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'I always play little scallywags so this is a big change'

She is the daughter of a famous dad, but Nika McGuigan is making her own waves in a new coming-of-age comedy on RTE

By Vicki Notaro

Published 24/09/2016

Nika is keen not to trade on her father’s name
Nika is keen not to trade on her father’s name
COUNTRY LIFE: Barry McGuigan relaxes at home with a young Nika at their 18th century mansion in rural Kent

It's Monday morning and I'm in Lillie's Bordello in the middle of a raucous party. No, I wasn't left behind after an all-nighter - I'm here for a behind-the-scenes sneak peek at RTÉ's newest comedy series.

Since Tina Fey smashed down the door with 30 Rock, the floodgates for funny television not just for women, but made by women, have opened. Shows like GIRLS, Orange Is The New Black, Inside Amy Schumer and VEEP have been proving that women can make smart, funny, deep television, and that a predominantly female cast doesn't instantly indicate only female interest.

Can't Cope, Won't Cope is RTÉ's take on this global television trend.

Can't Cope, Won't Cope is about two single twenty-something girls from Mallow in Co Cork trying to figure it all out while living in Dublin. Today, the cast are getting ready to wrap after five long weeks shooting the season's six episodes. The scenes I'm watching being filmed are based around a raucous Friday night out.

Playing one half of the duo is Nika McGuigan, daughter of the famous boxer Barry. I'm instructed not to bring her father into our chat - an odd demand from an up-and-coming actress with a recognisable surname, but perhaps understandable.

She's softly spoken, with a cut-glass British accent - the result of her upbringing in Kent - which makes her Cork lilt on screen even more impressive. In fact, she tells me she's never worked in her own accent. Neither she nor Seana Kerslake, who plays the other twenty-something girl, Aisling, have Cork accents but carry it off.

Nika says: "I never worked on my accent, so for me it was just another part. You get used to it. We both just had to tackle it."

There were people from Mallow on the set and the young actresses asked them to flag it up if their accents sounded off and it certainly seems to have worked.

"I loved the script, and I thought it was something that hasn't been seen on television here before. These girls are not 19. I've done predominantly films, so for me to do television, it was tempting."

While she won't disclose how old she actually is (apparently it's a big thing for actors, as it's their 'playing age' range that's important when getting jobs), she says Danielle is one of the more mature roles she's taken on.

"I'm always playing little scallywags! The tone was interesting to me, because I'm used to doing straight drama. It was slightly daunting, but I can't wait."

I ask if she's prepared for the fame that comes with being on a show on RTÉ. "I live in London!" she replies. When I tell her that location doesn't mean much in this day and age thanks to Twitter and social media, she looks slightly alarmed for a moment.

Of course Nika, who plays Danielle in the series, has had her brushes with fame before. She was in the hit movie Philomena in 2013 and Traders the following year, as well as the Hollyoaks soap opera. And, of course, there was her family background and the publicity which surrounded her serious illness as a child.

In 1997 Nika (real name Danika) was diagnosed with acute lymphoid leukaemia after her mum Sandra became alarmed at the number of bruises on her arms and legs. The daughter of a family friend in Ireland had recently been diagnosed with leukaemia and bruising was one of the symptoms.

Sandra's concerns were confirmed after medical tests and Nika underwent six months of intensive treatment including chemotherapy, during which her parents hardly left her bedside. Those dark days are long behind her and in other interviews she tells of her excitement at taking part in this new project.

She found the idea of exploring the friendship between two girls in their twenties exciting, given that she is an only daughter and never knew what a sisterly bond could be like.

For former IFTA nominee Kerslake, Can't Cope, Won't Cope comes hot on the heels of A Date For Mad Mary. Her lead role in the Irish movie has critics absolutely buzzing. When we meet, however, she's entirely focused on her performance as Aisling in the TV comedy.

"I'm from Tallaght and still live there with my mam, dad and sisters," she says.

"I think there's always parts of yourself in the characters you play, but Aisling was a tough character to tackle. She's not extremely likeable all the time, she's very self-centred and often avoids dealing with how she's feeling by drinking. But she's also very witty and was a lot of fun to play."

At 25, Kerslake saw a lot of truth in the script. "These were girls I had seen around the city and a way of speaking that was of my generation, so that was challenging but exciting. It was important for the team to find the right balance of actors for Aisling and Danielle, because they rely so heavily on each other, yet spur each other on in their mayhem. They're definitely a match for one another."

The show has a female production team behind it, and the cast includes Amy Huberman and rising star Seana Kerslake. But it's writer Stefanie Preissner - a 28-year-old Cork woman - who RTÉ is pushing as the real selling point. In fact, a line in its press release even dubs her "the voice of a generation".

So, are we looking at Ireland's answer to Lena Dunham or Amy Schumer? "I didn't name myself the voice of the generation, OK, it's been given to me!" Preissner laughs, when I tell her about the statement. "I think all of that started with Solpadeine Is My Boyfriend," she says, referring to the play she wrote and starred in that was a sleeper hit. The one-woman show ended up touring the country and being recorded for radio.

"That show was certainly... I hate using the phrase 'zeitgeist', but it came on the wave of something that touched many people," she says.

"There were so many young people emigrating, and I thought it was only specific to me and my friends. But that show went on to tour and reached a massive audience.

"It really engaged with people in cities, in rural Ireland and internationally, so I think that's where that term came from. I think if someone were the actual voice of a generation, they would have more followers on Twitter," she deadpans.

Preissner is instantly likeable. Warm, witty and astute, she almost speaks in one-liners. She's fascinated by the world around her, and her curiosity is evident in her work.

"I'm conscious that I'm not speaking to my entire generation," Preissner points out. "There's something about millennials. Some have stayed in the particular rhythm of those who went before them, and some people really want that - marriage, kids and a mortgage. I see a girl on Instagram I went to school with that's pregnant with her third child, and these are planned children!

"I cannot relate to any of those impulses, I don't know how to do that. So another 28-year-old might not think I'm speaking to her or her life at all."

Perhaps because of the tone and subject matter of the show, the material is being favourably compared to Sharon Horgan's hilariously dark 1990s sitcom Pulling, and, inevitably, to GIRLS. She wants to debunk any perception that this will be an Irish interpretation of Lena Dunham's cult American show, though.

"We're not the same as English or American people, we just aren't. I have not seen my friends naked, we do not hang around in the bath together like they do in GIRLS. I've seen them change modestly, averting my eyes politely, and that's about it.

"I wanted to see girls on TV that are actually like me. People might say, these girls make bad decisions and they're reckless, but that's OK! It doesn't help me at all to see characters on screen who are perfect. It's not realistic and it makes me judge myself really harshly. I make bad decisions, the characters do, and that's the discussion we're trying to open up."

Although Preissner is herself a young Cork woman living in Dublin, she insists that the show is not autobiographical.

"This is based on an impression I have of my friends and our lives, so it's more observational. It's about not being from Dublin, but living in Dublin, and feeling like you need an adult when things go wrong.

"All of the people who live here are my friends, my age, and we all have hangovers at the same time - where are all the adults when you need them?"

Her characters reflect the people she sees in the city. "Seana's character Aisling is really intelligent, but she lacks ambition. She works in finance and she's a millennial who has had everything handed to her, so she doesn't really appreciate it. And look, we can relate to that in a way.

"I feel like this generation were promised so much. We were told: 'Go on and get a degree, you can do whatever you want and employers will be queueing up to hire you'. Then one year in to my three-year degree in drama, the economy fell apart and everything was coming down around us. I was thinking: 'This isn't what I was told would happen guys! Who is accountable here'?"

The show's content is perhaps a little bit more irreverent than what we're used to seeing on the national broadcaster. The scenes I'm witnessing in Lillie's involve fake vomit and shots of Jagermeister. There's sex and there's impropriety, but this isn't a gross-out comedy; according to everyone involved, there's a lot of drama and heart, too.

Indeed, Preissner says she has no ambitions to be controversial. "I make work for the audience that will like it, I don't make work to antagonise people. I'd rather speak to the people that are interested and focus on them, rather than worrying about who's going to complain because there's someone drinking a beer on screen."

Can't Cope, Won't Cope is on RTE 2, Monday, 10pm

Belfast Telegraph

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