‘Derry Girls’ star Jamie-Lee O’Donnell: “I was advised to pick a different accent”

As she prepares to wave goodbye to potty-mouthed Michelle from Channel 4's hit Irish sitcom, Beth Webb meets the rising actor to hear what's next

Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, who broke international ground as the enchantingly gobby Michelle in Irish comedy Derry Girls, is ready to be taken seriously. The 29-year-old, a Derry native herself, next appears on screen in Channel 4’s prison drama Screw, as a new guard on an all-male prison block. “I liked this idea of a young woman going into an untrusted environment and not being intimidated by it,” O’Donnell says of her character Rose from her home in Derry.

The actor is far less raucous than the shots-swigging, hemline-hitching Michelle, but she is just as energetic, at first apologising in case the room she’s Zooming in from seems messy (it’s not), and then chatting excitedly throughout our conversation. She’s back in town to wrap up the third and final season of Derry Girls, a career highpoint that she finds “really sad and heartbreaking,” but one that also hails new beginnings.

Screw
The cast of Channel 4 prison drama ‘Screw’. CREDIT: Channel 4

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Screw was a conscious shift away from Derry Girls – a chance for O’Donnell to play it straight alongside an all-new cast and crew. “I was actively looking for something like this so I can show people what I can do,” she says. Through Rose, we see inside prison life with all its complex politics and corruption, as well as the camaraderie between inmates and (sometimes) employees. The show was written by Killing Eve scribe Rob Williams, who drew on his own experiences of working and volunteering in prisons in order to bring the script its authenticity. “It was important for Rob to stay honest, which is why you don’t see the prisons as all being evil and horrible, and all the prison officers are noble,” says O’Donnell. Additionally, she spoke with real life guards to get detailed accounts of their day-to-day work. “We learned about the physicality of the job, like how you would stand if there was an argument, which way you face, all of the intricacies that you wouldn’t have a clue about.”

O’Donnell’s relationship with acting stems from childhood. “I don’t even remember making the decision,” she says. “I just remember it’s where I was happiest.” She would spend her spare time building worlds for herself and dressing up in costumes. “I would make up these performances and dances and go, ‘these are brilliant!’ when they obviously weren’t,” she laughs. She loved American shows like Sister Sister, and listened to Destiny’s Child’s ‘The Writing’s On The Wall’ and Christina Aguilera’s ‘Stripped’ on heavy rotation. “I went through a period of thinking that if I could just grow up in America, that would save everything,” she says. “You get this idea of what life is like there through TV, where it just looks like everybody’s having fun and is really happy.” As a working-class girl living in a Northern Irish city, O’Donnell worried about breaking into the industry. She took random jobs and saved up money, while immersing herself in Derry’s arts scene. “I feel like creativity seems to rise up wherever there’s been sadness or conflict as a coping mechanism,” she says.

Jamie-Lee O'Donnell
Jamie-Lee O’Donnell (left) in ‘Derry Girls’. CREDIT: Alamy

O’Donnell began to audition for school plays, and scoured the local paper for theatre workshops. She would land her first acting job in 2012, in university drama 6 Degrees, which ran from 2012 to 2015 on Irish network RTE. It would be on a touring production of a play called I Told my Mum I Was Going On An R.E. Trip however, that she received a phone call that would change her life. The casting agent for Derry Girls wanted her to come to London the following morning for a chemistry read. “I loved the script, especially because it was about Derry,” she remembers. “But I obviously never imagined at the time that it would become as big as it is.”

The first day on set brought with it a “cacophony of excitement,” O’Donnell remembers. The core cast – who play a gang of hopeless high schoolers coming of age amid the Troubles during the 1990s – became instant friends. “I remember Nicola [Coughlan] saying on the day: ‘Can you imagine if people dress up as us for Halloween?’” she says. “Now I get sent photos all the time from hen parties and even stag parties of people dressed as Michelle.”

Derry Girls
‘Derry Girls’, immortalised in a mural outside Badger’s Bar in Derry. CREDIT: Alamy

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The show was an instant hit, with a second series ordered shortly after the pilot had aired on Channel 4. It has gone on to become the channel’s most successful sitcom since Father Ted, and the girls (and token boy) are now immortalised in mural form on the wall of Badger’s Bar in Derry. O’Donnell has a catalogue of iconic Michelle moments that she holds dear to her heart, but her favourite scene from the show takes place in the closing moments of the first series, in which the girls (and boy) are taking part in a cringeworthy dance routine during the school’s talent contest. The routine is cut together with shots of the older cast at home, watching the news coverage of the 1998 Omagh bombing in horror. “From what I understand that was what it was like for older and younger generations on both sides,” she says. “To be a part of that scene was so special to me.”

O’Donnell can’t reveal much about the upcoming season, she does promise a new level of maturity from Michelle and her drama peers. “I think that it’s nice to note that we are growing up slightly, it’s a nice thing to end on,” she says. “Of course, there’s still loads of absolute madness.” She also likes that the show maintains a sense of realism. “You have to remember that these are working-class girls,” she says. “They don’t have money for adventures. The way that Lisa [McGee, the show’s creator and writer] keeps them true to their backgrounds is genius.”

The show is due to wrap a few days after our mid-December chat. Screw is next on the cards for O’Donnell, and then she’s set for the big screen in Irish horror Unwelcome opposite Douglas Booth and Hannah John-Kamen. “I absolutely loved it,” she says of the physically demanding shoot, which sees her facing off against a batch of murderous goblins. She’s also writing, although she’s not quite ready to take the leap and pitch what she’s got so far. “It’s weird. I find it more vulnerable and scarier to show people your writing as opposed to your acting,” she says. Then, there’s the production company that she hopes to start in the future, to help rising actors from challenging backgrounds. “When I was coming up as an actor, even when I was going to Irish roles, I was advised to pick a different accent because mine was so strong,” she remembers. “It made me sad because in my head I [thought I] wasn’t good enough.” Now the script has flipped, with casting directors telling her to keep her accent, no matter what country they’re based in. It seems the world has finally opened up for this working-class Destiny’s Child fan from Derry.

‘Screw’ debuts tonight (January 6) on Channel 4 at 9pm and is available on All 4

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