Derry Girls star Jamie-Lee O'Donnell: 'I'm very proud to be from this city and we are all so happy to help put Derry on the map'
With the second episode of Channel 4's Derry Girls on tonight, Lee Henry talks to one of its stars, Jamie-Lee O'Donnell, about how she loves working in her home city
Actor Jamie-Lee O'Donnell has tasted stardom before as the confident, catty Eva Maguire in BBC Northern Ireland's angsty teen student drama 6 Degrees, but nothing on the scale of Derry Girls.
Since the opening episode of writer and creator Lisa McGee's six-part comedy aired on Channel 4 last Thursday, Jamie-Lee has been widely acknowledged as the youthful ensemble cast's breakout star.
"It's been crazy," says the 26-year-old Derry native, who plays the street-smart, foul-mouthed, techno music-loving Michelle. "All go. Lots of Press interviews and promoting the show. The reaction has been unbelievable."
Derry Girls has got off to a stratospheric start with rave reviews all-round, and for Jamie-Lee, who has spent most of her acting life in England, another series could keep her on home ground for a while longer.
"People have stopped me in the street and everybody has said such nice things," she says.
"They really seem to be on board with it. The English Press have given us amazing reviews and everyone in Derry is talking about it, not just my family and friends. They think it's really, really funny. Being part of 6 Degrees was brilliant but this is on another scale."
As fellow Derry natives might say, Jamie-Lee is "all lurred". It's no surprise. Episode one, which skilfully managed to set the scene while not overloading viewers with contextual information, attracted a more than admirable 1.6 million viewers across the UK.
The action centres around Saoirse Monica Jackson's Erin, whose teenage diary provides the internal monologue, and her gang of fast-talking, well-meaning female friends, who could prove to be as popular as their closest comedy kin, the similarly youthful Inbetweeners.
Living, loving and learning in Derry circa 1994, the girls joke about fancying the British soldiers who stop their bus on the way to school, ponder the oddities of the English accent and battle the all-powerful nuns who rule their curricular roost.
"It's testament to Lisa's writing that (the show has) gone down so well," says Jamie-Lee. "I knew that it would. Lisa went to school at Thornhill, where a lot of people think the girls in the show go to school, and she knows how to write about the funny side of life, the slang that only Derry people use, the things that teenage girls think and talk about.
"It's about showing that people in Derry got on with their lives during a really hard time, when the Troubles were still here. I don't have memories of that time, but my parents were obviously around during the Troubles, and lots of members of my family, and they tell me that that's what it was like. They didn't let bomb scares stop them from living."
Chock-full of perfectly observed one-liners - "I'm not being individual on my own!" bemoans the downtrodden Clare, played with faultless comic timing by Nicola Coughlan - a wider cast including Irish comedy giant Tommy Tiernan and Game Of Thrones' Ian McElhinney and plenty of scenes that Derry folk young and old can relate to, the show grabbed plenty of attention.
Trending worldwide on Twitter is no mean feat, and critics universally praised the efforts of McGee, Antrim-born director Michael Lennox and their cast of mostly first-time television actors, with the Radio Times labelling Derry Girls "the best antidote for the January blues" and the Telegraph saying it is "as much a black comedy about the Troubles as a teenage nostalgia fest".
The natives knew it was coming: Derry has a relatively substantial population of 107,000 but strangers are few and far between in the city that never stops talking, and it's fair to say that most people were on tenterhooks. The question on everyone's lips: will it live up to expectations? Jamie-Lee never feared that it wouldn't.
"But it was still hard waiting for the broadcast date to come around," she adds. "To be from Derry, film a show in Derry with other actors from Derry about people from Derry, was just amazing, one of the best things I've done in my career so far, and it's been so exciting to finally see our work on screen."
Jamie-Lee has been acting for years, as a student at St Anne's Primary School, St Cecilia's College and the North West Regional College. "Mainly plays and musicals, things like that. I've always wanted to be on stage," she says.
She followed her dreams by studying performing arts at university in Bedfordshire, living in London, and spent several years across the water, moving to Manchester for a time and back to London before returning home to film Derry Girls.
At the beginning last year she was part of an ambitious tour of venues across England and Ireland with Liverpool-based theatre company 20 Stories High. Their innovative production, I Told My Mum I Was Going On An RE Trip was described by The Guardian's theatre critic Lyn Gardner as "a vivid, clever piece".
It effectively employed the verbatim technique to tell real-world stories about abortion in 21st century Britain.
Jamie-Lee and her fellow actors translated interviews with a selection of young women, read to them direct via visible ear pieces, creating a poignant live theatre experience that she looks back on with great pride.
"It's very different to other things that I've done, which have been comedies, mostly. It was a very topical piece and BBC Two picked it up for their Performance Live season.
"It was filmed a few months ago, in a documentary style, and I play various different characters in the piece.
"I went to see the finished film a couple of months ago and it was great to see it, really authentic." It is due to be broadcast on BBC Two later this month. "I can't wait for people to see it. I'd love to do more stuff like it in the future," she says.
Jamie-Lee enjoys being part of a company of players and remembers lots of laughs on set during the filming of 6 Degrees back in 2012 and 2013, despite that series' sometimes hard-hitting themes and scenes.
The friendships formed between Jackson, Coughlan, Louisa Harland (Orla) and Dylan Llewellyn (who plays Michelle's English cousin James) while filming Derry Girls in the city and Belfast may well prove the longest lasting, according to Jamie-Lee. The five clicked from the beginning during auditions.
"Then we all lived together in an apartment in Belfast while we were filming most of the series, and we became really close," she adds.
"Most of us are from Derry, although we didn't know each other before filming started. We've all kept in touch and organise nights out together and we're all very proud of Saoirse, who just opened in the West End with The Ferryman. We all sent her flowers and some of us are going over to London to see her in a few weeks' time."
Jamie-Lee admits to being quite similar to the character of Michelle, particularly with regards to her love of dance music. Her boyfriend Paul McCay is a techno DJ and produces the podcast Mind Exposure. The couple enjoy spending time in their spare room, which is given over to a well-worn set of decks and a record collection.
"We met in Derry through mutual friends - that old chestnut," she laughs.
"Nothing magical, but we were really good mates before we got together and eventually the friendship blossomed into something else, as usual."
She says they are very happy and content living and working among the people she loves the most, but she sees herself traveling for work in the future. "It's part of the performing life," she says.
A second season of Derry Girls could, however, keep her feet firmly on home ground. It is, perhaps, too early to call, but given the reception thus far it's a very real possibility. The second episode airs tonight and Jamie-Lee is keeping tight-lipped about how the story develops. Being an actor, she expects to be the last to know if and when series two gets the green light - although she wouldn't be at all surprised if it does.
"Derry Girls is about more than just growing up in Derry," she adds.
"I think the humour translates to anywhere, really. It's universal, even if some people don't understand the slang that our characters use, and that's all about Lisa's writing. It was a no-brainer for Channel 4 to commission it, in my opinion. The strength of the writing is that good.
"I love being from the city, I'm really proud of my Derry roots, so we're all really happy to help put Derry on the map. No matter what the situation is - even if it's something that's not overly funny - people in Derry can always find a silver lining by laughing about it. We're a very resilient people. And it's amazing that audiences elsewhere are starting to see that too."
The second episode of Derry Girls airs tonight on Channel 4 at 10pm