'You learn so much about life from being around death' - Vikings star
New Vikings actress Karen Connell tells Yvonne Hogan that surviving childhood cancer has given her the drive to pursue her dreams
'I am very resilient. That is definitely one word that can be used on my gravestone. I will not take no for an answer." Speaking at her home in central London, Killybegs native Karen Connell (32) is recounting her long quest to get cast in the hit US TV show Vikings.
She began auditioning seven years ago, having come to the attention of the Dun Laoghaire-based casting director Frank Moiselle through a friend of his, who had met Karen at an actors' workshop. Moiselle called Karen and asked her to come to his home, where she met with him and his now late mother, the famed casting director Nuala Moiselle, who was responsible for casting such films as My Left Foot, The Field and In the Name of the Father.
"I think Vikings was in season two at the time. They said they weren't casting for anything at that particular time but that they thought I had potential. Nuala gave me this massive pep talk about getting as much acting and modelling experience as I could, to get used to my body and how the camera saw me, and that then I would get to where I wanted to be."
Karen took them at their word. "I did everything they recommended and I kept sending them tapes. Every audition that came up for Vikings, I went for it."
Five years later, the part of the Angel Of Death came up. "They wanted somebody tall for it (Karen is 6ft 2in). I felt really powerful about her for some reason. I connected with this crazy character.
"I was waitressing one day about three weeks later and got a call from my agent saying that Frank was recommending me to the director and to confirm my availability. And it all spiralled from there."
Karen's resilience is impressive. By her own account, she auditions for "literally anything", and is utterly unfazed by rejection.
Before Vikings, her most significant role was in theatre, a part in a one-woman show written by Lindsay Sedgwick called Fried Eggs, in which she played a character with multiple personality disorder. The show toured the festival circuit to much acclaim, and as a result, Karen got a London agent.
"I really pushed for the part. At the time, I lived on the floor above the late Karl Shiels in a big house full of actors on Ormond Quay. I knew that the Theatre Upstairs (of Lanigan's Pub, and of which Shiels was a founding member and artistic director) was the perfect place to do it so I put the script under his door with a little sticker that said 'Please just read and let me know' and he read it and he liked it and he agreed that we could do a two-week run the following August."
Karen's resilience was hard won. The eldest of three girls, she had an idyllic childhood in the Donegal fishing village of Killybegs as part of a large extended family. Her mother was a feminist who encouraged growth and education, and her father was a skipper on a trawler, and later became the harbour master of Killybegs.
Karen enjoyed sports, and was at the beginning of a promising basketball career when she was diagnosed with leukaemia at age 14. She spent the remainder of her childhood in hospital getting treatment for the disease, something she is still coming to terms with today.
"You learn so much about life from being around death. A large part of the appreciation I feel for life and my resilience and not taking things too personally probably comes from having gone through a lot of really challenging situations when I was not ready mentally to translate them.
"When you are a child and you are surrounded by life-and-death situations and the people around you can't confirm that you are going to survive, something happens in the chemistry of your brain. You grow a lot of walls and you kind of go into a small, constricted, limited space that enables you to survive.
"The difficulty with teenage cancer is that we don't quite know how to handle the mental aspects of it. I felt very interested, as I got older, in the fact that statistically I was less likely to get married, have a job, have children - even if I had survived -because survivors aren't prepared for the real world afterwards."
Karen cites dating and relationships as one of the key aspects of growing up that she missed out on.
"If you have been institutionalised in hospital for five or six years as I was, you have missed out on some aspects that are really essential to life. Things you go through in your teens - dating, sexuality, how to be in the workplace. I was in my 20s before I had a proper boyfriend, I was a solid 10 years behind everyone else."
Throughout her years of treatment, Karen continued with school, taking exams in hospital rooms when necessary, and was accepted to study dietetics at Coleraine University. For someone who had always wanted to be an artist, why dietetics?
"That's a good question", Karen laughs. "After I got sick, I wanted to be a paediatric doctor like Dr Hennessy (at Crumlin's Children's Hospital, where Karen was treated), my hero.
"And my mother said 'when you have kids that will be very hard. Why don't you get a nice 9 to 5? Something very similar to a doctor but not quite a doctor'. She found dietetics - I didn't even know it was a job and I remember thinking in my 16-year-old head 'Oh my God, I will be professionally skinny, and I will wear a white coat. Amazing!'."
While attending college, however, the cancer returned.
"Twice I thought I was going to die. The first time was in the first few weeks of treatment and I remember being so drowsy, so cold, and I felt very much close to death.
"The second time was when I relapsed. I did think 'Oh f**k'. I knew the statistics were not good.
"I felt really let down and scared by God because I felt like we had a little pact that I had done my thing and that I was going to be fine. It was a blow to my faith and my understanding of life, which was always with God at the front. I felt if there is no God, then I am f***ed.
"So the attitude that got me through the first treatment was unable to take me past day one of the second illness, because now I didn't have my crutch, which was God.
"That was the biggest trauma, where I felt that if I don't have God looking after me, which was my childhood, deep-rooted belief, then I am in deep shit."
Thankfully, Connell was to regain her health. And with it her faith?
"Yes. Stronger than ever. In my mid-20s, when I started realising that I may survive in the long term and started learning how to grow past what had happened to me.
"I struggled a lot for years thinking that I might get sick again. I was very paranoid and obsessed with that. The fear of getting sick again was as bad as actually getting sick.
"Once I overcame that, which meant I had to surrender to life as it was, with no guarantees… I had to acknowledge that I absolutely might get sick again and I had to trust that it was part of my life's path for a reason.
"Once that happened, I started seeing who I was again. That I was this wonderful human being, just as everyone is, with so much to give and that I could still give it. That I wasn't damaged beyond repair.
"That enabled me to open up and I started acting and modelling and dating and I was filled with life and love again. And I realised that God had always been there, but that I had shut him out."
Vikings series 6 premieres on the History Channel on December 4 and Amazon Prime on December 5