. Back and forth as often as I can, but film is my first love.”

He would happily play the leading man, he says, but the more interesting characters are often found in supporting roles. “Actors like Jesse Plemons, I find those sorts of careers very appealing,” he says. “And of course, [leading a production] brings its own skill in order to carry a film; you have to be the audience’s lens, and they have to connect with you. But I think that stranger characters can exist on the periphery, and sometimes they can be more fun to play.”

His role in The Sugar Wife is “one of the strangest characters I’ve ever read”, he says, shaking his head. Kuti’s play is about a Quaker couple in 1850s Dublin who find their world and their ideologies rocked by a visit from a Yorkshireman, Alfred Darby (played by Walley), and a freed Georgian slave named Sarah (Tierra Porter). His Bodkin costar Siobhán Cullen plays the female lead.

“He’s like smoke: you think he’s behind one door, and then you open it and he’s behind you,” Walley says. “I think that’s what Elizabeth Kuti does so well with this play. Very often, as human beings, we try to make archetypes – ‘I see you now; I’ve spent enough time with you; I know who you are’ – and you try to box people off. But then, when you think you have them, in the next scene they’re a contradiction of themselves. That happens so often in this play: people say one thing, and then they do another. It’s all about morality - can you say one thing but act another way? And if you do enough good things but fewer bad things, does it still make you a good person? It is complex, but it’s rewarding.”

Walley will never close the door on Jock, he says, nor is he worried about being defined by the character – who in the current, fourth season of The Young Offenders finds himself in a Colombian prison, the storyline partly a testament to Walley’s busy schedule and availability. “Everyone in that show is like family to me, so it didn’t take any convincing,” he says. “It was about trying to figure out a way to make it work, so that I could be in it for those scenes.”

Chris Walley in the Peacock Theatre, Dublin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

His schedule shows no sign of slowing down. After The Sugar Wife there is another independent Irish film to shoot, followed by a “very exciting” TV series later in the year, neither of which he can say much about. Nor is he willing to divulge much about Covenant, the feature film that he wrote during Covid with his friend and fellow actor Frank Blake, which was given development funding by Screen Ireland and is being produced by Jamie Dornan’s Blackthorn Pictures.

“I think the most amazing thing about our industry is that if stuff isn’t happening for you, you can make it happen,” Walley says. “You can write a story, and if the story is good, and you can get it seen by the right people, it can happen. So me and Frank wrote these two parts, and we talked about what we wanted to play, and then we figured out a story around that. We’re going to be going into development soon; we have a small bit more to do, but I’d be confident we can get it shot next year. I probably can’t say anything else about it or I’ll get in trouble. But me and Frank will be in it.”

Walley’s dream role, he says, is nebulous. “Just something that’s really challenging: it’s funny, it’s dark and you have to go to depths of despair but also points of elation.” He shrugs. “Just to get stretched. If I look at a script and go, ‘Sh*t, I don’t know how to do that,’ then that’s often exciting, because it’s then about trying to figure out, ‘Can I do that?’” He stops, suddenly realising something.

“I’d love to do a western, though. That’d be fun. Can I ride a horse? Not very well. I’ve only done it a few times. Actually, scratch that, in case anyone ever looks that up.” He adopts a comically haughty tone. “Of course I can ride a horse.”

The Sugar Wife is at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, from Tuesday June 18th, to Saturday July 20th, with previews from Thursday June 13th