MICHAEL Mellamphy had just finished performing for a few dozen people in a Queens, New York, community centre, when he learnt he had been cast opposite Matthew Broderick.
“It knocked me for six,” says the Ballincollig native, known to his friends as Mick.
The pair are in The Seafarer which opens today off-Broadway, though the run has already been extended through May following sold-out previews.
Day one of rehearsals was a bit intimidating, says Mellamphy, but Broderick immediately showed himself to be “one of the guys”.
Mellamphy was quickly translating Irish-isms, including “flaithulach” for the Tony-winner and film star. Meanwhile, Broderick taught Mellamphy a Cole Porter song.
Broderick plays the devil at a poker game in Conor McPherson’s play. “The biggest surprise was how nice and fun he is,” Mellamphy says of his co-star. The other night I spilt a drink on his hand during a performance and he was totally cool about it, saying ‘You’re supposed to be drunk’.”
This was an actor Mellamphy, 41, had admired from childhood. Broderick’s best-known film role may be as the title character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but Mellamphy associates him with another.
“I remember as a kid watching him in Glory with my dad,” Mellamphy said, adding that the Civil War movie remains one of his favorites.
His own performances began at Scoil Barra primary school in Ballincollig. Mellamphy, who also sings, says, “The first show I remember was a musical version of the life of Martin Luther King.”
He smiles, recalling the 1970s production by the then all-white class.
“It wouldn’t fly now — we all painted ourselves black. I think there are still photos of us on the wall.
“We weren’t the kind of family to go to the theatre,” he noted, but his maternal grandmother, Betty Whelan, used to bring him to Cork Opera House as a child, telling him, “You could be up there.”
And he was, first in pantos while in secondary school, then landing his first professional role was as the artful dodger in a 1991 production of Oliver. All the while, he bartended — “the steady thing”.
In 2000, Mellamphy, the eldest of three, came to New York with his sister, Emma, “for the craic”.
Eighteen years later, he co-owns the uptown bar where he began working on arrival, Ryan’s Daughter.
Mellamphy would most love to play Pavarotti in a biopic. His current role gets him closer, with a humorously overwrought rendition of ‘Avé Maria’.
Fortunately, his Seafarer character, Ivan, is not the one who declares Cork city the gay capital of Europe. Mellamphy has enough territorial loyalty to contend with, having been born in The Liberties in Dublin and raised in Cork.
“When I went to Dublin, I was just a culchie and when I went back to Cork I was a jackeen.”
Wherever he’s headed, Mellamphy is on the ascent. This role marks a return to the Irish Repertory Theatre, where Mellamphy got his 2005 start Stateside as a substitute.
The Irish Rep is a New York institution that has collaborated with everyone from Milo O’Shea to Tom Hanks, and Broderick draws extra attention to the venue.
“Sarah Jessica Parker [Broderick’s wife] was in the other night,” Mellamphy notes, anticipating other big-name actors and casting directors will follow.
Just after learning he was being cast opposite Broderick, Mellamphy won best actor in a prominent US theatre festival, Origin’s 1st Irish.
Given that this was his second win, on top of multiple nominations, festival founder George Heslin, joked on awards night, “Mick Mellamphy is becoming the Meryl Streep of 1st Irish.”
In the meantime, he’s still collecting royalties from a 2013 walk-on part in TV series The Good Wife.
“I still get checks for 32c every time someone in China watches it on the internet,” he says drolly.