Rehearsals are currently under way for Druid’s upcoming production of John B Keane’s Big Maggie and among the cast is Keith Duffy who plays the part of travelling salesman Teddy Heelin. At the end of Monday’s rehearsals, Duffy sat down to talk about the play and reflect on some of the highlights of his years in music, television, and performing. “I’m very lucky to have had the career that I have,” he states candidly. “As a teenager I wasn’t very ambitious, I was quite insecure and didn’t have much confidence in myself. Getting into Boyzone was the first bit of luck I’d had in life. And we didn’t really know what it was we were trying to create, whether it was a hit single or to sell out a big venue, we were all new to the business. Everything just seemed to happen naturally, it’s only looking back you realise how lucky we were.
“We were enjoying ourselves together,” he recalls of the band’s early days. “Even when we did start to get a little bit of fame we were still only working for £30 a week each. We would have got more on the dole at the time but we enjoyed what we did and each other’s company. We used to think Louis Walsh must have been throwing darts at a map of Ireland because he’d have us playing in Glenties in Donegal one night and Cork the next night and then up to Castlebar, we basically lived in the back of a Transit van. Some nights we wouldn’t even get paid, then things started to break for us in the UK and it all took off.”
After seven years, Boyzone split in 2000, which led to Duffy’s initial foray into acting. “A friend of mine in London was trying to raise the finance to make a movie so he made a 15-minute short, and he asked me to be in it because I had a familiar face due to the music,” he reveals. “So I did that and really enjoyed it. Having had the success I had with Boyzone, I didn’t really know where I was going to go, I was only 25 when we split. I knew my voice wasn’t strong enough for a solo career. I tried TV presenting and I hated it. But when I did this little movie I remember the hairs standing up on the back of my neck with excitement, like I used to get when I was singing. I rang my wife and told her ‘I’ve found something that gives me the same buzz as performing’ and I realised I had to find more work in this area. I had the bug for acting but I was also thinking ‘who’s going to take a chance on someone who hasn’t been to drama school’? Then Coronation Street invited me in for a chat and I read for a part which I didn’t get, but a month afterward they rang again to say they’d just had their annual scriptwriters’ conference and the 17 writers all agreed they should create a character for me so they created the character of Ciaran. I went in on a three-month contract and ended up staying for three years.”
Duffy is disarmingly frank about his early work with Corrie; “Initially I was shocking,” he declares. “I look back at the earlier episodes and I cringe when I see them. The penny hadn’t dropped with me about what I was doing. It was only after two or three episodes I started getting a feel for the character and I managed to turn it around. I’ve just been back with Corrie filming an intense storyline and the directors were commenting on the huge transformation of what I was doing now compared to when I started and it was lovely to hear that because you need to be reassured that you’re doing a good job.”
After Corrie, Duffy went on to have roles in Fair City and The Clinic. He’s particularly relishing the chance Big Maggie now gives him of working in the theatre. “I find theatre very exciting,” he enthuses. “It’s a discipline you really need to have. For me it’s still very raw. I can go onstage in front of 20,000 people with Boyzone and it’s like I’m in my comfort zone, it’s me, I’m delivering myself to them. And when you’re doing a TV show you’re playing to the camera and if it’s not right the first time you can go and do it again. When you’re going into theatre it’s like there’s a glass screen between you and the audience and it’s not me Keith Duffy, it’s whatever character I am playing. The nerves are a lot higher doing a gig like this in front of 140 people than it would be going out in front of 25,000 people with Boyzone.”
“Teddy is a great character,” he observes of his role. “I’m getting there slowly with him. He’s referred to as a whoremaster in the script, he’s a womaniser. In one way it’s been difficult because he’s not that far removed from Ciaran in Corrie and I want him to be completely different so I’m trying to find other ways of doing things with Teddy.”
There might well be a Duffy acting dynasty in the making as Keith’s son Jay has recently landed a role in Hollyoaks. “He’s doing the same thing I did and jumping straight in at the deep end,” Keith says, proudly. “He’s doing very well and he’s very natural, he has a great instinct, I watched the stuff he did and I was blown away. And they’re very happy with him, they tried to convince me to let him leave school and they’d pay for a private tutor for him and make him a fulltime cast-member. I said no because I believe a child should be allowed to be a child, he doesn’t need to be working 12 hours a day with adults when he’s only 15. But I compromised by saying that when he has a mid-term break or holiday he can go to Liverpool and shoot a few episodes, and so he’s going over there on Saturday for 10 days. He’s enjoying it and it’s going well.”
Since his daughter Mia was diagnosed with autism, Duffy has been an energetic campaigner and fundraiser on the issue. He argues strongly on the benefits of extending special education for autistic children. “There are 12 schoools around the country now where parents of autistic children can get them educated, and the kids there are progressing at a really great rate,” he notes. “These schools have a 1-2-1 teacher-child ratio and the kids are responding very well. It’s an American system called applied behaviour analysis and it’s specifically tailored for autistic children. I would love to see that become more readily available. You have to understand a disability to be able to help and there is a huge ignorance surrounding autism. I’ve educated myself on it but trying to relate that back to the boards of education or health as to what they need to do to provide for the future of these kids, they just don’t grasp it. This is a condition that can be helped. In years gone by, these kids would have been just brushed aside. These kids do have the ability to learn and the difference ABA makes is phenomenal, –it’s the difference between holding down a job, maybe falling in love, having a decent quality of life, to being sedated in a chair in an institution at the age of 13 or 14 –that’s the difference between getting ABA and not getting it. There is a big spectrum within autism but what ABA does is help each child fulfill their own potential.”
Boyzone’s 20th anniversary is coming up in 2013 and there are talks about an album and a tour to mark the occasion but for now Duffy is focused on continuing to fulfill his own potential as an actor with Druid and Big Maggie. The play opens at the Town Hall on November 11.