We first saw Hugh O’Conor a child in Lamb, and he’s gone on to become an accomplished photographer and actor, writes Alan O’Riordan.
MEETING Hugh O’Conor is a good way to chase away those January blues. The actor, who is now, shockingly, in his 40s, radiates enthusiasm, inquisitiveness and boyish charm.
As well as acting, O’Conor is also an accomplished photographer. You can see his work in the National Gallery, or in the first edition of literary journal Winter Pages, where O’Conor contributed a photo essay of intimate shots of his fellow thespians in those liminal moments after the curtain comes down.
He’s also directed numerous short films, and his first feature, scripted by Paul Murray, is due to shoot this summer. Also in the pipeline is 26-minute Estonian-Irish animated adaptation of Gogol’s The Overcoat, with Cillian Murphy and Alfred Molina.
O’Conor’s latest acting gig, in fact, came via his work as a photographer, on Enda Walsh’s 2015 opera The Last Hotel, after which Walsh asked O’Conor to take a part in Arlington, which opens at the Abbey on February 13 after its run at the Galway Arts Festival last year.
“When he asked, I was like, no matter what this is, of course I’m going to do it. It’s a really rich, full-on piece. It will totally divide people, and that’s a good thing. I remember walking around Galway and hearing people saying ‘What was that about?’ or ‘That was amazing’. Visually and from an audio point of view, it’s stunning too.”
O’Conor plays a character called Young Man, which he says he takes as a compliment at the age of 41. “My character is a nervous sweet kind of put-upon character. We talked about Harold Lloyd or Woody Allen. He’s a cleaner in these towers that are everywhere in this world.
He becomes a confidante of Charlie Murphy’s character, he can see her on these monitors. In the third part of the play I’m subjected to an interrogation kind of thing, a complete breakdown by Olwen Fouere’s voice… She’s perfect for that,” he adds with a laugh.
O’Conor might be best known for his screen work — which stretches back to Lamb, in 1985, with Liam Neeson, and playing a young Christy Brown in My Left Foot — but as a stage performer he has not been afraid to stretch himself. He won an Irish Theatre Award in 2013 for a portrayal of the Fool in King Lear that was in nobody’s comfort zone.
“She was really physical as well,” he says of the director on that show, Selina Cartmell.
“I would never have thought of [her approach]. It’s great to get pushed by someone. Staging-wise that was really an interesting one to do. She had it in her head that I should be shaven-headed, in callipers — we kind of took it from there.”
It all could have turned out very differently for O’Conor, who as a youngster had several Hollywood deals offered him. “My folks were great,” he says. “They said, ‘No. You’re going to school.’ And I’m really glad they did!”
O’Conor’s father is the acclaimed pianist John O’Conor, and he jokes that this might explain why he wasn’t pushed headlong into an artistic career.
Yet he pursued one nonetheless. “Yeah. It’s funny how it works out. I started so young that I don’t know if it was a plan or not. The directing thing is great though. It’s an itch I wanted to scratch. And I do enjoy it a lot.
“There’s photos of me on set as a child looking through the camera, so I suppose if you’re around it you get interested in it. I wouldn’t say yet I’m a director, you have to have done a lot, I think, to call yourself that. But I think the photography and the acting come together in a really nice way in directing. It’s interesting.”
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