Dead good in The Fall, Laura Donnelly is class act
Being stalked and strangled in BBC2 drama The Fall was a tough role for Belfast actress Laura Donnelly, but she was more worried by sleazy fans on the web, as she tells Una Brankin
Laura Donnelly will never be found posing in lads' magazines and her head will not be turned by being voted one of the 'Sexiest Faces' on television by the American edition of Esquire magazine for her role in a short-lived ABC series.
Petite doe-eyed yoga fan Laura is a serious actress and a magnetic presence in The Fall, in her intelligent portrayal of a Belfast solicitor who is stalked and attacked by serial killer Paul Spector, played by the equally fetching former model Jamie Dornan.
She looks quite like a young Annabella Sciorra (the mother in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle) and she's every bit as good an actress in The Fall, just as impressive in her understated embarrassment when the police find a sex toy among her underwear, as she is when being terrorised by Spector.
When she freezes convincingly on discovering someone has laid out her lacies on her bed, you can feel the fear, even if you're left wondering why on Earth didn't she high-tail it out of there.
The 30-year-old would have done just that in real life. She is on her own much of the time in London when her long-term boyfriend, Snow Patrol bassist Nathan Connolly, is on tour. They met before the band became famous and she won't talk about him.
"There's no way I would have stayed on my own after finding someone had been in the house like that, but I understood the character was tired and embarrassed and didn't want to over-react and be a nuisance," she says down the line from London.
"The cops were also inferring she'd had too much to drink. I personally spend time alone quite frequently and I know what it's like to feel vulnerable – I haven't been stalked as such but I've had the odd problem with people, em... pestering. With the internet people have a lot of access now and I've certainly had a few disconcerting experiences."
Especially when a couple of dubious websites have taken the trouble of uploading some quite explicit footage of Laura in the Channel 4 series Sugar Rush, the Irish independent film Insatiable, and the Sky One series Hex. When an excitable on-line reviewer of her leading role in Insatiable told her he felt like a voyeur watching the uncomfortably realistic sex scenes, she was quick to point out she was appearing in Romeo And Juliet on stage in London at the same time: "It was so busy it was unreal. Then I get a call saying they want to fly me to Ireland for a day to revisit a character and do a love scene.
"Basically I flew first thing in the morning on my only day off, shot the scenes and flew back that night. So I didn't really have time to think, which is probably a good thing, because it made me just have to rely on my instincts and trust that (my character) Jessie knew what she was doing.
"We had discussed at length the purposes of the scene and exactly what was required and I had agreed to what I thought needed to be done. Generally, love scenes are choreographed. It isn't easy or very comfortable for everyone involved, so in order to make it a slightly less agonising experience for all concerned, a scene like that is usually completely planned and rehearsed. It's then just up to the actors to make it not look that way."
I can't help wondering what the nuns would think – Laura went to convent-run Rathmore Grammar School in Finaghy (my old school too) and if her former headmistress Sister Ursula had been following her star pupil's career, she would have got an eyeful.
"Sister Ursula was brilliant – there were only a few nuns left when I was at Rathmore and most of my teachers were lay, if that's the right word," she laughs. "I was really into drama at school and I got to play the lead in the musical Carousel while I was there – I sing a bit, when it's required, like in professional panto when I was at college and the odd play."
It was the Patricia Mulholland School of Irish Dancing that first propelled Laura on to the stage and gave her confidence in front of a crowd. Although one of her immediate family is in the acting business, some of her aunts and uncles were members of the Fortwilliam Drama Society and she knew from an early age she wanted to act – "I think it's just an excuse to never grow up – getting to play dress-up as an adult".
After her third-level education at the Royal Scottish Academy Glasgow, she made her on-screen debut in 2005 in Julie Birchill's semi-autobiographical Sugar Rush, playing a love interest of the female protagonist in two episodes. She also starred in Best: His Mother's Son, the BBC drama on the life of George Best, playing Best's sister Barbara.
The Fall is one of her most high-profile UK screen roles to date, and although the extremely handsome Jamie Dornan isn't the stereotypical loner/loser killer, the Belfast-based drama has attracted some of the usual sort of flak for being clichéd in its depiction of strong successful women being reduced to terrified objects. Laura got to turn the tables in her role as the psycho girlfriend of Sam the receptionist in eight episodes of the 2010 series of Casualty. In reality she has the same "carefree attitude" of that looney character Fleur but she's not as "wild and hard to handle".
"I was only 23 and just out of college when I filmed Casualty and so nervous but it was brilliant fun," she recalls – her Belfast accent softened from almost a decade across the water. "I was really lucky and it really helped my career. I've got to use my own accent quite a bit so far, but you have to tone it down for taxi drivers to understand you! It was never too strong to begin with though."
Casualty brought her to the attention of the makers of the American ABC series Missing, who cast her as a sarcastic CIA agent opposite Ashley Judd and Sean Bean. Unfortunately the series was axed after two seasons, but it got her into Esquire magazine – whether she liked it or not – and has opened doors for her in Hollywood.
She has two films coming out soon: Hello Carter opposite Jodie Whittaker and Charlie Cox, and Houdini Girl, with Jack Whitehall.
"It was a shame Missing was cancelled – I got to run around in leathers with a gun, which was good fun. I respect the system out there in Hollywood, I really do, but I'm very intent on art versus commerce. I want to do it all – film, TV and theatre – if it's the right job. Carey Mulligan (The Great Gatsby; An Education) has done that. Gillian Anderson has got the balance right in her career, from X Files to Great Expectations. Unfortunately I was lying dead in my scenes with her in The Fall but I got to know her a little – she's absolutely lovely and friendly, and an incredible actress."
Laura was starring in Jez Butterworth's play The River at the Royal Court Theatre alongside Dominic West when she was offered the role in The Fall after a single audition, just over a year ago. The producers wanted an authentically Northern Irish cast and they were keen to snap up Laura after seeing the audition with local actor Gerard McCarthy, in the scene where he's chatting her up in a bar. The Fall is her first thriller.
"I don't read crime but I'm big fan of thrillers and horror on screen – Psycho is one of my favourite films; it's such a fundamental story and the basis of so many good thrillers.
"I was watching the Danish version of The Killing when I got the audition for The Fall and I loved it; it was so original. I approached The Fall with that in mind. I'd no problem with the violence – it was very clear from the script how horrifying the crimes were and that had to be shown, without going to extremes. The focus was on the vulnerability of the victims.
"I have to be honest, it was a tough role. When I read the script I knew it would be challenging. That's what attracted me to it, that idea of not knowing how I'm going to get there with the role. I couldn't really go and interview women who have been attacked like this, but like any woman who has ever felt vulnerable, you can imagine the fear.
"I'm not really into method acting – the way I was taught was the good old-fashioned British way of just doing your research and getting on with it."
Didn't Sarah Kay's stalking and grizzly fate freak her out?
"It's actually kind of cured me. I was living in The Europa when we were doing the filming and you feel safe in a hotel. If I'd been going home on my own every night, it would have been a different matter.
"I had friends and family ringing me after it was broadcast, wondering if I was OK but I actually felt a lot less vulnerable after filming. It was a sort of cathartic experience."
A second series of The Fall is on the cards after pulling in 3.5 million viewers in the UK alone. Although she won't be in it, Laura is thrilled about it and is convinced it will open more doors for drama to be made here.
She's a home-bird at heart who likes to catch up with old friends as much as she can for dinner, wine and DVDs.
"I come back over a lot. There are certain things that aren't the same in London, including the Guinness. I just love the landscapes of Belfast, the fresh air when you get off the plane, and nothing beats walking up Cavehill on a lovely day."
They killed again and again...
* Theodore Robert 'Ted' Bundy raped and murdered scores of women in the US from 1974-78. He was eventually convicted of 30 killings and executed in 1989
* John George Haig was convicted of six murders in Britain during the 1940s but claimed he actually killed nine people. He dissolved the bodies of his victims in sulphuric acid. He was executed in 1949
* Jeffrey Dahmer murdered at least 17 men and boys in the US from 1978-91. He was eventually found guilty of 15 killings and in 1994 was beaten to death in prison by another inmate
* Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, murdered 13 women between 1975 and 1980 before being arrested in 1981 and sentenced to life imprisonment
* Albert DeSalvo was known as the Boston Strangler and killed 13 times from 1962-64. In 1973 he was stabbed to death by another inmate in prison