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Siobhán McSweeney has always spoken her mind. Growing up in Cork with a “combative” father and “women’s lib” mother, the actor learnt during childhood that nothing was more important than staying on your toes. “You had to be quick and able to hold yourself to account and hold whatever position you were holding to account,” she says. “I got sent to speech and drama[lessons], I think, literally so that I could be understood,” and hold her own from a young age. She parrots her parents for a moment: “‘If she’s going to talk, we might as well understand what she’s saying,’” then pauses. “Then of course, that led to my love of drama and ruined their lives.”
For as long as she’s worked in the industry, McSweeney has been speaking out – by her own admission, there were just less people listening before. Five years ago, there’d been roles in The Fall and Channel 4’s police procedural No Offence, but the 42-year-old still broadly considered herself a theatre actor. Then she was cast as Sister Michael in Derry Girls, Lisa McGee’s coming-of-age comedy set during The Troubles, and everything changed. A teacher at the all-girls school attended by the titular band of misfits, Sister Michael is known for her deadpan comments and permanent state of eye roll. As audiences in the UK and beyond fell in love with Derry Girls, the opportunities began to fly in for McSweeney: roles in shows she still can’t mention, an appearance on The Great British Bake Off and even a gig presenting The Great Pottery Throw Down.
Her latest project took her back where it all began. McSweeney stars in Holding, an ITV drama based on Graham Norton’s bestselling novel of the same name, where a small Irish town is rocked after human remains are discovered on an old farm. Directed by actor Kathy Burke, it features an all-star cast (Charlene McKenna, Brenda Fricker, Pauline McLynn) and brings an unexpected, offbeat sense of humour to your ordinarily gritty, Monday night ITV murder mystery. McSweeney plays Bríd Riordan, whose missing former partner is suspected to be the murder victim, making her a key suspect.
Holding is set and filmed in Cork, near where McSweeney grew up, so she feels a “huge responsibility” for the show. As we speak over Zoom, the actor dressed in a tropical dressing gown, you can tell she’s nervous about how the programme is being perceived. “There is a specific, long history of the way Ireland and Irish people have been portrayed in British media,” she says. “This show plays somewhat with that. And unless you stick with it, you don’t really see it… I think it’s a show that is a lot more radical than it might at first appear.”
She’s aware that the show’s combination of comedy and drama might be surprising to some, but for her they’re obvious bedfellows. “I think people get confused when they see humour in something, that they think that it’s perhaps trivial, or that it’s not realistic when in fact my experience with a lot of f***ing grief is that humour is our most human aspect,” she says. “Rather than clutching a skull and staring out a window. It’s actually humour that gets us through the s***.”
McSweeney has always felt comfortable performing comedy and Holding gives her plenty of that to work with. Yet last Monday’s episode pushed her in ways she’d never been before. The episode concluded with a sex scene between Bríd and police officer PJ (Conleth Hill, aka Varys in Game of Thrones). It was softly lit and intimate, and left me realising just how rarely we see scenes like this play out between people who don’t have stick-thin bodies on screen. For McSweeney, it was an experience that left her “s*** scared”, while Hill was “very, very apprehensive” too.
The fact that neither actor is usually asked to do sex scenes was part of the reason Burke cast them. “The narrative is that people like me and Conleth… that’s not what we want to see,” McSweeney says. ”And that’s not the reality… There’s love and tenderness and sensuality everywhere, in every body… There’s a craft to comedy, but there’s a vulnerability with this that if you haven’t been asked to do it before, you are going to feel nervous around it. I mean, I was also incredibly excited to do it as well because I feel that it’s about f***ing time. And everybody deserves to see my tits.”
When McSweeney talks about Holding, she uses similar language to the way she describes …Pottery Throw Down. Both, she says, are “gentle… but actually, there’s no lack of thought, there’s no lack of intellect or edge.” Airing on Channel 4, the competition series is steeped in kindness – imagine Bake Off if Paul Hollywood (in this case, ceramicist Keith Brymer Jones) was moved to tears every episode. Yet the competition series was recently called “UK television’s most quietly radical show”, an assessment McSweeney is in agreement with. Radical, it would seem, is a word that can’t keep away from her.
McSweeney says she was drawn to Pottery Throw Down because it “doesn’t make a fuss over certain things”.
“It just quietly gets on with the job at hand,” she continues, “which is about the pots, it’s about the clay and everybody is in service to that one thing. Nobody is bigger than the job they have, we’re all a cog in the wheel… At its very heart, [it’s] a very kind show.”
That in itself, she says, is revolutionary – “to show intelligence and compassion and empathy and hard work and smarts without putting somebody else down. That’s f***ing hard to do.” She picks up a small black pebble from her desk and holds it to the camera. “Look, I’m holding a stone here now, look how smooth that is. That’s from gentle rubbing, not from somebody f***ing chiselling away at it like. Metaphor, Izzy! You got a f***ing metaphor!”
With the fifth series of Pottery Throw Down having just finished filming when Holding began, it’s been a busy time for McSweeney. Coming soon is the last series of Derry Girls and it’s been a long time coming. Series two aired in 2019, with filming for the final outing delayed again (and again) due to the pandemic and finally taking place in December. After so many setbacks, McSweeney says the experience was a little deflating – “weird” and “not entirely pleasant”.
“I wonder whether the momentum was gone slightly,” she ponders. “The pandemic took the momentum out of things and then we’re doing it and it’s almost like Diet Coke – all the taste, none of the calories. We couldn’t hang out and we were filming a little bit later than we normally do… It was still wonderful and getting to play Sister Michael and getting to hang out with Father Peter and the grown-ups. I’m very happy doing this. But it’s also knowing that it was the last time, so everything was bittersweet about it. It wasn’t great, but how could it have been?”
While McSweeney was never taught by nuns like Sister Michael, she was educated in a single-gender environment and credits it for helping her find her voice. “[At] a girls’ school I could be a clown in my class,” she says. “I’m not sure I would have been allowed to be if it was a mixed class, because I’m not sure if I’d have been allowed to fail… I mean it is a cliché, isn’t it, that boys don’t like funny women.” I mention a teacher from my years at a girls’ school who said that the students stopped speaking when they mixed lessons in sixth form. She nods in recognition. “Right? And there’s just the thing of like, even if they do speak, they wouldn’t be listened to. You’d make a joke and then some f***ing spotty c*** says it badly and gets the bigger laugh and you’re like, ‘It’s my joke.’”
Now that her voice is being heard, McSweeney is determined to use it. Along with her Derry Girls co-star Nicola Coughlan, she was a vocal supporter in the campaign to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland (it was decriminalised in October 2019), but say there’s “an eye roll” when actors get political. “‘Just stick to the acting,’” she recalls being told. “Do you think that I don’t have an opinion about the outside world, I don’t have any sort of an ideology? Why is it OK for a teacher to be political, or a shopkeeper to be political, but not for an actor to be political? It’s a way of shutting us up.” The industry, she says, would rather they said nothing, adding: “If they could replace us with meat puppets, that would be even better, wouldn’t it?”
Fortunately, McSweeney has no intention of shutting up – or slowing down, for that matter. “[I spent] 15 years of waiting for the phone to ring, going, ‘Maybe they’ll need an Irish maid in it. Hi, could you ring Dublin again, maybe Dublin has heard of me? No, don’t want me either. No, that’s fine. I’ll wait, I’ll wait,’” she says. “Now it’s that whole thing of like, oh, people want me, I can’t say no. Also, I love my work… I’m getting really interesting stuff to do, which is amazing. So long may it continue.”
Through the screen, she looks into my eyes. “Make sure it continues. Can you write something in your article to make sure that it continues?” I’ll try my best, I promise. Somehow, I don’t think she needs my help.
‘Holding’ continues Mondays at 9pm on ITV