As Derry Girls comes to an end, the actor opens up about the show’s success and optimism about Michelle and the future of her hometown
Written by Derry native Lisa McGee and based on her own teenage experiences, her misadventures (working at the local Chippy, talent shows at school and lust for the hot priest) made the comedy a worldwide hit, but the backdrop to the ongoing troubles of the 90s it was firmly grounded in the Northern Irish town. Incredibly funny and poignant in his depiction of growing up in a war zone, Derry girls will go down in history as one of the best sitcoms of the last decade.
In January 2018, four Northern Irish girls – writer-wannabe Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), her moon-ridden cousin Orla (Louisa Harland), boy-crazy Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) and the ever-scared Clare (Nicola Coughlan ) along with her tagalong “little English dude” James (Dylan Llewellyn) – were introduced to the world when Derry girls Premiered on Channel 4.
“I knew it was something special. The scripts were amazing, I laughed out loud when I read them,” says Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, who plays sharp-tongued fan favorite Michelle and also hails from Derry (she and Jackson are the only locals).
“We were all just hoping it would take off, but we never expected it to be so global,” she says. Towards the end of 2018, the series was introduced to an international audience when it arrived on Netflix to great acclaim – The Hollywood Reporter praised it as comedy of the year.
“The honesty of the characters – they’re all just a little sneaky – their relationships and the heart that Lisa puts into them is what makes the show what it is,” she continues.
“It’s also a really honest look at a working-class background. There are all these parts of the characters that feel specific but also seem universal. Anyone can understand and be a part of it Derry girls.”
Over the years, the show has welcomed several guest stars – a testament to just how popular it is with both audiences and the industry. Alongside Sinéad Keenan, Ardal O’Hanlon and Norman Cook (Fatboy Slim), the third series featured a cameo by Hollywood actor Liam Neeson – originally from Ballymena, just over an hour’s drive from Derry – as a police officer chasing the girls were found breaking into their school.
“We shot it before Christmas and keeping it a secret was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my entire life,” says O’Donnell.
“It was a dream come true to work with him, he is so professional but also very crazy. We were all so determined to keep it a secret because we knew how amazing a surprise was.”
No spoilers, but the finale’s special guest might even top it. Tonight (May 18) the series concludes with an hour-long special – a bonus episode after last night’s supposedly last episode. A year later, Erin and Orla play as they prepare for their all-important 18th birthday celebration – the event of the year that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement referendum threatens to overshadow.
“I wanted to leave her on the edge of adulthood. I wanted to end up with all those hopes and possibilities,” says McGee. “Besides, I’m the only author and I’m done.” It’s a touching and spirited hour of television that balances monkey costumes and the violence of the Troubles with ease, sending the girls (and James) into their futures with typical elation.
The last day of shooting was “more intense” than the last day of school, O’Donnell recalls. “It’s bittersweet,” she tells me over the phone, driving home from an audition. “We knew Lisa always wanted to do three shows and then send the characters on their journey, so we knew the end had to come eventually.”
Michelle is the most outspoken of the gang, always ready with a sarcastic joke – “Nobody ever really gets kicked out. Wanda Gallagher hasn’t even been deported, and she’s in the IRA” — or some elaborate scheme — to drug scones, skip work to dry chip shop owner Fionnula’s sambuca cabinet, or open a suitcase full of vodka take a trip just to see Take That so it’s declared a potential bomb.
“Everyone wants to be a Michelle. That’s pretty cool,” says O’Donnell. “I didn’t have her confidence or spitefulness as a teenager — I probably have it now … that’s probably not a good thing to say because she’s a little crazy.”
“Michelles is a very special type of Derry girl – fun, direct, fearless,” says McGee. “They tend to cause mischief. They don’t care who they insult and enjoy winding people down, but they’re incredibly loyal friends: they’d bury a body for you.”
It was O’Donnell’s ability to take the character seriously and give her a sense of warmth that won her the role. “Her acting is so technical and precise, but there’s something else about her — a magical quality that’s hard to pinpoint.”
O’Donnell thinks more about what she’s saying than her on-screen counterpart. Their answers are short, sometimes succinct, and always democratic. She denies that Michelle gets the best lines – “A lot of people say that to me, but I think all the characters are really fleshed out. It’s a real ensemble piece” – and strives to steer the conversation away from anything that may be controversial, including the Troubles and her age (which appears to be shrouded in mystery – she once refused to answer the “misogynist” question about Ireland Late Late Show – although she is believed to be in her early thirties).
Any hesitation is probably because now Derry girls is over, she is at a professional crossroads. “Now when you go to an audition, people already know your work, which is very nice. It just breaks the ice a little easier.”
Is she worried about being typecast as Michelle? “It’s good and bad, isn’t it?” She says. “I’m really happy that people have responded so well to the character and people are complimenting it. Derry girls changed my career, but I’m like any other actor – I’m just dying to work.”
O’Donnell says her upbringing was similar to McGee’s. “We grew up with a civil war and its aftermath, so certain settings aren’t always easy. But there is always so much love and respect and warmth in your community and in your family. There’s always a very strong feeling of protectiveness towards each other.”
She came from a family of artists – “you would hardly find a family in Ireland that didn’t have a singer or a musician” – and had a passion for dancing and reading that turned into a love of acting.
In this last series of Derry girls, their worlds collided when the gang starred as the Spice Girls on their school talent show – Michelle was cast as Scary, the same role O’Donnell took on as a youngster in her family’s living room. “It was life-changing,” she laughs. “I’ve always been creepy — it’s the big hair and the bad attitude.”
In January, the actor starred in another Channel 4 series, the Rob Williams drama screwas Prison Officer Rose opposite Nina Sosanya (Its dark materials). Out of her comfort zone, overwhelmed and English, Rose was worlds away from Michelle, but a subtle, believable performance proved O’Donnell can pull off so much more than the chatty teenager she’s best known for.
Her next project is closer to home as she presents a documentary about the history and more importantly the future of Derry. With the project still in its early stages, she is again reluctant to say much, but Channel 4 has promised the film will “explore how the city has changed since it was raised in the Catholic community and the impact of the troubles.” are still felt among the younger generation”.
Derry girls has made the city a tourist destination, and a mural of Erin, Orla, Michelle, Clare and James has graced the site of Badger’s Bar on Orchard Street. “I love the fact that the show has helped tourism in the city and that people are proud of it,” says McGee.