From Drogheda to Hollywood: a rite of passage for Colin O'Donoghue
After years of doing the rounds on Irish TV, 30-year-old Drogheda native Colin O'Donoghue put together an audition tape and sent it off to Hollywood.
Not only did the tape get looked at, it landed him the pivotal role in The Rite, a film based on true events. In the film he plays Michael Kovak, a trainee American priest who decides to give up seminary school.
But just as he is about to take off his dog collar and hand back his cassock, he is persuaded to enroll on a course to train exorcists at the Vatican.
Once in Rome he is sceptical of all he sees and hears, so his tutor (played by fellow Irishman Ciarán Hinds) sends him to meet with an unconventional Welsh Jesuit priest (played by Anthony Hopkins), an encounter that results in a serious rethinking by the young trainee and a direct encounter with demonic forces.
We met up with Colin for a drink and a chat in the swanky surrounds of the Merrion Hotel to talk about witnessing demonic possession, working with an icon and the lack of love scenes in his Hollywood debut.
JOE: Afternoon Colin. So after years of appearing on TV in things like The Clinic, The Tudors and the mighty Fair City, you’ve gone and become an overnight sensation…
Colin O’Donoghue: Yeah, I mean it’s funny cause even to me it feels like an overnight thing, despite the fact that I’ve been slogging it out for ten years here in Ireland.
It’s strange to be here now, doing interviews in the Merrion Hotel. I just had lunch with Ciaran Hinds who is one of my heroes. It’s all a bit insane.
JOE: Not only have you become an overnight sensation, but you’ve put your head over the parapet in a big-budget Hollywood film opposite Anthony Hopkins. Plus you’re in just about every scene of the film. Talk about putting yourself out there…
Colin: Yeah, I’m pretty much in every scene. I think I won’t know exactly how much all of this affects me until the film has been out for a while and everything dies down.
At the moment I still have to be on my game for interviews and stuff like that, so I'm still in the mix and caught up in the world of film, so things haven't hit me yet.
I’ve never experienced anything like this. Even when I did the Clinic, I didn’t have one of the main parts, and in the Tudors I had a very small part, so I’ve never been privy to this sort of thing. It’s weird at the moment to be here in Ireland promoting a film from Los Angeles.
JOE: Is Ireland still your home?
Colin: Yeah, my wife and I have our home in Drogheda and we’re very happy to be there. It’s great to come home, relax and take yourself out of a type of world that in a sense is not real.
I think it’s important for me to live here in Ireland and stay grounded. LA is a great city and wonderful place to be, but it’s very easy to get caught up in the madness.
JOE: In The Rite you have a lot of scenes with Oscar-winning film legend Anthony Hopkins which must have been a great experience, but at the same time it must have been pretty daunting.
Were you in awe of him, and if so, how long did it take to get beyond that?
Colin: Up until the first day of shooting I was completely in awe. Then I had to consciously say to myself, ‘That’s Anthony Hopkins, I’ll give myself 20 seconds to freak out a little bit, then I have a job to do’.
There wasn’t much time to stand around awestruck – you’re working 12 to 13 hours a day with no days off. It’s a job and people have expectations from you because they’re employing you.
I think people have this idea that it’s all glitz and glamour. It’s not. At times it’s very tough work, you’ve a job to do and you’ve to deliver on that.
JOE: Your main co-star has a reputation for calling up his female counterparts on film and pretending to be Hannibal Lecter. Did he do the same with you?
Colin: No he never called me up to do that, but he definitely did stuff to me on set. I’d turn around and he’d be standing right there, giving the menacing stare, sniffing the air and doing the whole Hannibal Lecter thing.
He also does unbelievable Tommy Cooper and Marlon Brando impressions. We were promoting the film in Mexico and he did his Brando impersonation for me, which is incredible. His face changes and he literally looks like Brando. It’s unbelievable.
He’s an amazing man: he composes, he paints, he writes, he’s a real renaissance man.
JOE: In preparing for the film you went and witnessed exorcisms being carried out by a real priest. At any point did you feel that the scene of an exorcism was no place for an actor to be hanging around?
Colin: I went with Matt Baglio who wrote the book that the film is based on and I was very aware that I wanted to be respectful. It didn’t feel right being in the actual room when an exorcism was going on, it felt like we’d have been intruding.
We stayed in the next room, but the door was left open so that we could stand and watch. For the most part people were happy with that, but at one point there was one person who wasn’t happy for us to watch.
She screamed and thrashed and then closed the door on us, and that was fine.
JOE: Having seen exorcisms at close hand, how realistic are the ones in the film? Were you tempted at times during filming to point out any inaccuracies?
Colin: In actual fact the ones in the film were by and large exactly like what happens in real life. Maybe the final scene was played up a bit, but we were making a movie rather than a documentary.
I did asked Fr. Gary Thomas, the priest who my character is based on, about the accuracy of the film and he said that he'd seen in real life everything that we depicted in real life.
He’s seen people's facial features change. He said he can’t quite describe it, they still look the same but they have taken on a different aspect. I think the director Mikael Hafstrom was very conscious to use CGI as sparingly as possible in the film. The strange contortions that are performed in the film are all real.
JOE: Has making the film affected your view of God and the devil and of good and evil?
Colin: Before making the film I was very happy and content in my own beliefs. What making the film has done is made me think more about the idea of demonic possession.
I realised that it doesn’t matter what I think, because to the people who are being exorcised or who are possessed it’s very real for them. You need to honour that and you need to be respectful, regardless of whether you believe in what’s going on or you don’t.
Talking to the exorcists who are performing the exorcisms, they don’t care if I believe. Because to them, they’ve got proof of demonic possession, that the soul is real, that the devil is real and that God is real. To them that’s all that matters.
These are very intelligent and well-grounded men and some of them are very skeptical about what they see, because they have to be. They have no absolute reason to lie to me. I’m of no consequence to them.
JOE: Were you at all concerned that in making the film you were dabbling in something that’s best left alone?
Colin: I was slightly concerned when I got the part and read the script. But at the end of the day I think this film is about faith and in a sense it’s an uplifting story. So it’s not something I would overly be concerned about.
JOE: Just one last thing. You’ve managed to get a leading role in a big Hollywood film playing against top-notch actors, which is great. But you managed to pick a film where your character can't get intimate with his love interest, a journalist played by the smokin’ hot Alice Braga, because of his vows of chastity, which is not so great.
When sending off your audition tape, couldn’t you have been a bit more discerning and gone for films where your character gets to bed his hot female co-star?
Colin: You know, I think my wife is fairly happy that there were no love scenes in the movie.
Seriously, I think it was important not to over complicate the plot by putting a whole sexual element in there. It’s always going to be there between the journalist and the priest because they’re young people. But if you over egg that, then it takes away from Michael Kovak's journey into faith.
The Rite is currently on general release across Ireland
You can read our review of The Rite here