Coming home to Dublin stage
Siobhan O'Kelly got her first big break as an actress when she was still in school, but her career hasn't been plain sailing since then
A young actress who lands a role in a TV soap just out of school would be forgiven for thinking they had it made. At 17, Siobhan O'Kelly did just that, getting her first job in TG4's flagship drama Ros na Run. She spent four years on the show but since then work has been less consistent.
"I might not work as much, but I'm a better actor ... I was probably earning more on Ros na Run as a 19-year-old than I am now", explains the 32-year-old, sitting in a production office above the Noel Coward Theatre in London.
O'Kelly may not be a household name but she is a familiar face. As well as her work for TG4 (including a presenting role on music show Pop 4) she has had small parts on television in the UK and Ireland, some theatre and film work, and bread and butter parts in TV commercials.
In the flesh, O' Kelly is full of energy. When she speaks, her green eyes widen. She is actress-thin, but looks strong, not starved.
She is warm, friendly and self-effacing but the best thing about her is her honesty.
"I don't think I'm very good at auditions", she says, before telling the "cringe" story of auditioning for a part in The Importance of Being Earnest.
She recalls not being able to give the casting director the "something" he was looking for. She left the audition feeling dejected and got on a bus home before having a flash of inspiration.
She turned around, went back, knocked on the door and asked for another chance.
It has the makings of an X Factor-style underdog-triumphs-in-face-of-adversity story, but not the way O' Kelly tells it. "I did [the scene] again, and I did it exactly the same way. I was useless."
One audition she did nail, was for her latest 'dual role' in The Private Ear and The Public Eye, a double-bill of one-act plays by acclaimed British playwright Sir Peter Shaffer (he of Equus fame).
The comic plays are having a revival after 50 years, with a UK and Irish tour including a four-night run the Gaiety Theatre from September 10.
O'Kelly plays two parts, the 'beautiful but shy' Doreen and Belinda, a wife suspected of infidelity, and has already invited "half of Dublin" to see her perform.
O'Kelly grew up in the village of Carraroe, Co Connemara. In the heart of one of the most populous areas of the Gaeltacht, she attended an Irish-speaking school, but struggled with her confidence speaking the language.
At home, she spoke English and was "a real little performer ... always impersonating people and making people laugh doing voices".
After school, she attended university in Galway, with the intention of working on Ros na Run "on the side", but it turned out to be more a case of acting full time with a bit of academia on the side.
"I was never on campus, I was always hitching out to Spiddal where the studios were". With plenty of juicy plotlines during her four-year stint on the show, college took a back seat. When she turned up to sit one of her exams, her name was not on the records. "That'll give you an idea of how much I was there", she says dryly.
Ros na Run proved to be an education in itself. "I didn't know anything about scripts and cameras and make-up, I just learned that on the job", she says, describing the cast as "like a family", who she watched and learned.
With her soap experience, she moved to Dublin in search of meatier, lead roles on the stage, but found it tough to adjust.
"It was much harder in Dublin, I was looking to work in the Abbey or the Gate and it was hard to get in there".
Aged 23, O' Kelly still had no formal training, but realised then what she still knows now – that she wants to act "until I am in my bloody 90s!". She took a place at Guildhall in London, immersed herself in Shakespeare, and learned how an actor can master their body, movement and voice. It is a move she has never regretted. In the third year of her studies, she signed "with a super duper amazing agent", and thought she had it made.
"I was naive to think it would be that easy," she says.
Two years later, she was dropped. Rejection is never easy to take, but for O'Kelly it has gotten better with time. "It used to really hurt. Age helps ... it doesn't bother me any more." She talks candidly about near misses, including being pipped at the post for a leading role in RTE's Raw.
She was on a road trip around America with two girlfriends when her agent called her about the high-profile part. With the help of her friends Rhona Carroll and Bríd Maloney, an award winning film-maker and producer, they made a recording of O'Kelly to send back to Ireland.
O'Kelly didn't get the part and last year at the age of 30, her close friend, the "brilliant" Brid Maloney died suddenly in her sleep. "I think about that. It helps me not give a shit about not getting an audition," she says.
The encouragement of her family has been important in good and bad times. Her mother and father are "very supportive", as are older sister Aoife and younger brother Ruadhan. Her father, she says, is constantly urging her to move back home, and with the dream of working in The Abbey or The Gate still alive, she can't rule it out.
For now, O'Kelly has a very happy life in London, going to plays with her friends, drinking (and occasionally pulling) pints of Guinness in The Nell Gwynne pub and living with her Irish actor/director boyfriend.
Their home, she says, is always full of creative types quoting Shakespeare and doing naked yoga. Her determination is to "keep working" with people and projects she believes in. With 15 years experience, O'Kelly says: "It's a tough business ... but I love it. It's my world."
The Private Eye and The Public Ear comes to Gaiety Theatre, Dublin from September 10-14