Thursday 22 March 2018

The sweet smell of success - the stars of Red Rock on the perils of acting

TV3's 'Red Rock' first aired in January 2015 and, after a fairly low-key start, began gathering pace to what is now a bona fide hit, sold to BBC One and Amazon Prime. As season three hits our screens, at a later time and in an hour-long slot, Emily Hourican speaks to three of the show's young actors about unexpected success, being bitten early by the bug, and the many perils of an actor's life.

Jane wears: dress, Isabel Marant Etoile, Brown Thomas. Boots, River Island. Jewellery, Jane's own. India wears: dress, Tara Jarmon, Arnotts. Shoes, Penneys. Pandora wears jumpsuit, Penneys. Shoes, Pandora's own. Photo: Kip Carroll
Jane wears: dress, Isabel Marant Etoile, Brown Thomas. Boots, River Island. Jewellery, Jane's own. India wears: dress, Tara Jarmon, Arnotts. Shoes, Penneys. Pandora wears jumpsuit, Penneys. Shoes, Pandora's own. Photo: Kip Carroll
India Mullen wears: Dress, Tara Jarmon, Arnotts. Photo: Kip Carroll
Pandora McCormick wears: Jumpsuit, Penneys. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Jane McGrath wears: Dress, River Island. Jewellery, Jane's own. Photo: Kip Carroll

Given the very low hit-rate of new TV dramas, the success story that is TV3's Red Rock feels like a boon, not just for Irish drama, but for the industry in general, and those who work in it.

Since launching in January 2015, Red Rock has grown from an initially low-key reaction, to become TV3's most popular show. It was sold to Amazon Prime in the US, where 81pc of viewers gave it five stars, and in July, it debuted on BBC One to an audience of over a million viewers, and a heap of positive reviews.

Set in a fictional seaside town on the outskirts of Dublin, the action revolves around the antics of two feuding local families, the Kielys and the Hennessys, and the local garda station, through which, in true soap style, all of human life passes, from the mundane to the traumatic.

The action is fast-paced and the dialogue smart, but the real draw is the scope that is displayed by the characters to be multi-faceted, conflicted, real.

This is a soap opera with serious drama ambitions, and even a touch of Scandi-noir sensibility, courtesy of the overcast skies and intensity of the plotlines. Comparisons with Love/Hate are inevitable, but actually, Red Rock doesn't need them.

Season three has moved to a later time slot - post-watershed, meaning lots of frenzied speculation before the first show aired last week as to whether this will mean a raunchier, sexier show - and, instead of two half-hour episodes a week, there is one prime-time, hour-long slot. Whatever about the potential for more sex and violence, an hour-long format allows time and space for what is far more interesting - the psychological development of key characters. In the end, this is what will win, and keep viewers, and not any amount of gore or raunch. It is the changing motivations, intricate interactions and shaded personal responses playing out on-screen that compel us, far more than the flashing lights or neat pieces of police procedure.

And so, as Red Rock is back on our screens, we talk to three young actors, each of whom plays a key part, about life, the show and the growth of their characters.

Pandora McCormick

SL_Pandora PaInJa.jpg
Pandora McCormick wears: Jumpsuit, Penneys. Photo: Kip Carroll.

"I was about to give up when I got this." Pandora McCormick, aka Red Rock solicitor Claire Hennessy, is talking about the many, notorious difficulties of making a career as an actor. "I was about to turn 30, and I thought, 'I can't turn 30 and not have something to show for it. I want to have work and create, and I'm not doing that. I want to have a family and support them, and it's not happening, so what can I do?'" She was considering going back to college, and training in a different area, "and then I got Red Rock. That was amazing!"

Even more wonderful has been the success of the show. "At the start, we all sat here thinking, 'Are we going to have a job next month?' Because that is the reality with so many shows, and now we're all pinching ourselves, thinking how great it is. It's been a dream."

Pandora, who trained at the Oxford School of Drama, decided "at a very young age" that she wanted to act. "I was an only child until the age of about 13, and I would very much entertain myself in an imaginary world, so I was very used to playing and creating fiction." Even so, she took an indirect route, initially anyway.

"I tried a lot of different things - art, photography, interning at The Dubliner magazine - because I was kind of scared of acting, and people advised me to get lots of experiences, but I kept coming back to it, so I knew I needed to give it a go. I quickly realised that it was harder than I thought it would be. And when I got out of drama school, I realised it's a lot harder than I thought!"

She grew up in Kenya - "mum and I moved out when I was four. I loved it; it was amazing. We lived on the coast first, and my mum home-schooled me; then we moved to Nairobi so I could go to school there.

"As a child, I thought that Kenya was Eden, paradise, because my mum protected me. It's only as I grew up that I realised there's an imbalance, and corruption. But it will always be a huge part of me."

Pandora moved back to Ireland when she was 12. "It was so horrible," she laughs. "It was a culture shock. I was very cold, and I went to boarding school - St Columba's College - which was very weird for me, because I just wanted to climb trees and play in the dirt, and they wouldn't let me. And I remember turning to my mother and asking, 'Why is everyone so white?' But I love Dublin; it's now my home."

In July, Pandora married her boyfriend Killian Burke, also an actor, and Irish, and the couple now divide their time between London and Dublin. "We did long-distance for a while, but it got quite hard. We're basically between London and Dublin now, but together."

The couple married at Pandora's father's estate, Mulgrave Castle. Her dad, Constantine Phipps, is the fifth Marquess of Normanby, and Pandora is no fan of the effect his title can have on some people. "At the end of the day, he's my dad, and I love him. And work is work," she says. "I've always grown up with the idea that you work hard, and that's what you do. I've always wanted to be judged on merit, and not on who somebody in my life is. I love my job, and I hope I do it well, and I'm lucky to have it."

And indeed, she has clearly put in the hours and the behind-the-scenes commitment to the career she has chosen, working "two or three" jobs as a young actor, "to pay the bills. I did corporate and medical role-play, and hostessing, which I hated. These companies want girls in short dresses, and the customers treat you that way. You're not there for a huge amount of pay, you've been in heels for 10 or 12 hours, and someone starts talking to you a certain way . . ."

Acting, she says, "is not like another job where, if you put the work in, you will progress and you can plan your life. As an actor, it's frustrating, because no matter how hard you work, no matter how talented you are, sometimes it just doesn't happen." So why stick with it? "I think because you love it, because you think you're good at it. It's the thing I'm good at."

Anyone familiar with Red Rock will agree. As Claire Hennessy, Pandora has been through the trauma of her husband's murder, trying to piece together her life as a single mother, and deal with her high-voltage family. "I feel like Claire is a time-bomb in a way, she's been under so much pressure. I feel she's in a transition period. She'll fall or she'll triumph."

Either way, we'll be there to watch.

India Mullen

India Mullen wears: Dress, Tara Jarmon, Arnotts. Photo: Kip Carroll

India Mullen landed the part of Katie Kiely pretty much straight out of drama school. "I did the two-year course at the Gaiety School of Acting. I graduated in late June 2014, did a couple of plays over the summer, got Red Rock in August, and started filming in October. I was ridiculously lucky, and I'm so aware of that," she says.

As such, was it intimidating, joining a set with more experienced actors? "Definitely. I think the first time we did our read-through, it felt like the first day of school when you're shy of everyone," she says. "I definitely was nervous starting, but everyone was so encouraging and welcoming. And, because we were all starting a new project together, it wasn't like going onto a set where everyone is already so close."

Since then, India has very much made the part of Katie her own. "Katie puts up a hard exterior and plays tough, but she's very sensitive and cares a lot about her family. The Kielys are always in trouble, although I think they usually mean well, and what drives Katie's hard exterior is that worry and pressure.

"She finds it difficult to let herself be vulnerable. She didn't have a mother from a young age, and always tried to be the strong one. She tries to be older and more able than she is." So can she give us a hint as to what will happen next? "Life gets tougher on her, and on all of them," is all India will say. "But there are fun bits in there as well."

Interestingly, the effect on India of Red Rock has been to make her "more shy in my personal life. I was a pretty chatty, outgoing kid. I loved dancing - not like a showbiz kid," she hastens to add, "but since I've began working as an actor, I've become more quiet, because there's so much exposure within our job. It's so intensely social that when I'm out of work, I associate downtime with not having to be in front of people, or looked at. It's not a negative thing; it's like I've had my outlet for sociability at work, and I just want to sit back when I'm finished."

And despite the full-on media interest in Red Rock and its stars, she isn't silly enough to let that go to her head. "I feel lucky that I'm in Ireland, that there isn't as much of a celebrity culture here. It's such a small country that when people say, 'How do I know you?' I'd never say, 'Oh, you've seen me on TV,' because it's just as likely I know them personally," she laughs.

India went to school in Holy Child Killiney, and began acting lessons at the National Performing Arts School aged six. "But I was more interested in dance at the time. I left after a few years, and once I was away from acting, I felt an enormous draw towards it. My mum loves theatre and used to bring us to really good stuff; it wasn't the panto at Christmas, it was experimental theatre in the Project. I just felt - 'I want to do what they're doing!'"

India's parents - her mother is a nurse, her father an architect - were under no illusions about her choice of career.

"They warned me it was going to be tough. I did know, going into this, but I've always been pretty strong-minded. I don't think they would have been able to turn me once I had it in my head. I've heard acting described as a vocation, and I think it must be. There is just this unbelievable pull, you can't get away from it."

Jane McGrath

Jane McGrath wears: Dress, River Island. Jewellery, Jane's own. Photo: Kip Carroll

Jane McGrath plays Garda Sharon Cleere, who she describes as "believing in truth and justice and doing the right thing. She's ruthless, ambitious and works extremely hard".

Jane herself seems more gentle than ruthless, but she shares a strong work ethic with her character. She grew up in Foxrock, Dublin, and, since graduating from the Gaiety School of Acting in 2009, she has appeared regularly on stage and screen: The Clinic; Pure Mule: The Last Weekend; Amber; Silent Witness; Quirke; the feature film Black Ice, for which she was nominated for a Best Actress Ifta; a host of short films; and Game of Thrones.

Of the remarkable success of Red Rock, she had, she says with a laugh, "not a clue. I think that's why we love our job so much as actors. You're diving into things, not knowing what'll happen, but I think that's what makes it exciting".

As for Game of Thrones, and the experience of working on one of the most obsessed-about shows ever, she says, "My storyline was beyond the Wall [a colossal solid ice fortification]" - she played Sissy, one of Craster's daughters - "and was extraordinary, so beautifully lit, all the snow. But the experience of it almost felt a little bit too real for me. The smell of the pig on the spit. The smell of raw meat, the muck on the ground. It was beautiful, but," she says frankly, "I did feel vulnerable. Especially for some of the women who had to take off their clothes."

With admirable clarity of mind, she says, "It's torture porn, really. When I watch [shows like] that, I feel for that person. I wonder, 'Do they feel comfortable?' You shouldn't have to think about that when you're watching something. When it comes to harrowing topics, like rape, if you were just to suggest it - the audience can do the rest. I think we need to trust our audience. I'm a very sensitive person, and I believe your imagination is more powerful than anything you can be shown."

Did she always know she wanted to act? "I think so. I remember crying to my mother when I was 15, 'I don't want to be in school; I don't need to be here. I know exactly what I want to do.' I started drama when I was 10 or 11, and I knew instantly that this was what I wanted to do. I also felt it was the only thing I could do. I have really bad dyslexia, so I felt very alone."

Jane's dyslexia was diagnosed late, when she was 15, which can have considerable repercussions on self-esteem.

"By then, you've put it in your head - 'I'm a failure, I'm stupid'. You call yourself awful things. I couldn't see past the question, 'What's going to happen for me? Where am I going to go?' I'd see all my friends aiming for 600 points in their Leaving Cert, and wonder. But then again", she acknowledges, "they couldn't do things that I could do."

Jane is now an ambassador for the Dyslexia Association, where she both helps others and is helped. "My dyslexia is quite severe," she says. "I worry quite a bit. The Dyslexia Association are great at teaching you little tools and skills that work for you, to nip things in the bud, guide you through life." Because, as she points out, "it's not just academia - it's everything. Filling in forms, bills, road signs. I remember driving to Templemore to do my garda research. Except I drove to Tullamore."

She laughs, although I imagine it wasn't that funny at the time. "I left early, because I knew I might get lost. So I arrived just in time. I wasn't hard on myself. I knew, with dyslexia, you have to be so kind to yourself, because we aren't, in general."

When it comes to reading scripts, she has worked out a system to mange that. "I use a lot of colour, I space everything out, I have my folders, my tags, to ease me through it. And I find it much easier to take things in on paper, because I can read as slowly as I want. People offer me audio books, but I prefer to actually read. The readers read too fast for me, and it just goes in one ear and out the other." She has, she says, "a habit of looking at people's lips, because I'm trying to understand what they are saying, and it looks as if I'm trying to kiss them!"

As for what happens next to Sharon Cleere, she will only say, "In the new episodes, her job has changed a bit. You might see her less in the uniform, paired with different people, and the relationship with her partner, Paudge, has changed a lot".

In terms of Jane's own career, and a distinct tendency, so far, towards intense, dramatic roles, she says simply, "I love challenging myself. I'd love to try more comedy."

The new series of 'Red Rock' is on TV3 on Mondays at 9.30pm

Photography by Kip Carroll

Styling by Liadan Hynes

Assisted by Emily Callan

Hair by Paul Davey, assisted by Rob Hynes, DaveyDavey, 23 Drury St, D2, tel: (01) 611-1200, or see

Make-up by Rachel Acton, Brown Sugar, 50 South William St, D2, tel: (01) 616-9967, or see

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