Sunday 18 November 2018

It started with a kiss

Jennifer O'Dea had to take the lead role when fellow actor Peter Hanly proved to be too much of a perfect gentleman, says Andrea Smith

HEAD ON: Peter and Jennifer say they meet the challenges of their precarious work together. Photo: David Conachy
HEAD ON: Peter and Jennifer say they meet the challenges of their precarious work together. Photo: David Conachy
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

'ICAME out of the bathroom and saw Peter sitting there, so I went over and kissed him," laughs Jennifer O'Dea. "There's only so much patience that a girl can have!"

This is how the Dublin actress describes her exasperation at waiting for Peter Hanly to make the first move the night they got together, despite meaningful looks being exchanged between the pair all evening.

It was December 1996, and they were at a Christmas party at the home of their mutual friend, author and Fair City actor, Claudia Carroll.

"I suppose I'd be the tentative type, so no move was being made by me," says Peter, adding that he was very attracted to Jennifer. "In some ways, I'm more on the back foot about things than Jennifer, so I really admire her drive, vision and positivity. When she took action, I was thinking, 'Great -- at last!'"

While lamenting that Peter was "too much of a gentleman" on that occasion, it's that very trait that makes him attractive to his partner of more than 12 years.

"Peter is so gentlemanly, which is a beautiful, old-fashioned quality that I cherish," she says. "He's always going around making sure that everyone is all right."

Jennifer has a theatrical background, as her grandfather, Joseph O'Dea, was in the Radio Eireann Players. His brother (and her grand-uncle) was the actor and comedian Jimmy O'Dea.

While her career-guidance teacher at school advocated a secretarial career, Jennifer's history teacher, Brian McMahon, told her that although acting was really difficult, he thought she was good enough. This was all the encouragement she needed.

She went to the University of North London to do a degree in film and English, followed by the diploma course in actor training at Trinity College.

Her career got off to a cracking start, as she was cast in the Dublin Theatre Festival before she had even finished college in 1994. She was fortunate enough to "saunter" into jobs at the Abbey and Gate for a couple of years, and after that, the reality of being a jobbing actor began to bite.

Although she was in another relationship when they first met, Jennifer and Peter were both part of a wide circle of actor friends in their 20s, between whom there was great camaraderie. She recalls getting a day's work on Ballykissangel, where she played a ban garda who had a scene with "the handsome Peter Hanly", who played Garda Ambrose Egan for four years on the show.

Jennifer's relationship came to an end, so she was free by the time Claudia's party came around, and the rest is history.

Peter's route to acting was slightly different. He worked in temporary clerical jobs, to which he was "entirely unsuited", while acting with Dublin Youth Theatre in the evenings and at weekends. After two years, he gave up the day jobs, declared himself to be an actor and was lucky enough to get a job with Theatre Unlimited in Kilkenny, which had just been started by Polish director Maciek Reszcynski and his wife, Daire Brehan. He received wonderful training, and went on to play plum roles, such as Prince Edward in the film Braveheart.

Jennifer and Peter have worked together on a couple of occasions over the years, and indeed she was cast as his wife in the BBC short film Jumpers a mere two weeks after they got together.

They say that they will get married at some point in the future, but right now have their hands full with their two Christmas babies, Molly, six, and Luke, three. Not to mention the family dog, Bella.

While Jennifer says that Molly was unplanned but very welcome, Peter adds that it was a case of, "Well, let's not be careful and see what happens."

"The children changed everything," he says, "and they're wonderful."

At Molly's baptism, Peter made a speech wishing for Molly to have, like her parents, "the sense of humour you need to meet the world".

He is puzzled by a survey he read recently, which ranked the things that women looked for in a man. Fully expecting that sense of humour would be number one, he was surprised to find that good hygiene was at the top. "Well, he's very clean," says Jennifer, smiling at him.

At the moment, they are appearing in the comedy play Benefactors, directed by Lynne Parker, which won the Olivier award for Best New Play in 1984, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play. This is the first full theatre production they have done together, which meant engaging the short-term services of a "brilliant" Brazilian au pair.

The play is about a serious and public-spirited architect who is trying to re-house the working classes of south London in a well-designed new housing scheme. Across the street is a sardonic old friend and his hapless wife, who may not be doing their best to help them.

"My character is a very unsympathetic, mean-spirited and unhappy man," says Peter. "He's very clever and witty, though, and the play is very funny. We're both really enjoying our roles, and it's great to be in something that's so accessible to everyone."

The pair say that having children and dealing with spells of unemployment have been the biggest challenges of their lives. The precarious nature of their work means that finances have to be juggled, and the uncertainty of not knowing what's around the corner can be difficult.

"It's great that we both know exactly what it's like to be in that position," says Peter. "Apart from the financial side, there is the worry that nobody wants you, which is not rational, of course. The flip side to that is what makes it so exciting, because everything can turn on a phone call."

b*spoke theatre company presents Michael Frayn's 'Benefactors', at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Trinity College, Dublin. Opening this Thursday. Box office (01) 896 2461

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