He’s had a lifetime achievement award, two number one singles, a Christmas number one and 11 number one albums. He counts José Mourinho’s children as his biggest fans, he’s sold out theatres across the island and his grandfather fought for the Nazis… Mario Rosenstock, quite simply, is a character.
I met Rosenstock in the Today FM studios; he was fresh off a run in Dublin’s Olympia theatre for his latest installment of Gift Grub Live. “It’s going great” he beams, “The new characters are going down well and there’s a few surprises in there, I can’t wait to get out and do more live shows.” It struck me as odd. I had never really heard Mario’s own voice. I’ve heard countless Gift Grub sketches and seen a number of the Vincent Browne skits, but it’s a strange moment to interview a mimic and then realise he has his own voice too.
Rosenstock started out acting in his early teens, ‘I was 14 and in boarding school, I went to see my brother in a play and thought WOAH… this is for me. A complete revelation. I decided then that next year it would be me on that stage’ he says.
A year later at the age of 15, Mario was indeed the lead in a play, andhad earned the role of 63-year old Willie Lowman in Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman. ‘It was a wonderful experience’ he says. ‘I never did look back; it was all about acting for me from that point on.’
Despite being the country’s leading mimic and one of the most in-demand comedic performers, Rosenstock still considers himself to be an actor. ‘It’s all I wanted to be; even now I still think I’m an actor. All the characters and messing I do is just acting applied to something else.’
Rosenstock continued his acting career in university, attending Trinity College in Dublin just so he could take part in the famous Trinity Players. ‘I wanted to do drama in Trinity’ he says, ‘but, you can’t take part in the Players if you’re doing drama oddly enough, so I ended up doing politics and economics but spent all my time in the Players.’
It was while at Trinity that he landed his first big role, Dr. David Hanlon on Glenroe. Rosenstock jokes about his time on the Irish soap: ‘I was on it for two seasons but I didn’t get killed off, I was sent to the missions, that’s what RTÉ does if they want to get rid of you!’ he explains. ‘Seven years later I turned back up and had a second run. Back from the missions in Tanzania… with no tan! It was great fun and in the early days I was making about a grand a month while in Trinity so it was good money! Of course it meant pints were always on me though.’
When asked about realizing he was a great impressionist he has a wry smile, ‘Oh from a very young age. Myself and my brother Renee used to be at it all the time. I used to do my family, my dad especially and it would have the rest in stitches.’ Whenever there was a sign of his dad being embarrassing Rosenstock says he would just give a gentle a reminder that “I can do you dad, remember that.’
Mario is the nephew of the Irish poet and translator Gabriel Rosenstock, and explains how he still ‘takes the piss out of him at every chance.’ ‘Gabriel is a bit of a genius’ he says, ‘and like all eccentric mad men he has a bit of a tic.’ It’s at this point that Rosenstock transforms into his version of his poet uncle. His facial expressions change and he explains Gabriel’s tic which looks like an aggressive wink and slight head nod to the left.
He continues: ‘We used to play a lot of poker. I was about 13 and I’d be allowed into situations that most young teenagers wouldn’t be. That helped me learn about people. You can learn an amazing amount from people by playing poker with them. You see how they handle situations. You find a lot out and it’s a great tool.’
Gabriel isn’t the only interesting member of the Rosenstock family. ‘My grandfather fought for the Nazis in World War Two. That’s how he met my grandmother. George Rosenstock; he was a medical student in the Wehrmacht…He got called up to the Russian front but some friends of his kindly broke his arm so he could remain a medical student in Germany and in a kind of paradox of war, he helped save lives.’
After Rosenstock second run on Glenroe he went into theatre for a short while. ‘Acting was a bit mad. The phone wouldn’t ring for weeks and then you’d do something you felt was amazing and still nothing. You do a shitty TV ad and suddenly the phone is hopping.’ It was during this stage that he began his run in radio.
‘I was living with two kiwi girls who worked in, what was Radio Ireland. Robyn was her name and she was a producer for the Breakfast Show which, at the time, was hosted by Mark Byrne. So Robyn asked me to ring the show one day and do my Gerry Adams impression and from there it grew.’
He explains why he thinks the impressions worked so well, ‘I’d write out scripts and I think what made them work was that it wasn’t just an impression, I had something to say as that character. That’s what’s important in this; it’s more than just sounding like the person.’
Radio Ireland then became Today FM and Ian Dempsey took over the Breakfast show. ‘I’d never met Ian’ he says ‘but he wanted to do some comedy on his show and asked for me so I was very flattered. We clicked almost immediately and from there, Gift Grub was born.’
It was 1999 and Bertie Ahern was just over a year in power and Mario explains how is version of Bertie came to be; ‘Bertie was a cute whore, still is. He’s not going to go on national radio and talk about politics so we did Bertie cooking breakfast every morning with different celebrities like Ronan Keating and Van Morrison. Then Bertie went to Manchester United, and that’s when Roy came to be.’
In 1999 Roy Keane was captain of Manchester United, European Champions and he was captain of Ireland but no one knew much about him. Rosenstock set out to give him a much-needed persona. ‘Roy is probably my favourite character, how it all took off was over the little chuckle that became the signature bit of Roy.’ It was as Roy Keane, that the actor has enjoyed his most success, portraying the Cork-born footie star on stage for I, Keano.
In 2005 Rosenstock even went on to achieve a Christmas number 1 impersonating Roy Keane, with his take of Will Young’s ‘Leave Right Now’. ‘That was the last Christmas number 1 held here by an Irish person’ he beams. ‘The X Factor lads have taken over now. The reaction we got when we first played that was unreal. The computer crashed because of the contact we received. Over 25,000 people texted in to the show, that’s one in every two listeners! It was crazy. ” There were only 17,000 copies of the single printed and all 17,000 were sold in one day and it went straight into the number 1 spot.
Despite his success with Keano, Rosenstock’s most popular character is probably former Chelsea FC manager, José Mourinho. His portrayal of the Portugeuse svengali led to a TV series with the BBC called ‘Special 1 TV’ which is akin to the old Spitting Image TV show. Rosenstock scripts the hugely popular show as well as playing voice artist to a number of enigmatic puppets. The show is set to return for the upcoming European Championships this summer.
‘A couple of years ago I was invited to meet Mourinho and the team’. ‘[Chelsea] were playing against Everton and I was brought over to the hotel, so I walked in with the trench coat and sat at a little desk with a “Special One” name tag and had the team ask me questions. It was surreal, he sat to the side, breaking his heart laughing while John Terry and Frank Lampard where shoving their phones in my face, recording me as their manager. It was surreal but I loved every second of it.’
Rosenstock’s impersonation of Mourinho became so popular that it gave birth to his second number one single. ‘José and his Amazing Over Coat’ was a massive hit and even enlisted the Mourinho’s kids aas fans. ‘My kids, they don’t stop singing this song, at home in bed, in the car driving to school. They think you are cooler than me.’
Rosenstock’s more recent characters include President Michael D. Higgins who is a big fan. ‘He loves it. A few years ago we had him at a live broadcast and we had Michael D – vs – Michael D, and he was great. He played along and took it all as a joke’.
In the last year Rosenstock has even started his own take on TV3’s Vincent Browne. ‘I wasn’t sure at first if he would enjoy it… He seemed to think I was a bit of an eejit but he’s grown to love it I think. He seems much happier with me taking the piss out of him now.’ The sketches, much like his work for the BBC have become extremely popular and we could be seeing more of them in the near future. ‘We’re always looking to expand and develop Gift Grub and I’ve always wanted to translate what we do on radio to television so this gives us a great chance to do that. Myself and Ian (Dempsey) work on it a lot and we try to protect this baby that we’ve nurtured now.’
His work isn’t just getting noticed by those in TV3 and BBC Rosenstock has been approached by some other English radio stations but he assures us of his loyalty: ‘I’m staying put, I love Ireland. I’ve no reason to venture away from it. Today FM has been amazing for me’ – as he has for it. The Breakfast Show has won countless awards over the years including a Meteor award and several PPI radio awards. In 2011 Rosenstock was honoured at the PPIs with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work on Gift Grub.
Gift Grub Live takes to the road again this Arpil on a nationwide tour that has been sold out for over 4 months. If you missed out on tickets don’t fear, Rosenstock promises that there will be another chance to see him in the autumn. Until then, you’ll have to settle for tuning into Today FM every morning between 7 – 9am.