‘Michelle can be a bit exhausting’ – Jamie-Lee O’Donnell on Derry Girls and playing a teen at 30
A recent trip to Derry. We had visited the cathedral and were driving down the hill, heading for the road home when, suddenly, there they were, painted large on the gable wall of a house: The Derry Girls. Erin, Orla and Clare look astonished; James, ‘the wee English fella’, looks pleased to be included; Michelle has two fingers up in the peace sign, and looks, of course, bold as brass.
as she seen it, I ask Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, who plays Michelle. She has, of course. “I have walked past it a few times. It’s something I’m incredibly proud of, and just really massively appreciate that it was done for us, to celebrate the show,” she says. “Especially being from Derry, and how important murals are for people in Northern Ireland to tell history and highlight important things that have happened within the city. For Derry Girls to be part of that is something very special.”
Murals are indeed important to people in Northern Ireland. Scattered around Derry are wall paintings commemorating the civil rights struggle; Bloody Sunday; the violence of the Troubles. Is it unusual, I ask, to have a mural that is cultural, rather than political or historical?
“It is history, at the end of the day,” O’Donnell says firmly. “One of the biggest shows that’s been done, so it’s cultural and historical. That first episode coming out will always mark an amazing time, for Derry and the community.”
She’s right — the first series, broadcast on Channel 4 in early 2018, became the most watched show in Northern Ireland. Now, with its third and final series currently showing on Channel 4, for O’Donnell, the whole thing is personal. Being from Derry (not all of the cast are), makes the show, I guess, extra special.
She won’t talk about her background much: “To be honest, I don’t really like talking about my family or friends. They get too much contact after I do a story or if I mention them; a lot of people just hound them for stuff then.”
She will say she is from “just a very normal, working-class, Irish background”, and later, that she has “exactly the same friends and I would be lost without them in my life”.
She has fond memories of growing up, although she prefers not to be specific about them. “There was a forest beside us and when we were younger, myself and the kids on the street were obsessed with making huts and making swings. I always remember, growing up in Derry, doing things like that was lovely. The summer holidays that seemed to last for a whole year…”
Does the series, I ask, show a different side to Derry? A side that people around the world — who might only have heard of the city in the context of the Troubles — might not have known otherwise?
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“It’s hard for me to say, because I’ve only ever lived [abroad] in England. Obviously, the Troubles is such a massive and important part of our history and it’s not something Derry Girls shied away from either; it was always there in the background, so it is important. Being able to add Derry Girls to that rich history of Derry is great and the Troubles obviously aren’t forgotten about but there’s room for… we’ve a full historical background within the city, and this just adds to it, in a really positive way.”
As to whether those like her, who came of age after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, will still be affected by those years, she says: “I think even to this day, people in Derry are always going to be very aware of the Troubles. Kids who are born — even this year — when they get older, will understand it’s ingrained in our history and our community. The stories are always passed down and spoken about.
“Derry Girls is something that I’m incredibly proud of. It’s something I am glad I could do for Derry City — to show how amazing the people are, and how loving and close the community is and how forward-thinking we can be within the relationships and just how good of a community we are. Being able to represent that on a large scale — it’s my community, and it’s something I’m really proud of and I just always hope I do Derry proud, and do a good job.”
I think there’s no doubt she has done a good job. Derry Girls has been that rare thing — a fully fledged success from the outset. It captured the hearts and imaginations of viewers around the world and became, almost overnight, part of the cultural lexicon.
Why does she think people respond to it in the way they do? “I think it’s the heart of the show. I think the relationships within the show — everyone has best friends, everyone’s been through their teenage years. There are so many lovely relationships within the show that are genuinely full of heart and based on real people, and that’s instantly attractive and something everyone can understand.”
O’Donnell is mostly based in London at the moment — as much as she’s based anywhere. “I’m living all over the place now with work.” However, when she’s home, she still gets people instantly identifying her with Michelle.
“People see me and get really excited, especially little kids. That’s always lovely, to see families are watching the show. But mostly, people come up and tell me they’re the Michelle of their group. That’s usually what I get. Including fellas. People even give me ideas, to pass along to Lisa [McGee, Derry Girls’ creator and writer] — stories of them growing up, and everybody’s just really involved and I feel like everyone feels it’s their show, as well as ours, and that’s beautiful.”
Recently, O’Donnell appeared on screens in a very different guise. — in the Channel 4 drama Screw. She plays Rose, a newbie prison officer working in an all-male prison who carries a heavy secret. Was it a conscious decision to go for something more serious, darker?
“It was a bit of a conscious decision, but also the script was brilliant, so it was a bit of a no-brainer to go for it and audition for it. I really believed in the story and the people I worked with. Yes, I was happy as an actor to show that I can do dramatic roles as well. I think any actor would want that. It wasn’t so much stepping away from Michelle, it was getting to experience a different type of role.
“I’m proud and delighted to have played Michelle. It’ll always be one of the best things I’ve done in my life. I never want to shy away from any of that, but I think I’m really enjoying being able to sidestep into a different genre. I’ve always been very driven and ambitious as a person, even when I was a lot younger, so I’m always looking to better myself as much as possible, to open my mind and get new experiences.”
She wanted to act from a young age. “I don’t think there was any one particular moment… I just always enjoyed performing and being creative. I used to write poetry a lot when I was small, and write songs, and draw a lot. I just always really enjoyed expressing myself through creativity. I used to dance a lot — disco dancing when I was younger, then I did professional pantos and worked as a dancer for a bit.”
Does she still write? “I still do, yes. I do write scripts. I’ve got a few projects happening at the moment. There’s no deadline for them or anything, it’s leisurely at the moment but, yes, I’m writing away. My writing doesn’t have any rhyme or reason at the moment — it’s just writing stuff down as good ideas come to me. That comes and goes alongside work, or during breaks.”
She studied performing arts at the De Montfort campus in the University in Bedfordshire. She worked in panto — “I was dancing, so that was physically demanding, but I loved every minute of it” — as well as in theatre, including The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Gaiety, and a play called Girls And Dolls, by Derry Girls’ Lisa McGee.
She also appeared in the Northern Irish drama 6Degrees. Initially, she supported herself by working in retail and doing bar work, until Derry Girls took off. Did she ever imagine this level of success when she started out?
“Yeah, I did imagine it for myself. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying you’ve set a goal for yourself and worked your ass off to achieve it. I’m still achieving it. I’m always going to be working and making new goals and raising the bar if I can, and that’s something I’ve done before. I’ve worked hard and I’m proud of how far I’ve come and I’m looking forward to continuing that as best I can.”
She’s unusual in admitting this, I say. Does she think it’s maybe an Irish thing, that we self-deprecate? “I think it is an Irish thing,” she agrees. “But I don’t think there’s anything wrong… I think people should be more proud of themselves. Why not? We’re certainly proud of our friends and family and loved ones when they do stuff — the pride just pours out of us, so we need to pour a wee bit of that back into ourselves too.”
It seems like she was just hitting her stride when the pandemic came along. At the time, she was in South Africa, filming Redeeming Love, a film set during the American Gold Rush. “When I was over there, people were chatting and saying there was some sort of flu in Italy, but we didn’t really know what was going on. There were just rumours about it. And then, by the time I got home — I was coming home for a couple of weeks, for a visit — lockdown happened.”
How was that? “It wasn’t ideal because it was lockdown and there was a lot of worry, but it was definitely nice to be home, even if it was accidental. It was the silver lining to a pretty awful situation — being so physically close to my loved ones made me feel a bit better.”
Did she worry about her career — that the momentum she had built up so painstakingly, might stall? “The only thing I was worried about was Derry Girls had to be pushed, obviously, and it got pushed a couple of times. I just was really anxious to make sure that we got it done. I was waiting for that phone call to say, ‘We’ve got the dates booked, it’s all safe to go back to work…’ That was always in my head, making sure we got a chance to do that. Anything else, we had to sort of just keep our fingers crossed, same as every industry.”
How does she cope, in general, with the uncertainty of a notoriously unpredictable industry? “Within the industry — I can only speak for myself — but I think everybody has different goals and ambitions and different versions of success. So, it’s individual how you think about it and what you want out of it. I just feel really lucky that this is my career and this is my job. I just try to stay as creative as possible, and also allow myself downtime between jobs if I feel I need it; if I feel I’m getting a bit burned out. I’ll allow myself that, which I never used to do before — I’d just work and work and work.
“I still have the same amount of drive and ambition,” she emphasises, “but I understand the importance of rest now. Whereas before, coming up in a really working-class background, and just constantly working from when I was 16 — multiple jobs sometimes. I worked just as hard when I was in retail and bar work. I worked really hard to pay bills and make ends meet and try and push another career.
“So I’ve never not worked hard. But you’re just understanding yourself a bit more and finding yourself a bit more and trusting yourself more — trusting that taking a wee bit of time for yourself is just as healthy and just as important as having all that drive and ambition.”
Does she find it hard to slow down? “It definitely was a struggle. Because it’s not something I’ve ever been used to. I’m travelling a lot more, which is something I’m really happy to get to do, but I think it adds to the levels of tiredness sometimes. When you’re doing this job, you’re tapping into something a bit more intense, especially when you’re doing drama. You’re going to work every day to get into the frame of mind of somebody who is depressed or sad or afraid or anxious, and you could be doing that for 12 hours a day, Monday to Friday. Mentally, that burns you out a wee bit.”
I’ve read enough about something called ‘embodied cognition’ — the idea that the mind is not only connected to the body but that the body influences the mind (ie adopting a slouched posture can lead to feelings of sadness and fear, to give a simple example) — to find this compelling.
“It can be quite hard, whenever you’re doing those roles, when you’re really in the character and the script and you want to stay in that vibe to give a really good performance and stay in that energy. It can be slightly hard to switch it off and shake it off.”
Interestingly, “It’s even hard when it’s really positive,” she says. “Playing Michelle can be a bit exhausting, because it’s this intense, teenage hyperness that you’re bouncing about all day. Because it’s a comedy and it’s so hyper, between scenes I try and keep myself at a 10. At the end of the day, you’re still buzzing but you’re physically tired. That kind of hyper, positive, delighted-about-life energy can be really exhausting as well.”
So what does she do to unwind? “I’ve gotten back into meditation recently. I like to exercise, going to the gym. Reading a book. Anything quiet, I like. Just being outdoors as much as possible, going to the beach and stuff. Hanging out with my friends, going for coffees and chitchat is really lovely.”
So, what’s next? “I would love to just continue on this trajectory. I feel like I’m doing really good projects and working with really great people, and just hope that it just continues. I’d love to do something with action someday, something really physical.
“I’m going to continue my writing. I’ve a couple of goals there and I’m sure people will hear about them at some point. Just keep being creative, keep expressing what I can, where I can. I’m working on something at the moment with Channel 4 that will probably be announced in the next couple of months. And we’ve just been greenlit for another project — this is going to be really boring because I can’t say what any of it is — but this year is looking good. So far, so good.”
‘Derry Girls’ season three is currently screening on Channel 4 on Tuesdays
Photography: David Reiss. Styling: Emily Evans. Hair and make-up: Sophie Knox
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/michelle-can-be-a-bit-exhausting-jamie-lee-odonnell-on-derry-girls-and-playing-a-teen-at-30-41566055.html ‘Michelle can be a bit exhausting’ – Jamie-Lee O’Donnell on Derry Girls and playing a teen at 30