rising stars

Jamie-Lee O’Donnell on being skint, Derry Girls, and her prison drama Screw: ‘For so long I was told my Derry accent was too strong, too working class’

O’Donnell might only be at the beginning of her career, but she is already a national treasure in Northern Ireland. She tells Ellie Harrison about how she got here

Sunday 27 August 2023 08:02 BST
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‘Everybody tries to do the Derry accent’
‘Everybody tries to do the Derry accent’ (Samuel Black)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

F***adoodledoo, there’s Michelle!” This is how Jamie-Lee O’Donnell – the actor who’s become synonymous with her profane Derry Girls character – is often greeted in the street. Usually, in a strong, not-always-convincing, Northern Irish accent. O’Donnell loves it. The Bafta-winning show that made her name – and imbued her with such a coarse vocabulary – may have ended 15 months ago, but the impressions will likely go on forever. “Everybody tries to do the Derry accent, and if I’m outside of Ireland, people always give it a wee go,” the 36-year-old says. “It’s really, really hard to do. But I’ve heard some brilliant ones.”

Derry Girls, Lisa McGee’s Nineties-set comedy about a gang of Northern Irish schoolgirls and one “wee English fella” living through the Troubles, became the most-watched series in Northern Ireland since modern records began in 2002. Over the course of its three-season run, from 2018 to 2022, the sitcom reshaped perceptions of Derry. Finding pockets of joy in traumatic times, it was by turns anarchic and bittersweet, bringing a female narrative to a conflict so overwhelmingly focused on men. By the time it ended last year, the show had won three Baftas. Critics, by and large, adored it; Martin Scorsese and Hillary Clinton (the latter’s daughter Chelsea even had a cameo in the finale) were among the show’s most famous fans.

In Michelle, the gobbiest of the Derry Girls, McGee had written O’Donnell a dream part: a funny, forthright, boy-mad teenager who was supremely quotable. O’Donnell played her with both chutzpah and brittleness. The role led straight into her playing a lead in Screw, the new Channel 4 show we’re here to discuss.

O’Donnell is in her friend’s house in Derry. She’s wearing an enormous, lime-green AC/DC T-shirt, her 5ft 2in frame lost somewhere inside it. It’s a strong look. And very different from the one she is sporting in prison drama Screw, as Rose. Mancunian-sounding and with many more nerves and much less swagger than Michelle, Rose arrived in season one of the show as a rookie officer. Now, she returns for season two after a six-week break from warding the cells at Long Marsh, experiencing gruesome flashbacks after discovering the body of a colleague who was killed with a gun she smuggled into the prison.

O’Donnell thinks she would probably struggle to work as a prison officer. She has heard some grim accounts, from speaking to screenwriter Rob Williams who worked in prisons, and other officers, about what the job is really like. “They’re almost in the forgotten section of the justice system,” she says. “It’s obviously an important part of our world and it doesn’t seem to really be talked about or supported or funded the way it should be.” She was taken aback to hear of prisoners being paid very little for work they do while serving time. A freedom of information request by Inside Times revealed last year that prisoners typically earn 50p per hour for work in prison workshops. “Things like that seem a bit strange and a bit unfair,” she says, adding that “the lack of mental health services that are available to prison officers” is “pretty shocking”.

Both prisoners and prison officers have been in touch with her to say how realistic they’ve found the show, especially because it represents “the lighter moments and the fact that there are people there who aren’t absolutely awful human beings”. Officers have told her, though, that one of the hardest things they have to do is detach themselves from what certain prisoners have done, in order to be caring towards them.

O’Donnell speaks very quickly. Listening to her chatter away is like having Netflix on 2x speed. While she was occasionally asked to slow down her speech on the set of Derry Girls, she was never asked to soften her accent on the series, something she had feared when she started acting. “Being from Derry and having my accent, I was told for so, so long that I would never get work in this accent,” she says. “I was told it was too strong, too working class, too specific, that no one can understand it. So I practised loads of accents, because I thought, when I get work, I’ll have as many ready to go as possible. Then after Derry Girls came out, it was the complete opposite. I was getting auditions for countries all over the world and they were like, ‘Keep the accent, we’ll work it in.’”

In ‘Screw'
In ‘Screw' (Channel 4)

O’Donnell has thought a lot about what she’d pick as her number one Michelle-ism. “The very first line I said on Derry Girls was ‘sláinte mother***ers’, so that’s always going to be my absolute favourite of favourites,” she says (“slainte” essentially means “to your good health” in Gaelic). “My first joke on the show was an abortion joke, so I loved that. And getting to say to [guest star] Liam Neeson, ‘It’s because we’re f***ing fenians.’ I mean, imagine being able to do that, as your job?”

Life without Derry Girls, O’Donnell says, is “definitely sad, but it went out on such a high that the thought of doing another one, like right away, I don’t know what it would do to the memory of it”. She wants to work with “fricking genius” McGee again, saying she would read the phonebook if she asked her to. O’Donnell credits the show with teaching her stamina as an actor – “Having to be a 16-year-old all day, every day is a lot when you’re not 16” – and she loved it for allowing her to “be a Derry person on that scale, show all the different sides to a Derry woman, and really, really perform in my own accent and my own environment”.

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O’Donnell grew up in Derry, and while she’d rather not discuss her family – she’s had issues with over-zealous fans approaching loved ones and friends – several times in our conversation she brings up her proud working-class roots. She never really considered drama school, as the fees made it inaccessible, but she did briefly study performing arts in England, at Leicester’s De Montfort University. “Being from Derry, working hard is just what we do,” she says. “So there was never any question of whether to keep going. If I faced an obstacle where I couldn’t afford something, or I didn’t have any support, I just sidestepped it and found another way. It was just like, ‘OK, that’s not going to work. What’s the next option. What’s the plan?’”

After dropping out of university, O’Donnell moved around various cities in the UK in search of work, and had gigs as a nightclub dancer, a panto performer, a barista… the list goes on. At one point, she even bought a corner shop. It wasn’t a good investment. She has previously said that she mostly spent that time eating crisp sandwiches and losing money.

O’Donnell also did a lot of promotional work. “I was a Moshi Monster for a while,” she says, deadpan, referring to the collectable figurines popular in the early 2010s. This particular promo job saw her stand around dressed as a character called Buster Bumblechops in a B&Q carpark in Liverpool. Another time, she handed out toilet roll outside the Manchester Arndale toilets for an Andrex campaign. It was ideal: the flexibility of the work allowed her to go to auditions and try to lock down an agent, and the requirement to be silly and perform in front of strangers gave her confidence.

Clockwise from top left: Louisa Clare Harland, Dylan Llewellyn, Nicola Coughlan, O’Donnell, Saoirse Monica-Jackson, Dylan Llewellyn in ‘Derry Girls’
Clockwise from top left: Louisa Clare Harland, Dylan Llewellyn, Nicola Coughlan, O’Donnell, Saoirse Monica-Jackson, Dylan Llewellyn in ‘Derry Girls’ (Channel 4)

In her mid-twenties, the roles started coming in. One of O’Donnell’s first parts was as a hard-partying uni student in Northern Irish drama 6Degrees. After that, she starred in the play I Told My Mum I Was Going on an RE Trip, by Julia Samuels, a verbatim production based on real accounts in which she portrayed an underage girl who decides to have an abortion. There were protests in Belfast when it was performed there. Another socially conscious project arrived in the form of Doing Money, a harrowing BBC Two film about modern slavery in the sex trade. Then came Derry Girls.

O’Donnell has spoken before about how, as her success has grown, she has struggled with her identity. Now, she says, she’s better at letting herself feel proud of her achievements. “Being able to go and buy shopping the first couple of times, and not having to check what anything cost and tally it up in your head as you’re going around, that was a big moment for me in realising that things had shifted,” she says. It took a few years of being in Derry Girls, and the paycheques that came with it, to stop worrying about money. “I was too careful,” she says, “I would just sort of panic about it sometimes, and I think I have to let go of that a wee bit, that sort of holding on to the past. Just allowing myself to relax and be like, ‘This is always going to be the way now, for me, and that’s not going to be taken away from me. No one can take that off me.’

“I imagine a lot of people from my background would feel like this too – when the tides start to turn, it feels like your identity is shifting as well. I’ve only started to realise now that that’s a really good thing, and I can take that to a positive place, and it doesn’t mean I have to forget about who I was or that my morals or my principles have changed. They haven’t, it’s just, it took a lot of getting used to, to be in this sort of financial bracket, when before I was so terrified of being skint or struggling or having nobody to rely on.”

She is passionate about more positions for working-class people in the industry. When I ask her what she’d like to see change, she doesn’t miss a beat. “Employing and paying and including more people from the stories that are told and that are making people very, very rich,” she says. “If you find that you’re telling a lot of working-class stories, for example, I would like to see working-class representation within higher power positions.” She gives a shrug that reminds me of Michelle. “It just makes more sense.”

Screw returns Wednesday 30 August at 9pm on Channel 4

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