Sunday 22 October 2017

From an Irish catwalk to the American dream: Meet 21-year-old Eve Connolly

At just 21 Eve Connolly has already survived the cattiness of the catwalk and seen her dreams come true by Skype. She spoke to us about making it in America

Eve Connolly models for Marks & Spencer
Eve Connolly models for Marks & Spencer
World renowned fashion designer Roland Mouret launches his Spring/Summer 2014 collection at Brown Thomas with model Eve Connolly
Eve Connolly. Photo: David Coanchy
Eve Connolly wears a grey double breasted flared coat at EUR425 with pleated crepe dress at EUR295 pictured at the Hugh Lane Gallery
Eve Connolly walks for Luis Buschino in Paris.jpg
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

There was a time, not so long ago, when it seemed like the only acting starlets who ever came out of Ireland were male.

From the 1930s and Maureen O'Hara, up to the last decade and the emergence of Saoirse Ronan, Irish actresses experienced something of a famine of big-name roles. Even the odd outlier success - such as Brenda Fricker's Oscar for My Left Foot - did not seem to stimulate the pipeline of female talent out of this country. Brenda, herself, barely got another break after that.

In the last few years, however, following the success of Saoirse, the floodgates seem to have opened and Ruth Negga now leads the charge with a host of promising talents making their names in the streaming hits of the small screen. One of the most interesting and eye-catching of these has undoubtedly been young Kildare born model-turned-actress Eve Connolly.

Now 21, Eve grew up in Celbridge, where her parents run a cycling safety school, and graduated from the Gaiety School of Acting only last summer. She hit the ground running, however. By August she had been cast in AMC's martial arts drama, the big-budget martial arts series, Into The Badlands, before she caught the eye of a British casting agent who cast her in the horror film, Muse.

Eve Connolly. Photo: David Coanchy
Eve Connolly. Photo: David Coanchy

She is fresh faced with gorgeously chiselled features and American reviewers have swooned over her screen presence, beguiling vulnerability and mastery of the fighting stunts needed for the series.

Now shooting season five of Vikings, the foray into screen work has been a steep, but rewarding learning curve, for a young woman whose background was in modelling. She was also recently at the vanguard of a group of young women who made a name for themselves on the catwalks of Europe. She says she saw modelling as a chance to escape "the misery" of school, with the added bonus of improving her street cred when she returned from the little modelling breaks.

"I always hated school, I was really unhappy. I was never really into sports except for basketball and they got rid of the team when I went into secondary school. So I couldn't wait to get out - and even though I wouldn't say modelling was the dream, it did seem a bit of an escape."

In its last annual model search before folding Kiss magazine picked Eve from thousands of hopefuls to make the final few girls of the search.

"My neighbour knew I was interested and she mentioned to me that there was an open day for Assets. I went along and they took me on. They started me slowly on little jobs and I kind of got the hang of it. Things did change a little at school, some girls would talk to you at school who never talked to you before."

The Irish modelling world is small and welcoming, she says. Her agency introduced her to the artist Jim Fitzpatrick, who painted the famous image of Che Guevara and many iconic album covers, including for Thin Lizzy and Sinead O'Connor. He painted and sketched Eve and taught her how to pose. The big-name models here - she name checks Sarah Morrissey - would also sit down with her and make her feel comfortable and help her with her hair. She never felt the frisson of competition - though, she adds, she can very much understand how they might have felt it. She was recently back at a fashion show, "and there were all new girls there - 16-year-olds - and you wonder, am I past it?"

When her career expanded overseas she noticed the business suddenly became much more cut-throat, however. She worked in Milan for a time and walked in Paris Fashion Week. "I did some shows and some shoots. The castings are so awful. Everyone you meet, the models and the bookers, are just so angry. I think it's because they're so busy and also they're starving from not eating. So the whole atmosphere is kind of tense and cranky. The arguments that would start in the middle of castings were unbelievable. It could be over anything.

"The fights you see on things like America's Next Top Model are obviously a bit insane but there is little bits of that on actual shoots. I heard fights where there was sniping about measurements and one of them saying to the other, 'you're probably too big for this job'.''

Eve Connolly walks for Luis Buschino in Paris.jpg
Eve Connolly walks for Luis Buschino in Paris.jpg

The French modelling agents were the worst, she says. "You would get measured and there would be polaroids taken of you. In my agency, in Paris, they were like 'you have to lose this much (weight) or you can't come back'. I mean, they'd say it with a smile on their face but you knew it was meant. They'd say things like: 'it's not your hips, that's fine, it's your waist, but if you run every day it should be fine'.

"So I mean you do it for a while. And I was working out really hard all one summer. I heard them tell another girl about getting into Bikram yoga, and saying they'd go with her, like it was some big favour, and the girl was stunning and probably already killing herself (to be slim). I felt like saying to them: 'Get skinnier? I'm barely sustaining this!'"

It was a bit of a relief to her, leaving modelling behind. "I don't like knowing that what you look like matters so much. It's important in acting but not as much. The thing is, modelling is not really sustainable. For most people it's a short career. Someone like Naomi Campbell is completely unusual, she's been there for so long."

After finishing up in the Gaiety last summer, everyone in her class made an audition tape to send to the makers of Into The Badlands, and she presumed hers would get lost in the pile, and thought no more of it. She was on holiday with her family in New York later in the summer when she got a phone call from renowned casting director Louise Kiely, who told her that it was between her and four other girls, English and American, for the role of Ava, an abbot who trains and spars with the young boy whose epic journey forms the basis of the show's plot.

"I told them I was in New York, and she said the producers were in London, so there was a chance I'd have to make my way there. I was waiting on tenterhooks to find out what was happening. It was decided that we would do a Skype audition with the guy I would be acting opposite, and the producer.

"It was the first time I'd done something at that level and I'd prepared so much and it was just two minutes over this sketchy connection, which freaked me out a bit. And I was sure it had all gone terribly. My family were trying to be nice but also realistic."

The Connolly family then travelled to Florida for the second part of the trip. "I woke up the next day there and I was the only one awake and I felt so deflated and I decided to Skype my best friend back home," Eve recalls, "and as we were on the line I just checked my email and there it was, the message telling me I had the part. We both just screamed!"

World renowned fashion designer Roland Mouret launches his Spring/Summer 2014 collection at Brown Thomas with model Eve Connolly
World renowned fashion designer Roland Mouret launches his Spring/Summer 2014 collection at Brown Thomas with model Eve Connolly

The first season of Into The Badlands was shot mostly in Louisiana in the US but this latest series was shot partly in Kilternan, Co Dublin and Powerscourt, Co Wicklow.

Eve flew home almost immediately from her holiday for 'fight camp' - which is the martial arts training for the stunts. "For some reason I was cast late, so a week later we filmed the first scene. It was a surreal experience. I had come from a lot of stage training where I was told 'you've got to be bigger and louder' and the first day the acting coach said to me 'even if you whisper, that's fine'.''

Despite a stage resume that includes a turn as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, she says she is better suited to film.

Perhaps honed by frequent auditions, her accent has already assumed a kind of mid-Atlantic twang, though she still lives at home with her parents.

"That's OK, though, because I never know where I'm going to be, if I get a job I can leave straight away." She has already built something of a fan-following in the US, there are several eager viewers who have sketched her likeness on social media. And with casting agents now taking more of an interest, too, her plan is to move abroad for work.

"At the moment Into The Badlands is airing right now over there, so I'd have a sort of an in with that. People can see you on television and there's less explaining what you're about. LA is, of course, where a lot of the acting industry is centred, so it would make sense from that angle too.''

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