Actress Seainin Brennan: 'Life is so much easier in Belfast ... the people who I love now live close to me'
Belfast actress Seainin Brennan, who is in Sinners at the Lyric Theatre, tells Lee Henry why our up and coming film and TV industry means she can finally put down roots in her native city.
Seainin Brennan is well known to audiences in Northern Ireland and much further afield for her role as Frances in primetime cop show Hidden, in which she starred alongside Philip Glenister and David Suchet, and as the troubled Liz Tyler in bona fide televisual phenomenon The Fall, in which she played the abused wife of a loyalist paramilitary.
But things could have been a lot different for Seainin, who may well have settled elsewhere in order to fulfil her ambitions to perform had our burgeoning indigenous film industry and "thriving" theatre scene not provided her with the "unbelievable opportunities" she has experienced to date.
Having put down roots in London after giving up a well-paid lobbyist job in Brussels, the Belfast actress was resigned to living the life of a jobbing actor in a cut-throat market, attending countless auditions, competing for parts with thousands of other would-be actors and paying through the nose for the privilege.
A self-confessed home bird, however, Seainin was pleasantly surprised to bag roles back home during her time in the Big Smoke, and today admits to being "ecstatic" that she is able to live, love and work in Belfast among friends, family and a growing pool of other professionals.
"Don't get me wrong," says Seainin, who was born and raised in the Malone Road area of south Belfast, "I didn't dislike living in London, not at all. There was so much to do there. Every day I could visit a different museum, a different arts centre, a different theatre. It was cosmopolitan and multicultural, and I loved that about London.
"But everything is so much easier in Belfast, and all of the people I love now live close to me. My parents and my husband Ben's parents are both just two minutes away from us.
"It's also the simple things that I love about Belfast. If you want to meet friends for a coffee, you phone them up and can be together in Stranmillis half an hour later. In London, it would take two days' planning. It's not possible to be spontaneous in London, and the industry there is tough."
The Northern Irish film sector, according to Seainin, has created a lifeline for many actors, artists, cast and crew who might otherwise have been forced to seek out work abroad, in London, Manchester or, traditionally, the States. The Fall, of course, made a household name of Holywood actor Jamie Dornan, and the success of HBO's Game of Thrones and the many films shot here have encouraged other studios and production companies to set up shop in Belfast.
Being cast in Hidden and subsequently The Fall was "career-changing" for Seainin, who foresaw success on first reading show creator Allan Cubbitt's scripts. "They were so good, like reading a crime novel, that immediately after I had finished reading one episode, I was straight away onto the next," she explains. "I loved playing that character. It was a really meaty part, really real. Those sorts of roles are dream roles.
"Not only that, but we were filming The Fall, this amazingly popular show, in Belfast, the city that I come from. It (the city) really is another character in the show, it's that important. We were shooting at locations that I've known all my life.
"It was then that I realised that I didn't have to look outside Northern Ireland for work anymore; the work was coming to us. I didn't need to leave.
"It was amazing to be back in Belfast, working incredible jobs, learning from great actors who were coming here and being part of that new wave of TV."
Although she had acted on screen before - in the ever-popular Give My Head Peace during 2001 and I Fought the Law in 2003 - bagging a substantial role in such a high-profile and controversial crime drama has ultimately allowed her to do what she loves best - acting on the stage.
Last year, she took on leading roles in Brassneck Theatre Company's ambitious Belfast Rising, and Che Guevara's Night Off. She is currently several shows into a three-week run of Marie Jones' intriguing new play, Sinners, at the Lyric Theatre.
"Theatre is my first love with regards to acting," Seainin explains. "I love the immediacy of it, the thrill you get when you're sitting in your dressing room and the five-minute call goes out. Then, when you step out on to that stage, you're performing to an audience that is right there with you. You get to take a character from the beginning of their journey to the end, unlike with television, when you rarely film in sequence."
Acting was not, however, the star's first professional calling. Having graduated from Ulster University with a degree in European studies, she continued to learn, first reading for a master's degree in European political administration at the College of Europe in Bruges and subsequently on the job during an internship at the Secretariat General of the European Commission in Brussels.
Working in Europe in the highest corridors of power, Seainin was able to make use of her language skills, being fluent in Spanish, French and Italian. "Brussels was fantastic," she recalls. "I loved being able to go for a coffee or out for dinner with a wide circle of friends from various countries and to switch languages during our conversations. I do miss that about my previous job. It was rewarding, but the possibility of acting was something that interested me."
Seainin left Brussels to train at the Guildford School of Acting in Surrey and the Film Actors Studio in Dublin. Her parents, Tom and Maura (both 62), were initially worried about her decision, but her remarkable career trajectory since then has presumably put any doubts to bed.
Her mother and father now live close by, and she admits to spending the vast majority of her "downtime" with her family, including sister Donna (44) and her brothers, Emmet (35) and Barry (34), both of whom are employed in the family business.
"I can be with my family and I can work," Seainin explains. "I'm very lucky to have a stable family environment around me. I don't think of Ben's family as my in-laws, not at all. They're more like real family. That's what they've become. I'm very close to them all."
Seainin met Ben in 2011. Also from the Malone Road area, he too at that point had recently returned home to Northern Ireland after pursuing a career abroad. The pair were engaged at the beginning of 2015 and married that summer.
"I wanted to get married in Ireland," Seainin says, "so we had the ceremony in Limerick Cathedral and a three-day wedding celebration in Dromore Castle in County Clare. Then we were on a new journey because we had no house. We had to choose a home together, and there wasn't really much of a discussion about it.
"Ben works for CitiBank and I'm an actor, so we were both geographically mobile, but settling in Belfast just felt right."
When she does have the opportunity to meet friends, Seainin will invariably enjoy a meal in the Albany bar and restaurant on the Lisburn Road, Deane's Deli on Bedford Street or Shu on the Lisburn Road, with drinks to follow in The Perch rooftop bar on Franklin Street. "I've only been there a few times," she says, "but I really like it. There are so many bars and restaurants to choose from in Belfast these days."
While she loves spending time at home, the travel bug has never left her. Seainin honeymooned in Malaysia and enjoyed the food, the sun and the culture so much that she returned last year, visiting Phnom Penh in Cambodia and Bangkok in Thailand. Along with her husband, she also manages to get away skiing each year and has plans to visit new countries and cities in the future.
Multiculturalism is a word that comes up often when chatting with Seainin, and she admits that the connotations of Brexit trouble her - she cried the morning after the EU referendum result was revealed - particularly with regards to the consequences for the film and television industry.
"We are going to lose so many EU funding streams in all walks of life, but if they can continue to offer tax incentives to studios and promote Northern Ireland as a destination for film-makers, I'm hopeful the work won't dry up for me and all the other people who make a living in the industry," she says.
For now, Seainin is busy getting her teeth into the role of Tania in Sinners, which tells the story of a Northern Irish farming community under the spell of a charismatic American preacher. It was "a joy" to have writer Marie Jones present during rehearsals, and she looks forward to acting alongside Lyric Theatre stalwarts Alan McKee, Christina Nelson and the rest of the cast in the weeks ahead.
Seainin describes Sinners as a "hilarious satire on religion, family and greed that's not necessarily about Northern Irish religion, and I think that's refreshing", much like the rejuvenated Belfast in which she is fulfilling all her dreams.
- Sinners is at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast now until June 3. Tickets cost from £13-£24.50. Visit lyrictheatre.co.uk for booking