Utopia star Fiona O'Shaughnessy: 'I don't like to watch too much violence...it's weird that I'm involved in this'

Back on our screens in Utopia as the elusive Jessica Hyde, Fiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins

It's been a good time for damaged kick-ass screen heroines – from Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to Malmo policewoman Saga Noren in The Bridge, anti-social, mildly Asperger's female protagonists have been so much the rage that they've already drifted into cliché; witness computer whizz Chloe O'Brian's makeover in the reboot of 24, the compelling 24: Live Another Day.

Last year, Channel 4's conspiracy thriller Utopia brought us another of these gun-toting female cultural outcasts. Her name was Jessica Hyde – as in the question that became the show's catchphrase: "Where is Jessica Hyde?"

The daughter of a misguidedly idealistic scientist who had created a virus that could sterilise the human race, Hyde spent the first series on the run from a secretive organisation called the Network, which was intent on spreading the virus through a flu-vaccination campaign. Having fallen into the Network's clutches at the end of the first series, Hyde has spent the first three episodes of the new series staring mutely into space and ignoring her interrogators' cajoling threats.

Last week, however, she finally made her escape, leaping down a waste-shoot for body parts. In short, she's back, covered in gunk but still recognisably the tall, dark avenging angel in tight jeans, leather bomber jacket and hollow stare, packing a pistol the size of her forearm.

"Neil the armourer is like my best friend… he's just been giving me some more gun training," says the Irish actress Fiona O'Shaughnessy, who plays Hyde, when we meet on location in the Leeds hospital that is standing in as Network HQ. "I knew all the makes of gun for a while and was showing off about it until you realise it doesn't make you very popular."

Strikingly photographed, ingeniously written (by Dennis Kelly, who also adapted the hit West End musical Matilda), and with a cast that includes Alexandra Roach, Neil Maskell and Stephen Rea, Utopia was one of my favourite shows of 2013. It is gleefully nasty – and as the second series began earlier this month, it found itself in trouble with The Mail on Sunday for imagining that Margaret Thatcher's close friend and adviser Airey Neave was murdered by the fictional Network, rather than very real Irish Republican terrorists.

O'Shaughnessy's Hyde provides a skewed moral centre to the often shockingly amoral happenings. "I love playing her," she says. "You have to engage in some really interesting patterns of thinking. She is completely untarnished by society, religion, politics and schooling."

 

O'Shaughnessy leaves to film her next scene, and once she has gone I turn to another journalist who had been present and we say in unison: "She is Jessica Hyde." By that we don't mean she's a damaged sociopath surviving on her wits, but that O'Shaughnessy's way of speaking, indeed her whole demeanour, is Hyde-like.

"As soon as she walked in, we knew it was her," says Utopia's director, Marc Munden. "Fiona is just so extraordinary, so eccentric but really interesting. The thing about Jessica is that there's a slightly Asperger's aspect to her and it takes a special person to deliver that."

"She's better than how I wrote it," enthuses Dennis Kelly. "I thought of a slightly cooler person, but Fiona brought a huge amount of emotion to it. That's what I love about her performance: you genuinely feel you don't know what she's going to do next."

Fiona O'Shaughnessy as the gun-toting Jessica Hyde in the second series of 'Utopia' Fiona O'Shaughnessy as the gun-toting Jessica Hyde in the second series of 'Utopia' (Channel 4)
I catch up with O'Shaughnessy in London a couple of months after the shoot, by which time she's tried living in Brighton and on an ashram in India – and quickly made her escape from both. "It felt like a spiritual prison," she says of the ashram. "There were these huge gates and they were always locked and it reminded me of being holed up in the Network's headquarters."

By the end of our interview, I will realise that this was a typically quixotic O'Shaughnessy escapade. As a backpacker in her late teens, for example, she found herself paying for her airfare home from Thailand by appearing in a local soap opera. "Every Tuesday night, I went over to some hotel and got dressed up in traditional Thai costume. They used to feed me my lines and I would say them."

So rather than "Where is Jessica Hyde?", perhaps the question should be: "Who is Fiona O'Shaughnessy, and why haven't we heard of her before Utopia?" Well, it quickly emerges that she is a hippie out of time. "I was meant to be in my prime in the 1960s, for sure," she says. "Actually it's been a real joy to accept that and step into 2014." And like Hyde, she gives the impression of having newly arrived from a parallel universe; she's a self-declared fantasist who keeps in touch with reality via an impish, self-deprecating sense of humour.

O'Shaughnessy says: 'I'm not married and I don't have children, nor do I want them; I think marriage was invented by priests to make people miserable so we'll all go to their churches' O'Shaughnessy says: 'I'm not married and I don't have children, nor do I want them; I think marriage was invented by priests to make people miserable so we'll all go to their churches' (Kalpesh Lathigra)
Born in Galway in the west of Ireland, O'Shaughnessy moved to Reading ("chalk and cheese", she says of the two towns) at the age of nine, where her father, an IT consultant "with the soul of a poet", moved with his job. "I was k forever attempting to run off back to Ireland," she says. "I got as far as the bridge at the top of the road a couple of times, until I noticed that no one was following me, so I went back."

She has the posture of a dancer – an early passion – but stopped when her knees gave in, although she finally realised another ambition, returning to Galway in her early twenties, where she started "making theatre, partying, falling in and out of love… Then, when I was 24, I moved to Dublin to take my life more seriously and got really lucky with my first job, playing Oscar Wilde's Salome at the Gate Theatre. I made a new family there; Michael Colgan, the Gate's artistic director for more than 30 years, and his wife, Susan Fitzgerald, took me under their wing, and I had a number of roles. I arrived pretty raw, they tell me… and left pretty pretentious!"

The backbone of her career has been in theatre, interspaced with small parts in films that range from a Peter Greenaway biopic to playing a prostitute in a Danny Dyer flick. "I was very camera-shy at that time," she says, explaining why her striking features aren't more familiar to those not au fait with the Dublin theatre scene. "It's easier to be shy on stage. I was a weird anti-actress actress. I was a pain in the arse, actually, for anyone who tried to represent me."

O'Shaughnessy as the lead in 'Salome', March 2007 O'Shaughnessy as the lead in 'Salome', March 2007
And then came Jessica Hyde. The new series of Utopia maintains – surpasses, even – the excellence of the first, and Hyde is becoming more human as she begins to search for love; there was a tender scene in the most recent episode in which she caressed a photograph of Ian, reminiscent of the scene in which the child gets the monster to smell a flower in James Whale's 1931 movie Frankenstein.

But Utopia is full of less moving moments, with an unapologetic violence that makes it the nearest thing to a graphic novel that television has yet managed. "I don't like to watch too much violence… weird that I'm involved in this," says O'Shaughnessy, before moving on to the "boring personal questions" habitually required by newspaper profiles.

"I'm 39, the same age as Jessica," she reluctantly reveals. "I love being 39 and can't wait to be 40. A lot of my friends are turning 40 this year and freaking out but I don't see what the big deal is. But I live in an ageist industry, so people are always saying, 'Button up the whole age thing – do you want to work?' And I'm not married and I don't have children, nor do I want them; I think marriage was invented by priests to make people miserable so we'll all go to their churches."

I point out that she's wearing a gold crucifix around her neck. "Yeah, but I like Christ… and I also like a bit of gold jewellery."

The second series of 'Utopia' continues on Channel 4 on Tuesday at 10pm

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor