Saturday 16 February 2019

People expect me to be wild. They keep buying me shots! Derry Girls' Jamie-Lee O'Donnell on overnight fame

The breakout star of hit show Derry Girls, Jamie-Lee O'Donnell can't leave her house without fans approaching her. The actor tells Katie Byrne how overwhelming overnight fame can be and why not going to drama school just might give her the edge in this business

Overnight fame: Derry Girls actor Jamie Lee O'Donnell.
Overnight fame: Derry Girls actor Jamie Lee O'Donnell.
Top of the class: Jamie Lee O'Donnel. Photo: Kyle Tunney
Back to school: Jamie-Lee O'Donnell with her fellow class-mates in Derry Girls

Back-to-school season is upon us as students up and down the country dig out their uniforms and squeeze out what they can from the last days of their summer holidays.

Jamie-Lee O'Donnell knows how they're feeling. The actress left secondary school almost a decade ago but she'll be back in class herself in October to film the second season of critically acclaimed sitcom, Derry Girls.

For the uninitiated, Derry Girls was one of the standout TV shows of the year, while O'Donnell, who plays foul-mouthed firebrand Michelle, was the breakout star.

Set in pre-ceasefire Derry in the early '90s, the show follows four Derry schoolgirls and one bewildered English schoolboy as they navigate their teen years during The Troubles.

Top of the class: Jamie Lee O'Donnel. Photo: Kyle Tunney
Top of the class: Jamie Lee O'Donnel. Photo: Kyle Tunney

There are checkpoints, bomb scares and British soldiers but it's secondary to the coming-of-age comedy of hoop earrings, scrunchies and chip shops. Unlike earlier cultural portrayals of the North, Derry Girls isn't defined by the conflict.

O'Donnell, a Derry native, says she's proud to be part of a production that shows her city in a new light when we sit down to chat about her latest role in Girls and Dolls, a two-person play penned by Derry Girls writer, Lisa McGee.

"For people looking in, it might have seemed like The Troubles was the focal point of Derry life but, from stories I've heard, it wasn't," she explains.

"Day-to-day life was so normal for them. And I think it's nice for people to see a positive way of life in Derry, and to have that projected across the water."

Derry Girls quickly became the most-watched TV series in the North, and O'Donnell is of course delighted with the sitcom's success. But overnight fame has its challenges, she adds, especially for the cast members that live in the city.

"It's mad," she says, as she relaxes further into her chair after a long day of rehearsals. "I sort of can't leave the house a wee bit. It's constant - it really is. I understand where people are coming from but it's getting to the point where my family and people I go out for drinks with are saying, 'This needs to stop at some point'. You can't finish a conversation sometimes."

Back to school: Jamie-Lee O'Donnell with her fellow class-mates in Derry Girls
Back to school: Jamie-Lee O'Donnell with her fellow class-mates in Derry Girls

She's not lying. By chance, we were both in the Phoenix, a no-nonsense bar in Derry's Rosemount area, just a few days before our interview. O'Donnell was having a quiet drink with friends and family - well, before a group of excitable tweens realised that 'Michelle from DERRY GIRLS!' was in their presence.

She smiles when I remind her about it. "I suppose everyone wants to be a wee bit of Michelle," she surmises. "That seems to be the thing in Derry, especially when people come up to me and say, 'I was definitely the Michelle of my group' or 'My sister was the Michelle'. I understand - she's a great character and I understand why people want to claim a bit of her.

"And it's understandable that people want pictures because they really love the show. But it is a lot. And it's slightly overwhelming a wee bit.

"They expect me to be wild," she continues, "and a lot of them end up buying me shots and want to video me drinking them. And I'm thinking, 'It's not that sort of night'.

"I think people are shocked that I'm a lot quieter than they thought. They think I'm going to be this really boisterous and wild person but I'm not really."

So, are there any similarities between her and Michelle? "Her complete disregard for other people definitely isn't like me," she says. "But I've always been sort of sarcastic. In my family that would be the tone of how we carry on and chat to each other. And maybe I brought it into Michelle without realising it."

O'Donnell always wanted to be an actress - and coming from a large, closely-knit family meant she always had an audience. "I think the big family thing is that the loudest gets heard and everyone wants to be the loudest," she says. "I know my family can literally end up shouting. It's not aggressive - it's just volume.

"And everyone has something funny to add to it," she continues. "You can just go around adding something to someone's sentence making it funnier, and funnier and funnier. And I think that's part of the Derry humour where everyone can have their two pence."

This aspect of Derry life came across loud and clear in Derry Girls. Instead of a sensationalised or romanticised depiction of the conflict, McGee flipped the script by showing Derry people as the born raconteurs and black humorists that they are.

It's the side of the city that O'Donnell misses most when work takes her further afield. However, she has made peace with the fact that the best opportunities are often abroad, even if her family and her boyfriend, techno DJ Paul McCay, are at home.

Before Derry Girls, O'Donnell lived in England, on and off, for six years. She worked in theatre mostly but also moonlighted as a dancer - everything from promotion work in nightclubs to pantomime - and starred in BBC NI teen drama 6 Degrees.

It was during this time that she delivered one of her proudest performances in theatre production I Told My Mum I Was Going on an RE Trip. Writer Julia Samuels collected real-life abortion testimonies and O'Donnell was one of four actresses tasked with bringing these stories to the stage.

"There was no message in it, per se," she says. "There were stories from people who had abortions, people who were against abortion, doctors who conscientiously objected and men too. Even though a lot of people working on it were very much pro-choice, that wasn't the point of the show."

The popular play was picked up by BBC2 for a one-hour TV special around the same time that O'Donnell was chosen for the role of Michelle in Derry Girls.

It was a long, drawn-out audition process, she recalls. So long, in fact, that she had all but given up on the role when she was eventually called back months after her initial meeting. A 'chemistry read' followed. The casting director wanted to see how the actors that they were considering worked together in various permutations. "The process obviously worked," adds O'Donnell, "as we all get on really well."

As Derry natives, O'Donnell and fellow cast member Saoirse-Monica Jackson (Erin) were familiar with the local lingo of 'lurred', 'bars' and 'catch yourself on'. Dubliner Louisa Harland (Orla) and Galwegian Nicola Coughlan (Clare) had to do their homework.

Coughlan previously admitted to using whatever video content she could find of Derry-born singer Nadine Coyle to help her get to grips with the accent, but her cast-mates were on hand too.

"Their accents were pretty spot-on to begin with," says O'Donnell, "but there were certain words that they would have been stuck on that they would have recorded us saying from the script. With any strong regional accent I think it's always the vowels that are the issue. For instance, we would say it as 'voy-els'."

What about Jennifer Barry, her Cork-born cast-mate - most recently seen in The Young Offenders - in Girls and Dolls? The play is set in Derry so is O'Donnell helping her with her voy-els? "Jennifer's mum is from Belfast," she says, "so she has a pretty good grasp of it."

From accents to affectations, it's clear that O'Donnell spends a lot of time thinking about the nuances of her craft. She likes understated, "pulled-in" performances and learns from observation - "watching people's reactions to other people and being socially-aware".

"I didn't go to drama school," she adds. "It wasn't in the pay grade of my family at all. I looked into some of the schools and the top ones were just so expensive. And it's a shame because I sometimes feel that you have to work twice as hard if you come from a working class background.

"This industry can be slightly elitist to a point," she adds. "It's like your talent isn't necessarily recognised or isn't the main focal point which it should be."

It's a fair point, but what about the directors that intentionally steer clear of actors who are that little bit too polished?

She nods her head in agreement. "I didn't know that that was a potential issue, actually, until I went and met a few casting directors recently. I remember being a bit nervous and thinking I need to make up some sort of lie about why I didn't go to drama school. Maybe something like, 'I was in France holidaying' or 'I was away skiing'," she quips.

"And then I was like, 'Do you know what? I didn't go to drama school. My family couldn't afford it'. And they were like, 'That's quite refreshing, actually.' So you learn as you go on that that's maybe not such a bad thing. It's me bringing something different, maybe."

These recent meet-and-greets would suggest that the actress is seizing the momentum of her Derry Girls success. Her dream job, she says, would be an acting role that had a dance element to it or an edgy drama in the same vein as Breaking Bad.

Would she consider moving to Los Angeles for pilot season? "If I thought I had a good enough chance, why not?" she answers at once. "Although I was told by someone who did pilot season over there that it doesn't matter what you look like: every single person has to lose weight and fix their teeth. It's a little intimidating…"

O'Donnell says she doesn't have a huge amount in common with Michelle but an outsider might think differently. She's frank and forthright - and there's a streak of defiance there too. Ryan Tubridy recently made the mistake of asking about her age (26) on his RTÉ Radio 1 show. "No one ever asks Dylan his age," she pointed out, in reference to male cast member, Dylan Llewellyn (James).

From women's rights to mental health issues, she has a lot to say, which begs the question: is she writing it down?

"I do, aye," she says almost sheepishly. "There's nothing that I want to talk about just yet because I don't know if it's any good but I'm writing a few bits and pieces - a bit of comedy, a bit of stand-up. Just to see how that goes. I don't know how it's going to translate because you sort of laugh to yourself and think, 'God, I'm brilliant', but then you say it out loud and you think, 'God, that's terrible'."

For now, though, she's focussed on Girls and Dolls and Derry Girls. The former, a theatrical debut for McGee, is set in Derry in 1980 and follows best friends Emma and Clare as they recall a summer that altered the course of their lives. It's a compelling script - darker in parts than fans of McGee's work might expect - and it will require both actresses to dig deep as they negotiate playing nine characters each.

Derry Girls has its own challenges, chiefly the need to keep a straight face while shooting.

O'Donnell likens being on set to being back at school."We turned into children and it was really sad. We were just really bratty and we got really self-absorbed. Then people started treating us like that as well - telling us to calm down and be quiet.

"Nobody would normally tell you to do that in a work environment but we were always giggling in the corner like schoolgirls. And you start physically acting younger too: sliding down walls and not caring in that teenage I-can't-even-be-bothered-to-stand-up-straight sort of way."

"It was a weird set where we literally became a group of school kids and we didn't mean to. It just sort of happened. You're doing it on screen for 12 hours a day - and it's hard to shake that off again."

The Derry Girls crew will have their work cut out for them as they try to manage these four overgrown schoolgirls during the filming of the second season. Fans, meanwhile, are just counting down the days until their favourite characters are back on screens.

Jamie Lee O'Donnell stars alongside Jennifer Barry in 'Girls and Dolls' by Lisa McGee which plays for a limited run from September 11-15 at The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin. gaietytheatre.ie

Read more: Meet Derry Girls breakout star Jamie-Lee O'Donnell who plays everyone's favourite character, Michelle

  'When I read the scripts, I laughed out loud on every page' - Derry Girls actress on female-led phenomenon

Making Ireland funny again - meet the minds behind hits Derry Girls, The Young Offenders, Can't Cope Won't Cope

'He told me if I really want to impress him, I should perform naked' - Derry Girls star claims she was targeted by sexual predator 

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