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“The fear of doing comedy as a woman is huge” – Derry Girl Louisa Harland on the hit show and her new vampire film

Thoughtful and reserved, Louisa Harland is the antithesis of the kooky Orla Mc Cool whom she plays in hit show Derry Girls. The Dublin actor talks about how her character has unintentionally raised awareness for autism and the challenges of being funny for a living

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Louisa Harland. Photography and styling by Lee Malone

Louisa Harland. Photography and styling by Lee Malone

The cast of Derry Girls, from left: Dylan Llewellyn, Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Jamie-Lee O'Donnell, Nicola Coughlan and Louisa Harland

The cast of Derry Girls, from left: Dylan Llewellyn, Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Jamie-Lee O'Donnell, Nicola Coughlan and Louisa Harland

Louisa Harland. Photography and styling by Lee Malone

Louisa Harland. Photography and styling by Lee Malone

Louisa Harland. Photography and styling by Lee Malone

Louisa Harland. Photography and styling by Lee Malone

Louisa Harland. Photography and styling by Lee Malone

Louisa Harland. Photography and styling by Lee Malone

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Louisa Harland. Photography and styling by Lee Malone

Dubliner Louisa Harland, 28, who plays kooky Orla McCool in Channel 4 comedy series Derry Girls, reckons she is the least like her character of all the actors in the hit TV show. With her whimsical voice, unselfconsciousness and obsessions with step aerobics, sweets and Renault Clios, Orla is very much an individual within the group of hilariously hapless friends at fictional Our Lady Immaculate Girls’ School.

I’ve had a lot of letters from people awith autism saying that it’s great to be represented on screen like that,” says Harland on a Zoom call from her home in Tower Hamlets, East London. “It’s interesting that they relate to it in that way.”

Derry Girls is set during the Troubles in the 1990s, before the Good Friday Agreement and ASD diagnoses. Orla is represented simply as an odd and baffling classmate who takes people literally, fixates on unexpected things and is, mercifully, oblivious to mockery. “Autism wasn’t a spoken-about thing in the 1990s. It wasn’t as amazingly open and well-researched as it is now,” says Harland, who was chosen for the role because she realised that Orla “doesn’t think she’s odd” and so auditioned her lines with “absolute conviction”. “She kind of reminded me of Tigger in Winnie the Pooh. That kind of energy that Tigger brings to Winnie the Pooh? That’s what I thought Orla’s role was.”

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The cast of Derry Girls, from left: Dylan Llewellyn, Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Jamie-Lee O'Donnell, Nicola Coughlan and Louisa Harland

The cast of Derry Girls, from left: Dylan Llewellyn, Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Jamie-Lee O'Donnell, Nicola Coughlan and Louisa Harland

The cast of Derry Girls, from left: Dylan Llewellyn, Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Jamie-Lee O'Donnell, Nicola Coughlan and Louisa Harland

Orla’s blindness to social cues is hilarious, like when she expressed a wish to join the Orange Order because of their “cracker” drumming (“I don’t think they accept Catholics, Orla, or, you know, acknowledge our right to exist,” snorted her cousin Erin Quinn, played by Saoirse-Monica Jackson).

The strong response from autistic viewers to her characterisation was not something Harland had anticipated. “I have thought about it a lot since that reaction and maybe in the second series I went in differently, thinking, why is Orla seen as odd to other people but not to herself?”

She says ASD are a step in the right direction. “It’s great that we can now understand all these things, or why we feel the way we do, so I think they are helpful.”

I mention that a ‘best of’ Orla compilation has well over a million views on YouTube, more than anyone else in the gang: Clare, Erin, Michelle or James. “I’m so afraid of the internet, that’s not even something that I was aware of,” says Harland. “It is so terrifying being a woman and doing comedy because there’s this belief that women are not as funny. I think the fear of doing comedy as a woman is huge. So definitely if people find what you do funny, that is very gratifying.”

Covid-19 called a halt to filming the sitcom, created and written by Northern Irish writer Lisa McGee. “We were sad that we didn’t have Season Three for lockdown because Derry Girls would be the absolute perfect tonic for this pandemic. But we’re filming soon. We are definitely doing a third season.”

The cast is close in real life and Harland lived for over a year with Jackson in London. Their co-star Nicola Coughlan’s star turn as Penelope Featherington in Netflix period drama Bridgerton has taken her career to another level. The Galway actress has even struck up a Twitter friendship with Kim Kardashian after letting the American superstar know that she and her sisters were a “massive inspiration” for the Featheringtons. Kardashian, a big fan of the show, responded that she was “freaking out” with excitement, and asked if she could stop by the set during filming. “Omg yessss of course we would love to have you!” replied Coughlan. Harland, who describes herself as “private” and says social media gives her “anxiety”, was quietly amazed, yet unsurprised, by this chain of events.

“It’s just so crazy. I said this to her as well: ‘It’s so bizarre, but also it feels very correct.’ As in, it’s weird that it didn’t feel weird when I saw her on Graham Norton. I was nervous for her. But then I was like, watching, [thinking], ‘It’s weird that this isn’t weird’. I said to her: ‘For me, seeing your Twitter, it’s almost not even that weird for you to be having a conversation with Kim Kardashian. It feels very correct.’ I’m so happy for Nicola and all her success. She’s a really brilliant actor and a star.”

Since her own teenage debut as actor Aiden Gillen’s daughter Kayleigh on RTÉ drama series Love/Hate in 2011, Harland has enjoyed plenty of success too. Next up, she stars in vampire comedy The Boys From County Hell which gets its UK and Irish release on June 18. “We were going to go to the Tribeca Film Festival so we were all so excited. Then obviously the pandemic hit so it couldn’t premiere, unfortunately, in New York.”

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The film is about a crew of sweary Irish road workers who must survive the night after they accidentally awaken an ancient Irish vampire. Harland’s character Claire McCann is “one of the gang”. The film riffs on the work of Irish writer Bram Stoker. “When vampires hit, obviously, the best thing to do is to take out the novel Dracula and go through it and it will tell us what to do. Unfortunately, it is a book of fiction… That’s where the comedy kind of comes into it.”

Filming it outside Belfast was “such good craic. We really all got on so well. And we were filming these crazy night shoots and we were recovered in blood. And we spent a lot of time together drinking pints, still covered in blood in the hotel bar”.

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Louisa Harland. Photography and styling by Lee Malone

Louisa Harland. Photography and styling by Lee Malone

Louisa Harland. Photography and styling by Lee Malone

For all her reserve, Harland is very sociable, and says she likes to fill her time with people. Lockdown isolation was hard but she muses that actors were more prepared than most for the pandemic, being accustomed to uncertainty about the future.

As for the past, she had a happy childhood as the youngest of three girls in Dundrum, south Dublin, attending the Ann Kavanagh drama school in nearby Rathfarnham. “That woman really did change my life,” she says.

Harland “didn’t know whether to go back to Dublin or not in the pandemic” but opted to stay put and distract herself with Scrabble and books. “London gives me a drive because it’s kind of an uncomfortable place to live and reminds me that I’m here for a reason,” she says, describing the city as “like a giant airport”.

It wasn’t her first time hunkering down and enduring a tough time. Harland was “very homesick” when she first moved over to study Drama at the Mountview Academy, whose famous alumni include Amanda Holden and Sally Dynevor. “I was so excited to follow the dream. And then when I got there, it was very, very hard. I think it was just my overwhelming sense of homesickness and London being so different. Me being from Dublin city, I thought I could handle it but I didn’t handle it all too well, actually. I found it hard but I’m glad I did it. I would never go back and relive it.”

Like any other actor, her career has had its ecstasies and agonies since graduating.

She got a part in Woody Harrelson’s unusual movie Lost in London, which was rehearsed like a “well-oiled machine” and then filmed in one take and live streamed to American cinemas. She holds her own in a night club scene with Owen Wilson and Harrelson, who has become a friend.

“He decided to do Star Wars afterwards so he was filming that in London, which meant he was here for a lot longer. So we all remained very close,” says Harland, who has met up with the Oscar-nominated actor in Dublin too. “I think he was going to see a U2 gig and we had pints in Bison…”

But her “dream come true” role was in Caryl Churchill’s quartet of short plays, Glass. Kill. Bluebird. Imp. in the Royal Court in 2019, opposite veteran actors Toby Jones and Deborah Findlay. “I think that’s almost my favourite job that I’ve ever had. It was just such an honour to be in such a great theatre like the Royal Court with such an amazing cast. And that confirms to me how much I want to do theatre as much as I can. And then obviously, the pandemic hit and really hit theatres very badly. So it was all quite disappointing and scary. But our industry is incredibly resilient. And there’s such a need for it.”

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Louisa Harland. Photography and styling by Lee Malone

Louisa Harland. Photography and styling by Lee Malone

Louisa Harland. Photography and styling by Lee Malone

Harland is resilient too. Shortly after the first series of Derry Girls wrapped, she took a bar job where, coincidentally, her Channel 4 colleagues had their Christmas party. It was incredibly awkward. They were mortified when she cleared away their Prosecco glasses and she had a humiliated cry in the bathrooms. But she can laugh about it now. “I wouldn’t work in a pub in Derry,” she quips. “It’s just one of those things that happened that’s so real. For the life of an actor that is so normal. We had just done Derry Girls and obviously I went straight back to work because that’s what we do as actors. We have to fill our time doing something.

“That’s a very normal thing, working in a pub. It just obviously wasn’t normal with the fact that Derry Girls had come on the television, Channel 4 had a party and I was serving everybody.”

She describes acting as “the most oversubscribed business in the world” and sounds a note of caution to any would-be thespians: “I always say what was told to me in drama school: If you can do anything else, do it.”

All the same, Harland is ambitious. “I think anyone would be lying if they said they got into this profession and their goal isn’t to reach the highest point.”

An Oscar? “Yeah, an Oscar or being at the top. But you’re never going to be at the top forever. It’s ever-changing.”

Speaking of Oscars, the Derry Girls cast teamed up with four-time nominee Saoirse Ronan in a Zoom skit for Comic Relief last year. “I’m such a big fan of Saoirse Ronan. She’s an incredible actor, such a nice person and just a great representation for Ireland in our industry. It was great to hear that she was a fan of Derry Girls and would do Comic Relief with us. It was an honour for us to get her on board and she was so funny.” She is equally gushing about Amy Huberman; Harland played a character called Tara on Finding Joy.

Like Huberman and the Derry Girls cast, Harland is on Instagram, but hers has a distinctive flair. She uses a Pentax K1000 film camera which lends the page an arty nostalgia. “I take a lot of photos, but I hate photos of myself. I love to bother, hate to be bothered, in the camera department.”

This interest in photography has become a way for her to engage with fans and friends without revealing anything personal. “I have so much fear in that world. I think I have anxiety when I click onto social media. Obviously, it’s a great way to communicate and to see what your friends are up to; I have so many talented friends and in any way that I can I would like to support my friends and other people. But just in terms of putting a lot of myself out there? I’m quite private… I don’t really want to show a lot of myself.”

And yet Harland has chosen a profession that is, more than most, exposing. “I love the buzz and I love watching films and watching theatre,” she explains.

And she is prepared to suffer for her art. “With the profession that I have chosen, I have no idea where it’s going to take me. But I’ve surrendered my life to this profession and I made that decision, I think, from a very early age. We don’t even know what tomorrow brings.”

 


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