“It’s mad. A lot of people presume I’m similar to Michelle so if they see me in a restaurant, they’ll try and buy me shots and it’s two o’clock in the afternoon,” she says.
“With a lot of jobs I’ve done, I’m the only person with the sort of background I’m from.”
Channel 4’s Derry Girls has been a huge hit since it first aired in 2018. Created and written by Lisa McGee, it’s set in Northern Ireland in the 1990s and is inspired by her own encounters as a teenager living in Derry during the latter days of the Troubles and ensuing peace process.
Poignant and funny, it doesn’t strive to make a political statement, but instead depicts the ridiculous and heartbreaking experiences of the teenage Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson) and the people who populate her life, including boring Uncle Colm (Kevin McAleer), who can make a hostage situation sound dull, and cynical Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney), the school’s headmistress.
Michelle is one of Erin’s four best friends whose fearlessness is only matched by her obsession with getting off with boys, including the British soldiers who board the school bus, and as she has no filter, has some of the best lines.
“I’ve noticed every time someone comes up to me about Michelle, nine times out of 10 they’ll say ‘I was the Michelle’ or they knew a Michelle, so maybe it’s some sort of infamous type of personality. But Lisa and Mike [Lennox], the director, are always keen for us to just really go for it with the lines and see what happens. It’s always good craic.”
O’Donnell grew up in Derry but was in primary school at the time the series is set.
“I know a lot of people who were teenagers then and obviously it’s based loosely on Lisa’s life, so I talked loads to her. It’s a small world and my cousin was in her class, so it was good to chat to her too.”
When the series debuted, some headlines focused on the fact the cast are years older than the characters they depict, much to their irritation.
“The reason we don’t really want to talk about it is because from the very start, no one ever asked Dylan [Llewellyn who plays Michelle’s English-born cousin James] about it and it became a really contrived issue about women,” says O’Donnell who’s 33.
On paper it might seem ludicrous but the actors don’t look distractingly older than they should on screen, nor do they act it on set.
“You just easily slip back to that attitude and frame of mind as soon as you put the school uniform on, and obviously there’s a group of us, so there is a bit of a pack mentality on set. Whenever one of us starts to act a bit like a teenager, we all get involved,” notes O’Donnell, who reveals all she needs is a squirt of strong hold mousse to get into character.
“It’s that old 1990s look, like you could almost break the curls off. As soon as I get styled up like that, it starts to get very Michelle.”
Although the cast and crew knew they were working on something special, the success of Derry Girls (it was Channel 4’s biggest UK comedy launch episode for 15 years) surprised everyone, and, shots aside, “the attention can be really intimidating”, she admits.
“I’m not the most outgoing person day to day. I was in Tesco yesterday and there was someone just filming for ages, which was really weird.”
But she’s aware the show’s popularity has given her a platform, which is why she’s honoured to become a patron of the Liverpool-based youth theatre company
20 Stories High, which explores themes that are often sidelined.
‘When Julia [Samuels, the co-founder] mentioned it to me, it was a no-brainer because they never shy away from interesting topics that really mean something to young people,” explains O’Donnell.
Unfortunately, lockdown means she can only provide support from a distance as she’s not allowed to travel from Derry where she lives with her partner.
“The first thing you’d think to do is hop over to Liverpool and meet everybody properly, but we’re doing a lot of Zoom meetings and some Q&As with the young people. It’s a strange time but we’re going to power through until I can get over there and get stuck in.”
O’Donnell’s first meeting with 20 Stories High was in 2016 when she auditioned for the play I Told My Mum I Was Going On An RE Trip, which explored issues of abortion. Based on real-life interviews, the actors delivered lines verbatim through an earpiece. Greeted with acclaim, it was later turned into a film for BBC Two and is currently on iPlayer as part of the Culture in Quarantine series.
“It was nice to work on that topic and to have a 50:50 conversation rather than it be one-sided. The topic is something I’m passionate about. I’m very confident in my views on abortion, especially living here and growing up here, and it was something I was happy to do,” says O’Donnell, although the contentious subject matter did result in some backlash, primarily on Twitter.
“It was always the same old things being said, just slagging me off, and there was no real conversation to be had. I don’t give too much time to people like that because it’s not really an intelligent argument. I’ve lived through it with a lot of friends, so I’m happy to have a conversation about it, even if people don’t agree.”
Not only is it the aim of 20 Stories High to tackle provocative issues, but to make the arts accessible to youngsters from working class and culturally diverse backgrounds. This is something O’Donnell is keen to support because she’s experienced the reality first hand.
“I’ve found with a lot of jobs I’ve done, I’m the only person with the sort of background I’m from, so I do think there is an under-representation of people from working class backgrounds. It’s really important to have that outlet and space to be creative, and it’s also interesting to have variation. You don’t want to hear the same voice over and over,” she says.
“But it starts with having access to the arts from a young age and for it to be seen as something accessible and a journey that anybody can go on. I think coming from the sort of background I do, it can seem like a million miles away.”
Growing up in a large family and with lots of mates on a “big street in a council estate”, O’Donnell relished performing from an early age, whether it was forcing reluctant friends to form a band with her, or reading her own poetry to unenthusiastic family members.
“The poetry wasn’t great, to be fair, but I was happiest when I was performing or being creative,” she says. Her ambitions weren’t shared by tutors, however.
“I remember my teachers would always tell me to get my head out of the clouds. It was like I was wasting my time and it was regarded as a bit of a pipe-dream. In the nicest and most supportive way possible they’d say I needed to take schoolwork more seriously, and I did, but I was always very ambitious about my acting career.”
She auditioned for school plays and kept an eye out for theatre workshops in the local paper, before studying performing arts. “I didn’t go to drama school. It wasn’t something my family could afford at the time, so I just had to find my own path,” says O’Donnell, who combined dancing and acting work, and found her first agent through a fellow panto performer.
“I was always upping and moving away if I had to, just trying to follow opportunities and find my feet. I’ve definitely learnt on the job, especially looking back on old auditions, which were absolutely terrible. But it’s just about learning the technique sometimes and I’ve certainly learned the hard way. You’ve just got to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on whenever you get a rejection, which happens a lot.”
Her first TV job was the Northern Ireland series 6 Degrees in 2012, about a group of university students in which she played the candid and impetuous
“It was surreal, and terrifying as well because everyone else had so much experience. I was just thinking, God, I’m going to be terrible, and all this self-doubt came in but once I got going I really enjoyed the process and everyone was really lovely so it made it a wee bit easier, thankfully. And to finally get on a set, it made me realise TV was definitely something I wanted to pursue, rather than just theatre.”
Given much of the television industry is at a standstill as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, O’Donnell’s currently waiting, not all that patiently (“I like to keep busy”) to hear when the third series of Derry Girls can start shooting. Beyond the next instalment, she’s unsure whether there will be another season as the girls are edging towards the end of school.
“It’s up to Lisa how she wants to move forward with it but there are loads of opportunities for spin-offs because all the characters are so well-written,” remarks O’Donnell, but she’s keen to explore other roles too. “I definitely want to do more gritty drama, and keep challenging myself as much as possible. I’m just looking forward to the next adventure.”
Julia Samuels founded the youth theatre company 20 Stories High alongside Keith Saha in 2006.
“We work with young people and our guiding principle is everybody’s got a story to tell and their own way of telling it,” says the co-artistic director.
“I suppose we’re interested in stories the mainstream might not celebrate, accommodate or make accessible. There are so many different reasons why people are disadvantaged, and that might be to do with cultural identity, economic and social background, disability. Whatever it is, you need to name it and address it.
“Within the last few years, we’ve started using class terminology a lot more in how we talk about our work, our audiences and our participants. At 20 Stories High, we’re campaigning to make the industry change itself, so that it is more accessible, and people do stand a better chance of having equal success at it, whatever their background.
“While there has been progress made in terms of addressing the appalling lack of diversity in the arts, there’s still such a long way to go. The economic impact of Covid-19 is a big worry across the whole sector.
“What we do is important for communities and young people, for their wellbeing and creativity. I hope funders, partners and policy makers will see that as valuable going forwards, but we appreciate anyone who wants to get involved and show their support. With the economic recession that’s about to hit us all, we’ve got to fight really hard to make sure that diverse voices and people who have got lots of barriers to engagement aren’t pushed out the picture.”