Wednesday 21 August 2019

Lights, camera, activism: Jordanne Jones is the 18-year-old actress using her voice for good

Jordanne Jones was six years old when she attended her first march with mother, Senator Lynn Ruane. Now 18, the politically active actress is making waves in film and television. Here, she chats to Maggie Armstrong about painting protest signs, preparing for acting roles and living with Asperger's syndrome

Jordanne Jones. Photo: Cait Fahy
Jordanne Jones. Photo: Cait Fahy
Jordanne Jones. Photo: Cait Fahy
Jordanne Jones. Photo: Cait Fahy

Jordanne Jones, actor, activist, Trinity student and former champion boxer, has a "magic power". She reveals it at the end of an hour-and-a-half long interview, which took us from childhood depression to Chaucer and Fleetwood Mac. "I don't learn lines. I just read them once and I know them. I think it's my Asperger's power."

Magic power, strength of her condition, or just pure cleverness - whatever it is, it works a charm. The teenage talent-bomb, who is not yet 19 and has already played a heap of significant roles, just finished second year in college in time to promote Metal Heart - her first professional lead and a debut for director Hugh O'Conor and screenwriter Paul Murray (both famous for other reasons).

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The feel-good, coming-of-age film is about twin girls, Chantal, who is blonde and popular, and Emma, who is a goth loner. Jordanne plays the goth, which meant a lot of black lipstick, fishnets, spiked leather chokers and pallid close-ups. Playing "the weird one" came naturally, she says.

"It was pretty easy, 'cause I was pretty much like Emma growing up. I was a bit of an outcast. I was really quiet and found it hard to make friends. I loved reading, I was into acting, I was into art. It was a bit of a struggle."

Jones was born in the new millennium and grew up in Killinarden in Tallaght, with her mother, Senator Lynn Ruane, and her grandparents. "My mam had me at 15, so we grew up together," she says. "We were bound to have difficult times."

There were no actors or performers in her family, though she was always "desperate" to act. One Saturday when she was 12, she walked down to the local community centre for an audition and got the lead part in a film, I Used to Live Here, directed by Frank Berry. The community-made feature about suicide in working-class areas took her to film festivals and earned her a nomination for best female lead at the IFTAs. One film critic described her as a "pocket marvel" who would become known to all as a young head on old shoulders.

She nods. "I have experienced a lot. That's probably why I'm an old soul.

"People are like, would you be able to cry for this scene? I'm like, no problem. I don't even think about it. I'm scheduling my cries now.

"I was playing someone struggling with their mental health, and I was struggling with my emotions. I got to take them, own them, use them, express them on camera."

She forged her part in Metal Heart in similarly tough circumstances. She made the movie the summer she finished sixth year. She was grieving the death of a close family member, and had been through a health crisis which eventually resulted in the diagnosis of mild Asperger's, which she wears proudly today. "Not everybody likes labels, but I'm really so happy that I have a diagnosis now. I love and I hate that I have Asperger's," she sighs.

People have "mixed up" ideas of Asperger's. "I've gotten really weird comments from people when I've told them that I have Asperger's. They say, 'But you're so pretty,' 'But you're an actor.'

It is an autistic spectrum disorder that can take many forms. She has an anxiety disorder, too, and describes being overwhelmed by her emotions frequently - "caught up in a whirlwind of emotions" or "roller coaster" or "the world is too much for me". Sometimes she has sensory overload and forgets entire events.

"If I'm really happy, I'm really happy; if I'm really low, I'm really low. I get exhausted by myself sometimes."

But having a vivid inner life gives great range to possibilities as a performer. "People ask, 'What character are you playing?' But I don't really see it as a character, I see it as a version of me. I never try to be another person. I think about the backstory and I've experienced loads of different versions of me."

She has taken on stories and subjects that would normally be beyond the comprehension of others her age. At 14, she played prostitute Minnie Mahon in the RTÉ drama Rebellion and its sequel, Resistance. That was young to internalise the life of a prostitute I tell her, and she shrugs. "I've seen it and I've heard of it, I've lived in an area where it happens."

She also played her mother - as she describes it. A couple of years ago, Jones went viral on the internet in an unusual breakthrough. Her mother had taken her to see Riot at the Dublin Fringe Festival, where Emmet Kirwan was performing his poem Heartbreak, a story about a pregnant teenager living in poverty. "My mam went up to him at the end of the show and said, 'You literally just told my life story'." Soon afterwards, Jones was cast as 'Youngone' in the subsequent short film.

"I got to play my mam. If her life becomes a film, I'm playing her." She almost physically glows, talking about her mother, who she describes as "loud and tough in the best possible way" and "a powerhouse".

"I can't even describe how proud I am of her."

It's all in Lynn Ruane's recent book, People Like Me: how Ruane appeared in court for being in a stolen car when she was pregnant with her eldest daughter, and left school early, only to sit as an undergraduate and then become president of the students' union before being elected to the Senate; Jones's father's struggle with addiction and his imprisonment, and Jones's mental health struggle, which brought her to A&E more than once.

"We had loads of ups and downs," says Jones, adding that both of her parents are "the sweetest people I know".

Having very young parents must mean you worry about them a lot. She agrees: "My mam used to tell me, 'You saved my life'. As lovely as that is, that was such a big responsibility."

And if Jordanne's life becomes a film, who will play her? "Natalie Portman," she says without a pause.

Jones is bright and talkative. This is her first magazine shoot and she'd like to make off with some of these nice clothes before going to Fleetwood Mac tonight, she says. She makes it look like a lot of fun to be nearly 19 in 2019. Is it? "There are cons and pros. It's like you're being watched all the time."

Especially if you are an internet sensation, surely?

"There were times when I couldn't stop myself checking the comments, watching 40-year-old men bash me on YouTube."

No bother to Jones, who has bigger things to think about, going into third year at Trinity studying Film and English. She came to Trinity through the Access Programme. At first, she kept this quiet but now she likes to "brag" about it. "I don't want to be an exception anymore. I get loads of praise for it, but I don't want that attention. It really hits me then how rare it is.

"When I was at school, and I said I wanted to go to Trinity, my guidance counsellor told me to lower my standards. As much as that angered and annoyed me, of course they're going to say that because it's not common. We're made believe we have limits and Trinity is not for us.

"A lot of us are living in poverty, in Killinarden and Jobstown in Tallaght. Our main priority is to live, to get food on the table. That's how people resort to crime and addiction. I'd love a lot more people to understand that."

A romantic by nature, her favourite text "by far" is 'The Knight's Tale' by Geoffrey Chaucer. Had she not studied film, she would have liked to study Fine Art in NCAD. "I love colouring, drawing, painting - I find it's great for mindfulness. I usually paint naked women. I love the body. Especially women's."

She would love to act in a horror. Growing up, her father introduced her to Alfred Hitchcock and watched the greats with her, from Psycho to American Werewolf. "I love horror. It's never scared me. I always just found it interesting. Someone being mauled by a werewolf or something, is not something that you should see - or want to see. And that's what draws me."

She came of age during austerity and went to her first protest with her mother at age six. "I remember loving the atmosphere of it. It felt like a community, I felt empowered and I felt like I had a voice.

"I would draw the posters because I've always loved art. I made one with a picture of, what was his name, this was so long ago. Cowen?" She describes something very mischievous she drew with Freddy Krueger and the former Taoiseach on it. "It was funny at the time," she says.

She has been to protests over Nama, marriage equality, abortion rights, climate change and many more. "I'm scared now though. I'm more in tune with what's going on, how it affects our generation and the planet."

Animals have been close companions to her all her life. "I used to sit in the porch with our dog Toby talking to him."

When she was nine, her mother took her on safari and she became a vegetarian. "I fell in love with the impalas, they were so beautiful. We went to a barbecue later that day and I was eating this thing on a stick. I was like, 'What's this? It's gorgeous.' I was told it was impala. And I just couldn't. Once I put two and two together, it just didn't sit right.

"I don't judge anyone for eating meat though, I would just love if people reduced meat a bit more, with climate change, that would benefit us hugely."

Her mental wellbeing comes up plentifully in the conversation. One element of being a public figure of 18 is deciding how much of her experience to share online or keep to herself. Earlier this month, she tweeted that her mental health had hit "an all-time low", but that she might delete the tweet. She didn't, evidently - she wanted to break the stigma of what she was feeling.

She describes today how she recovered from a gruelling time through help from her mother and a team of nurses and professionals. She even managed to show up for her exams and get a great result. "The strength is in you somewhere," she says.

"My biggest piece of advice is that improving your mental health is not linear. It doesn't go in a straight line. It is going to be okay, but then it's not going to be okay, and then it'll be okay again."

She likes to remind herself every morning of all the things she has, and tell herself she is wonderful. "It's probably a bit weird. Sometimes I'll be talking to myself in the third person."

She meditates, colours, takes medication and goes to therapy - which she sees as a right more than a privilege. "I can afford counselling now, that's not possible for everyone. It scares me so much when I see what I didn't have, now that I have it."

Her anxiety is wrapped up in a kind of perfectionism, she says. She likes to keep her bedroom spotless. Exams make her "super anxious". Then there is that right hook of hers. She boxed competitively from age 10 to 18. "If I'm going to do something, I'll go all in. When I was in boxing, I didn't just do boxing, I became the Leinster Champion, Dublin Champion." (She was an All-Ireland finalist).

"It is exhausting. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do exceptional and I wish I could just calm down sometimes."

This is why acting is "therapeutic" for her, a way of exploring new identities and confronting new fears. For the final scene (spoiler), Jordanne had to sing a rock song and mime the strumming of a guitar. But she can't sing. "They dubbed me because I'm, like, brutal," she explains. "I had to sing out loud in front of a crowd, so that my lips could match the sound. The crowd was all young teens. Teenagers scare the shit out of me! Especially girls." How come? "They're just so cool and pretty."

Has it ever occurred to her that she scares people for the same reasons?

"No!" She is in shock. "I'm a loser, I really am. All I talk about is film and books. I can't order my own food."

So who does order her food? "My mam."

Women have had a tremendous influence in her art and her life, particularly her grandmother, Bernadette. "She's my world, she means everything to me." They share a house together - her gran, mother, younger sister Jaelynne, and their two dogs. Their household is "mental", with lots of fighting over clothes. "We went through our rough times and our struggles and I feel like our bond is closer now," she says, before stopping for a moment to think about it. "Women are just so resilient, and so incredible really."

'Metal Heart' is in cinemas now

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