From 'Pure Mule' to Ibsen: Actress Charlene McKenna talks to Stephen Milton about life, love and leaving Dublin behind
Main image: Barry McCall
Charlene McKenna seems tired of London. A series of shrugs, sighs and rolling eyes contemplate an ageing ambivalence after five years in the city. I can identify with that.
"London has its lonely days. I don't know if it's an Irish thing, but there's a loneliness that Irish people can be susceptible to over here. You've probably felt that," she says with a flexible vigour.
I nod accordingly.
"Now, New York feels like somewhere I could 'live' live. And it wouldn't be a career move, like I'm going to 'take Broadway'. It would be more a life move," she says.
"I want to go out there and work in a coffee shop. Even if I still had acting work, it's a great way to meet people and make friends, where nobody knows you.
"And it's not like you're going to run into anyone who's immediately giving you the head tilt of, 'Oh, things aren't working out as well as you'd planned'. So that's definitely my next move, I think."
Fully prepared to work behind a bar when she first relocated to the British capital, after years experience at her parent's pub in Glaslough, it never quite came to that for the sparky Monaghan-bred actress.
Buoyed by lauded performances in RTE productions 'Pure Mule' and 'Prosperity', McKenna feared a comfortable complacency and London provided trepidation and opportunity.
However, the state broadcaster was unwilling to release its new poster girl for home-grown drama, and she invariably found herself back shooting in Ireland for 'Single-Handed' and primetime hit 'Raw' as lovable sous-chef Jojo, a role that earned her an IFTA win in 2009.
And then, finally landing her BBC breakthrough in 'Ripper Street' – a delightfully gothic romp centred round the slayings of Jack the Ripper – in which Charlene shines as a sharp-tongued prostitute, she returned to Dublin once again, filming at the Clancy Barracks on South Circular Road.
Wouldn't it be simpler to move back to the fair city and abandon her Manhattan café-culture dream altogether?
"It's weird the way that worked out," she chuckles in audibly intact midlands burr. "I move over here and all my jobs end up over there. The auditions are over here, that's the thing. I couldn't be going back and forth from Dublin for them. It's like going for a job interview; you don't need an airport, and flight and tubes and an unfamiliar city, on top of going for the job."
We meet backstage at the Almeida Theatre on Islington's Upper Street, where she has started rehearsals for Ibsen's 'Ghosts', a classic 19th-century play burdened with clandestine secrets and ancestral infidelity.
Helmed by director Richard Eyre ('Notes on a Scandal', 'Iris'), it's mere weeks until she takes to the stage as Regina, a corseted teen servant, unknowingly the illegitimate product of an affair conducted by the departed captain of the big house.
Acclaimed theatre doyenne Lesley Manville plays his widow, Helene Alving, tormented by Regina's presence and the girl's growing relationship with their son.
"There are so many layers to this story. It's a fascinating exercise and Richard Eyre is a man with a vision. I feel like I'm learning so much," McKenna says, slight in a black vest and skinny jeans, her dark hair in traditional 19th-century plaits and braids from rehearsals the night before.
She initially appears drawn, but a natural, energetic spirit rises to the surface, offering her pale skin a rosy hue.
"Regina's this young girl in a small town, skivvying away, dreaming of escape, learning French, dreaming of Paris. And yet, has no idea of the storm brewing around her," McKenna explains.
"There are these layers being peeled back without her knowing, as she grips on to teenage naivety."
The play has come armed with strenuous challenges.
"I have to speak French, which is always a laugh. I studied it for a little while in Paris, but I always get so frightened when anyone speaks too fast to me. And Richard's now decided to make Regina Scottish. So I'm Irish, playing a Scot who speaks French. I mean, what are they trying to do to me?"
"It's exciting though," the actress swiftly adds. "The difficulty here in London was cracking through the industry and not being labelled 'the Irish girl'.
"If there was an Irish role, it'd be 'Well, she can do that. Throw her in there'. That was what I didn't want, and thankfully with 'Ripper Street' and 'Ghosts', I seem to be out of harm's way."
It's interesting why Eyre would cast 29-year-old McKenna as an 18-year-old teenager but I can understand his reasons. Beneath the youthful exterior lies a knowing maturity, one that's occasionally worked against her.
"Sometimes I fall into a weird trap and this happens quite a lot, especially while I was in LA," she says. "I'd hear, 'You look right, but your performance is really mature'. It's this weird duality that hasn't worked in my favour before."
Quitting after the fifth, and final, season of 'Raw' – culled by the RTE drama department last year to free up funds for 'Love/Hate' – McKenna spent a month auditioning in Hollywood, but the experience wasn't so favourable.
"I wanted to get a feel for the place, so I did a couple of meetings, but the problem was, I was tied to 'Ripper Street' and anything I came close to conflicted with that," she says.
"And I was there all alone for a lot of that time. I remember sitting in my car for three hours going, 'Right, what do I do?' It's not as if I could sunbathe, it wasn't even sunbathing weather. It was January, February."
It's no surprise that she would give Tinseltown a try after the successes of contemporaries Saoirse Ronan, 'Hobbit' actor Aidan Turner and 'Love/Hate's' Robbie Sheehan.
The actress looks down at the mention of her two ex-boyfriends. "Yep," broadly grinning, "they're doing great, aren't they?"
Dating Turner for two years until 2009 and Sheehan in 2011, I wonder if she's seen their recent joint 'Twilight'-sque effort, 'The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones'?
"I haven't and, in my defence, that's so not my kind of film," she says. "But I wouldn't not see it. I'm just not really into big effects and fantasy. I like films where nothing really happens, where it's people talking.
"But I've an email with them every now and then saying, 'Yea, well done you', about what we've got going on with work."
There's a reluctance to mention their names. Perhaps she's learned after publicly speaking about her relationship with former 'The Clinic' star Turner while they were together, only to later reveal they'd split up.
"As I've got older, I know what's really precious. I get scared talking about being happy and in love and then you break up and you're heartbroken," she says.
"I don't need people knowing about that. Would you want people knowing about your relationships and your break-ups? It makes it so much worse."
With that said, is she currently happy and in love?
"I am seeing someone, yes," she chuckles, "and he's also in the industry."
That's all I'm going to get, seemingly.
Growing up in a family of five older brothers, the star remains tight with her parents, who still run the guesthouse and pub in Glaslough, and rather unusually has them to thank for her screen career.
Excelling at performance as a teenager, she was offered places at music and dance colleges but sensibly stumped for teaching instead. Fearing a squander of his only daughter's potential, her father voiced concerns.
"It was the other way around for me," McKenna explains. "Normally the parents are against a move into the arts, but it was me who wanted the safe, dependable profession, something I could rely on. But my dad, I remember him saying to me, 'I don't know what's for you, but I know it's not this'.
"I still studied teaching, but it was only a year in when I got a part with Neil Jordan in 'Breakfast On Pluto', and 'Pure Mule' came soon after that. That's when I quit and decided to go acting full-time."
Mr and Mrs McKenna must surely get some free labour behind the bar when their starlet daughter returns home. Precious payback if nothing else?
"They do," she says. "I'm back there pulling the pints, which I love, and it's a novelty for me. Although, I swear I get the odd sad look of, 'Things mustn't be going too well for her in London, isn't that a shame?' out of the corner of my eye. "So I don't do it too often."
Here's hoping that Charlene won't encounter the same problem in a New York coffee shop.
'Ghosts' runs from September 26 to November 23. For tickets and information go to almeida.co.uk