The star of ’80s musical Sing Street learned the music on the job

An interview with 16-year-old Ferdia Walsh-Peelo about his first film role, in the new movie by John Carney (Once, Begin Again).

Sing Street
Sing Street cast, feat. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (third from right)

It’s always a good idea to do a little homework before an interview. I don’t review a person’s entire oeuvre, but I try and make sure I read a few interviews and get an idea of which questions come up so often that they don’t need to be asked again. When prepping to interview Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, the young star of John Carney’s Sing Street, however, I hit a wall. I knew he was a newcomer, but as far as those come, he was the newest. There had been no interviews published yet; the film had just had its Sundance premiere, and the only thing I could find on him besides a Twitter account were a series of publicity shots from Sundance. (He didn’t even have a Wikipedia — a fact that has since been corrected.) Naturally, it was the first thing I brought up.

“Yeah, I’m nobody! I wonder why you’re talking to me,” laughs the 16-year-old Irish-born actor. “I did loads of stuff as a boy soprano, I don’t know if you saw that online. I started singing from a young age and playing piano classically and I did loads of operas and such as a boy soprano, and then my voice changed. I got into other kinds of music, I started playing guitar and then I got Sing Street. It was all kind of one go, really, and it happened so fast.”

Walsh-Peelo plays Conor, a young Irish man from a working-class background who is forced to move from private to public school when his family goes through a rough patch. An outcast at his new school, Conor becomes obsessed with music, encouraged by his hippyish older brother (Jack Reynor), who feeds the addiction with recommendations and tough-love advice. Wanting to impress a popular rocker girl at school, Conor asks her to appear in a music video for his band — a band that he has yet to form. With the help of some instrument-playing cohorts, the now-redubbed Cosmo starts a band and moves from popular new wave covers to original compositions in order to win over Ralphina (Lucy Boynton).

It’s an obvious labour of love for Carney, whose best-known works are music-centric films like  Once and Begin Again. It’s also somewhat autobiographical for the filmmaker. He would’ve been roughly the same age as Cosmo at the time the film is set, he played bass in the Frames for two years in the early ’90s and he went to the very same school as Cosmo does in the film. For Walsh-Peelo, however, it wasn’t a question of playing Carney.

“I was never really aware of that on set,” he explains. “He never really brought it up with me, I believe because he thought it would put a lot of pressure on me. I never became aware of it, weirdly. I know there was some talk about it being a bit of a biopic, but John never brought it up. (…) Conor was very much different from John; I was just doing who I thought Conor was.”

Considering that Walsh-Peelo was born in 2000 (!), the songs featured in the film by the likes of Duran Duran , The Cure, Joe Jackson or Hall & Oates were not exactly in his wheelhouse. “I wasn’t familiar at all with that kind of stuff,” he says. “Once I got on set, I started learning about the music and watching music videos. Now I’m really into it and I’m watching a broader library of music. I kinda skipped a few generations when I started listening to music because I was already into the Sixties — doing Beatles covers and whatnot — but I’d never really explored much of the avenues of the Eighties. It was all very new to me, but it made it even more fun, you know?”

At the time of our interview, Walsh-Peelo had been performing the songs from Sing Street in various live capacities, but few had seen the film. I asked the actor how it felt to have such a major life experience bubbling under the surface — something so major just waiting to be shared with the rest of the world.

“At Sundance it was nice, because I played in front of a lot of people who had actually seen it — at the afterparty, of course, after the screening. That was really nice, because people actually started listening to me playing music for once in my life,” he laughs. “Usually it’s just ‘If you’re not gonna sings “Fields of Athenry,” shut up!’, but it was very fun. We had a great time. It’s all kinda weird, but I don’t know what to expect until it actually happens.” ■

Sing Street opens at the Cineplex Forum Cinema (2313 Ste-Catherine W.) on Friday, April 29. Watch the trailer here: