For actor Stephen O’Leary, when Copper Face Jacks the Musical comes to the Cork Opera House at the end of the month, it will be something of a homecoming for him.

From Rathcormac, not far from Fermoy, Stephen performed there several times as a child with the Montford Stage School, but not since his star has risen significantly as an adult in recent years.

Stephen is known for both his stage and screen roles. In Coppers the Musical he plays the hilarious Mossy Munnix from Cahersiveen, Co Kerry. On screen he has been in Smalltown and Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope, but is probably best known for playing Zak Dillon in Fair City, who recently got sent to jail.

As mentioned above, Stephen’s acting career started off in the Montford Stage School in Cork. His mother Valerie is an actor and has been a teacher at the school for the past 35 years. Stephen has six siblings and they were all involved in acting growing up. Interestingly though, Stephen never really saw acting as much of a career option.

“I was a big hurler as well when I was younger, it came from my dad’s side. I was always battling between the acting classes and the hurling. The acting won out,” Stephen says. “It’s a weird one, because I was really struggling with what to put down on my CAO for my Leaving Cert and I just didn’t know.

Stephen O'Leary (left) who plays Mossy Munnix in Copper Face Jacks the Musical with fellow cast members, Sarah Gordon as Noeleen Nic Gearailt and Johnny Ward (right) as Gino Wildes.

“Acting as a profession never really stood out, but I really enjoyed doing it. My sister Sally had already travelled to London, she was training in Lamda, the acting school in London. She said, ‘Just audition for a couple of schools in Dublin and see how you get on.’ I auditioned for The Gaiety and got in.”

At times, Stephen found The Gaiety School of Acting very challenging, but in the end, he deduces it was all worth it. “It’s very tough, so different to anything I was used to. They really work you hard. They really try strip you down and start again. The first year was very tough. There were times when I was ringing my dad going, ‘I don’t know if this is for me.’ But I stuck it out and now it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It was what I needed, tough training to try and get me ready for the world outside college.”

Breakout roles

After college things went well for Stephen, and this trend has continued since. One of the first jobs he got after he finished was in the 50th anniversary production of John B Keane’s The Field in The Gaiety.

He landed roles, as mentioned previously, on screen and also expanded his stage presence in 2018 with the role of Mossy in the acclaimed Coppers the Musical, written by Paul Howard. Mossy is a very funny character and Stephen plays him with much hilarity.

Coppers Face Jacks the Musical recently went on tour outside Dublin for the first time – although it has returned to the capital temporarily and is currently running in The Olympia. Interestingly, Stephen feels Mossy went down better ‘down the country’.

Stephen O'Leary (left) who plays Mossy Munnix in Copper Face Jacks the Musical with fellow cast members, Sarah Gordon as Noeleen Nic Gearailt and Johnny Ward (right) as Gino Wildes.

“It’s so much fun to play Mossy. A lot of the times when I’ve done the play in Dublin, he’s almost the villain of the show,” Stephen says. “He’s very old fashioned and he’s not the nicest at the surface of things. It was weird in Limerick recently, I felt the audience were on Mossy’s side a lot more and Gino was the real villain of the show, but I don’t really get that feeling in Dublin.

“Mossy is gas. He’s a wild, wild, country man. He’s so mad and he’s so wild, but you know what’s funny? When I started rehearsals in 2018, as an actor you still have to find the realism, somewhere in the character. So you’re kind of basing it off a few people. Then you’re giving it 100% in terms of physicality.”

Away from the comedy side of his performance, a new challenge has presented itself to Stephen of late. In October he will act in his first feature film and his first big project outside of Ireland – The Promised Land, directed by Michael Winterbottom, which films in Italy.

The movie centres the conflict between Jewish and Arab people in Palestine in the 1940s.

“It’s a completely different challenge and that’s what’s so great about the career, that I can move to something like this movie. Obviously, all these projects need different energies. I can’t walk on to the set of The Promised Land and act like Mossy,” Stephen explains.

With such interesting and intense acting projects on the go, Irish Country Living muses that Stephen must need to utilise downtime in-between jobs. For Stephen, though, there’s always work waiting in the wings.

“I’m lucky, my dad, Donal, he has a haulage company in Cork. Whenever I’m not acting, I come home and I drive a delivery van. It keeps me grounded and keeps my head busy.

“It’s actually lovely to get out on to the road and work eight to five for two weeks or three weeks. I always say, it doesn’t matter what I do in my career, I could go to Hollywood, he will still have me in the van on my days off,” Stephen laughs.

Whether on stage or in the van, a return to Cork will always be on the cards for Stephen.

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