Monday 17 December 2018

Meet Derry Girls breakout star Jamie-Lee O'Donnell who plays everyone's favourite character, Michelle

'Derry Girls' is an instant comedy hit. Lee Henry talks to its breakout star about putting her city on the map and why Irish humour has universal appeal

Comedy gold: Jamie-Lee O’Donnell says the reaction to Derry Girls has been unbelievable
Comedy gold: Jamie-Lee O’Donnell says the reaction to Derry Girls has been unbelievable

Lee Henry

Actor Jamie-Lee O'Donnell has tasted stardom before as the confident, catty Eva Maguire in BBC Northern Ireland's angsty teen student drama 6 Degrees, but nothing on the level of Derry Girls.

Written and created by Lisa McGee, who previously created the drama series Raw for RTE, the six-part comedy premiered on Channel 4 earlier this month and focuses on a group of teenage friends at the time of the Troubles - but also the time of Murder She Wrote, The Cranberries and double denim.

Since the opening episode, Jamie-Lee has been widely acknowledged as the youthful ensemble cast's breakout star.

"It's been crazy," says the 26-year-old Derry native, who plays the street-smart, foul-mouthed, techno music-loving Michelle. "All go. The reaction has been unbelievable."

Derry Girls got off to a stratospheric start with rave reviews all-round, and Channel 4 commissioned a second season after just one episode.

"People have stopped me in the street and everybody has said such nice things," says Jamie-Lee.

Hit: Channel 4 has a second series of Derry Girls planned
Hit: Channel 4 has a second series of Derry Girls planned

"They really seem to be on board with it. The English press have given us amazing reviews and everyone in Derry is talking about it, not just my family and friends. They think it's really, really funny. Being part of 6 Degrees was brilliant, but this is on another scale."

As fellow Derry natives might say, Jamie-Lee is "all lurred". It's no surprise. Episode one, which skilfully managed to set the scene while not overloading viewers with contextual information, attracted a consolidated audience of 2.8m viewers. The action centres around Saoirse Monica Jackson's Erin - whose teenage diary provides the internal monologue - and her gang of fast-talking, well-meaning female friends, who could prove to be as popular as their closest comedy kin, the similarly youthful Inbetweeners.

Living, loving and learning in Derry circa 1994, the girls joke about fancying the British soldiers who stop their bus on the way to school, ponder the oddities of the English accent and battle the all-powerful nuns who rule their curricular roost.

"It's testament to Lisa's writing that it's [the show] gone down so well," says Jamie-Lee. "I knew that it would. Lisa went to school at Thornhill, where a lot of people think the girls in the show go to school, and she knows how to write about the funny side of life, the slang that only Derry people use, the things that teenage girls think and talk about. It's about showing that people in Derry got on with their lives during a really hard time, when the Troubles were still here. I don't have memories of that time, but my parents were obviously around during the Troubles, and lots of members of my family, and they tell me that that's what it was like. They didn't let bomb scares stop them from living."

Derry Girls cast
Derry Girls cast

Chock-full of perfectly observed one-liners - "I'm not being individual on my own!" bemoans the downtrodden Clare, played with faultless comic timing by Nicola Coughlan - a wider cast, including comedy giant Tommy Tiernan and Game of Thrones' Ian McElhinney - and plenty of scenes that Derry folk young and old can relate to, the show grabbed plenty of attention.

Trending worldwide on Twitter is no mean feat, and critics universally praised the efforts of McGee, Antrim-born director Michael Lennox and their cast of mostly first-time television actors, with the Radio Times labelling Derry Girls "the best antidote for the January blues" and the Telegraph saying it is "as much a black comedy about the Troubles as a teenage nostalgia fest".

Ahead of the first episode, the question on everyone's lips was: will it live up to expectations? Jamie-Lee never feared that it wouldn't.

"But it was still hard waiting for the broadcast date to come around," she adds. "To be from Derry, film a show in Derry with other actors from Derry, about people from Derry was just amazing, one of the best things I've done in my career so far, and it's been so exciting to finally see our work on screen."

Jamie-Lee has been acting for years, as a student at St Anne's Primary School, St Cecilia's College and the North West Regional College. "Mainly plays and musicals, things like that. I've always wanted to be on stage," she says.

She followed her dreams by studying performing arts at university in Bedfordshire, living in London, and spent several years across the water, moving to Manchester for a time and back to London before returning home to film Derry Girls.

The friendships formed between Jackson, Coughlan, Louisa Harland (Orla) and Dylan Llewellyn (who plays Michelle's English cousin James) while filming Derry Girls in the city and Belfast may well prove long-lasting, according to Jamie-Lee. The five clicked from the beginning during auditions.

"Then we all lived together in an apartment in Belfast while we were filming most of the series, and we became really close," she adds.

In early 2017, she was part of an ambitious tour of venues across England and Ireland with Liverpool-based theatre company 20 Stories High. Their innovative production, I Told My Mum I Was Going On An RE Trip, shared verbatim real-world stories about abortion in the 21st century.

"It's very different to other things that I've done, which have been comedies, mostly. It was a very topical piece and BBC Two picked it up for their Performance Live season. It was filmed a few months ago, in a documentary style, and I play various different characters in the piece," she says.

The finished film will be broadcast on BBC Two this weekend. "I can't wait for people to see it. I'd love to do more stuff like it in the future," she says.

Jamie-Lee lives with her boyfriend Paul McCay, a techno DJ, and says they are very happy and content living and working among the people she loves the most, but she sees herself traveling for work in the future. "It's part of the performing life."

A second season of Derry Girls, however, will likely keep her feet firmly on home ground.

"Derry Girls is about more than just growing up in Derry," she adds.

One of Channel 4's Derry Girls schoolgirls is actually 31 years old 

"I think the humour translates to anywhere, really. It's universal, even if some people don't understand the slang that our characters use, and that's all about Lisa's writing. It was a no-brainer for Channel 4 to commission it, in my opinion. The strength of the writing is that good.

"I love being from the city, I'm really proud of my Derry roots, so we're all really happy to help put Derry on the map. No matter what the situation is - even if it's something that's not overly funny - people in Derry can always find a silver lining by laughing about it. We're a very resilient people. And it's amazing that audiences elsewhere are starting to see that too."

Derry Girls airs Thursdays on Channel 4 at 10pm. I Told My Mum I Was Going On An RE Trip airs on Saturday on BBC Two at 11.15pm.

'Catch yourself on!' - Channel 4 schools viewers in 'Derry Girls' vocabulary before show airs 

Irish Independent

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