Youth in revolt - the stars of Can't Cope, Won't Cope on series return
One of the biggest hits on Irish TV last year, Can't Cope, Won't Cope was a comedy with a darkness at its heart that struck a chord both here and abroad. As it returns for a second series, stars Nika McGuigan and Seána Kerslake tell our reporter how the show shines a light on the gritty reality of being a twenty-something in Ireland today. Photography by Steve Humphreys
'It's the way people drink now," says Nika McGuigan. "I feel like if you asked someone now what a measure is, they'd be like, 'It's half a glass or something'. Because - especially with the pre-drinking thing - you just don't know any more."
"In this country there are a lot of people that we all know who can go under the radar and have drinking problems because of the way everyone else behaves," agrees Seána Kerslake. "And there are these binge issues, where they're like, 'Oh no I don't drink every day' and yet they go mad on a Friday or a Saturday."
Going mad - at least, for professional reasons - is something that's all too familiar to the young stars of Can't Cope, Won't Cope. The most talked about Irish TV series of 2016, the rowdy show set in the hectic world of Dublin's nightlife illuminated, for the rest of us, the attitude of the country's twenty-somethings - and, especially, our young women - to everything from friendship and career prospects to alcohol and casual sex. We've never been particularly good at television comedy in this country, but Can't Cope, Won't Cope brilliantly caught the hilarious chaos that unfolds around two Cork expatriates who can't stop going out. It was no mere farce, though: before interviewing the show's two stars ahead of the new series, which begins on RTÉ 2 next week, I re-watched the last episode of season one and was struck again by its darkness.
Writer Stefanie Preissner's bracingly realistic comic drama followed Aisling, played by Kerslake, and Danielle, played by McGuigan, two childhood friends from Mallow who'd moved up to Dublin together to study and work, and hit the city's night spots like there was no tomorrow. Aisling was a headbanger, but Danielle was beginning to worry about the future, and by the end of season one their relationship had broken down altogether. In a shockingly bleak finale, Danielle struck a mortal blow by unfriending her oldest mate on Facebook, and Aisling ended up reeling alone and dangerously drunk on the dancefloor of Copper Face Jacks.
The role that excessive alcohol consumption plays in the lives of the two women was one of the most striking things about the series. It accurately echoed how we as a nation often think we can drink all our problems away. Kerslake reckons that "you can still go out and have a few drinks, and there's nothing wrong with that, but you know, hopefully the show might make people look at their relationship with alcohol.
"But I don't think a ban is the way to help it, because it's like on Good Friday, people would always go mad because they weren't allowed buy drink. If you restrict it, I think it gets worse, so if we had a more European outlook to drink it might help."
"You do realise," McGuigan adds, "that on a European film set they have wine at lunchtime!" Kerslake laughs. "OK I'm not saying bring wine onto Irish film and TV sets! Especially on a shoot like this, like - 'We'll be fine, we'll only have a few glasses'. But no, I do think the whole attitude from a younger age and from grass roots and at home needs to change."
There is, she believes, a certain amount of hypocrisy in the attitude of older Irish people to the antics of the young, as though today's twenty-somethings invented our national drinking problem. "It's easy to give out about the kids," she says, "but I don't think previous generations were all that great, either. Stop blaming youth for a problem that's always been there.
"It's funny, though, that there's this parallel now to the drinking thing, and it's prevalent on social media at the moment, with this fitness trend that's going on," she continues. "Everyone's really fit and eating protein pancakes and blogging about being in the gym, and that's in season two, these extremes in the way Irish people think really come to the fore. Aisling works in extremes, so although she might have hit the vodka and gotten locked the night before, she's woken up and put a picture of protein porridge on her Instagram."
"There's a health buzz going on at the moment," McGuigan agrees. "I live in London, and I've noticed when you're over here in Dublin you can buy a protein bar anywhere, some little old guy that owns a corner shop down the road, he has 25 protein bars, whereas in London it's very specific the health thing, it's more relaxed in a way. Here I feel like it's more extreme, and if they're not drinking they've got a badge on to say they're not drinking."
Can't Cope, Won't Cope started out as a knowing, semi-slapstick comedy of manners, but went on to explore the tensions and temptations faced by modern twenty-somethings, not just from binge drinking but also everything from social media exhaustion to the stresses of migration and emigration. The show struck a chord not just here but internationally, where it found an avid audience on Netflix and BBC3. Its success was partly down to the fierce intelligence of Preissner's writing, but also to the fearless performances of Kerslake and McGuigan, who play the two clever but overstretched young women whose relationship is tested in all sorts of unpleasant ways.
The characters they play are believable, vivid, but make huge demands on them as actors. I wonder what they both thought when Stefanie Preissner's script was first presented to them. "I was excited at the idea of seeing young women on screen," Kerslake says, "believable women, and living in a world that people can relate to. And though I know in a way it was very much an Irish girls' story, there was a kind of universal appeal to it as well, which is why it's done well on Netflix and BBC3. There are qualities in it that anyone can relate to."
"When I first got it," says McGuigan, "it struck me straight away that here was something written by a woman, with two female leads, directed by a woman, produced by a woman, it was kind of like, 'Okay, this is really interesting'. And then obviously it meant that me and Seána would get to work together. It just felt like something different, from the start."
"The other thing I liked about the story," Kerslake says, "was the fact that these girls are having a lot of fun and they're young and they have a lot of energy, but there's a lot of real drama in it as well, and a lot of layers underneath."
As for series two, Kerslake and McGuigan aren't giving too much away about how things will unfold. "Danielle has gone to Canada," McGuigan tells me, "so we got to film in Vancouver, which was fun. She's trying to get over an ex, in a way, and move on with her life after all the drama of season one."
"Unfortunately I don't get to go to Vancouver," Kerslake adds. "I don't think that's giving away too much, I stay here and I hold the fort, keep Dublin's pubs ticking over! In this series Aisling is after losing her friend, so she realises she has to get her s**t together and she's trying to do that and win Danielle back."
What Can't Cope, Won't Cope does so cleverly is demonstrate the very different social pressures and influences that today's twenty-somethings have to deal with, from the obligatory hedonism of Dublin weekends to the imaginary perfection of carefully manicured social media lives. And while social media might be a great platform for keeping in touch, it's not always your friend.
"This season for obvious reasons we're on our phones a lot more," says Kerslake, "so there's more of an insight into how we use Snapchat, and Instagram and so on. There's this whole thing about how you can locate people from Snapchat maps, it's all quite a scary, Big Brother type of thing.
"And the show talks as well about how someone's Facebook page may not necessarily be a real depiction of who they are, and you have all these photos presenting this imaginary glamorous life. And then you get younger people seeing these presented lives and feeling that they have to present a certain image as well: it can be really unhealthy."
McGuigan says that "in this season, when you see the difference between us and the younger characters, you realise that the whole social media thing has got even worse, it's quite scary. So at times you think Danielle and Aisling, they're not quite with it, they're falling behind."
"Yeah," adds Kerslake, "there are these moments where our characters go, 'What can you do with that app? Jesus I didn't realise you could do that.' We felt like a pair of aul wans!"
They're hardly that. The 27-year-old actresses have known each other for over a decade, having met while studying acting and film at The Factory in Dublin's Docklands. Seána Kerslake grew up in Tallaght, and has been acting since she was a small child. She cut her teeth on the stage and in small film parts before breaking through with a towering performance in Darren Thornton's 2016 film A Date for Mad Mary.
Though she's always been careful not to trade on his reputation, Nika is the daughter of boxing legend Barry McGuigan, and was raised in England before moving to Ireland in her late teens. She's been popping up in some interesting Irish films of late, like Philomena, Jim Sheridan's Secret Scripture, and Rebecca Daly's Mammal.
She speaks with a soft southern English accent, which can seem at odds with her quintessentially Irish looks. She explains that she's just come from an ADR (or dialogue re-recording) session, "and it was the first ADR I've ever had where the sound technician didn't laugh at me when I said hello, and go, 'Oh, you're English!' The first time it happened to me I was like really offended, I was like, 'Oh my god, this man is laughing straight in me face!' But I've got used to it."
This makes her mastery of the Mallow accent on Can't Cope all the more impressive, and her Dublin co-star didn't find it all that easy, either. "On series one," Kerslake explains, "we had Rachel, who plays my sister Hannah in the series. She's from Mallow, so we listened to her, Stephanie's from Mallow, and Christine, she was on continuity, so we used them as examples."
"But we didn't have an accent coach," McGuigan adds, "we just listened to them. And said 'like' a lot of course! That's my word to get into it, but they give out to me for saying it too much." Kerslake says "it is great as an actor to have the opportunity to work outside your accent, especially for me, because up until now it's always kind of been a version of myself. But Nika's never really worked in her own accent."
"No," McGuigan agrees, "everything I've done it's been either northern English, or Irish. A lot of Irish."
Somewhat fittingly, then, in the new series, Nika's character moves from migrant to emigrant, and must adapt to the sobering experience of being away from family, far from home. "That idea of leaving home and really having to believe in yourself, that's something that happens for Danielle in this season, going to Vancouver without her best friend. Nowadays not many of us live near our families, so our friends then become our families, so actually moving and for her going to a college and believing in herself is a big thing. And I think that's really relatable for people nowadays, you know, especially for Irish people, where so many of us go to America and London and they really can stand on their own two feet whatever talent they have, because there's such an amazing amount of talent in this country. Danielle doesn't quite necessarily believe in herself, and season two confronts that."
Nika McGuigan can identify with Danielle's self-doubts, and was initially terrified of acting. "Well both myself and Seána were very lucky to be around a family like the Sheridans who were very influential for both of us, and so I grew up around film sets a little bit." Nika's dad coached Daniel Day Lewis for his role in Jim Sheridan's 1997 film The Boxer, and Kirsten Sheridan gave Seána an early break in her 2012 drama Dollhouse.
"Though I thought it was all really interesting," McGuigan explains, "I didn't actually think I was going to do it. When I was small I would mimic people and so on, but at school I never did any plays and then one day this girl just basically said to me, in the nicest way, 'Look, we are going to bully you if you don't do this play!' So that was kind of how I got into this.
"I was very shy, though, and I mean Seána you're brave to do theatre, I'd be terrified to do theatre. I love film work, and we both went to The Factory and got involved with that, and that was where me and Seána met. But it would always be like a battle for me when I was younger, like 'Please don't make me do it!"
"It's weird," says Kerslake, "because I was a bit like that as well, and then you're almost compelled to do it in a way at the same time. It's very strange, this compulsion to do it, and I don't think it's an industry you'd be in unless you really, really loved it."
Kerslake's portrayal of a young woman with anger issues in A Date for Mad Mary marked her out as one of the most talented actors of her generation, but she hasn't lost the run of herself, and her approach has always been to "keep the head down" and not look too far into the future. "You can't get carried away," she says, "because you have to think about where the next job will come from. And it is kind of terrifying when you put work out there, you hope that you can stand by the project at least, but you never know. And every single person you meet is going to have a different opinion as well. Even now, when people say, 'Oh I saw Mad Mary' or 'I saw Can't Cope' or 'that play you were in', you're always on edge about what they're going to say. They might tell you you're useless!"
Season two of 'Can't Cope, Won't Cope' begins on April 23 on RTÉ2 at 9.30pm