Roles on TV and stage that are second to nun

Actress Siobhán McSweeney of Derry Girls fame talks to Ellie O’Byrne about getting to grips with a habit and her return to the stage
Roles on TV and stage that are second to nun

WEARING THE HABIT: Siobhán McSweeney as Sr Michael in Channel 4’s hit sitcom, Derry Girls.

“I’M a meme, for God’s sake. It’s bonkers!” Siobhán McSweeney laughs down the phone.

Her recent role as the dour Sister Michael in Channel 4’s hit sitcom Derry Girls has certainly made a mark, with compilations of her character’s hilariously dry one-liners doing the rounds on the internet.

It was a role Siobhán thoroughly enjoyed. “There was room to improvise and have the craic,” she says.

“You’re wandering around in a wimple and habit. The first day I got a taxi to the set, the driver said, ‘Great, it won’t take us too long to get there,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘I’ve a nun in the trunk’. I caught sight of myself in the mirror and said, ‘Oh my gosh, yeah, I’m a bloody nun!’”

It’s very easy to let puns about nasty habits take over when nuns make an on-screen appearance and, especially in comedy, they often tend to be two-dimensional figures of ridicule.

But a lot of the comedy of Sister Michael actually comes from how un-nun-like she is: sitting at a desk saying she can’t attend a retreat because of her judo class, or matter-of-factly asserting there’s something wrong with all priests. Siobhán says this is precisely her secret: playing Sister Michael “straight”.

PERFORMING ON STAGE: Siobhán McSweeney is set to feature in Kevin Barry’s dark comedy, Autumn Royal, which returns to tour nationwide in May. Picture: Darragh Kane
PERFORMING ON STAGE: Siobhán McSweeney is set to feature in Kevin Barry’s dark comedy, Autumn Royal, which returns to tour nationwide in May. Picture: Darragh Kane

“I’m the one with the least contact with nuns in my life,” she says. “Unlike some of the rest of the cast, I was never taught by them. I don’t have a typical ‘Sister Michael’ image in my head, so it was almost incidental to me that she was a nun. What was more important was that she’s a figure of authority, and what relationship that gives her with the girls.”

Siobhán is speaking from her home in London, on a brief respite from the maelstrom; she’s currently in rehearsals for her role in writer Kevin Barry’s play, Autumn Royal.

The Cork-born actress, who was raised in Aherla, may be virtually commuting back and forth to her country of birth at the moment, but she says London will remain home for now: as well as being a good base for someone in her profession, she also feeds off the vibrancy and capital city buzz of the UK metropolis.

The acting bug bit early for Siobhán, who attended Scoil Mhuire in Wellington Road. Graffiti Youth Theatre started an initiative called Activate when she was in her teens, and she attended.

“Then I went to UCC to study science, very badly,” she says. “The drama society there, Dramat, was a complete lifesaver.”

Sister Michael may be the role that’s propelled Siobhán into the national consciousness, but she’s been a well-respected professional actress, both on stage and screen, for well over a decade.

Her film and TV credits include The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Belfast-set TV series The Fall with Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan, and Alice Through The Looking Glass. She’s hardly, then, an overnight success?

“Listen, there are no overnight successes, and if there are, they’re very rare,” Siobhán says.

“I graduated from drama school in 2004 and I’ve been very lucky to have been working ever since. So much of every artistic profession is a perfect storm of luck, hard work and luck again. I’ve been very lucky, but I’ve not had anything along the lines of Derry Girls before: this is pretty special, and pretty bonkers.”

Although she says she always would have considered the stage to be her natural home, the fun-loving cast and crew on Derry Girls, and the critical acclaim the show has been met with, have given it a special place in Siobhán’s heart.

“It was the best fun, with the girls, with the lines, with the cast and crew,” she says, “but when you do something and everyone else enjoys it as well, that’s really special.”

FOR THE LOVE OF DRAMA: Siobhán McSweeny and Peter Campion as May and Timmy, in Kevin Barry’s Autumn Royal which is on tour again. The duo also starred alongside each other in Derry Girls. Picture: Darragh Kane
FOR THE LOVE OF DRAMA: Siobhán McSweeny and Peter Campion as May and Timmy, in Kevin Barry’s Autumn Royal which is on tour again. The duo also starred alongside each other in Derry Girls. Picture: Darragh Kane

The first episode of the sitcom was watched by more than 2.5 million viewers. Is she worried about the fame going to her head? She laughs: “I already couldn’t be more arrogant or pompous; how could it possibly go to my head?”

A second season of Derry Girls is underway, but Siobhán can’t comment on whether she’s kicked the habit, or whether there’ll be a resurrection of the role of Sister Michael.

But for now she’s got other fish to fry: she’s eagerly anticipating the revival of her role as May in Autumn Royal, the first play by novelist and honorary Cork man Kevin Barry.

It premiered last year and Siobhán, who plays the part of May, has been involved since the early days, having worked closely with Kevin, director Caitríona McLaughlin and her initial co-star Shane Casey, who himself has become something of a viral phenomenon recently: he plays the character of Billy Murphy, the Frank And Walters-singing bad guy in The Young Offenders.

In the play, May and Timmy are brother and sister, and carers to their aging, bed-bound father.

“It’s a situation of claustrophobia and isolation, which is always a great situation for comedy, but it’s also the reality of what carers have to go through,” Siobhán says. “The banality of the repetition, the putting your own life on hold to manage somebody else’s. In a similar vein to Kevin Barry’s other work, you’re laughing, but absolutely horrified at the same time.”

Autumn Royal is set on the north side of Cork city. With Shane Casey departing from the production, Offaly native Peter Campion is set to take on the role of Timmy as soon as he’s brushed up on his northside accent. But even here, there’s no escaping Derry Girls: Peter played heartthrob priest Father Peter in the show.

“It feels like coming full circle to work with Peter again,” Siobhán says.

The actress, whose grandfather was Cúil Aodha poet Pádraig MacSuibhe, is certainly tapping into some very dark material for the role of May, whose difficult position as carer for her father may strike a chord with many audience members.

“I thankfully don’t have anything as extreme in my own life as what May and Timmy go through,” Siobhán says, “But we all know what it’s like to mind someone; there’s something quite universal about it, and about natural life cycles.”

It may not be as tough as the life of a home carer, but an actor’s life also has its challenges: “There’s a lot of uncertainty. It’s such a cliché, but sometimes clichés are true: every actor, before the end of the job, goes, I’m never going to work again. Meryl Streep thinks that, for God’s sake. You’re thinking about the next gig and you’re thankful for the ones you have, and you hope to get another opportunity.

“Your life is basically in someone else’s hands very often: I’ve missed friends’ weddings for the sake of a job.”

But for Siobhán, there are moments of magic in her craft that make the uncertainties all worthwhile, and live theatre is still the home to a lot of these moments for her, despite her TV success.

“There’s a moment for me just before I go out on stage,” she says. “You’re in the wings, and it’s just before the crippling fear takes over, and you know that you’re moments away from becoming someone else. That’s gold.

“Also, I sound like a Hallmark card, but when you make somebody laugh, that’s one of the nicest things in the world. It’s a beautiful feeling, to hear the audience laugh.”

Autumn Royal is at The Everyman from May 1 to 5. Tickets: www.everymancork.com

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