Siobhán McSweeney interview: The shoes on my feet? I bought them’ — actor McSweeney on body neutrality, Boris Johnson and why she thinks she’s lucky
We’re about 25 minutes into our interview and I can’t hold it in any longer. “I knew I was going to enjoy chatting to you,” I fan-girl shamelessly during our Zoom call. “I just knew it!”
iobhán McSweeney lets out a gleeful cackle of laughter. “Normally people don’t like me ranting at them before lunch time.”
McSweeney has just finished delivering an impassioned monologue (it’s far too well articulated to be called a rant) on the sizing inequality in women’s fashion. Before that, there was an expletive-ridden insight into the narrow stereotypes in casting, that came via a moment to genuflect at the altar of The Golden Girls and Murder, She Wrote.
Before that, there was an earnest appraisal of modern feminist discourse, and the bias of ‘pretty privilege’. Admittedly, in print, that all looks a bit weighty to be tackling before the second coffee of the day. But, oh my god, she’s just so fun and intelligent that it’s impossible not to be rapt.
Humour, of course, is what most people closely associate with the 42-year-old actor. Over what will soon be three series of Derry Girls, her portrayal as eye-rolling, acerbic nun Sister Michael has achieved meme-worthy status.
Elsewhere, McSweeney’s innate warmth and wit has recently seen her become a natural in presenting roles; more than three million viewers tuned in regularly for Channel 4’s The Great Pottery Throw Down. And, in her More4 travel series, Exploring Northern Ireland, McSweeney charmed audiences with her self-deprecating humour and willingness to throw herself into every opportunity — be it paddleboarding with singletons or dressing as a Viking to row with cosplaying Norsemen.
With laughs so very much a part of the CV to date, her latest roles might therefore come as a surprise to viewers. She’s also starring in the darkly comic TV adaptation of Graham Norton’s bestselling novel, Holding, which recently aired on ITV and comes to Virgin Media viewers from next week. Her role is that of Bríd Riordan, the troubled love interest of Sergeant PJ Collins, played by Conleth Hill.
In new crime drama Redemption things get even grittier, with McSweeney cast as a sombre detective sergeant. The series, which also airs soon on Virgin Media, stars Paula Malcomson as a Liverpudlian detective called to Ireland under grim circumstances. McSweeney says she’s braced to accept the inevitable, ‘Wait, is that Sister Michael?’ moment that will happen for many viewers. “I suppose it’s a compliment, because it implies that whoever you’ve played has connected to the viewers so much that they think they know you.”
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But while she’ll forgive audiences for taking a beat to accept her in a vastly different role, she’s less forgiving of casting directors that do the same.
“You’d be surprised at how un-open-minded casting directors are. Our audiences, I think, are quite often smarter than our practitioners.
“I mean, obviously, #notallcastingdirectors,” she adds diplomatically. “To be honest with you, it’s a very underfunded profession so people do not get time to do their job well. There are incredibly passionate, good-hearted, open-hearted, diligent people in the casting industry who are not allowed to do their job that well because of financial and time constraints so, as a result, they have to fall on the old regulars.”
In the case of securing that career-making role on Derry Girls, she believes, it was because the show’s creator, Lisa McGee, and executive producer, Liz Lewin, knew her work already that got her foot in the door. “If I’d handed in my CV, nobody would have seen me, but Lisa and Liz knew my work and knew that I could do it.
“I’ve fought continuously from day one with every single part I’ve ever gotten. I think people just often think actors should look a certain way, stories should be told a certain way, and that only certain stories should be told. Like, before Derry Girls came out, if you’d pitched that to an awful lot of commissioners, they would have gone, ‘Nah, put a few more blokes in it; make it The Inbetweeners’.”
She loves that Holding, which is directed and produced by Kathy Burke and adapted from Norton’s novel by Dominic Treadwell-Collins and Karen Cogan, steps away from the obvious.
“There’s a sort of a ‘f**k you’ about it and I think audiences are primed for it. I could play the role of Bríd with my eyes shut, because I empathise and understand her so completely. But nobody else in the world would have cast me as Bríd apart from Kathy Burke, and nobody would have written it apart from Karen Cogan and Dominic Treadwell-Collins.”
Why is that? “Bríd is a complicated romantic lead and I don’t get to play romantic leads. Everyone’s all, ‘You have to make things shiny for TV’ and the easy thing to do would be have Jennifer Lawrence play it, and PJ would be Daniel Craig. But that’s not who was in your head, or who touched you when you read the book, and that’s not who the characters are either.”
Not that she read the book, she admits sheepishly. “I knew we were all drinking Graham’s wine but I didn’t know we were all reading his books too! Sorry, Graham,” she laughs.
McSweeney, who grew up in the small village of Aherla, Co Cork, keenly feels the pressure of representing her native landscape on screen for Irish and UK audiences.
“I’m f**king terrified, I really, really am. As an actor you go in and do your job to the best of your abilities and then you walk away hoping that you’ve done yourself proud. With this, I feel a deeper connection to the character but also to the place and, as a result, I have all the anxiety of a producer with none of the benefits.”
There is, she’s aware, with any Irish offering — particularly when aimed at an audience beyond these shores — a danger of tipping into twee ‘Oirish’ stereotypes in a manner most recently exemplified by the likes of US movie Wild Mountain Thyme. “You don’t want to add to the canon of bullshit,” nods McSweeney, effectively summarising the problem. “The British gaze on Ireland is a complicated one and shite like Wild Mountain Thyme doesn’t exactly help, does it?”
With two prime-time shows on the listings; successful presenting slots ramping up; a critically lauded stint at the Olympia Theatre in Beckett’s Happy Days last year and the much anticipated finale to Derry Girls set to hit screens soon, surely this must be ‘pat on the back’ time?
“Oh god, no,” she baulks. “A pat on the back? No, no, no, I’m still from Cork.
“Derry Girls came 15 years into my career so I’m the longest ‘overnight success’! Unless people had gone to the theatre a lot and squinted in the back, they wouldn’t have known me. I waited a long, long time in the wings so I feel immensely grateful. I don’t think it’s permanent, I don’t think I’m entitled to it and I don’t think there’s any meritocracy. I just feel grateful for every opportunity I’ve been given. That sounds pat, but I really do.”
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects to McSweeney is that she’s become more outspoken as her star has ascended. Where other people in the precarious world of showbiz might be more circumspect for fear of controversy, alienation of audiences (and, indeed, job offers), McSweeney feels differently.
In recent years, she’s been a vocal champion for a multitude of issues, from championing abortion rights in Northern Ireland and opposing the proposal to shut down charges against the British soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday to campaigning for Police Spies Out Of Lives, a support group for women deceived into intimate relationships by undercover police.
“I feel a huge obligation, a moral obligation and it’s a very happily taken-on responsibility. I feel my politics haven’t changed since this random thing of so-called fame; they’ve evolved and gotten richer so I have a huge obligation because, otherwise, what’s the point?”
McSweeney commands a sizeable Twitter following of more than 114,000 and, with that, there has been ample experience of dealing with online trolls. “I’m quite robust and I feel very privileged in the way that I am cared deeply for by my support system and I feel secure to a certain extent. That doesn’t mean that I don’t nip off to the loo and have a cry if someone’s mean about me. But it just comes down to a great sense of responsibility, because if people are going to listen to you, then you should say something, and there’s a lot to say.”
However, she worries that, too often, saying gets in the way of doing. “There’s a lot of discourse in feminism and while everyone is getting all whipped-up over it, meanwhile the gender pension gap is getting bigger, the pay gap is getting bigger, our healthcare, we’re letting our trans sisters and our trans brothers down, all this f**king discourse and nothing’s getting done. It’s a distraction.” She lets out a loud, infuriated sigh.
Then — completely proving McSweeney’s point that we’re all complex individuals capable of fervour and frivolity — in the next moment, we’re gushing over the absolute joy that is her photoshoot accompanying this interview.
“That was such a fun day,” beams McSweeney, who wears designs by sustainable design duo Vin + Omi in the shoot. “I’m obsessed with them. They are so playful, so intelligent, but also punk. They look at me and they don’t do a Trinny and Susannah — may they rot in hell. They look at me and go, ‘Can we make this shorter on her so that we can see her dimples above her knees?’”
I’ve a personal stake in the topic of fashion for fuller figures but I’m in two minds as to whether I want to discuss it with McSweeney. I wonder if, even when we’re celebrating body positivity or inclusivity in fashion, is the very fact that we’re discussing women in terms of their bodies, reductive?
But McSweeney wants to talk, particularly when it comes to the lack of options for women over a certain size. “It’s not about, ‘ooooh my curves’ or ‘mmmmm you can’t handle this’ — it’s to do with showing very, very blatantly how the patriarchy colludes with our economic system to make more than half the population feel shit about themselves,” she says heatedly.
“I’m incredibly lucky. I am Destiny’s Child — the shoes on my feet? I bought them. I am going into stores with a wallet asking: ‘Why can’t I wear your f**king clothes?’ I’m not being ‘body positive’, I’m not being a ‘girl boss’, I’m going: ‘Why can’t I wear your clothes?’ Don’t tell me you’ll take six to eight months to make me some bespoke piece of shite, I want to go into a shop like another woman and buy your f**king clothes.
“There is nothing wrong with my body. I’m not celebrating it and I’m not denigrating it. It’s neutral. This flesh cage carries me around and it’s done very well — and it would look f**king amazing in your frocks.”
The unparliamentary language tends to get ramped up when Sweeney is passionate about a topic, which perhaps explains her infamous labelling of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a c**t in an interview last year. She has since reflected on the wisdom of that. “I live, most of the time, in London and I am offended repeatedly by that man. I was thinking the other day: Am I adding to a certain level of meanness out there by using that word?” She pauses. “I concluded no, no I’m not, because that’s what he is.”
There’s a certain humour to the fact that she is, as we speak, wearing a necklace from the Vagina Museum in London emblazoned with the offending word. “It’s one of my favourite necklaces, it brings me great joy.” She chuckles mischievously.
“I’ll often forget I’m wearing it when I’m out and then see people’s faces. But I don’t wear it to cause offence and I don’t use the word to cause offence, unless offence is meant. And I meant offence to that man.”
Our connection turns patchy and McSweeney blames her proximity to the BT Tower in London. She has been based in the city for over 15 years. In November 2019, she lost virtually everything when her flat burned down. The fire started when a block adaptor plug fell less than 2mm out of the socket. Fortunately, she wasn’t home at the time.
“When I went in, everything was either burnt or covered in this noxious, almost oily, substance from the soot and water.”
Now, apart from a few bits of furniture, everything else she rescued sits in a pink suitcase in the corner of her room.
“That suitcase hasn’t been opened since the fire. I’m too scared to throw it out because I don’t know what’s in there and I’m too scared to open it for fear it’ll be burned. It’s just sitting there taking up a significant amount of space in my room, like some sort of spectre at the feast.”
The fire came after a difficult few years which saw the deaths of her father in 2018 and, nine months later, her aunt — “Betsy of the Champagne trifle”. Then came the pandemic when, because of bad asthma, McSweeney was placed on the ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ list. At her most anxious, she even talked to her brother about how repatriate her body home to Cork.
“I feel like the last five years has been insane for me. A lot of personal stuff and a lot of work stuff, a lot of ‘life’ in my life.” Today, she reveals, is the first day in maybe eight months where she isn’t double-jobbing, although she is heading to physio, still not fully recovered after breaking her leg while filming Holding in Cork last August.
For one final question, I ask how she would best describe herself. Others, I tell her, used the word ‘icon’; I’m inclined towards ‘rebel’.
“I genuinely think I’m lucky,” she replies after the longest silence in our epic chat. “I am the culmination of every McSweeney and O’Neill woman in my bloodline. I’m the best they got, and I’m a sort of evolutionary cul-de-sac as well, because I don’t think I’m going to have children. So I’m lucky. Even with asthma, if I’d lived a generation ago, I’d be dead. If I was older and caught coronavirus, I’d be dead. If I was my grandmother’s age at the start of the Free State, I’d be dead. So I’m lucky.”
There’s that mischievous laugh again. “I’m a lucky c**t”.
‘Holding’ will air on Virgin Media More, exclusive to Virgin Media TV subscribers, on April 12 at 9pm
‘Redemption’ will air weekly on Monday nights on Virgin Media One from Monday, April 18
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/television/the-shoes-on-my-feet-i-bought-them-actor-siobhan-mcsweeney-on-body-neutrality-boris-johnson-and-why-she-thinks-shes-lucky-41499104.html Siobhán McSweeney interview: The shoes on my feet? I bought them’ — actor McSweeney on body neutrality, Boris Johnson and why she thinks she’s lucky