Jamie-Lee O’Donnell on being skint, the end of Derry Girls, and her prison drama Screw

F***adoodledoo, there’s Michelle!” That is how Jamie-Lee O’Donnell – the actor who’s change into synonymous with her profane Derry Women character – is usually greeted in the avenue. Often, in a robust, not-always-convincing, Northern Irish accent. O’Donnell loves it. The Bafta-winning present that made her title – and imbued her with such a rough vocabulary – could have ended 15 months in the past, however the impressions will possible go on eternally. “All people tries to do the Derry accent, and if I’m exterior of Eire, individuals at all times give it a wee go,” the 36-year-old says. “It’s actually, actually laborious to do. However I’ve heard some good ones.”

Derry Women, Lisa McGee’s Nineties-set comedy a couple of gang of Northern Irish schoolgirls and one “wee English fella” residing by means of the Troubles, turned the most-watched sequence in Northern Eire since fashionable information started in 2002. Over the course of its three-season run, from 2018 to 2022, the sitcom reshaped perceptions of Derry. Discovering pockets of pleasure in traumatic instances, it was by turns anarchic and bittersweet, bringing a feminine narrative to a battle so overwhelmingly targeted on males. By the time it ended final yr, the present had gained three Baftas. Critics, by and giant, adored it; Martin Scorsese and Hillary Clinton (the latter’s daughter Chelsea even had a cameo in the finale) had been amongst the present’s most well-known followers.

In Michelle, the gobbiest of the Derry Women, McGee had written O’Donnell a dream half: a humorous, forthright, boy-mad teenager who was supremely quotable. O’Donnell performed her with each chutzpah and brittleness. The position led straight into her enjoying a lead in Screw, the new Channel 4 present we’re right here to debate.

O’Donnell is in her buddy’s home in Derry. She’s carrying an infinite, lime-green AC/DC T-shirt, her 5ft 2in body misplaced someplace inside it. It’s a robust look. And really totally different from the one she is sporting in prison drama Screw, as Rose. Mancunian-sounding and with many extra nerves and a lot much less swagger than Michelle, Rose arrived in season one of the present as a rookie officer. Now, she returns for season two after a six-week break from warding the cells at Lengthy Marsh, experiencing grotesque flashbacks after discovering the physique of a colleague who was killed with a gun she smuggled into the prison.

O’Donnell thinks she would in all probability wrestle to work as a prison officer. She has heard some grim accounts, from talking to screenwriter Rob Williams who labored in prisons, and different officers, about what the job is actually like. “They’re virtually in the forgotten part of the justice system,” she says. “It’s clearly an necessary half of our world and it doesn’t appear to actually be talked about or supported or funded the approach it must be.” She was shocked to listen to of prisoners being paid little or no for work they do whereas serving time. A freedom of info request by Inside Instances revealed final yr that prisoners sometimes earn 50p per hour for work in prison workshops. “Issues like that appear a bit unusual and a bit unfair,” she says, including that “the lack of psychological well being providers which can be obtainable to prison officers” is “fairly surprising”.

Each prisoners and prison officers have been in contact with her to say how sensible they’ve discovered the present, particularly as a result of it represents “the lighter moments and the incontrovertible fact that there are individuals there who aren’t completely terrible human beings”. Officers have informed her, although, that one of the hardest issues they need to do is detach themselves from what sure prisoners have performed, with a purpose to be caring in direction of them.

O’Donnell speaks in a short time. Listening to her chatter away is like having Netflix on 2x pace. Whereas she was sometimes requested to decelerate her speech on the set of Derry Women, she was by no means requested to melt her accent on the sequence, one thing she had feared when she began appearing. “Being from Derry and having my accent, I used to be informed for thus, so lengthy that I’d by no means get work on this accent,” she says. “I used to be informed it was too robust, too working class, too particular, that nobody can perceive it. So I practised masses of accents, as a result of I believed, once I get work, I’ll have as many able to go as potential. Then after Derry Women got here out, it was the exact opposite. I used to be getting auditions for nations throughout the world and they had been like, ‘Hold the accent, we’ll work it in.’”

(Channel 4)

O’Donnell has thought lots about what she’d decide as her primary Michelle-ism. “The very first line I mentioned on Derry Women was ‘sláinte mom***ers’, in order that’s at all times going to be my absolute favorite of favourites,” she says (“slainte” primarily means “to your good well being” in Gaelic). “My first joke on the present was an abortion joke, so I beloved that. And attending to say to [guest star] Liam Neeson, ‘It’s as a result of we’re f***ing fenians.’ I imply, think about being ready to try this, as your job?”

Life with out Derry Women, O’Donnell says, is “undoubtedly unhappy, however it went out on such a excessive that the thought of doing one other one, like instantly, I don’t know what it could do to the reminiscence of it”. She desires to work with “fricking genius” McGee once more, saying she would learn the phonebook if she requested her to. O’Donnell credit the present with instructing her stamina as an actor – “Having to be a 16-year-old all day, day by day is lots whenever you’re not 16” – and she beloved it for permitting her to “be a Derry particular person on that scale, present all the totally different sides to a Derry lady, and actually, actually carry out in my very own accent and my very own surroundings”.

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O’Donnell grew up in Derry, and whereas she’d slightly not focus on her household – she’s had points with over-zealous followers approaching family members and pals – a number of instances in our dialog she brings up her proud working-class roots. She by no means actually thought-about drama faculty, as the charges made it inaccessible, however she did briefly research performing arts in England, at Leicester’s De Montfort College. “Being from Derry, working laborious is simply what we do,” she says. “So there was by no means any query of whether or not to maintain going. If I confronted an impediment the place I couldn’t afford one thing, or I didn’t have any assist, I simply sidestepped it and discovered one other approach. It was identical to, ‘OK, that’s not going to work. What’s the subsequent possibility. What’s the plan?’”

After dropping out of college, O’Donnell moved round varied cities in the UK in search of work, and had gigs as a nightclub dancer, a panto performer, a barista… the listing goes on. At one level, she even purchased a nook store. It wasn’t a great funding. She has beforehand mentioned that she principally spent that point consuming crisp sandwiches and dropping cash.

O’Donnell additionally did lots of promotional work. “I used to be a Moshi Monster for some time,” she says, deadpan, referring to the collectable collectible figurines fashionable in the early 2010s. This specific promo job noticed her stand round dressed as a personality referred to as Buster Bumblechops in a B&Q carpark in Liverpool. One other time, she handed out bathroom roll exterior the Manchester Arndale bogs for an Andrex marketing campaign. It was supreme: the flexibility of the work allowed her to go to auditions and attempt to lock down an agent, and the requirement to be foolish and carry out in entrance of strangers gave her confidence.

Clockwise from prime left: Louisa Clare Harland, Dylan Llewellyn, Nicola Coughlan, O’Donnell, Saoirse Monica-Jackson, Dylan Llewellyn in ‘Derry Women’

(Channel 4)

In her mid-twenties, the roles began coming in. One of O’Donnell’s first components was as a hard-partying uni scholar in Northern Irish drama 6Degrees. After that, she starred in the play I Instructed My Mum I Was Going on an RE Journey, by Julia Samuels, a verbatim manufacturing primarily based on actual accounts wherein she portrayed an underage woman who decides to have an abortion. There have been protests in Belfast when it was carried out there. One other socially acutely aware venture arrived in the kind of Doing Cash, a harrowing BBC Two movie about fashionable slavery in the intercourse commerce. Then got here Derry Women.

O’Donnell has spoken earlier than about how, as her success has grown, she has struggled with her identification. Now, she says, she’s higher at letting herself really feel proud of her achievements. “With the ability to go and purchase buying the first couple of instances, and not having to verify what something price and tally it up in your head as you’re going round, that was an enormous second for me in realising that issues had shifted,” she says. It took a couple of years of being in Derry Women, and the paycheques that got here with it, to cease worrying about cash. “I used to be too cautious,” she says, “I’d simply type of panic about it generally, and I believe I’ve to let go of {that a} wee bit, that kind of holding on to the previous. Simply permitting myself to calm down and be like, ‘That is at all times going to be the approach now, for me, and that’s not going to be taken away from me. Nobody can take that off me.’

“I think about lots of individuals from my background would really feel like this too – when the tides begin to flip, it seems like your identification is shifting as nicely. I’ve solely began to understand now that that’s a extremely good factor, and I can take that to a constructive place, and it doesn’t imply I’ve to overlook about who I used to be or that my morals or my rules have modified. They haven’t, it’s simply, it took lots of getting used to, to be on this type of monetary bracket, when earlier than I used to be so terrified of being skint or struggling or having no one to rely on.”

She is keen about extra positions for working-class individuals in the business. After I ask her what she’d wish to see change, she doesn’t miss a beat. “Using and paying and together with extra individuals from the tales which can be informed and which can be making individuals very, very wealthy,” she says. “In case you discover that you just’re telling lots of working-class tales, for instance, I want to see working-class illustration inside larger energy positions.” She provides a shrug that jogs my memory of Michelle. “It simply makes extra sense.”

Screw returns Wednesday 30 August at 9pm on Channel 4

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