Mario Rosenstock premieres his new live show in Cork. Vicki Notaro joins him on the set of his TV show to see why he’s got his sights set on the south.
It’s a cold December day when I go to meet Mario Rosenstock. The famed impressionist and mimic is recording the last episode of his eponymous show of the year, and when we sit down to chat before a change in location he’s dressed as President Michael D Higgins, complete with bald cap.
It’s disconcerting to say the least; bushy grey eyebrows and intricate eye-makeup make the 44-year-old look way beyond his years. But I guess that’s the point.
We’re here today to talk about his latest tour, which kicks off this March in Cork. “It’s a brand new show,” he tells me excitedly. “Every two years I come up with one and go out on tour, and every time I put a show on sale, it always sells out in Cork first. So for the first time, we’re going to start there.”
I ask why he thinks Cork people seem to love him so much.
“Well, I don’t know about that! I’d love to think they love me, but I think they love the slagging. They love the political slagging, it’s very Munster humour. Cork is a very political town with Labour, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, and from a civil war point of view. I suppose too they like the characters — the Ronan O’Gara and Roy Keane ones are Gift Grub favourites from the very early days. For all of those reasons and more, we decided to go arseways, backwards up through the country, and finish in the Gaiety in Dublin with five nights in April.”
This tour consists of 20 nights, “a fair whack” according to the man himself including dates in Galway, Limerick and Kilkenny among others.
Born in Waterford in 1971, Mario says he’s proud to be a native son of the The Déise. “Ah it’s great to bring a little bit of notoriety to Waterford, because it had it tough during the recession. And we only have a few celebrities, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Val Doonican, oh, and Keith Barry. It’s nice to be able to do my bit! I was brought up in the countryside there on a farm, and I came to Dublin when I was about 13 so I still have an affinity with it, and with Cork too, because I went to boarding school there.”
This latest show is based around the big year that 2016 will undoubtedly be thanks to the European football championships, a general election, and the presidential election in the States.
“It’s a big year for material and a good time to be doing a new show. I’m going to be onstage when we elect a new Taoiseach, so I’m going to walk out as whoever it may be — Enda, Gerry Adams, Joan Burton or who knows.” I ask if he has a comic preference.
“Oh comedically, I’d love it to be Gerry Adams. I’ve done Enda so many times, and we’ve actually come such a long way since I first started doing him.”
Another character in his arsenal is the notorious Donald Trump.
“The Republican primaries in American will be around the time of the tour, so the Trump effect will be in force, I may have to bring him out.”
It’s clear from talking to him that Mario just loves the stage.
“I adore being on tour, and I haven’t done one in about two years. I would be a self-professed people person, I love the live vibe because of the feedback you get. On the radio, you don’t hear the audience laughing. Live, there are surprises. Some characters are really popular that you mightn’t have thought, and the opposite happens as well.”
For those unfamiliar with his rise to fame, Mario exploded on to the scene in Ireland on the Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show in 1999. He had been on Glenroe in the 1990s as a straight actor, but it was as an impressionist his career really soared.
“My life totally took a different turn in the late 1990s. I used to do voices in the shower in a flat that I was sharing with two people from New Zealand, and one of them was a junior producer in Today FM. She heard me doing a bit where Gerry Adams was giving a bath to Martin McGuinness. I’d do impressions of people I’d recently met as well. I was always an observer, and that’s where the acting came from. And it really just went from there, it seemed to click. I fell in love with the direction my life was going in, because it came from me and not from somebody else — and it was very much in line with the acting I was doing except I was able to give myself jobs.”
Choosing between all the beloved characters he’s done over the years must be tough, but does he have a favourite?
“Oh, that’s very hard. The José Mourinho bit I did was really special because I was the only one really doing it at the time, and it got a lot of attention. And similarly with Roy Keane, I seemed to corner the market on that one. In terms of the women, I love doing Miriam.”
Mario says the best people to “do” as he puts it, are the ones who take themselves very seriously. “That’s what’s brilliant about politicians because they have to take themselves so seriously, it makes it even easier to take the piss out of them.”
However, making the leap from radio to live theatre must have been daunting —after all, on Gift Grub there’s nothing to look at, just his voice.
“I knew I had the theatricality, but I didn’t know if I could pull it off visually. And look, some characters work better than others visually. On the radio I can do five characters at the same time, on television I can’t. But I knew I could hold the room.” He says going out on tour rejuvenates him. “I feel like you can turn over a new leaf every year or 18 months. The world tends to write the script for you, and as long as the world keeps turning, so do I. I have to keep not only on it, but ahead of it, planning all the time. We’ve all got to be like Madonna, reinventing ourselves!”
I ask how his wife deals with his cross-dresing antics.
“She’s surprisingly easy going about it nowadays. At the beginning it was all a little bit of a shock. I wouldn’t say I’ve always had a cross-dressing fetish, but I have been known to try on women’s clothing just messing around, because I am a messer! I remember thinking they were comfortable, tights and lovely skirts.” Clearly a man who’s never worn a bra, I say.
Has he ever thought about tackling a more glamorous young woman, the likes of Roz Purcell perhaps?
“That’s really not a bad idea. I could do Vogue Williams because of her deep voice,” he laughs, defaulting to a hysterical impression of the model turned TV personality. When you’re in the business of mimicking people for a living, I wonder does he ever worry about getting a dig from an irate subject? “I don’t worry about it, but it could happen! Legally, I’m careful. There are clear guidelines, and there are lines you don’t cross.” On paper, Mario seems like he’s done it all — with regular gigs on radio, TV and stage, is there anything left he feels like he wants to accomplish?
“People keep asking me about going to England, would I ever think about it, but I’m not going to emigrate. I don’t want to go away, I have a life here and a wife and two children. To me, the ultimate dream is to make it where you come from and make a living there, and that’s what I’m doing. But now I’m on radio, TV, and stage here, and it is a bit like a hamster going around a wheel, I’m going off now around Ireland for the eighth time, so I would like to mix it up a little bit, and to do something small somewhere else. It doesn’t have to be big, just a taste. Everybody wants to keep themselves lit, that’s what it’s all about.”
He does have aspirations of more serious acting though.
“I’d love to do a biopic of Gay Byrne and play it straight, no comedy. I’d love to tell his story. In the Frost/Nixon way — telling the story of Ireland through his life.”
But for now, he’s thrilled to be taking his show on the road once more.
“To me, ticket sales speak louder than anything else. The buzz hasn’t dimmed for me; you earn it and you earn the right to feel it. I work hard to keep myself in a shape mentally and physically where I’m able to put one of those two-hour shows together. It’s a total privilege to be somebody’s Saturday night. They’ve bought their tickets three or four months in advance, and look forward to it. That’s amazing, I’m honoured, and I’m going to work hard to do a damn good show.”
Mario Rosenstock Live kicks off in Cork on March 23.
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