“Do Irish things, work on Irish projects and work with Irish writers and work with Irish directors.”
Derry Girls is as good as you’ve heard. It’s witty, fast-paced, bizarre and all round entertaining. Season one graced our screens a little over a year ago, and those six episodes have since been watched over two million times. For the few who don’t know, Derry Girls follows the antics of a group of four girls and one boy who live in Derry in the 1990s. It chronicles the brilliance of everyday life in a time remembered for its violence. The real joy of the show comes from the character’s ability to be unselfconsciously enthusiastic. It’s on everyone’s must watch list and I got to speak with Louisa Harland, who plays eccentric Orla McCool, about why.
As a Dublin local, Louisa explains her acting roots.
“I went to Ann Kavanagh Youth Theatre in Rathfarnham, and I used to do the féis. I was obsessed with theatre because I went to this youth theatre and I was obsessed with Shakespeare. I wanted to go to London to the big drama schools and train there… I was obsessed with theatre from a very young age.”
This is what landed her her first job on Love/Hate. She auditioned through the youth theatre and thus began her knack for choosing revolutionary Irish TV series.
“Yeah, I actually forget that I’m in two of the most successful TV dramas, and I’m so proud of that and how different they are. I actually got the job through my youth theatre, I auditioned and I got that and I was actually terrified. Working with Aidan Gillen for my first job, like, it was incredible.”
She followed her Shakespearean dream and went to London to train in theatre, before returning to Ireland to look for work. As important as training is, she concedes that nothing beats experience.
“I learnt as much on Love/Hate as I did in my three years, so I think it’s so important to actually work to learn, so to work with all those actors like Robert Sheehan, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Killian Scott it was incredible, I wish I could go back and do a better job now, I know so much more [laughs]!”
We move on to speak about the enormous audience that Derry Girls has managed to garner in a short period of time.
“Yeah I know, I can’t fathom that idea. I think there are so many elements, first of all it’s female-lead, and it’s Irish on a UK network. I think that’s endearing. It’s set in the 90’s, which is kind of a cool, ‘in’ era, like people dress like that now. The music we listen to today as well. I think it’s about so many elements, but it ultimately comes down to the writing.”
Creator of the show Lisa McgGee is a Northern Irish writer is created RTÉ’s Raw, as well as BAFTA-nominated Being Human for the BBC. Everything she touches turns to gold.
“I mean, all the elements boil down to the fact that it’s an incredible script and it was from the moment we read it. It would’ve been incredible no matter what cast we had, but we were so lucky that the cast is also incredible. Yeah, we hit a sweet spot.”
The writing is the highlight of the series; an effortlessly funny, and perfectly idiosyncratic compilation of universal female experience while being specific in its setting. While Lisa McGee’s script may be the star of the show, the quiet genius of the series comes from its cast. Female-lead come- dies are few and far between, let alone ones that have a noticeably dominant female cast. Harland loves the creative energy it brings to the project.
“I love it, when we were filming season two there was a scene with 11 women in one scene and they all had speaking parts and I think in a comedy that has never been done before. So, yeah it was pretty incredible. What incredible women I get to work with as well, like Siobhán McSweeney who plays Sister Michael is incredible, not only in the role, but probably the funniest person I’ve ever met in real life. And Kathy Kiera Clarke who plays my mom, and Tara Lynne O’Neill who plays my auntie are incredible women to learn from and that’s even before I start mentioning the main girls, and when I say girls I include Dylan [Llewellyn] in that.”
It’s hard to believe that such a fundamental thing, like having that number of women on screen with speaking lines, hasn’t been done already, but that is the subtle triumph of the series. It’s innovative, surprising and familiar comedy.
Harland plays the endearingly eccentric Orla McCool who is still in secondary school, like all the other main characters. The thought of the heavy wool jumper and jaded deck shoes gives me shivers.
“Let me tell you, putting on a uniform again? It instantly does something to you, like any day we’re in uniform the crew and the cast treat you different, you feel very young.”
Harland admits that she has more in common with her character than she thinks.
“I wish I was more like her because she is incredibly carefree and and doesn’t censor herself. She believes everything she says and says it with complete conviction. I would compare her to Tigger from Winnie-the- Pooh, like, ‘A flibbertigibbet, a will-o’-the wisp, a clown!’. That is what she is. It’s fun to play her.”
Having been in both Derry Girls, and Love/Hate, Harland is no stranger to touching on sensitive topics. Dramatising historical periods can be risky, especially ones that involve such nuanced debate, but she takes it in her stride.
“I’ve learnt so much more about that time, you think you know everything and you think you’ve learnt it all but actually the feel of it, working in Northern Ireland and especially going back in time, I’ve learnt so much.”
One of the highlights of the show comes from the final episode of season one where Orla performs a step aerobics routine in front of her school.
“I remember reading the last episode where I get up and dance, and how it was going to interchange with the family watching TV and the dance intercutting. I was terrified, I knew I had to get that right, even though it’s a comedic moment, it has to have some poignancy, because I didn’t want to ruin the incredible writing, so I felt a lot of pressure doing step-aerobics while shining a light on the tragedy of the time!”
The comedy of Derry Girls, laced with the tragic violence of the time, makes for a personal retelling of life in Derry in 1990s. McGee captures the minutiae of life that continued during The Troubles. Harland understands this pressure and brings it out in Orla.
“I took it so seriously, yeah I made up a dance and took it very seriously, all the girls would tell you like, I would take myself away and just do that dance religiously, which is exactly what happens in the episode, so that was real, I was obsessed with it. I brought a step home to my apartment in Belfast and slept with it. Like method acting [laughs]!”
Derry Girls manages to capture the genuine absurdity of life. The step-aerobics saga is fantastically strange. Harland agrees that Orla “doesn’t censor herself, she’s at that age when she doesn’t care what other people think”.
Self-expression is a central theme in the series which comes to the fore during this scene for Orla. This personal understanding of being proud of who you are works in tandem with the violence perpetrated against people for expressing them- selves in Derry at the time.
The series is undoubtedly a triumph and Harland owes it all to her youth theatre. Her advice for Irish actors looking to make moves in the industry is to stay close to home.
“I wouldn’t say there is any rush to go anywhere else, like London. What’s happen- ing in Ireland is incredible [in the acting world], and there are so many incredible things going on, so many incredible cast- ing directors and writers, it’s a real moment. Any advice to Irish actors, certainly, do Irish things, work on Irish projects and work with Irish writers and work with Irish directors, I think that is really important. We are import- ant in this world, and I think that is just start- ing to show. Don’t feel like running away from home to make it on Broadway.”
I very quickly consumed the first season and am now ready for season two which Harland assures is “not a second album at all”.
“I think it’s better, and I don’t want to jinx it by saying that, but Lisa has really outdone herself. I haven’t seen any of it, I’ve only seen the trailer so I’m really excited, I really think it’s going to be bigger and better.”
Derry Girls season two starts tonight, March 5, on Channel 4.