1 December 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Dónall Ó Héalai on Acting
11 Sep 2020 : Nathan Griffin
With the nominations for the IFTA Awards announced, we continue to shine a spotlight on Irish talent who are blazing a trail across our industry, working in front of and behind the camera.

Hosted in association with IFTA, this Q&A Series connects with Irish talent who represent a range of disciplines across our industry.

We find out what they look out for in the projects they take on, what their approach is to filmmaking and on-set collaboration; what inspires them; what current trends and techniques they like, and dislike in the industry.

We spoke with Dónall Ó Héalai, star of the highly acclaimed, Irish-language feature Arracht. The film from writer/director Tom Sullivan leads the way with 11 IFTA nominations this year, and previously won the prestigious Audience Award at Glasgow Film Festival 2020, as well as Best Irish Film at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Ó Héalaí was also awarded the Aer Lingus Discovery Award at DIFF in March and has achieved significant critical acclaim for his committed performance in the film, including an IFTA nomination for Lead Actor.

Originally from Connemara and a native Irish speaker, Ó Héalaí is a graduate of the Bow Street Academy of screen acting. The Irish actor is also a graduate of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, where he was awarded the Dr. H.H Stewart Literary prize during his studies. In 2018 he gave a TedxBerkeley talk on the Irish Language and Beauty.

Ó Héalaí can be seen as the lead in US thriller Impossible Monsters alongside Tony winner, Santino Fontana. The Irish actor has also wrapped on the Irish film Foscadh - a screen adaptation of the man booker prize shortlisted novel The Thing about December by the Irish writer Donal Ryan, produced by IFTA winner, Paddy Hayes. Ó Héalaí plays the lead role in the film which is currently in postproduction.

What do you look out for in a script?

“Connection. Does the writing connect at a visceral level I think that’s the most important thing. If it does, I immediately start imagining what it might be like to live in that world.”

How do you prepare for auditions, and what advice would you give to younger actors?  

“I like to read the material as often as I can beforehand. I find the more I read something, the more ideas I have about it. I try and look at the audition as a chance to play that role for that day and try to commit to that opportunity. Being true to your natural interpretation of the character is half the battle.”

What attracted you to the role of Coleman Sharkey in Arracht

“Coleman was an incredible role. From the very first time I read the script, I was aware of how expansive a character he was. From his relationship with the land and sea – belonging to an elder Irish generation who were able to survive in any environment, in any condition due to his sheer stubbornness, determination and heart. It’s rare that you get to play someone who experiences such a significant physical transformation within their arc – these were all aspects of the character that were very enticing to me as an actor.”

How did you approach playing your character in this film, and how much rehearsal was involved? 

“I approached the role of Coleman from the outside in. I hoped that by committing physically to the role and dropping weight in the 4 months leading up to the film that this experience would inform me of his psychology. I also read as much about the famine as I could. The fantastic Saise Ní Chuinn (who plays Citty in the film) and I did a little rehearsing before filming but not a lot.” 

How do you like to work with Directors and do you like to have a collaborative process? 

“The collaborative process of filmmaking might be my favourite aspect of the work. I have been very lucky with the directors I have worked with so far in that they have been open to ideas and different approaches to the characters I’ve played. Tom (Sullivan) invited me to be a part of the creative team in a significant and meaningful way with Arracht. As an actor – it really doesn’t get any better than that. I owe him a lot.”

Tell me about your experience on set, and your favourite moment during this production?

“It was a tough, tight shoot as we shot the entire film in 20 days. A lot of these days were scenes at sea and as you can imagine Connemara in October in the wind and rain - this can be challenging. When you are up against the elements in that fashion the cast and crew have to become a cohesive unit, otherwise, you just won’t get what you need from a day. This melding of departments and coming together was something that has stayed with me. One moment that stood out for me was a scene where Coleman was clawing onto the rocks after being in the water. Kate (McCullough) and I really pushed to get that over the line. It’s one of my favourite shots in the film. Working with someone as talented and determined as Kate was a privilege. I don’t believe Arracht would be have had the same success without her.” 

What was your first paid role as an actor, and what were the key things you learned from doing that role? 

“My first paid role as an actor was on a teen drama series called, Aifric. I learned the importance of being on time and knowing my lines!”

What Filmmaker or Actor has influenced or inspired you the most?  

“This is a tough one. Michael Fassbender/ Daniel Day-Lewis/ Cillian Murphy”  

What international performance by an actor has blown you away? 

“Shira Hass in Unorthodox.” 

What Director or Actor would you most like to work with and why (Irish or international)?

“This is a long list but to name a few whose work really inspires me, Lenny Abrahamson, Cathy Brady, Andrea Arnold, Ken Loach, Steve McQueen, Frank Berry, Pat Collins.” 

We often are our own worst critics. What is your approach to constructive criticism and inward reflection?  

“We can definitely be our own worst critics. I think it’s important to choose who you listen to in terms of feedback. Getting feedback from people who you trust can be very helpful.”

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career thus far that you would share with young aspiring Actors? 

“Stay close to what it is you love about acting.” 

How have you channeled your creativity during lockdown? 

“Working outdoors has been surprisingly creative!”  

Click here to read more of our interview series.

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