Hometown: Newcastle, England
Currently: Giving a standout Broadway debut performance in Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of The Pitmen Painters as Oliver Kilbourn, a 1930s-era miner in northeast England who becomes a celebrated artist.
Falling Into Acting: The mines in Newcastle are long gone, but Connel can identify with the “pitman” he’s played in three productions of Lee Hall’s acclaimed drama (first at the Live Theatre in his hometown, then at London’s National Theatre and now at Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre). “It mirrors my life a little bit,” he says of his character. “I come from somewhere that traditionally is not going to produce actors, a working-class area where people live in government-subsidized housing.” An indifferent student, Connel parlayed parts in a few school plays into a spot in the theater department at Newcastle College. Within a year after launching his career, “I realized that people kept hiring me, and I thought, ‘I’m pretty damned good at this, so I’m going to have to put my head down, work hard and see if I can make a living out of it.’”
The New Newcastle: Speaking in his thick native brogue, Connel explains why he hasn’t felt the need to move to London to advance his career. “Culturally, Newcastle is a beautiful place to be,” he says proudly, adding that the loss of heavy industry and mining paved the way for a rich arts scene. “If you go down to the dock area, it’s absolutely gorgeous. We’ve got a new symphony hall, art galleries, a restaurant area and five full-time theaters. In a lot of towns, the number one ambition is to get out. But in Newcastle, if you have to leave, your number one ambition is to get back someday.” So Connel never left—and now his 12-year-old son is attending the same school that he and playwright Lee Hall call their alma mater.
Art Isn’t Easy: The story of the so-called Ashington Group—uneducated miners who took an art appreciation class and somehow began turning out professional-quality paintings themselves—was unfamiliar to Connel until he was tapped to create the role of Oliver Kilbourn. “It’s amazing,” he says of the miners’ achievement. “These fellows would be down in the pit for 12 hours a day, then they’d come out, get washed, go to the hut [their studio] and spend hours painting pictures. They’d do the whole thing again the next day.” As the most talented artist in the group, Connel’s character must decide whether to pursue painting full-time or remain in the pit with his friends. “As soon as I read the play, I realized how lucky I was to be asked to do play this part,” he says.
New York State of Mind: Having never been to America, Connel is embracing life in Manhattan. “I’ve had a good walk all the way through Central Park,” he says. "I’m living on the 43rd floor in a building three minutes away from the theater, so every morning I open my blinds, look out and just say, ‘Wow.’ What an amazing city this is.” By the time his son and fiancée come for a week-long visit in October, Connel hopes to be able to show them the sights. “It’s like being in all the films you grew up watching,” he says of exploring New York. “You walk around a corner and think, ‘I know this place! I’ve been here before.’ But clearly you haven’t—you saw it in a film. I cannot wait for my son to get here, because he will be absolutely blown away.”
Normal Life: Though he’s worked steadily for the past few years, Connel believes his “normal bloke” looks can work against him. “I’m neither plug-ugly nor amazingly handsome,” he jokes, “so I always end up somewhere in the middle. But I do get a lot of character roles, which I enjoy, because it’s a good chance to be a bit daft and have some fun.” A favorite role was Alan Shearer, the star of Connel's beloved “football” team, Newcastle United, and he's figured out how to follow them from afar. “I found FOX Soccer!” he says with a laugh. “I suppose I’m one of about 10 people in New York who watch it.” And don’t get him started about American football: “I can’t figure out why people get so excited about stealing 10 yards in one direction. I find that confusing, but clearly I know nothing about the game!”