Wednesday 21 February 2018

The coping classes - the women behind RTÉ's new female-focused comedy

VICKI NOTARO meets the talents behind Can't Cope, Won't Cope, RTÉ's new female-focused coming-of-age comedy

Can't cope won't cope: Stefanie Preissner
Can't cope won't cope: Stefanie Preissner
Nika McGuigan chats to Vicki Notaro
Can't cope won't cope
On set for Can't cope won't cope
Acting out: Seana Kerslake in character as Aisling on set
Amy Huberman chats to Weekend on set
Amy Huberman of Can't cope won't cope

It's Monday morning and I'm in Lillie's Bordello in the middle of a raucous party. No, I wasn't left behind after an all-nighter - I'm here for a behind-the-scenes sneak peek at RTÉ's newest comedy series.

Since Tina Fey smashed down the door with 30 Rock, the floodgates for funny television not just for women, but made by women, have opened. Shows like GIRLS, Orange Is The New Black, Inside Amy Schumer and VEEP have been proving that women can make smart, funny, deep television, and that a predominantly female cast doesn't instantly indicate only female interest.

Can't Cope, Won't Cope is RTÉ's take on this global television trend. The show has a female production team behind it, and the cast includes Amy Huberman and rising star Seana Kerslake. But it's writer Stefanie Preissner - a 28-year-old Corkwoman - who RTÉ is pushing as the real selling point. In fact, a line in its press release even dubs her "the voice of a generation".

So, are we looking at Ireland's answer to Lena Dunham or Amy Schumer? "I didn't name myself the voice of the generation, OK, it's been given to me!" Preissner laughs, when I tell her about the statement. "I think all of that started with Solpadeine Is My Boyfriend," she says, referring to the play she wrote and starred in that was a sleeper hit. The one-woman show ended up touring the country and being recorded for radio.

Nika McGuigan chats to Vicki Notaro
Nika McGuigan chats to Vicki Notaro

"That show was certainly... I hate using the phrase 'zeitgeist', but it came on the wave of something that touched many people," she says. "There were so many young people emigrating, and I thought it was only specific to me and my friends. But that show went on to tour and reached a massive audience.

"It really engaged with people in cities, in rural Ireland and internationally, so I think that's where that term came from. I think if someone were the actual voice of a generation, they would have more followers on Twitter," she deadpans.

Preissner is instantly likeable. Warm, witty and astute, she almost speaks in one-liners. She's fascinated by the world around her, and her curiosity is evident in her work.

Can't Cope, Won't Cope is about two single twenty-something girls from Mallow in Co Cork trying to figure it all out while living in Dublin. Today, the cast are getting ready to wrap after five long weeks shooting the season's six episodes. The scenes I'm watching being filmed are based around a raucous Friday night out.

"I'm conscious that I'm not speaking to my entire generation," Preissner points out. "There's something about millennials. Some have stayed in the particular rhythm of those who went before them, and some people really want that - marriage, kids and a mortgage. I see a girl on Instagram I went to school with that's pregnant with her third child, and these are planned children!

"I cannot relate to any of those impulses, I don't know how to do that. So another 28-year-old might not think I'm speaking to her or her life at all."

On set for Can't cope won't cope
On set for Can't cope won't cope

Perhaps because of the tone and subject matter of the show, the material is being favourably compared to Sharon Horgan's hilariously dark 1990s sitcom Pulling, and, inevitably, to GIRLS. She wants to debunk any perception that this will be an Irish interpretation of Lena Dunham's cult American show, though.

"We're not the same as English or American people, we just aren't. I have not seen my friends naked, we do not hang around in the bath together like they do in GIRLS. I've seen them change modestly, averting my eyes politely, and that's about it.

"I wanted to see girls on TV that are actually like me. People might say, these girls make bad decisions and they're reckless, but that's OK! It doesn't help me at all to see characters on screen who are perfect. It's not realistic and it makes me judge myself really harshly. I make bad decisions, the characters do, and that's the discussion we're trying to open up."

Although Preissner is herself a young Corkwoman living in Dublin, she insists that the show is not autobiographical. "This is based on an impression I have of my friends and our lives, so it's more observational. It's about not being from Dublin, but living in Dublin, and feeling like you need an adult when things go wrong.

"All of the people who live here are my friends, my age, and we all have hangovers at the same time - where are all the adults when you need them?"

Her characters reflect the people she sees in the city. "Seana's character Aisling is really intelligent, but she lacks ambition. She works in finance and she's a millennial who has had everything handed to her, so she doesn't really appreciate it. And look, we can relate to that in a way.

Amy Huberman chats to Weekend on set
Amy Huberman chats to Weekend on set

"I feel like this generation were promised so much. We were told: 'Go on and get a degree, you can do whatever you want and employers will be queueing up to hire you.' Then one year in to my three-year degree in drama, the economy fell apart and everything was coming down around us. I was thinking: 'This isn't what I was told would happen guys! Who is accountable here?'"

The show's content is perhaps a little bit more irreverent than what we're used to seeing on the national broadcaster. The scenes I'm witnessing in Lillie's involve fake vomit and shots of Jagermeister. There's sex and there's impropriety, but this isn't a gross-out comedy; according to everyone involved, there's a lot of drama and heart too.

Indeed, Preissner says she has no ambitions of being controversial. "I make work for the audience that will like it, I don't make work to antagonise people. I'd rather speak to the people that are interested and focus on them, rather than worrying about who's going to complain because there's someone drinking a beer on screen."

One huge draw to the series is the casting of Amy Huberman, who is doing her last day of filming on the show today. Does she find it strange to be playing the boss of a load of young wans?

"Well yes, because I feel like I've never had a real job in real life!" she laughs. "This character has a very serious hedge-fundy corporate job, while I think this is the first time I've ever been in a suit! It's been a lot of fun, but I'm just coming in and out and that's different for me. When you're a supporting actor, you have to follow the lead of the world that the lead actors have set, which is really interesting."

Huberman has another show coming up on RTÉ this autumn, the far more serious Striking Out, but I can tell she's enjoyed this comic foray.

Of course, she's no stranger to the comedy world having starred in shows such as Your Bad Self and Threesome. And then there's her ever-entertaining Twitter account.

Does she ever feel under pressure to be funny? "Oh God, no! Do you know what, if I really thought about it, I wouldn't post anything ever online, I'd be too anxious. So I don't think about it at all, I don't let it in."

Huberman tells me that she has been working on a screenplay for the past two years. "I thought it would be easier than writing a book because it's less words, but no, it's a difficult thing to master. It's been a learning curve, and I'm in that groove at the moment.

"But when I read Stef's script I loved it. I think she's brilliant and inspiring, and I kind of want to know the secret to her work ethic."

There's buzz about the younger members of the cast, too. For former IFTA nominee Kerslake, Can't Cope, Won't Cope comes hot on the heels of A Date For Mad Mary. Her lead role in the Irish movie has critics absolutely buzzing. When we meet, however, she's entirely focused on her performance as Aisling in the TV comedy.

"I'm from Tallaght and still live there with my mam, dad and sisters," she says. "I think there's always parts of yourself in the characters you play, but Aisling was a tough character to tackle. She's not extremely likeable all the time, she's very self-centred and often avoids dealing with how she's feeling by drinking. But she's also very witty and was a lot of fun to play."

At 25, Kerslake saw a lot of truth in the script. "These were girls I had seen around the city and a way of speaking that was of my generation, so that was challenging but exciting. It was important for the team to find the right balance of actors for Aisling and Danielle, because they rely so heavily on each other yet spur each other on in their mayhem. They're definitely a match for one another."

Playing the other half of the duo is Nika McGuigan, daughter of the famous boxer Barry. I'm instructed not to bring her father in to our chat - an odd demand from an up-and-coming actress with a recognisable surname, but perhaps understandable.

She's softly spoken with a cut-glass British accent, which makes her Cork lilt on screen even more impressive. In fact, she tells me she's never worked in her own accent.

"I loved the script, and I thought it was something that hasn't been seen on television here before. These girls are not 19. I've done predominantly films so for me to do television, it was tempting."

While she won't disclose how old she actually is (apparently it's a big thing for actors, as it's their 'playing age' range that's important when getting jobs), she says Danielle is one of the more mature roles she's taken on.

"I'm always playing little scallywags! The tone was interesting to me, because I'm used to doing straight drama. It was slightly daunting, but I can't wait."

I ask if she's prepared for the fame that comes with being on a show on RTÉ. "I live in London!" she replies. When I tell her that location doesn't mean much in this day and age thanks to Twitter and social media, she looks slightly alarmed for a moment.

Stefanie Preissner is also somewhat charmingly out of touch with internet trends. She wasn't aware, for example, that Amy Huberman is widely regarded as the nation's sweetheart ("Aah, she's just gas!" she says when I tell her of Amy's fame), and she hasn't watched Sharon Horgan's latest series Catastrophe - the Channel 4 show widely hailed as the funniest British comedy series of recent years. Preissner says she's too busy to watch a lot of television.

She doesn't drink anymore, and doesn't eat sugar - in fact, she's lost several stone this past year. She is fond of early nights, going to the gym, and she loves meeting her mates for a cup of tea - a lifestyle perhaps more typical of the 'millennial' generation than a mad night out in Lillie's.

"I think that happiness equals expectations minus reality," she says. "Our parents' generation, their expectations were very low after the 1980s, so everything that came after felt nice and affluent. Ours were so high - well, mine were anyway."

However, Preissner must admit that she herself is not doing too badly, with a prime time comedy on the national broadcaster.

"Of course, things are going well now. But there were years where I thought I don't know what to do or how to do it. I don't want to get a 9-5 job, get a house, get married and have kids, I'd go crazy. It's not a myth that we're entitled, we don't know how else to be."

And in fairness to her, Preissner has always aimed high. When we talk about childhood ambitions, she tells me that she either wanted to be Mary Robinson, or the first female Garda Commissioner. A quirky cameo in Can't Cope, Won't Cope went some way to fulfilling her policing ambitions, although she won't give too much away.

I leave the set enlightened and energised, buoyed by the fresh, female talent I've spent the day with. I see big things in all of these ladies' futures, not least Preissner, and something tells me that all of the women I've met today can cope, and will cope, with just about anything.

'Can't Cope, Won't Cope' begins on RTÉ2 on Monday, September 19, at 10pm

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