Thursday 19 September 2019

'My parents made it happen - even though life was difficult, they made it happen' - Irish star Seana Kerslake

Prone to the jitters she may be, but Dubliner Seana Kerslake's turn in a new horror film is accelerating her ascent, writes Hilary A White

Sassy Actress Seana Kerslake is enjoying life in the spotlight. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Sassy Actress Seana Kerslake is enjoying life in the spotlight. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Seana in Can't Cope, Won't Cope
Seana in Dollhouse
Seana in The Hole in the Ground

Hilary A White

Seana Kerslake knows things. Our chat this evening is bookended by advice and observations that are way off today's subject of discussion (namely, her star turn in new Irish horror The Hole In the Ground).

It begins with a miracle remedy she swears by. "Hot, salty water," she beams. "Then gargle. I swear to god."

She's picked up on my sore throat and is offering not some tip passed down from generation to generation of actors but a piece of know-how from her mother, who, as we discover later, has been something of an influence. "Mammies know these things, don't they," she winks.

Later, she will attend the Irish premiere of The Hole In the Ground in Smithfield's Light House cinema, not too far from where I'll be dining out tonight. "Ooh. Whatever you do, try the vegan chicken," she advises.

Seana in Can't Cope, Won't Cope
Seana in Can't Cope, Won't Cope

Another thing the 28-year-old seems to have insider knowledge on is how to pick a role that stands out, as her track record proves.

In just a few years, the Tallaght native has found herself in the shoes of some iconic parts that have made audiences laugh, cry and google the actress in question.

The first sign that something was happening was in 2010, when Kirsten Sheridan (Jim's daughter) cast her in Dollhouse while she was a third-year student of English and Music at NUI Maynooth. The performance caught the attention of the Ifta jury who deemed it worthy of a nomination in 2013.

The next splash was even bigger, however. Her turn as the titular ex-con in A Date For Mad Mary (2016) seemed to find its way into the hearts of critics and audiences alike. Darren Thornton's film chimed with something authentic in the language it spoke - but it was Kerslake's depiction of Mary that was the central vehicle.

Not long after, Can't Cope, Won't Cope, the whipsmart RTE comedy penned by Stefanie Preissner, saw another Kerslake triumph.

Her portrayal of hapless twenty-something Aisling was picked up by Netflix in the US and the BBC over in UK-land.

Seana in Dollhouse
Seana in Dollhouse

Between all this and the rave reviews, The Hole In The Ground has garnered since its Sundance world premiere in January (trade publication Variety has officially dubbed Kerslake "a star", in case you hadn't heard), she's finding herself hopping from her current domicile in London across the Atlantic for interviews and meetings stateside.

Directed by Lee Cronin and trembling with a heightened level of sensory dread that is slaying overseas film critics in its wake, The Hole In The Ground is being hailed as a high point in horror cinema in 2019, and an heir to modern classics such as The Babadook and Hereditary.

Kerslake is superb as the recently single mother who begins encountering strange goings-on when she and her son (an equally excellent James Quinn Markey) relocate to a new home off the beaten track.

Like all the best horror, her terrors are veiled exaggerations of real ghouls.

"It's vastly metaphorical," she agrees, "and that's what Lee was conscious of it being about facing demons from the past but also living with your past. You walk the streets with monsters every day which is quite terrifying. There's also that element of doubt while she tries to rebuild a life for herself and her son but then being faced with somebody who isn't who they say they are."

Whether her shift into more international attention will allow Kerslake to shed the wearisome "Irish Scarlett Johansson" tag remains to be seen but she is slowly getting used to increased spotlighting.

"It's always weird," she giggles. "It is an odd existence. Things like the premiere tonight can get quite stressful, you get nerves and butterflies, and you have a full day of press and you want to come across well. But I keep telling myself you have to enjoy these things as much as you can because your voice might be important now but tomorrow nobody cares. Roll with it."

The sassy snap of Kerslake's Dublin vowels and the odd "yeknowwarramean" belie a canny operator who identified at a young age that stage and screen was where she belonged and stayed the course.

Like older sister Amie and younger sister Niamh ("Ah, you can't get notions with them around!"), she was enrolled in speech and drama classes from a young age and was constantly involved in school plays and talent shows at St Paul's in Greenhills, as well as drama festivals such as Feis Maitiu outside of it.

"I only found out the other day that when I was about four or five, I came home from school with a slip for extracurricular drama and I said to my mam, 'I want to do that'.

"There was a drama teacher called Mrs Birchall who I had in school before I went to [renowned speech and drama tutor] Anna Walker. I thought for years my mam wanted us to be good at public speaking and have a bit of confidence or special skills - but actually it was me when I was only five and whatever that teacher ignited in me.

"And my parents made it happen - even though life was difficult, they made it happen."

Something else her parents have helped with, and something she is preparing for on this Irish premiere night, is anxiety. (Horror, incidentally, is not a genre she was ever drawn to, and she has confessed to being something of a "scaredy-cat").

"I think I'm better able to manage it now," she winces. "When I was younger, I don't think I knew how to use all the emotions that are happening in your body. When you're about to perform, they say it's like being in a high-intensity car crash, your heart rate is so bad.

"When I was young and doing Feis Maitiu and my Royal Irish Academy grades and stuff like that, it was very daunting and overwhelming for a little human to do that - but I put all that pressure on myself. My mam wasn't pushy at all, same with my dad.

"And I wasn't an attention seeking child, but maybe my sisters would tell you otherwise," she hoots, "especially on a day like today where I'm all over the place! I'm actually quite a shy individual when it comes to those things. I'd only sing under the table as a kid. I'd do shows with my cousins in front of family but that was just for fun.

"But on stage was different. Mam was always like, 'you don't have to do it if you don't want to'. That need to do it was always there but I also didn't want attention either - which is kind of messed-up when you think about it! Why do it?"

'The Hole In The Ground' is in cinemas nationwide from March 1. Cert: 15A

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