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Genevieve O'Reilly: 'I can't understand how Howell and Stewart, who were such respectable members of their community, ended up committing this double murder'

This week the chilling story of Northern Ireland couple, dentist Colin Howell and his lover Hazel Stewart, who murdered their spouses, is being retold in the ITV drama, The Secret. Genevieve O'Reilly tells Karen Ireland that playing Stewart was one of her most challenging roles.

Published 25/04/2016

Lovers’ pact: Genevieve O’Reilly as Hazel Stewart in The Secret with James Nesbitt as Colin Howell
Lovers’ pact: Genevieve O’Reilly as Hazel Stewart in The Secret with James Nesbitt as Colin Howell
Toughest part: Genevieve O’Reilly was hesitant about taking the role of Hazel Stewart in The Secret
Strong role: Genevieve O’Reilly (left) as Hazel Stewart with Glenn Wallace as Trevor Buchanan in The Secret
Royal role: Genevieve as the lead in the drama Diana: The Last Days Of A Princess
Genevieve O’Reilly as Hazel Stewart in The Secret
Hazel Stewart
Colin Howell

She is playing one of Northern Ireland's most notorious murderers but actress Genevieve O'Reilly admits she had no idea who Hazel Stewart was before she was offered the part in The Secret.

"I hadn't heard anything about the case before I read the script," she reveals.

Dublin-born actress Genevieve (39) says that when she read the script she was immediately drawn into the Stewart/Howell web of deceit and lies, and ultimately murder.

But the actress, who has appeared in both The Matrix sequels, admits she was hesitant about taking on such a challenging role.

Genevieve, who grew up in Australia and is a mother of two, admits she has struggled to comprehend why the two lovers who had families and comfortable lives would contemplate such cold-blooded murders of their partners so they could be together.

And some of the key scenes, the one in which Stewart eventually confesses to her part in the 1991 killings in particular, proved to be one of the toughest things Genevieve has ever done in her acting career.

"I didn't know anything about the case when I got the script," she says. "I did know I wanted to play Hazel but I was also anxious as this is real life.

"We are not working with fiction - this is the truth and there are real lives and real people involved here," she adds, conscious of the sensitive nature of story and the impact it could have on the families of Hazel Stewart and Colin Howell after the murders and subsequent high-profile trial.

When offered the part, though, Genevieve did her research and realised it was one of Northern Ireland's most talked-about crimes.

"I discovered everyone knew this story and there was such a buzz surrounding it," the actress says.

"So taking on such a controversial and well known role was always going to be a real challenge."

"The script was compelling and fascinating and extremely dark," she adds about The Secret, in which she stars alongside Ballymena-born actor Jimmy Nesbitt (51), who plays dentist Colin Howell who fell in love with Sunday school teacher Stewart, who is from Coleraine where Nesbitt grew up. The illicit relationship would lead them both to plot a double murder.

The TV series was shot on location in Coleraine and Castlerock, in some cases the exact spot where the accomplices planned their chilling crimes.

Approaching the role as an actress, though, Genevieve believes it was to her advantage that she hadn't been privy to the newspaper headlines generated by the case prior to being offering the role, adding: "I think it was good that I didn't know too much about the story coming into it as I could bring a fresh take on it."

And she feels the dynamic between herself and Nesbitt will translate well on screen. She says: "Working with Jimmy (Nesbitt) was fantastic. He is amazing and a true professional and he is so passionate about his work. He works really hard and is a great co-star. A true pro.

"I read all the media coverage of the event and retired journalist Deric Henderson's book 'Let This Be Our Secret' on which the drama is based, prior to shooting which gave me insight into the story.

"But the one thing I was conscious of all the time was that there are a lot of innocent victims to this story. Not just Trevor Buchanan and Lesley Howell, but also their children who must carry so much pain and I wanted to do justice to the story for them.

"I think as a team and production we have stayed close to the truth and told the story as it happened. This is an observational piece of what happened at a certain time."

Despite her awareness of this, Genevieve is confident the TV show will be well-received particularly by people here.

"I think the results are fantastic and I am really looking forward to seeing how local audiences who know the story so well respond to how we have told it," she says.

"That was my only reservation about taking on such a role. I wanted to be respectful of the families involved."

Genevieve left Dublin when she was five and moved to Australia. She was raised in Adelaide, where she followed her dream and went to the National Institute of Dramatic Art to learn her craft as an actress.

Now married with two young children, she moved back to London in 2005, as she thought there would be more prospects for the type of work she wanted to do which was stage and screen - and this has reaped many recent theatre roles for Genevieve in addition to her TV and film work.

And while she is concerned about the repercussions of playing Hazel Stewart, she is no stranger to playing controversial real women as she took up the role of the late Princess Diana in a TV drama, Diana: The Last Days of a Princess in 2007, again, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the much-loved princess.

"That was an amazing role and a terrific honour," she says.

She has also appeared in Spooks and Episodes.

Genevieve's likeness to Stewart has been remarked upon, but it's not the first time the actress has been praised for her chameleon-like abilities in an acting role.

She has been compared to Aussie actress Cate Blanchett and when playing Isabelle in Trevor Nunn's 2011 stage version of Birdsong both he and the author, Sebastian Faulks, remarked on her likeness to the character. Nunn said: "I thought she was remarkable," with Faulks adding "It's absolutely extraordinary. Her colouring is as Isabelle is described in the book, which is precisely what excites Stephen (the lead character) most."

Her career has also included appearances in everything from blockbuster movies such as Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith as Mon Mothma to Avatar in which had a leading role as Dash McKenzie to Richard II at the Old Vic, where she played the Queen to Kevin Spacey's Richard in 2005, and most recently Mike Bartlett's 13 at the Royal National Theatre. Indeed, she is set to revive her Star Wars character of Mon Mothma in Rogue One later this year.

But this in-demand actress is also a busy working mum with two children under six. Married to her Australian-born husband, Luke Mulvihill, who is a chiropractor, she says of parenthood: "I just do my best. I know lots of men who juggle work and childcare too. We just get on with it and do the best we can."

However, her latest project has been one of her toughest roles to date, and she found some of the scenes very distressing.

"It was harrowing in parts, particularly Hazel's confession which in real life took over three days and we had the police transcripts from the time and were working off those. Those scenes were difficult to film," she says.

Genevieve adds the tragic events of the two lovers prepared to kill their partners has left her wondering why it happened at all.

"Ultimately, I have found it difficult to understand this story.

"How did two people who had such good and comfortable lives and were respectable members of their community end up committing this double murder?

"I still have questions so I hope the audience will be left with questions too."

When asked if she thought like so many that Hazel Stewart was brainwashed by Howell to commit the murder, she is adamant in terms of her culpability,

"No, she opened the door to him that night. She let him in. Her children were asleep upstairs in bed. She helped him get her husband into the car and she cleaned up the house afterwards," she says.

"She played her part and she carried that with her for over 20 years. It isn't called The Secret for nothing."

  • The Secret will be screened on ITV on Friday at 9pm

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