Being brought up in the UK you don't get taught any Irish history - Peaky Blinders' Natasha O'Keefe on researching Resistance role
Natasha O'Keeffe is gaining new insight into our shared past thanks to her roles in Peaky Blinders and RTÉ's new War of Independence drama, Resistance - as well as from her Cavan-born parents, as she tells Meadhbh McGrath
Three weeks after learning she was pregnant with her first child, Natasha O'Keeffe answered the phone to a sheepish call from her agent. "I'm really sorry to do this: I'm just gonna ping this over to you but I totally don't expect you to tape for it or do anything…" she said, sending Natasha the details about Resistance, an RTÉ drama set during the War of Independence and the follow-up to 1916 miniseries Rebellion.
"If I had a choice, I probably wouldn't have filmed anything in the few months after having my first child, and I definitely wouldn't have taped an audition at three weeks. I really didn't know if I could act, because I had had no sleep," Natasha recalls. But she did the tape anyway, and by October 2016, she was in Dublin filming with a three-month-old. She says she felt compelled to do it - she couldn't turn down a part like this, given her family's connections to Ireland. She's even done an AncestryDNA test and discovered she's "93pc pure Irish, and all from the same strip of Cavan on the map".
Her father, Paul, is from Cavan town and her mother, Caroline O'Reilly, grew up in Killeshandra, before the two moved to Brighton, where Natasha was born. Her first year was spent in Cavan, after which she was raised in Tooting, south London, with frequent visits back. "When I was in my youth, I spent the entirety of my holidays in Ireland. I had the best time, and the memories I built there are gorgeous. I've a lovely group of friends over there, and my grandmother lived in Drumbo. It was just so simple. I was brought up in Tooting; it's a built-up area in a city, and I had a good childhood in London, but that's so different, to be able to run around in a field," she says, her eyes twinkling. "I get all gooey thinking about it, because it was just lovely. I used to sit with my granny in the evening, watching Father Ted. She's very religious, and she'd be doing the Rosaries, but you could tell that she'd be squinting through her eyes and laughing."
Now, Natasha lives in Margate with her husband, the actor Dylan Edwards, and their two children, a girl aged eight months and a two-year-old boy (she is careful not to use their names). We meet a few days after her 32nd birthday, which she points out was "the first birthday where I drank more than two glasses of wine, because I've had two babies in two years, basically, and between breastfeeding and pregnancy, there wasn't much time. So there were a few tequilas as well!"
On top of living in Britain's trendiest seaside town, Natasha has an innately cool sense of style: despite noting that she's hardly slept, she looks laid-back yet polished in striped dungarees, a black rollneck and cult Comme des Garçons x Converse trainers. But she tends to keep to herself, and she doesn't pay attention to Hollywood awards chatter, reviews or social media - in fact, she doesn't use any social media at all. "I just can't," she sighs. "I actually don't have time, with two children and work and things to juggle... I don't know how people find time. I can't be with the kids and be on social media at the same time. I've made the decision that it's not for me."
Natasha is remarkably soft-spoken ("Even on set, they'll be like, 'Natasha, can you just speak up a bit?'" she laughs) and her British accent carries a faint but recognisable Irish lilt, something she leaned into for Resistance. Natasha plays Agnes Moore, a Dublin academic and barrister with the Sinn Féin midnight courts. "I have kind of a twisted accent as Natasha O'Keeffe," she explains. "I think that's partly to do with having Irish parents who haven't lost their accents at all. They've still got very strong Cavan accents. Really, I should be cockney, because I was brought up in Tooting Broadway, the rougher part of Tooting. As a child, I didn't know where I stood. I would have loved to have an Irish accent, and when I'd go to Ireland, I'd alter it slightly, and after being there for six weeks, I'd pick up some lingo. It's very addictive."
Even now, she drops some of that lingo into conversation, such as when she is describing her co-star Simone Kirby, who plays Agnes' sister Ursula: "I think this is because you've got an Irish accent, but I want to say that she's gas craic - that was just about to come out! But she really is just a piss-taker and what a lovely woman and really talented with it."
She recalls a night shoot with Simone and Brian Gleeson, reprising his role from Rebellion as socialist Jimmy Mahon. "I remember being sat in a very cold, old-school cottage out in the sticks, and we were trying to keep our feet warm under some lamps. It was my birthday that day, and Brian and Simone sang me happy birthday in the car home," she smiles.
She was glad, too, that her son got to experience a bit of Dublin in his first year. "It was just a beautiful time. We camped out in Dublin for three months, and we'd come out of our apartment and Dublin Castle would be very close by. We used to take walks with the baby sleeping in the pram, and my little boy got a taste of living in Ireland."
Dylan joined her for the duration of the shoot, and the two have since been taking turns balancing jobs and parenting. "He was being the full-time dad while I was at work. It's amazing, and I don't like to say this, but it's 'the dream'," she says, rolling her eyes. "When we decided that we wanted children, we said, 'Well, it's 50/50, right?' That's how we roll.
"Without sounding really corny, I couldn't do what I do without him. Especially now that the kids are so young, we're a tag team, totally. Recently, it's been harder because one of you has to be in childcare and the other one is doing auditions or going to work, but we definitely used to do a lot of work together and be quite geeky about it, because that's just what couples do. We're definitely teammates rather than any jealousy - touch wood," she laughs, knocking on the table.
The couple met while studying at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. Between bites of a flapjack she's keen on sharing ("My husband always says I'm a feeder!").Natasha recalls, rather modestly, her very first acting job: a music video for Falling Down "by the band Oasis", in which she played a young Princess Margaret-type character in a contemporary setting.
Since then, she has had roles in Channel 4's teen drama Misfits (the project she is most frequently recognised for, she says); the film adaptation of Irvine Welsh's Filth, and, most prominently, Peaky Blinders, in which Natasha plays Lizzie Stark, wife and assistant to Cillian Murphy's Thomas Shelby. When we meet, she is in the final weeks of filming the fifth season. "They're talking about series six and seven, maybe a film. I'm welcoming all of that. I just love the job so much, it's like going back to a family every year. What am I gonna do when that isn't there anymore? Viva Peaky Blinders!" she cheers.
One of the things that stood out about Resistance was its female director, Catherine Morshead, who worked on all six episodes. "There was something very, very beautiful about the whole process for me: getting the job, having a dream unfold - they were so understanding of me being a new mother, because they were mothers themselves. It was really nice actually and so refreshing turning up at work and being like, 'Woman, woman, woman!'" she says, pointing around her. "I'm working on Peaky Blinders at the moment, and that is a male-dominated team, apart from a couple of female producers on set. We need to keep pushing for the presence of more women. Women are just as capable - I didn't feel like, 'Oh, it's a female director doing just as good a job,' because of course she is."
When Rebellion premiered two years ago, the critics were unimpressed. Natasha hasn't seen the negative reviews, saying she doesn't read Irish media (although her eyes widen when she hears about The New York Times' lukewarm write-up). "It is a tricky area to film, because it's so close to the bone, so real and present in people's eyes, so if certain things are too fictional for some people, that's understandable, it might piss them off. Then you've got the viewers who don't mind a softer approach. I hope Resistance doesn't piss people off this time around. You want to do it justice, because it's such a crucial part of history."
Natasha's own preparation for the role involved reading up on a period of history she was very unfamiliar with.
"I learned things about that specific time that I would have no idea about beforehand, like the Sinn Féin midnight courts and females in the justice system. The thing is, being brought up in the UK, you don't get taught any Irish history, which I think really ought to be taught. I wish I could tell you that I was reading vast amounts," she adds with a grin, "but having had such a little baby, I was asking lots of questions of my dad, looking at videos I could find online, while breastfeeding. I think I learned more when I got on the job and was asking all those questions as I went."
As much as she enjoys her TV work, Natasha says she'd love to do theatre in future, and has two specific names in mind that she wants to work with. "I've been asking the universe for something with Conor McPherson - anything, absolutely anything. Enda Walsh, anything. Honestly, Irish playwrights, they've got something. I like that kind of dark, grimy theatre, I'd love to do that," she says.
For the time being, however, she's content with life in Margate, although she's keen to make a return to Ireland. "I would love Ireland to have me back. I feel at home there," she sighs.
'Resistance' airs on RTÉ One tomorrow at 9.30pm