Irish actress Charlene McKenna: 'I'm terrible at love'
She's dated Robert Sheehan and Poldark's Aidan Turner (yes, he of the swoon-inducing shirtless scene) and is now smitten with her Ripper Street co-star, yet Charlene McKenna says she still has a lot to learn about love… Here, the Monaghan actress talks balancing career and relationships
Charlene McKenna is in a sharing mood.
Since she first hit our screen in RTÉ's Pure Mule in 2005 - before going on to win over the nation with her role as feisty JoJo in restaurant drama RAW - the 31-year-old Monaghan actress has bagged some impressive roles. And, let's face it, some impressive men too, having previously dated Poldark star Aidan Turner and Love/Hate's Robert Sheehan.
Usually resolutely private about her personal life, today with an easy laugh and legs curled under her on the sofa, Charlene all but gushes about her new leading man.
For the past couple of years, she has been in a relationship with American actor Adam Rothenberg (40), who is best known for his role as Captain Homer Jackson in Ripper Street. Charlene plays former prostitute Rose Erskine in the drama mystery series, and in the time-honoured tradition of the acting world, romance blossomed on set.
"It's a total cliché," she laughs. "We fell in love working together. Adam is just one of the smartest and most talented people I have ever met, and he's an amazing anchor for this acting world we're in. He's older than me so that's very grounding because he has no interest in the hype, as he has kind of been there and done that. I often think he would make a wonderful psychologist, as we have really good in-depth chats and he's a very good person."
Charlene and Adam found they had a lot in common; they are both one of six children and their mothers' families come from Scotland. Growing up, Adam felt such an affinity to Ireland, he had a map of the country on his wall. However, the thing that clinched it was that they both loved 1970s band Dr Hook and the Medicine Show. "They're not even cool so it's weird," says Charlene.
She feels that it's helpful to be dating someone in the business because they understand the madness of it all. On the unhelpful side, it obviously means that public interest in the relationship is amplified.
Charlene has learnt the hard way from past experience that discussing her love life can backfire. She previously spoke about how happy she was in her relationship with Aidan Turner in an interview, just a few weeks before the couple, who shared a flat in London, split up.
She has never discussed Adam before, so did that experience make her more wary of talking about romance? "It did," she smiles, "I normally never talk about it because it's nothing to do with what I do. I'm being a hypocrite now because I'm discussing it here, but I think you should hold some things back and keep them to yourself. If you are publicly talking about your relationship, then you have to be very public if it goes wrong, and trust me, it will go wrong for everybody at some point. Aidan and I were blessed though, because [the break-up] was before social media took over."
Turner was starring in The Clinic in the two years that they dated, 2007 to 2009, and his career has skyrocketed since with starring roles in The Hobbit, The Secret Scripture and Poldark. The latter - and in particular a scene where he went topless - put him on the map as an international heart-throb. It's a long way from their early days together at RTÉ, but none of Turner's success comes as a surprise to Charlene. "He's flying and I'm so proud of him," she says. "We still keep in touch and I knew he would do this well for himself. I always told him he would be a movie star."
Charlene has also done extremely well, with roles in Pure Mule, Whistleblower, Ripper Street and RAW among her most notable achievements. While she moved to New York from London last year, ostensibly to be with Adam, they have spent a lot of time apart. When Charlene was starring in Richard Eyre's award-winning adaptation of Ghosts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Adam was filming in LA, and when he came back, she was in Africa for the HBO drama, AD.
How do they manage then, as it must be almost impossible conducting a relationship under those circumstances? "Obviously we're together when we both do Ripper Street, but there's a lot of long-distance and maybe that's what gives us longevity. When we first met, we saw each other all the time, and then it was hard going long-distance and trying to figure it all out. The situation is totally not perfect and it's up and down and all around at times, but I have gotten very used to having a relationship with my phone, as the various people I love are inside it."
Charlene has been living away from home since the age of 19, so she's somewhat experienced in the art of conducting long-distance relationships. In one way, she believes it lends a romantic glow to the whole thing. "You don't really have room to get slack or become complacent, because you have these short intense spells and then you're away again for a long time," she says.
Now that she's 31, what has she learned about love? "I've learned that I'm terrible at it," she jokes. "I always thought I would be more of a 'married with kids' type than I actually am. I don't know about marriage, but I do want kids one day and all the 'normal' stuff. I've also learned that you never stop learning with love, and you learn so much about yourself because of it."
Although she adores New York, Charlene has decided to buy a place in London as a base. She's built a community there and it's also closer to home. On the day we meet, she's in Dublin to launch Vodafone TV, and was a total pro working with her co-star, Piggy Sue, the famous pig from the Vodafone ad. Charlene herself grew up on a farm in Glaslough, Co Monaghan, albeit one that raised mushrooms rather than pigs.
The youngest child of Brendan and Josephine who now own a pub there, she has five older brothers. "I'm the reason there were five boys, as my parents were desperate to have a girl. When my brother Barry came along, I'm sure they had him in a few dresses, but he got over it! Growing up was a weird mix of always being surrounded by loads of people, and also being quite lonely because I came at the very bottom and there was a five-year age gap between me and Barry."
Charlene credits spending so much time on her own with fostering her dramatic side growing up. Her dad had a low loader for diggers that she used as her stage to put on performances for her, er, captive audience. "I performed for the mushrooms," she laughs. "Being by myself gave me room for my fantasy head to go to town. I used to ask if I could change my clothes four or five times a day, as I needed several costume changes, and Mammy actually let me. I was a bit spoiled but was never allowed to act it. I was a weird mixture of being a girlie girl and a tomboy, which was due to Mammy so wanting a girl and giving me dresses and Daddy wanting me to know everything the boys knew too."
Despite winning her first professional job at 16, Charlene didn't think it was possible to pursue acting as a career, and vividly remembers crying her eyes out in the career guidance teacher's office because there was nothing else that interested her.
She tried studying property economics, but it wasn't for her, and then studied music and theology at Mater Dei in Dublin. When she got an audition for Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto aged 19, her initial reaction was to cry. "I felt like I was getting a chance at something that could never happen, and that was just cruel," she says, although as we know now that she won the role and it became her first big break.
Even so, Charlene wasn't convinced and went back to college after filming ended, determined to become a teacher. "I had this 'get real' head on me," she says. "It was actually my parents who were saying, 'No, don't do that,' which is funny. They were very supportive and open to me acting, and I never felt mad because they just told me to go for it."
At 22, her agents told her she should move to London. "It was very urban and I was very naive, but I kept telling myself that I had to stick it out. I had myself in a heap from putting that much pressure on myself. It's difficult working up the nerve to text or ring someone and say, 'Hi, I know we only half met, but I don't know anyone here so can we have tea?' People were lovely though, and Barry Ward, who is in RTÉ's Rebellion, showed me around, although we hardly knew each other. You slowly build relationships and then you build a community."
She came home regularly, most notably for five seasons of RTÉ series RAW, for which she won an IFTA in 2009. "I was up against myself that year because I was nominated twice in that category, so I remember thinking that if I didn't win it would be mortifying because I would have lost twice, to myself and the other people."
Charlene is keen to clear up the often-quoted misconception that she went nude in the series. "That wasn't me and I get asked about it all the time so I don't know where it came from," she laughs. "I wouldn't have gone nude in something like RAW because it wasn't needed for my character, although I have done it before."
Charlene is referring to her roles in the TV programme Sirens and film Dorothy Mills. It must be nerve-wracking getting your kit off for the world to see? "When I did it, I was younger and I thought, 'Ah sure this is grand.' It didn't bother me, but as I got older, I was thinking, 'Do I really need to do this?' While I'm not against it, I'm not taking my clothes off for just anything. If it's appropriate, and you are with nice people and you feel safe and they close the set, then it's grand."
Charlene says that she doesn't think that she's beautiful, so when she's invited to audition for a character described as such, she presumes she won't get cast. This drives her friends mad because she almost talks herself out of roles, and if she gets the part, she always presumes that they have changed the character description.
"When I find myself thinking I'm not good enough or that I need to be perfect, I think of the people I admire. None of them are perfect, but they're perfectly imperfect and they own who they are. It's very hard with LA and Hollywood, because you do think: 'I'm not tall enough or skinny enough.' Most of the time the only one saying that is yourself though."
Charlene says she tries not to have regrets, even the ones that led to down times on the work front, because they were "important and humbling". Now that everyone is an actor with their iPhone and camera, she is proud of being from Ireland and booking jobs in London and America.
"When I first went to America, I kept saying to myself, 'It's far from Hollywood you were reared,' and I would have to tell myself to stop it. I'm always curious and have such a hunger to do more, and I got my drive from my parents.
"I'll keep going until I'm dead, and would like interesting projects to keep coming. As I get older, I realise that I'm much more flighty than I thought, not with Adam, but just in terms of wanting to keep going. Maybe it's my age and I might stop some day, but the main thing I've learned is that I will never stop learning."
Vodafone TV is now available in Ireland from €40 per month, see vodafone.ie/TV