Entertainment

Charlene McKenna on Oscar ambitions, a role in Graham Norton’s Holding and keeping the ending of Peaky Blinders secret for the past two years

Charlene McKenna is in Belfast, taking a brief break from filming the second series of Bloodlands, and using the time to look through a stack of new scripts. But, on the day we chat, the only ‘Belfast’ anyone’s talking about is Kenneth Branagh’s movie Belfast, which has just scooped an impressive seven Oscar nominations. “It’s great, isn’t it?” McKenna says . “It’s just great for Irish talent.” She’s frank about her ambitions to make that nominations list herself some day, and the mixed emotions nomination day brings when you’re an actor who’s not in contention.

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McKenna comes across as having a wise head on her shoulders. It’s something she’s worked at. Success at an early age came at a cost, with her hectic work schedule and constant sense of pressure resulting in a “breakdown” in 2009. ‘Twilly’ coat, €895, The Landskein, Havana Boutique. Ring, €175, Missoma, Brown Thomas. Photographed by Lee Malone

“The fact that you know you’re not going to be a contender isn’t as bad. You’re not at that particular race. It’s worse, I think, if you knew you were going to be at the race, but yeah, there’s a part of you that’s like, ‘I’d like one’, but you just stay in your own lane and get there yourself.”

She pauses, mulling it over some more. “It’s a mix, but I really am a firm believer of ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’. Putting Irish talent front and centre of a global stage benefits all of us.”

We chat a bit more about Belfast; how I loved the film but my Belfast-born parents hated it, their list of grievances extending from accents all the way to interior design choices.

Bloodlands — the police drama in which McKenna plays DS Niamh McGovern alongside James Nesbitt’s Tom Brannick — suffered some similar critical scrutiny of its first series. Alongside gripes about plot holes, there were complaints that only a local audience would make. Much as when Dubliners took to social media to give out about illogical driving routes taken in Kin, Northern Ireland viewers were riled by trifling details like why Hugo Duncan — a well-known day-time Radio Ulster presenter — could be heard on the airwaves when a character was driving along the M1 at night.

“It’s always stuff like that. Or, ‘you’re not allowed to do that’. It’s a TV show guys, calm down!”

Picking apart home drama, I suggest, is something often most brutally, and forensically, done by the home crowd. She reckons it’s inevitable. “It’s like your own kid going out into the world or on to the football pitch, I think we’re maybe harder on them or self-critical. But there’s rarely anything that pleases everyone. All you can do is your best. You’re trying to entertain people, make good shows, hope most people like it and not horrendously offend anyone. After that, it’s art. It’s subjective.”

McKenna comes across as having a wise head on her shoulders. It’s something she’s worked at. Success at an early age came at a cost, with her hectic work schedule and constant sense of pressure resulting in a “breakdown” in 2009. She entered therapy, and it feels like lessons learned there pepper her replies. She takes time to consider questions before offering answers that feel thought through and authentic.

This month, she’ll turn 38, and she feels there’s a certain amount of stock-taking and self-acceptance that takes place in the approach to the milestone 40th birthday. “I think, in my early 20s, I thought it was then or never. Now I go, ‘If it’s to come to you, then it’ll come when it’s meant to come.’ My husband always says — if I’m saying, ‘I’d have loved that part’ — ‘Well, do you want to be that person? Do you want to live their life? Do you, hon?’”

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Cardigan, €2,100, Valentino; ring, €175, Missoma, both Brown Thomas. Skirt, €915, Simone Rocha, Havana Boutique. Tights, €99, Anine Bing, Gallery 9 Charlene McKenna photographed by Lee Malone

McKenna adapts an American drawl when repeating the wisdom of her husband of one year, actor Adam Rothenberg. After meeting on the Dublin set of Ripper Street in 2012, the couple married in a Covid-compliant, six-person wedding at Castle Leslie Estate in Co Monaghan in January 2021.

The bride looked stunning (despite hair and make-up being an ‘at-home’ job, courtesy of her nieces) and wore a dress embroidered with, ‘Shall we do this thing’ in Rothenberg’s handwriting across the shoulder strap. The day was lovely in its intimacy, but she’s determined to celebrate with a proper shindig. “I made Adam promise that I could have a wedding party in the summer,” she grins. “I can’t wait.”

They celebrated their first wedding anniversary with a stay at Mount Juliet Estate, but didn’t exchange gifts. “The first one’s supposed to be paper and I couldn’t come up with anything. My husband is a brilliant artist so he has every bit of paper and pen that’s ever been made. He’s the worst person to buy anything paper for.”  

But when they returned home from their mini-break, McKenna’s parents had a surprise waiting. “Mammy and Daddy had laid the table out with a bouquet of red roses, my favourite wine, a card, some fresh eggs from my brother’s chickens and chocolate, and I was so moved. It was the sweetest thing ever.”

That ‘home’ in question is a newly renovated barn, a mere 100ft from her parents’ house, on the farm where McKenna grew up in Glaslough, Co Monaghan with five older brothers. It was to her childhood home that she returned when “the darkness took over” in 2009, and it’s where she spent most of lockdown, renovating the barn into a stylish four-bed family home with Rothenberg, so they’d have a permanent base in Ireland.

Having suffered from anxiety in the past, did she find the stresses of the pandemic triggering? “I was actually 100pc. I think, because I was so busy and because it was very,” she reaches for the right word, “wholesome busy. So, it was stressful, but it wasn’t like work stress. There was no work stress because there were no options. It took all decision-making away, which is probably why a lot of people found it restorative. There was no, ‘you could be doing’ or ‘you should be doing’ it was just, ‘this is all you have to do’.

“And you were reading what the world was going through which gave you a daily dose of wild perspective. It was actually really good for us. In that world of Covid-19, we had a good year.”

Despite all the stringent protocols that have been, and remain, on every set she’s worked on, McKenna still caught the virus last year. “It was weird. I had a whole cocktail of weird symptoms. I got this itch and spent a whole night thinking it was liver cancer because I was crawling with the itch and, of course, I googled it. I was terrified! I was on my own at the time and had the dog to walk and I remember crying, walking him round the farm hardly able to stay awake.”  

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Coat, €360, Remain Birger Christensen, Brown Thomas. Earrings, €120, Jenny Vander. Slippers, stylist’s own Charlene McKenna photographed by Lee Malone

She’s soon back to laughing at what other reasons prompted her to spend lockdown turning an old barn into a home. “We were with Mammy and Daddy and they have no Netflix so it was very encouraging to have something to do.” The new house clearly has the streaming service since McKenna, like many of us, confesses she’s been binging on Ozark, the hit crime drama, the latest season of which features Rothenberg as a private detective.

“OMG, I’m the biggest fangirl in the house,” she says, laughing. “I blitzed through it. I need the other episodes immediately!”

Do they always watch each other’s work? “We do, we’re always very supportive. It’s always a case of bracing yourself for the first episode of something, and the person that’s in it is watching through their fingers, or spending more time looking at the other one to see their reaction.”

Spoilers aren’t a problem — most of the time. “We made a rule that we just wouldn’t tell the other what happens. Sometimes slight slip-ups happen because you might be talking about what you were doing that day and they’re like, ‘Wait a minute! That means you were at that location, which must mean…’”

She’s been carrying the secret of knowing the finale to Peaky Blinders for two years. McKenna plays Captain Swing in the cult show’s final series, currently airing on BBC One. Filming on it was originally to start in 2020 but was delayed by Covid-19.

“Two years of knowing how it all ends. It’s the worst show to do press for because you can’t talk about anything.” She’s confident that Peaky fans — of which she is one — will be satisfied. “I think it’s really strong and I think, and hope, the fans will be happy.”

Another can’t-wait moment will be when Graham Norton’s Holding airs on Virgin Media and ITV this spring. The TV adaptation of the bestselling novel, which deals with the secrets and lies between residents in a fictional Irish village, was filmed in Cork last year. A Very English Scandal executive producer Dominic Treadwell–Collins and Irish writer Karen Cogan were at the helm.

“I think what Dominic and Karen have done is take the bones of the book and run with that, rather than be completely specific to the book,” explains McKenna, who plays Evelyn, the troubled youngest of the unmarried Ross sisters. “But Graham was across the whole thing so there’s nothing that’s been done that he didn’t OK, and I believe he’s very excited about it,” she adds hastily.  

“Oh my god, books are the worst! People have completely conjured the world in their individual heads. They had no idea what DS Niamh McGovern was going to look like because they’d never seen her before, but these people exist in people’s heads, and whatever you’re going to do, you’ve never going to match it.”

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‘Twilly’ coat, €895, The Landskein, Havana Boutique. Ring, €175, Missoma, Brown Thomas Charlene McKenna photographed by Lee Malone

But the combination of brilliantly drawn characters with excellent casting — including Conleth Hill, Pauline McLynn and Siobhán McSweeney — and direction from Kathy Burke promises to be magical. “I think we have the balance right. There are definitely laugh-out-loud moments in it, and there are absolutely ‘get the tissues’ moments. It’s like life. You tread these boards of wildly contradictory emotions and humans are all flawed and messed up.”

Brenda Fricker, coaxed out of retirement to take on the role of Lizzie Meany in the show, was quoted saying she was ecstatic to finally take on a role where she was not playing a mother.

McKenna’s CV follows no such theme. Her breakthrough role came in 2005 when she starred alongside Cillian Murphy in Breakfast on Pluto. A deferred third year, studying classical music and theology at the Mater Dei Centre in Dublin was never returned to, once she secured the role of threesome-embracing, wild-child Jen in Pure Mule. Since then, a wealth of diverse roles has followed, from the mother at the heart of child-abduction drama Single-Handed to a straight-talking chef (Jojo in Raw), a Victorian prostitute (Ripper Street), police right-hand woman (Bloodlands), and an IRA boss (Peaky Blinders) — the list goes on…

McKenna thinks this variety in roles comes down to a bit of good fortune mixed with some level of personal manifestation. “I believe in all that. That you’re putting messages out into the universe all the time. So perhaps what I’m attracted to is then maybe attracted to me, or maybe it’s what I’m interested in. But, when that all boils away, you have to work and pay the rent so, who knows?”

Acceptance of rejection is something she’s made progress on making peace with, with a bit of help from Rothenberg. “I remember once I didn’t get a part and I was really upset, and my husband just said, in the nicest way, ‘It’s not your part’. I was like, ‘What do you mean? It is my part, it could have been my part, I wanted to play it!’ And he was just: ‘It’s not your part’.”

It was, she says, much like the infamous ‘he’s just not that into you’ moment of clarity Miranda experienced in Sex And The City. “It was exactly like that! There’s just a simplicity and a truth to it. It was like a light-bulb moment for me. It’s not my part. I’m not meant to tell that story, I’m meant to tell another story instead.”

Some rejections hurt more than others. “I definitely have shows I’ve gone for where I’m like, ‘Yes, I’ll watch that… later’. I just need the remaining bitterness to dissipate, then I’ll watch it with a fresh face,” she says with a laugh.

She’s constantly reassessing what her role is off-screen. She has close to 20,000 followers on Instagram and she doesn’t shy away from using her voice to raise awareness, highlighting causes like the need to shop local, sustainable fashion, justice for Breonna Taylor, the Black Lives Matter campaign, and more. But she’s not always sure of when to speak out.

“It’s a constant balancing act and I’m constant assessing my role in it and the ‘should’ of it all — should you say that, or not? I have the little following that I have and, if you’re following me for whatever reason, then these are my values and things I feel are important or worth mentioning. I suppose I’m just saying what I’d be saying at home but to a slightly bigger audience.”  

McKenna has lived in London and New York but her Monaghan accent remains resolutely strong. It’s an outward sign of how down to earth she’s remained. Are the Irish better at this, I wonder.

“I think we are. I don’t know if it’s our culture or lineage or that we just cut the shit. I think as a people we just cut the shit and we get straight in.

“Maybe, speaking for myself, I think it’s coming from a small place, there’s an air of being very happy to be there. I don’t think you could come home with notions about yourself because you wouldn’t last five minutes. If it wasn’t your family that would pull you back down, it would be your town. Sure, if you wear a funky pair of trousers, you’ve notions! You needn’t be coming home with an accent or any notions because they won’t last and that’s the same across the board, no matter what you work as.”

Asking newly married women, or indeed any women, about their family plans isn’t something I endorse, but in a recent interview with the Financial Times, McKenna was asked to list her ambitions. One was nabbing that Oscar we spoke of earlier, another was to work ‘with the greats’ and the third was to have children.

“Haven’t got any of them yet!,” she says chuckling. “No, I have worked with some greats. I checked off Brenda Fricker, Kathy Burke and Pauline McLynn this year. So ticking off some and working on the rest.” 

‘Peaky Blinders’ season six is currently airing on BBC One. ‘Holding’ will air on Virgin Media this spring

Photography by: Lee Malone; Styling by: Anne O’Shea, Morgan The Agency; Make-up by: Sarah Lanagan; Hair by: Jake Ryan; Location: The Westbury Hotel, Balfe St, D2, tel: (01) 679-1122, or see doylecollection.com/hotels/the-westbury-hotel

https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/movies/charlene-mckenna-on-oscar-ambitions-a-role-in-graham-nortons-holding-and-keeping-the-ending-of-peaky-blinders-secret-for-the-past-two-years-41423629.html Charlene McKenna on Oscar ambitions, a role in Graham Norton’s Holding and keeping the ending of Peaky Blinders secret for the past two years

Fry Electronics Team

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