Grit & Glamour: Meet the stars of the new RTE detective thriller Taken Down
A new RTÉ drama, from Love/Hate creator Stuart Carolan and novelist Jo Spain, aims to draw attention to Ireland's Direct Provision system through the prism of a dark, detective thriller - with female leads. Here, Lauren Murphy meets Taken Down's stars, Lynn Rafferty and Aïssa Maïga. Portraits by Daniel Holfeld
You could say that Lynn Rafferty and Aïssa Maïga are turning heads.
In fairness, it's difficult to miss the Dublin actress and her French counterpart, who are posing up a storm in the lobby of hip city centre hotel The Alex - but if bemused onlookers are wondering who the pair in their glittery finest could be, they'll be familiar with their faces very soon.
That's because Rafferty and Maïga are two of the stars of Taken Down, the new six-part crime drama from the pen of Love/Hate creator Stuart Carolan and bestselling novelist Jo Spain - which means they are set to follow in the footsteps of Nidge, Fran and co by becoming firm favourites with Irish TV-watching audiences.
Eagle-eyed viewers will already know Rafferty from her role as Nadine - the long-suffering girlfriend of Aido - in the aforementioned Love/Hate, but she'll take on her biggest part to date when she plays hard-nosed Detective Jen Rooney, who is thrust into a "twilight world of the new Ireland" when she investigates the violent death of a young Nigerian migrant close to a Direct Provision centre.
Lynne Rafferty and Aissa Maiga by Daniel Holfield for Weekend magazine
Hailing from Summerhill in Dublin, the 33-year-old actress - who has been based in Toronto for the last few years with her Canadian partner - says she jumped at the opportunity to play such a meaty role, which was won via a series of Skype meetings and self-taped auditions.
"It's so different to anything I've done before. I've a massive interest in crime and I'd listen to a lot of investigative journalism podcasts; I love the whole 'being a detective from your own sofa' stuff," she grins. "That's really what hooked me in at first."
Playing a multifaceted character like Jen Rooney held a lot of appeal, too. "She is very hard-driven and you definitely wouldn't mess with her - she's well able to hold her own," she chuckles. "But she also has this great sense of empathy and she really knows how to connect with different communities, because she knows she needs them to help her to get the information she needs. So the fact that she can build relationships with people is probably my favourite thing about her. It's something that really grabbed me, the more I read."
Growing up in inner-city Dublin, Rafferty says that she was always artistic and particularly loved Whose Line is it Anyway?-style improv as a youngster. Yet even though she studied acting at Bull Alley Theatre Training School after leaving school, it wasn't until her mid-20s that she took the plunge to pursue acting full-time. Since then, she has also held roles in the likes of Ripper Street and RTÉ's Rebellion.
"I actually worked in digital sales at the Irish Independent on Talbot Street for a few years, believe it or not," she laughs. "I'd been doing acting pretty constantly in the evenings and at weekends, and had done a part-time course at the Gaiety School of Acting, so all my free time was going into doing what I love. I eventually gave it a go, and I got Love/Hate not long after it - so it was good timing."
Rafferty still retains a passionate interest in the lighter side of entertainment - she is writing and developing her own sitcom back in Toronto at the moment, she says - but Taken Down undoubtedly deals with a weightier subject matter. Living outside of Ireland, she says that working on the show was an education.
Aïssa wears: jacket worn on shoulder, €665, Zadig & Voltaire, Brown Thomas; Top, €375, Rachel Comey, Beautiful South, beautifulsouth.ie; Diamond earrings, POA, Boodles, Grafton Street, Dublin. Photo by Daniel Holfeld
"Obviously I knew what Direct Provision was, but I wasn't really too familiar with it - so I do feel better knowing more about it, now," she nods. "With drama, you're not necessarily trying to make a difference, but you definitely want to start conversations. That's what anyone wants to do when they write anything, get people talking. There's stuff about slum landlords in the show as well, for example, so there's a lot of things going on and it does really reflect a modern Ireland, I think."
As successful as Love/Hate was, it also drew criticism for many of its female characters being one-dimensional or not as well developed as their main counterparts, but Rafferty doesn't quite agree.
"I think that's because the male characters in Love/Hate were in the line of work that they were. I mean, I felt my character, Nadine, was quite strong; she held her own, she was able to tell people where to go - including Nidge," she shrugs, smiling. "And Charlie Murphy's character, Siobhán, was also controlling them all at the end; she was the driving force, really. So I think Stuart does write female characters really well and it's nice to see how that's evolved into Taken Down and a character like Jen Rooney."
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She is prepared, she says, for the inevitable comparisons to Love/Hate. "You're always gonna get that, I think - but I think Taken Down is really a great complement to Love/Hate," she shrugs. "And at the end of the day, it's a new story with new characters and it's its own thing. There is the same team, so all the ingredients are the same - but with Jo Spain being involved, it also gives it a heightened level as well. So yes, it's set in Dublin, it does have an element of grittiness, and it has those really rich characters that you get drawn to straight away - but it's very different. We're very excited to see how people receive it."
As a first-time visitor to Dublin, her co-star Aïssa Maïga was not only thrown headlong into the world of Irish TV, but some hard-hitting socio-political themes to boot when she took on the role of Nigerian refugee mother Abeni. Born in Senegal, the 43-year-old moved to Paris at the age of four and was raised within her father's Malian family. She was approached for the role after being spotted in a French film by director David Caffrey.
Lynn Rafferty by Daniel Holfeld for Weekend magazine
Maïga, who has two children of her own, was previously unfamiliar with both Love/Hate and the work of Carolan and Spain, having worked extensively in French-language film and TV, but was impressed by the research that clearly had gone into the script.
"When I started to read it, there was a note before the first episode - and it was written by Stuart," she explains. "It wasn't just a note about the story, but the Irish way of dealing with refugees. And the quality of the writing itself, the way the ideas were articulated and the point of view were quite interesting. I didn't know if I was going to like the script or not, but I knew that the person who was writing it was really clever and had done a lot of research. I was like 'Okay - this is gonna be a journey'."
Like Rafferty, Maïga was something of a latecomer to acting professionally. Although she recalls sneaking backstage at a theatre while on a school trip to see Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl as a youngster, it wasn't until her mid-teens that she began dabbling more seriously. A trip to Zimbabwe at the age of 19 to work with social activism-centred street theatre from the townships cemented her belief that it should become her life's work. Indeed, that was one of the main reasons that drew Maïga - who recently worked with Chiwetel Ejiofor on his feature-length directorial debut The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind in Malawi - to Taken Down, she says.
"Abeni is very mysterious; at first, we don't know a lot about her. But by and by, we get to know her in terms of the choices she makes to survive and to protect her two children," she explains. "All these choices are being made by a vulnerable woman, because she's a refugee and has no family, no relatives, no money, no nothing, but she's really clever. And it was really important to me to show the face of immigration this way, because most of the time these type of characters are very clichéd and [like] caricatures. So we get a sense of what she's going through through her own eyes."
The challenge of taking not only an English-speaking role, but one with a Nigerian accent, also appealed.
"I want to apologise in advance if Nigerian people think I'm not doing their particular accent justice," she laughs. "But the other thing was that I had to really dive into the everyday life of a refugee. I mean, I read the news; I'm French, I'm European, and I'm of African descent - so of course, I feel very connected to what these people go through, because with some little differences at the very beginning of my life, it could definitely have been me. So I've never looked at these people as 'foreigners'; to me, it's about particular individuals who decide, because of their own reasons - war, ecological reasons, poverty or misery - to leave, and try to have a better life somewhere else."
She admits that her comparatively privileged upbringing in Paris made her examine her own life while undertaking the role, too - particularly since France operates a similar scheme to Direct Provision with their Centres de Rétention. "That is the magic of this job: you get to know human beings more and more," she agrees. "As a human, [the refugee crisis] is much more unbearable to me today than it was before I played the role of Abeni. So I hope that people will be educated, in a way. Yes, you could just read the news - but on a human level, it's important to be a vehicle of ideas that mean something. The way that these people are mistreated is a scandal, and I think that we might feel very ashamed 50, 60 years from now when we are part of history."
Although she has only spent a short time in Dublin, she admits that she has fallen wholeheartedly for Ireland's charms - and hopes that the fact that our culture is so deeply entwined with emigration will mean that audiences will be especially responsive to Taken Down's themes.
"I think the viewpoint that people will have on foreigners in their country is going to change - because what it shows is that in certain circumstances, people get evil," she nods. "And in certain circumstances, other people get heroic. It's not only a matter of being Irish, being white, being black; it's about what choices you're able to make in your life, whoever you are. It sounds a little bit cliché, but you can be a prostitute and make better choices than the Prime Minister. So I hope that this connection will be possible, thanks to deep, strong and positive characters. And I hope also that people, when they vote next time, will be more aware of who they're voting for."
Rafferty has similar hopes and aspirations for the potentially career-making show that is being waggishly referred to as the Scandi-noir version of Love/Hate. She laughs when I bring up the show's potential to be as big as something like The Bridge. "That would be the goal and the dream - if Jen Rooney was anywhere near as popular as Sarah Lund, I'd be very happy," she chuckles. "If she was even as popular as Sarah Lund's jumper, I'd take that!
"But my whole thing about it - and I think what this show does successfully - is that it's important to remember that everyone's story is important and everyone's story deserves to be heard," she nods. "It's stuff that already exists - we're just telling it on screen."
'Taken Down' begins on RTÉ One tomorrow, November 4, at 9.30pm