Contrary to rumours, Keith Duffy’s not leaving Coronation Street – in fact he might even move to Manchester next year. Donal O’Donoghue meets an upbeat performer to talk about the loss of his friend Stephen, his future in Weatherfield and why family is so important.
“Do you like my haircut?” says Keith Duffy, bouncing about like a prizefighter. “You know I had long hair this morning.” And now? Well, now the actor and singer is sporting a matinee look for his role as the rakish Teddy in Druid’s production of Big Maggie. “I love Mad Men”, says Duster, as his fellow Boyzone members know him. "I actually wanted one of their haircuts.”
It’s the end of the interview and Duffy is ready for his close-up. But the photographer’s presence has reminded him that he’d been to the barbers earlier. This was after the school run and before the media treadmill and rehearsals for his first stage show in yonks. It’s a hectic schedule but Duffy wouldn’t swap it for anything. He loves being back in Dublin after the epic commute to Manchester for Coronation Street. He’s a happy family man – he lives in north County Dublin with Lisa and their two children, Jordan and Mia – and doing family things. He’s home, loving it and shouting it from the rooftops.
And boy can Duffy can talk. Just ask a question – like ‘Hey Duster, how did you get the part of Teddy?’ – and he’s off, reeling in the last two years of his career like a man not just telling you how it is but also remembering how it was. He talks about the death of fellow band member Stephen Gately (“I’m still devastated”), his return to Coronation Street (the kid will not be written out of that picture) and the recent Boyzone tour (“the next big thing is our 20th anniversary in 2013”). “I’m not 19 any more”, he says somewhat ruefully, at one point. “I’m closer to 40 than I’ve ever been.”
In fact, Duffy is 37 and his son Jordan (or Jay as he calls him) is fast approaching his 16th birthday. “You should see the hands on him”, says Keith, lifting up his own not inconsiderable mitts. “They’re bigger than mine.” He talks about Jay’s newfound fame (the lad plays a recurring role on Hollyoaks) and how autograph hunters now approach them looking for the son and not the father. “I tell Jay that I used to have that once”, says Duffy. “But occasionally young ones do come up to me and I’m thinking, ‘here we go’. But then they say, ‘My ma loves you, can you sign this?’”
It’s the morning after Westlife’s break-up. Duffy knows the Westies well – they used to play support to Boyzone back in the day – but is surprised that they have decided to split for good. His own band never made that definitive move (“we were on a seven-year break” he argues) and earlier this year wrapped a major tour. “We’re dormant at the moment but we’re together forever now”, he says. “I think the next big thing for Boyzone will be in 2013 which will mark our 20th anniversary and there is talk of an anniversary tour and an album.” It seems there’s always lots of talk where Keith Duffy is concerned. Contrary to the rumours that were flying hither and thither last month, the Dubliner has not cashed in his Coronation Street chips. Yes, there will be a dramatic – but not terminal – storyline that will take his character, Ciaran McCarthy, towards Christmas. “I get loads of opportunity to show all my flair from all different angles”, he says. “Ciaran gambles away all his wedding money and then gets into trouble with Michelle (Kym Marsh) and then he robs a bistro to get his money back and then he gets caught. It’s great.” But don’t write Ciaran off even then. “It’s very much open”, he says of his Corrie future. “The producers said that while they understood my family commitments in Ireland, they told me to remember that there was always a job for me on the Street.”
For now, his life is on stage with Big Maggie. “Teddy is a bit of a bastard but a very charming one”, he says. “There are also lines in the play that suggest he is very attractive and all the women fancy him. I don’t know how I’m going to pull that one off.” He laughs. Hang on a second there Duster, didn’t we just see you on TV recently, shortlisted for one of those Best Looking Hunks in Soaps awards? He shrugs sheepishly. “For the last ten years I was nominated as Britain’s sexiest soap star and every year I get down to the last few before Scott Marsden pips me at the post”, he says. “Me granny and me wife are always saying ‘I don’t know what they see in him, he’s an ugly fecker’ but they might be biased. The thing is I’d love to get out of that ‘you look great but can you act?’ bracket. Druid will hopefully make other actors look at me differently.”
In the past, critics have battered Keith Duffy’s acting: the gist of the criticism being Dorothy Parker’s classic putdown of running the ‘gamut of emotions from A to B.’ Sticks and stones to a man with a bulletproof belief in his own worth. “When I came into this business from the boyband, a lot of actors frowned at me”, he says. “They thought that the only reason Coronation Street hired me was because I was a familiar face and I would add to the ratings. They didn’t realise that I have a love and flair for the acting. It was always an ambition of mine to be an actor.”
Duffy, whose parents, Patricia and Sean, were both in amateur drama, made his stage debut at 12 years old. “I was the lead gangster in a school production”, he says. “My mother still has the photographs at home.” His father was also a veteran of the showband circuit and Duffy Jnr admits that the old man was “a much better singer than I ever was”. When Boyzone were ‘dormant’, Duffy flexed his thespian muscles with a starry turn in The Clinic (RTÉ) and the Dublin stage play, Dandelions. But Druid is another step up the ladder. “This is a big challenge for me, without a doubt”, admits Duffy.
His daughter Mia, who was diagnosed with autism in 2001, also entertains showbiz ambitions. “Mia is now saying that she wants to be an actor. But she wants to be a funny actor, she wants to do comedy. She is quite funny in fact. She can mimic anything that she has seen on TV. But I don’t know what Mia will do. Right now she’s doing fantastic and we’re very proud of her, but she has long way to go. She does ballet, piano lessons and is on her second year of life-saving courses. We try to keep her as busy as we can and she likes to be in a routine.”
Following Mia’s diagnosis, Keith and Lisa’s relationship struggled. “When Mia came along it was very rocky for a while but we always managed to get through”, he says. “You have to work at a marriage because nobody is perfect. When you’re together as long as we’ve been together (17 years last September), you know what buttons to press to p*** the other person off. The good thing is that you’ve been there before so you’ve had that row. We don’t raise the voices any more. It might be the quiet treatment for a couple of hours and then one or the other will come forward and say sorry. But things are great at the moment. We are very lucky to have each other.”
Stephen Gately, who used to call Duffy ‘Kitty’, was a close friend of Duffy and his family. “It’s still devastating even today”, he says of the singer’s tragic death in 2009. “Back then it was difficult to control your emotions no matter where you were or who you were with. You’d get waves of emotion that would floor you and you’d end up crying your eyes out in front of people, especially after a few drinks. But I have great faith. I wouldn’t be a big churchgoer but I do believe in God and Jesus and Mary. I say my prayers and talk to them. And I talk to Stephen. I have belief in the afterlife and that Stephen is waiting for me there. That’s what keeps me going: my faith. But there are days that I miss him terribly.”
Duffy is still bouncing – and bubbling – with enthusiasm 30 minutes after we meet. Pumped up with ideas and ambitions, he believes that Big Maggie and Druid could be the start of something big – or serious. He talks about the joy of being able to have breakfast with his family, he fiddles with the notion of relocating to Manchester with his family for Corrie and he speculates about a number of big TV dramas slated for production in Ireland in 2012. Sure he wants a piece of that action but he’s keeping his cards close to his chest. “My usual thing is to say I’m doing this or that and then I don’t get the gig and I end up with egg on me face and I look like a dope”, he says.”So I’m not saying anything until the contracts are signed!”
Q Druid presents John B. Keane's Big Maggie, directed by Garry Hynes, at Galway's Town Hall Theatre from November 11 to 19 and at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin from November 21 to 26, followed by a nationwide tour. More information at www.druid.ie