Sunday 21 April 2019

'She’s not restricted by social norms - it's a gift' - Siobhán McSweeney talks playing Derry Girls' hilarious Sister Michael

Sister Michael, Derry Girls, Channel 4
Sister Michael, Derry Girls, Channel 4
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Fans of Derry Girls will be familiar with the hilarious Sister Michael memes that crop up on social media during and after each new episode, inspired by the character’s acerbic one-liners and trademark eye roll.

So, just one and a half seasons in to the Channel 4 hit, Sister Michael is already well on the way to being immortalised as a classic comedic character, and nobody is more tickled than the woman who plays her, Cork native Siobhán McSweeney.

“It’s extraordinary, and how quickly they appear!” she laughs of those aforementioned memes.  “People are so funny.  Even before an episode is over there are three or four out there.  I can barely look at them with the amount of chins!  People say that actors are vain.  It’s the complete opposite of vanity.  You couldn’t look at yourself on screen like that if you were in any way vain or self-conscious.  There’s no glamour in our world!”

Out of Sister Michael’s habit, Siobhán, who lives in London, looks quite different.  It means she escapes the intense attention showered on the other cast members, and that suits her just fine.  “I usually don’t get recognised, which is a great blessing in a way,” she says.  “I’ve been with the girls on occasion and they’ve been mobbed and I’m not sure my personality would be as patient and polite and lovely as they are!”

Siobhan McSweeney, star of Derry Girls. Photo: Damien Eagers
Siobhan McSweeney, star of Derry Girls. Photo: Damien Eagers

The mobbing is likely to continue.  Created and written by Lisa McGee, the first series of Derry Girls debuted to 1.6m viewers (rising to 2.5m consolidated) and was the biggest comedy launch in Northern Ireland since viewership records began in 2002.  Not bad for a 90s set comedy exploring the trials and tribulations of a group of female friends as they negotiate friendship, family life, and school against a backdrop of The Troubles.

Given its initial success, Siobhán admits the cast was naturally “a bit nervous” ahead of the current season, although they need not have worried; “It’s that second album fear you have with a second series, but when we got the scripts we could see they were as good, if not better, than the first,” she says.

Jenny Joyce (Leah O'Rourke) and Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney) in Derry Girls, Channel 4
Jenny Joyce (Leah O'Rourke) and Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney) in Derry Girls, Channel 4

Broadcast across the UK and Ireland on Channel 4, Derry Girls has also garnered an unlikely, perhaps, but appreciative audience in the US following the arrival of the first series to Netflix US.

“It’s literally global and on social media there are people contacting me from all over the world who have seen it,” says Siobhán.  “What’s lovely about it is that those universal themes that Lisa has written about really speak to everybody around the world.”

Derry Girls is up for a TV Bafta
Derry Girls is up for a TV Bafta
The cast of Derry Girls

While there have been reports of Americans requiring subtitles to understand the accent and local Derry lingo, Siobhan calls that out as “bull****”.

“Feck off!” she declares of the reports, “Everyone can understand it.  Get over yourself! There’s this thing like the North is a strange land where everybody needs an interpreter to go in there.  No!  They’re just normal people, in extraordinary times.  They’re very normal people and I can see the ordinariness and universality speaks to everybody.”

Writer Lisa McGee with the Derry Girls cast members (Niall Carson/PA)
Writer Lisa McGee with the Derry Girls cast members (Niall Carson/PA)

Some viewers in the UK and the US have revealed they knew little or nothing about the political history of Northern Ireland before watching the show.  Given Northern Ireland is now in a state of flux with the shadow of Brexit and a possible hard border looming, Siobhán says she feels ‘gratified’ that the series is shining a positive spotlight on the north.

“I feel really gratified it’s on at a time when, in general, the awareness of Northern Ireland is almost at an all time low,” she says.

“It serves not only to entertain but to shed a human, intelligent, and compassionate light on the north and I think a lot of that is missing at the moment in discourse about the north of Ireland, about Europe in general, Ireland and the UK.  We need that human, and also female, perspective on the north and I hope that with all the rubbish that’s happening at the moment that it sheds a human eye on it.”

That’s not to say it’s not a barrel of laughs - it’s riotously funny, but also packs a pretty solid emotional punch on occasion, as most great comedy does.  And Sister Michael is quickly emerging as a pivotal character for many viewers. 

“I think what I personally like about Sister Michael is what people are picking up on as well, which is her complete ‘doesn’t give a damn’ attitude, her utter freedom,” says Siobhán of her character.

“For me, when I think about her being a nun I think only about the freedom it gives her. She’s not restricted by social norms, she doesn’t have to behave in a certain way.  It’s the freedom the uniform has given her to an extent.  She is our id in a way, what we always wish we could say but cannot say.  That is a gift.”

Although she jokes she was “nearly a foetus” in the 90s, Siobhán was actually a teenager so, like many women of her vintage who watch the show, she feels a certain nostalgia and affinity with the era and the schoolgirls’ teenage experiences.

“When Lisa was talking initially about what this would be there was a brief moment... when you’re that age you’re sort of stuck in that age.  I was thinking, ‘Yeah, I could root out the uniform, I’m sure I’d still fit into it.’ That’s my mentality.”

Her personal playlist reflects the soundtrack of the show.  She remembers being introduced to the late Scott Walker and discovering his music for the very first time at youth theatre.  “Everything was new and exciting and it’s intrinsically linked with the 90s for me... getting all the music magazines and poring over them.”

She’s amused by her younger female cast mates, who have no personal experience of the decade they inhabit in the show.

“For the girls, the 90s isn’t their decade.  It’s funny watching them talk about the 90s as if it’s a theme.  They were going to a 90s themed party and I was like, ‘It’s just called a party!’.  Now it’s a theme. When did that happen?  It’s such a cliché  – when did that happen!” she laughs.

While she would love to play Sister Michael “forever and ever” Siobhán believes there’s a time-limit on Derry Girls given the period in which it is set and the fact that the girls are in school.

“Is it like 90210 where you’ll have 53 year olds playing them?” she quips.  “That would be pushing it a little bit.  Will the wee English fella have a beard?  That’s going to cast a certain light on the education system in Northern Ireland if they’re still in school!”

Having said that Siobhán admits she would “love to play her as long as Lisa sees fit.”  Her first love is theatre, which is how she made her “bread and butter” before Derry Girls came along.  It’s her first major TV role having had smaller roles in The Fall, No Offence, and Lisa McGee’s previous series, London Irish.  

Last year was a busy one.  She filmed the second series of Porters which is currently airing on Dave and she had a small role in Maeve Higgins’ feature, Extra Ordinary, which had its premiere at SXSW earlier this month.  Her bread and butter came courtesy of a stint in a touring production of Kevin Barry’s Autumn Royal.

Right now she says she’s “been carried away by the whirlwind of [Derry Girls] being aired.”  Writing offers have come on the back of it and she plans to get stuck in “once I tidy up the flat and then clean the windows!”

“It’s a curious, exciting time,” she says.  “I’m trying to grab every opportunity Derry Girls has brought my way.”

Derry Girls continues on Channel 4 tonight at 9.15pm.

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