Monday 18 December 2017

Why actress Olwen's a dead cert for stardom

Olwen Kelly earned plaudits for her first big film role, even though she plays a corpse. The young Irish woman tells our reporter about modelling and what it's like acting dead

Death becomes her: Olwen Kelly. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivias
Death becomes her: Olwen Kelly. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivias

Katy Harrington

Playing dead is not as easy as it sounds. Actress/model Olwen Kelly should know.

In the new horror flick The Autopsy of Jane Doe she plays the titular character, a murder victim who doesn't move a muscle or utter a single line in the entire one hour and 39 minute running time.

Yet, Kelly's performance has proved something of a scene stealer and she has been singled out for praise by reviewers. The critic who watched the film when it played recently at the Toronto Film Festival said she deserved applause "for enduring a role which must have required the patience of Job."

Director André Ovredal told Entertainment Weekly that Kelly's part was the "most gruelling" of all, but laid-back Kelly isn't so sure. "I had to lie still for a long time. Now I'm looking back on it and wondering if it was that difficult? I remember being tired, I'd had enough at the end but it just felt like going into work every day."

Maybe she's being modest, because the reality is she had to lie on a cold marble slab naked for eight to 10 hours a day for weeks on end. Her philosophy was to "keep calm" which she accomplished by doing "lots of yoga and meditation."

Because her part in the film (shot last year in London) is that of a dead body, did the glowing reviews come as a bit of a shock? "Totally. I didn't even think I'd get much of a mention other than in brackets 'Jane Doe is played by Olwen Kelly', you know, because there are amazing actors in it and I don't do anything," she says, laughing.

Sitting upstairs in the very cool two-storey East London apartment she shares with her boyfriend Lee, and their exuberant cockapoo Noodle, you can see how Kelly's ethereal looks helped land her the role.

She has that unmistakable model look - long elegant limbs, glowing skin and a face that looks considerably younger than her 29 years.

If modelling is the day job, acting is the dream job.

"Deep down I always wanted to act", she admits.

Kelly was born in Dublin, but moved to Celbridge when she was six years old. She went to an all-girls secondary school and her friends from back then are still her best mates (she's just back from a hen night with a gang of them in Bristol).

Kelly is the oldest in a modern family of three brothers (two who didn't grow up with her) and one sister. Despite the fact that she didn't always live with two of her brothers, she is close to all her siblings now. Her mum's Scottish but her maternal grandparents were Irish too so her "blood is Irish," and she has the pale skin and freckles to prove it.

Her family are proud of her achievements, but they aren't exactly lining up to see the new film. " I think for all my family it will be uncomfortable to see me as a dead body. My mum doesn't want to see it. I don't blame her. I suppose for the boys it'll be quite awkward too 'cause I'm naked." Fair enough.

Back in school, Kelly remembers speaking to her guidance counsellor about applying for a drama course at Trinity College but says "fear of being rejected" held her back. Instead, she chose a more traditional route studying a B.A in Science at Maynooth University.

She's never used her science degree but doesn't regret the decision, and sometimes, she enjoys slipping it into conversation if someone makes the mistake of presuming she's a dumb model.

Kelly didn't really set out to be a model, but she has become a successful one. She regularly books fashion editorials in glossy magazines and flies to Milan for hair and beauty work. She's been featured in Vogue Italia, appeared in tour visuals for bands like Röyksopp and been chosen as the face of TK Maxx . As well as the big ticket jobs, she's been on the pages of edgier publications including Milk magazine wearing clothes by designers such as Vivienne Westwood.

But it was more student poverty that drove her to modelling than a desire to be on the pages of Vogue. Having been scouted on a few occasions she decided to give it a go. "I was really broke and I thought why don't I go see if I can earn some extra cash."

She juggled working in H&M part time, university and modelling in Ireland before making the leap to London four years ago.

She signed with an agency within days of moving and was out at castings and go-sees, running all over London and often, like every newbie, getting tragically lost.

It might sound as if Kelly landed on her feet in London, but she's refreshingly honest about the harsh realities of the modelling industry. "I've worked as a hostess, I've worked as a Christmas elf in Hamleys," she says.

Like most young hopefuls who arrive in a big new city, she learnt to get by on a shoestring. "It's ingrained into me since I arrived with nothing. My friend let me share her bed in Dartford. It was very kind of her."

There's a side of modelling she loves - working with talented, creative people, travelling the world, and occasionally, it is as glamorous as it's cracked up to be.

"There are elements that are great. You know what, you turn up at a shoot, you are fed a delicious breakfast, you're put into a robe, someone does your hair and make up ... "

But it has its downsides too. "The early mornings ... there are parts of the job that are tedious."

The industry gets a bad reputation for how it treats the women it relies upon to sell (and buy) clothes - so I want to know how she feels about it, and if she's seen the darker side.

"I extracted myself from the London Fashion Week mentalness because I'm not the 'right' shape", says Kelly frankly.

"I've got boobs and hips as most women do. I've picked my friends up off the floor after going into castings and feeling really humiliated."

Although, she's keen to point out that of 20 castings, you may only encounter one rude or dismissive person. Yet sometimes that's all it takes.

For the most part she's positive about the industry and believes social media has been crucial in giving models a voice.

She cites the example of Charli Howard, a model whose recent Facebook rant about her agency allegedly dropping her because she was "too big" (a UK size six 6-8) went viral, made headlines and garnered a huge amount of attention and messages of support.

Kelly is proud of her body and says her first nude shoot was a positive experience. She wore pink My Little Pony shoes with tails coming out of the back, and that's all.

"I was lucky. I had the nicest photographer who was sweet and calm. From that point on ... because I started off shooting nude I'm pretty comfortable being nude," she explains, although she won't take her clothes off for anything, or anyone.

"I've been to castings when photographers have asked me to take my top off and I was just like 'no'."

Once a photographer asked her to strip completely. It was just the two of them in the room. She felt it was unnecessary so she refused and told her agent.

Later in an email she tells me she's loved the opportunities modelling has given her, but says she "wholeheartedly wishes there was more of a support system and more regulations in order to protect models, the same way as there is Equity and Sag for actors."

While we're dealing with modelling facts and fictions - here's another one she'd like to bust - that all the girls hate each other and are really bitchy.

"It's not like that at all. Sometimes you'll go into a casting and it'll be quiet and everyone's got their headphones in and is in their own world, but more often clients have to come out and say 'shush' because everyone's chatting. It starts to sound a bit like a pub ..."

She's also figured out something invaluable along the way. "If you go to a casting and people aren't that nice to you, it's more likely you've got the job." It's only if you hear "thanks so much for coming!" you should be worried.

"You hear that phrase and you know after you've left they've ripped up your card."

There's a lot of rejection, yes, but Kelly is confident and seems very content not to be cookie cutter.

She's also very grateful for her trademark gap between her two front teeth.

"A dentist told me in primary school to fix it, but my mum wouldn't let them. Everyone else had braces and I felt so left out," she says.

Now the gap tooth is her money maker. "I do a lot of shoots where it's just my mouth ... you won't even know it's me."

She's active, but would take walking the dog over the gym any day. She's careful and looks after herself but has "never lost weight on anyone else's terms." And yes, she eats. "I try not to buy lots of junk food. I'm a really big breakfast person, it's my favourite meal of the day. I'll have a huge breakfast and Lee and I try to cook together as much as we can."

For a model that gets dressed in the most beautiful clothes, she isn't into fashion and hates shopping. "It's my worst nightmare. When people say 'let's go shopping', I couldn't think of anything less appealing."

She has story after story of people being rude to her, professionally or at parties because of her job, but none of it seems to bother her much. She tells me about one photographer she worked with when she came to London first.

He told her about another girl who is now a "huge superstar and Victoria's Secret model". His words were "when I first shot her she was fat too."

Another client said Kelly must stand out amongst all the "pretty models with symmetrical faces." Did that bother her? "No", she says, "and she booked me!"

At some point, Kelly will have to "shake off" the modelling and put all her eggs in one basket. Until then she's diligently taking acting classes and is determined to learn and improve.

She's got another movie, Darkness on the Edge of Town, coming out in Ireland this year (it's already streaming on the US Netflix site).

"It's quite exciting, I want my friends and family to see it," she says, although she was almost too nervous to watch it when it was screened at the Galway Film Fleadh.

It took her younger brother to buy her tickets and persuade her to go. She got on so well with director Patrick Ryan and producer Tommy Fitzgerald she sat at the screening thinking "I really don't want to ruin their movie", but was very relieved when she realised she "wasn't shit."

Darkness on the Edge of Town is a modern-day western, set in Ireland and guess what? Kelly plays a dead girl, but this time she gets to move and talk in flashback scenes.

"Basically I get killed and my sister has to find out who murdered me", she explains.

She's got a happy life in London. Great job, handsome lawyer boyfriend, beautiful home, insanely cute dog, but still she can't help miss home every now and then.

"It's so much calmer in Ireland ... people are so nice, they talk on the bus and there's no Tube. I miss my friends and family but they aren't that far away."

Soon work might take her further away though, as like for most actors, LA beckons. The ideal scenario when she gets there is to work with Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands is one of her favourite films). Oh, and she wouldn't mind winning an Oscar.

Knock 'em dead.

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