‘She goes bananas at weekends, then it’s back to work Monday’ - Sarah Greene
Sarah Greene kicks off a big year playing Lisa in pal Emmet Kirwan's film Dublin Oldschool. The Cork actress talks to Paul Whitington about drug culture, the Famine and her part in Roddy Doyle's big-screen assault on the homelessness crisis
Cork actress Sarah Greene has been popping up on those 'people to watch' lists for at least the last four years, and 2018 looks set to be her most impressive 12 months yet. In September, she'll play the role of a starving Connemara woman in Lance Daly's eagerly anticipated Famine thriller Black 47; at the end of the year she'll star in Rosie, a timely and unstinting exploration of homelessness written by Roddy Doyle; in the meantime Sarah gives a memorable turn in Dublin Oldschool, a new film that everyone's talking about.
Written by Emmet Kirwan and based on his own play of the same name, which is released here next Friday, it stars Kirwan as Jason, an edgy young man whose 'recreational' drug use is spiralling out of control when he meets, by chance, the junkie brother he assumed was dead. A couple of weeks back, in a lively appearance on The Late Late Show, Kirwan described his film as "Dublin dipped in acid", and declared that "real art should show Ireland as it really is".
"He's something else isn't he," says Sarah Greene, "he's the voice of our generation, I think." She tells me that she's known Kirwan for years.
"Emmet was one of the first people I met in the industry, I think it was 12 years back, and then myself, Ian Lloyd Anderson and Emmet did Alice in Funderland together at the Abbey, which we kind of workshopped over a few years - so yeah, we were great mates.
"I was doing this play called Woyzeck in the Old Vic, and he was over in London doing Dublin Oldschool at the National, and he was like 'any chance you're free for this', and I said 'yes please'. I would do anything Emmet asked me to do."
Her character in Oldschool, Lisa, is a hard-partying friend of Jason's who seems a lot more clued in than he is.
"She's kind of the mammy of the group," Sarah says. "We talked about her having some kind of high-powered job. She keeps it together during the week, goes bananas at the weekend, then it's back to work on Monday. Which quite a lot of people probably do in Dublin at the weekends."
Kirwan's film, and play, are rooted in his own personal circumstances, and the story of his own brother's battle with heroin addiction.
"I was around Emmet and his pals for a while years back, and I think I actually met the person Lisa's based on at a party one time, which is kind of weird when you think about it. It's quite a special film, and I think it's really going to hit home for younger audiences."
Dublin Oldschool is very funny at times, but also pretty bleak.
"It is a very personal story for Emmet," Greene says, "and that scene where the brothers run into each other on the street is so awful and so sad, but there's so much hope in there as well. Emmet's brother came back from all that, and he's got two kids now and he's done a few degrees, and I think he works as a drug counsellor now."
Greene grabs the eye every time she turns up in Dublin Oldschool, and is equally impressive in Lance Daly's Black 47, which is set at the height of the Great Famine and stars James Frecheville as a soldier who returns to his native Connemara and embarks on a vengeful rampage when he finds out his family were thrown off their land to perish. She plays a starving mother, and speaks Irish convincingly. All an act, she tells me.
"I don't have much Irish at all. I worked with Peadar Cox, and I'm quite musical so I just learned it as if it was music, I wrote it down phonetically. But I'd just come back from France, where I'd been shooting for three months, and I live with three gaeilgeoirs, my sister, her husband and Ruth Bradley [the actress] - all fluent, so I was doing it with a French accent and they were all laughing at me and saying, 'that's not Irish!'"
It was, she recalls, a pretty gruelling shoot.
"I was starving myself for it and everything. I didn't want people to watch it and go 'well, she had too many pies that day'. So I went for it, but then they put me in these massive costumes. My legs looked really skinny."
She saw Black 47 at a Berlin Film Festival premiere, but through her fingers, as it were. Watching herself on screen, Greene admits, is not fun. "It's like listening to your voice on voicemail, you know, and you see all the things you did wrong or could have changed. Most days after I film I go home and think, why didn't I try this, why didn't I do that."
She may be only 33, but Greene has been acting since she was a little girl, and remembers the moment when she fell in love with the stage.
"I went to a pantomime with my parents when I was four, and I was sitting in the balcony at the Opera House and I was like, I want that. So they put me into classes, and I did The King and I when I was about six, for the Cork Operatic Society, and I began to do pantos. It's like a bug you get: once you're up on stage it's like, I don't know what else to do. And I was very lucky as well in that I had very, very supportive parents who were like, 'well okay, you're motivated'."
Though she admits that she "flirted with the idea of being a vet for about five minutes", her future vocation was never really in doubt. After studying at the Gaiety Theatre School, she started working with the Druid Theatre Company.
"I toured with them, we went to Tokyo, saw all of Ireland and got to work with the greats, Mick Lally, Marie Mullen, Sean McGinley. It was great fun." And though she quickly branched out into film and television: "I've always been more comfortable on a stage - distance is my friend."
It was a theatre role that really got her noticed. In 2013, she starred as the wonderfully sadistic Slippy Helen in an acclaimed production of Martin McDonagh's the Cripple of Inishmaan, which was a hit in the West End and on Broadway and earned Greene Tony and Olivier nominations.
"Broadway was what really opened doors for me," she says, "John Logan saw me in The Cripple of Inishmaan, and cast me in Penny Dreadful, and then things kind of took off."
What struck you when you watched Greene playing a bloodthirsty female in the Victorian horror fantasy was her photogenicness, and genuine range. She has since stretched herself, playing roles like a woman reluctantly caught up in the 1916 Rising in the RTÉ mini-series Rebellion, and the young Christina Noble in Stephen Bradley's biopic Noble.
"She's an amazing woman," Sarah tells me, "and I got to hang out with her. In preparing for my part, I really wanted to study what Deirdre O'Kane was doing." (O'Kane played Christina Noble in middle age).
"So they were filming in Vietnam and I got to go and watch Dee for a week, and hang out with Christina and her family. I spoke more with her daughter than I did with Christina about what happened in her life, and I obviously read her books and stuff, she's just a force of nature. And I also got to go to the schools and hang out with the kids as well.
"I'd been out of work for about 10 months before that shoot started, and I was moaning and going 'oh my God, my life is so bad', and I went to Vietnam and I thought, I'm so wealthy, I've got so much to be grateful for, you go somewhere like that and you get perspective."
Perspective is also to be found in Sarah's most recently completed film, Rosie, a powerful drama about a mother trapped in the nightmare of 21st-century homelessness.
Paddy Breathnach's film is based on an original script by Roddy Doyle, and could hardly be more timely.
"It was one of the best scripts I've ever read," Greene says, "it's so harrowing and it's a real comment on what's happening in Ireland right now. It came about because Roddy was listening to the radio one day, and these two homeless women were on Joe Duffy talking about living in the hotels, and Roddy thought, 'that's my story'.
"When you first meet my character, Rosie, she's two weeks into becoming homeless, herself and her partner and their four kids, and she's in the car ringing hotels, and spends something like 36 hours where it's just phone call after phone call, and you know no one is looking after anyone's case in this situation, so you're talking to a different person every day and just trying to find a hotel before the kids get out of school. You wonder what that's like.
"We shot a lot of it in a hotel where they have a floor dedicated to families like this, and to see them every morning walking out with their school bags and their suitcases and their shopping bags full of food not knowing where they're going that night. It was pretty heartbreaking.
"I remember one day we were shooting in Dublin city and two little fellas, they must have been like seven or eight, came up on their bikes and said 'are yez doin' a movie?' and we said we are, yeah, and they said 'is it Roddy Doyle, is it?' And we said 'it is actually'. He's a legend in Dublin - even kids that age still know all about him."