Friday, 02 March 2012


Forget Harry Potter, Merlin’s Colin Morgan is the original boy wizard. Alison Jane Reid speaks to the actor about magic, monkeys – and his dramatic childhood

Written by Alison Jane Reid

Vampires are just so last year – 2012 is the year of the thoughtful, intelligent geek. And the crown princeling among any wizardly, out-of-this-world geeks must be Colin Morgan, the coruscating young actor from Armagh, Northern Ireland who is perhaps bestknown for his role in the hit BBC TV series Merlin.

For it is Morgan who has read his Mallory and Tennyson, and reinvented Merlin for a 21st-century audience, not as a gnarled, white-haired prophet of ancient myth and legend, but as a charming, gauche, accident-prone underdog who must wait until the time is right to reveal his magical powers.

Up close and personal, Colin comes across as thoughtful, intelligent and engaging. But I hope I’m not going to
disappoint his legion of fans when I tell you that Morgan doesn’t look very much like the dark-eyed, magical alter
ego he has so imaginatively constructed in the show. First, the real Colin is very tall. He is also far better looking than Merlin.

Somehow, he is more masculine; like a young Gregory Peck. He is wearing a casual, blue-and-white check shirt, which hints at his love of being outdoors, admiring sloths and bears. He would make a terrific cowboy.

Then there are the eyes, which are blue, lively, intelligent and inquisitive. But it’s the hair that is a revelation. Forget the glassy, smooth mop of the young wizard – Colin’s hair is thick, curly and plain unruly. In fact, he looks like he has just got out of bed. Which he probably has.

The Troubles
‘When I first started playing Merlin, I relied on instinct and my own experiences,’ he says. ‘I thought about what it
must be like not to be able to show who you are and what your greatest gift is in a world that persecutes magic. I guess you can relate that to a lot of things. For me, it’s about wanting to be an actor, growing up in Northern Ireland, and not being able to express that desire, because the opportunities just weren’t there.’

Colin was born in Armagh in 1986. His father is a painter and decorator, and his mother is a secretary; so far, so normal. But then he calmly describes the not-uncommon scenario of being woken up in the middle of the night, and having to evacuate the family home immediately, because there was a pipe bomb in the house next door.

The next day he would go into school with a note for his teacher to explain why he hadn’t done his homework. This, he says, was just an everyday taste of a childhood growing up in the long shadow of sectarian violence.

The social consequences of Northern Ireland’s problems have been well documented. But for Colin the consequences ran deeper: there were virtually no opportunities for a young actor to nurture at this time.

Fortunately, Morgan doesn’t admit defeat easily. ‘I found a way to get

involved in drama in any way I could. I joined the local amateur dramatic society, and I still have such fond memories of those times.

‘I was five years old when I first appeared in the chorus in a production of Cinderella, and then in Peter Pan. People
often ask me what inspired me to become an actor, and the truth is I can’t answer that. For me, it was always more like a natural instinct.’

But then Morgan is no stranger to adversity. He is Catholic, and the drama college he wanted to attend as a teenager was in a troubled, predominantly Protestant area of East Belfast.

In the summer before he enrolled at the college, masked paramilitaries stormed the building, looking for Catholic students by asking them to pronounce the letter ‘H’ (Catholics and Protestants generally pronounce the letter differently). The students were told that any Catholics would be shot. In the end, no one was actually hurt,
and Colin plays down this episode.

Indeed, the terrible violence that had blighted Northern Ireland for generations, was finally coming to an end with the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Later, he graduated from The Belfast Institute Of Further Education and won a coveted place at The Royal Scottish Conservatoire in Glasgow. Within a year of graduating in 2007, he was talent-spotted for the lead role in Merlin.

But while Colin is best-known for that role, he has deftly avoided being typecast. He won good notices playing Esteban in The Old Vic adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, and took on the very challenging role of the troubled teenager in DBC Pierre’s wicked black comedy, Vernon God Little, at the Young Vic.

So what else can I tell you about Colin? Well, ladies, he can cook. Colin has a problem with lactose, and sticks to a vegetarian diet. He says that the only way to make food taste really good – when there are so many things you
can’t eat – is to cook at home.

‘I enjoy cooking. I think if you are vegetarian, and you can’t have dairy in your diet, like me, you have to be able to cook. Now I am based in London, which I love, I am looking forward to exploring some local farmers’ markets.

‘I’m very interested in where food comes from. I think a lot of the health problems people face now are as a result of what they are eating. And I don’t just mean junk food. I’m talking about eating food where you don’t
know where it has come from.’

Colin’s other great passion is the natural world, and he is clearly hungry for new experiences. He is currently catching up on watching Sir David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet series on DVD – and describes Sir David as ‘a hero of mine’.

A natural affinity
‘It is very important to conserve and protect the natural world. I’ve just come back from Costa Rica where they
have lots of reserves, and are really into protecting wildlife. I visited a reserve called Cabo Blanco. You walk in and there are capuchin monkeys swinging from the trees and sloths. I am into nature in a big way, and seeing animals in their natural habitats.’

Given his passion and affinity with nature, I can’t help thinking he would make an extraordinary Heathcliff; and, come to think of it, perhaps he really should play a trendy vampire, with those saturnine good looks.

‘Grrr, I would love to play a vampire,’ he says playfully. 

So what else moves Colin? Well, being a bit of a New Age man (Merlin would approve), he’s also into yoga, and says, ‘Yoga is phenomenal. I like the breathing, and the focus that it brings. But I can be quite energetic if I’m doing
a play. You will often find me running along the corridors to let off steam.’

There is no doubt that Morgan is one of the most exciting talents to emerge from Ireland and I certainly can’t wait for the next magical instalment of Merlin.

Series 4 of Merlin is out now on DVD. Merlin will be returning for a fifth series on TV later this year.

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