Just wild about Seainin Brennan
The Belfast actress is now in huge demand from producers following a string of hit roles. Tomorrow she fronts a cancer charity fundraising event, as Maureen Coleman reveals
It's been less than two years since Belfast actress Seainin Brennan was rewarded for her breakthrough performance in BBC primetime drama Hidden. The stunning brunette scooped a Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Award in the Arts category for her portrayal as Philip Glenister's English girlfriend Frances.
The role brought her to the attention of a large network audience – though Seainin has long been a stalwart of stage both in Ireland and across the water.
Since her breakthrough award in 2011, Seainin's star has risen. Not only did she go on to land a role in the highly acclaimed local thriller The Fall, playing a grief-stricken woman counselled by Jamie Dornan's serial killer Paul Spector, but she was also snapped up for her first movie role in the romantic drama Wild, which filmed this summer.
And she's just started working on a new Northern Irish based thriller, directed by Oscar winner Oorlagh George.
It's fair to say Seainin hasn't looked back since appearing in Hidden and is now recognised as one of Northern Ireland's most in-demand actresses.
"Landing that part in Hidden really gave me confidence," she says. "I'd done some television before but this was a primetime drama and it really made me believe that I could do this.
"I didn't want to get into television for the sake of it. I always wanted to be part of a great drama and Hidden was just that. It was a fantastic script.
"And to get the chance to work with a big star like Philip Glenister was amazing. He was so lovely, gracious, funny and kind.
"When you move from theatre to television you think, rightly or wrongly, that they are different types of actors. You think that the ones in television are stars while the ones in theatre are great actors and that star quality might change the person.
"But when you work with a great actor like Philip Glenister, you realise that it doesn't. Actors like Philip are so secure in their talent, so passionate about their work and committed to delivering the best possible performance, that if you are in scene with them they are very generous to you too."
It's not the first time the 35-year-old has worked with some of the biggest names in the business. She shared the stage at the Gate Theatre in Dublin with Scarface actor Harris Yulin in Death of A Salesman, which was directed by Arthur Miller's 'director of choice' David Esbjornson and she played Regine in the world premiere of Ibsen's Ghost at the Bristol Old Vic, alongside veteran British actress Sian Thomas.
"I had always wanted to work at the Old Vic in Bristol," Seainin says. "I can remember going into the casting and seeing so many girls who were in cinema, in films I'd just seen or was going to see, and thinking I hadn't a hope of getting the job.
"I had prepared so hard for it too. I had locked myself away for a week. That is the key to being an actor, you prepare and prepare and prepare some more, especially when it's complex text like Ibsen.
"I went in and gave the best audition I could and I got the job the next day. You could have blown me over with a feather.
"Sian Thomas was playing Mrs Aving and once again, she was such a generous actor. To say she was a great help is an understatement and to be in a room with her during rehearsals was a masterclass in itself."
Seainin was bitten by the acting bug at the tender age of eight when she persuaded her mum to let her audition for the Christmas show at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. She says she still gets a tingle of excitement when she sees the words 'stage door' and that she has no regrets about entering into such a precarious, unpredictable profession as acting.
"I didn't become an actor to be rich or famous," she says. "I do it because I love it."
While acting was always the dream the pragmatic side of Seainin saw her complete a Masters Degree in European Political Administration at the world famous College of Europe in Brussels. She then won a prestigious internship in the European Commission in Brussels for a year. When the contract ended she came back to Belfast and picked up where she'd left off, touring with the musical West Side Story.
On her return to Brussels after the tour, Seainin worked as a political lobbyist at the European Commission. But she soon realised that she wasn't in a position to change the world: "Maybe I was naïve," she said.
"But I found out that it really wasn't that easy to change the world after all.
"And though I loved my degree and my Masters and had a brilliant job, touring with West Side Story just felt like home to me. I knew then that I wanted to go to drama school."
Seainin's parents were naturally concerned that she was turning her back on a glittering career in politics to pursue a childhood ambition. But she was determined to follow her heart. She applied to – and was accepted by – three top drama schools, choosing to go to Guildford School of Acting.
One of her staunchest allies was her late grandmother, Maureen Rafferty, who died from pancreatic cancer in July 2003.
Seainin, who has an older sister Donna and two younger brothers, Emmet and Barry, was particularly close to her gran and when she passed away almost six months to the day of her diagnosis, Seainin was devastated.
"I come from quite a big family," she says.
"My granny and granddad Terence, who passed away in 1998, had 10 kids and there are 24 grandchildren. Granny was very much the matriarch of the family. She was a very honest, hard-working, down-to-earth woman and I could always go to her for advice or just to chat to. I loved her with all my heart and soul.
"She was such good fun and always told great stories.
"When I was doing my Masters I used to write to her all the time, proper pen and paper letters, telling her all about the moules-frites, the lace, the Belgian chocolate and the architecture. She'd travelled a lot and she loved to hear all my stories.
"And she was so proud of me. She would have been so proud to see all the things I've done since.
"When I left my job and went to drama school to become an actor, she was just like any other typical granny. If I was in the theatre, she'd say 'Ach Seainin's in a wee play' but if I was on television, well that was it. Everybody had to be quiet. Granny believed that if you were on television, you had made it."
This year marked the 10th anniversary of her grandmother's death and Seainin, an avid fund-raiser for charity, is throwing her weight behind the World's Biggest Coffee Morning, which takes place on Friday, September 27.
Last year the event helped raise a staggering £15m for Macmillan Cancer Support and with 2,500 coffee morning expected to be held across Northern Ireland next week, the charity hopes to raise the same figure this year.
Seainin says: "So many people are affected by cancer. There are probably very few people in Northern Ireland who haven't been touched by it in some way.
"Thankfully treatments are improving all the time and more and more people are living with cancer, but this does mean support from charities like Macmillan becomes even more important.
"Since all the money we raise here is also spent here, I hope people across Northern Ireland get behind the event and if they can, host or attend a local coffee morning themselves."
Given her gran's fascination with all things television, she would have undoubtedly been thrilled when Seainin landed the role of Liz Tyler in BBC2's psychological thriller The Fall. The series, written by Alan Cubitt, was filmed in Belfast and featured a strong Northern Irish cast. Starring former X Files actress Gillian Anderson and local man Jamie Dornan in the lead roles, it proved such a huge success when it was aired earlier this year, that the BBC has commissioned a second season.
Seainin's character is a troubled mum and wife, struggling to come to terms with the death of her son. Dornan's character, Paul Spector, acts as her grief counsellor, all the time hiding a dark secret that he is a serial killer, preying on young, professional women.
"When The Fall's scripts came through after Hidden, I couldn't believe that within such a short period of time two sets of phenomenal scripts were falling into my lap," she says. "Alan Cubitt did a fantastic job with those scripts. The Fall was so well written, the casting was superb and Jakob Verbruggen, the director, did an amazing job.
"When I read the scripts, I couldn't put them down. They were so engaging and I knew straight away that I wanted to play the role of Liz Tyler. She's gone through the worst thing you ever go through as parent, losing a child, her husband is beating her up and she's taking comfort in the arms of a man who unbeknown to everyone, is a serial killer.
"But it's those less glamorous roles, the ones with meat on their bones, they are the roles that are more interesting to play."
In series one viewers see Spector show a degree of tenderness towards Seainin's character. In her, he recognises someone who is vulnerable and damaged.
"My character is really the only person he helps," she says. "We don't know an awful lot about his past, his childhood, the pain he is carrying around or what emotional baggage he has, but he certainly sees in her someone who has been damaged by this tragic blow life has thrown at her."
Model-turned-actor Dornan, who hails from Co Down, was an absolute joy to work with, she says.
"Jamie's so down-to-earth and has a great personality," she says. "He's very smart and committed to his work. I used to hear him sing to himself between takes and he has a really lovely voice as well.
"But the whole cast was fantastic. I was so happy when I got the cast list. It was great to see the names of friends on there and then so many great actors that I'd never got the chance to work with before, people like Gillian Anderson.
"When we did the first read through I'd just seen her play Miss Havisham in a television adaptation of Great Expectations and thought she was phenomenal.
"To be honest, being part of The Fall just made me feel really proud to be from Northern Ireland. Not only did Belfast itself play such a central role in the show, that it was almost like a character itself, but as a region we tend to be quite under represented on television.
"To be part of this huge, critically acclaimed thriller set in Northern Ireland and more importantly, with an amazing Northern Irish cast, was pretty special."
Within weeks of The Fall airing on BBC2, Seainin landed her debut movie role in Irish drama Wild. The film is based on the true story of Mary Reynolds, a young woman who defies the odds to become the first Irish winner of the Chelsea Flower Show gold medal. Seainin stars opposite Shameless actress Emma Greenwell and Tom Hughes, playing Dr Jaqui Finch. Her character is a beautiful, fashionable woman, but struggles with a cocaine habit and an eating disorder.
Jaqui Finch is far removed from the down-trodden, abused Liz Tyler in The Fall and the unhinged, needy Frances of Hidden.
"My character in Wild is a glamorous botox doctor and Dublin socialite," she explains. "But she comes with her own set of issues. She's a far cry from Liz Tyler but that's the great thing about acting. I get to take on a variety of roles and to go on that person's journey without having the burden of their problems in real life."
Seainin, who has been dating her banker boyfriend Ben Fetherston for almost two years, has just started filming a project for Oscar winner Oorlagh George. Along with her father Terry, Oorlagh won the Academy Award for Best Short Movie for The Shore last year. Seainin is not at liberty to give too much away, only to say it is a thriller set in a Northern Irish coastal town.
Chasing the Hollywood dream is not something she thinks about. Instead, she focuses on getting good scripts.
"If I have to get up and go to Mozambique to film, I'll happily go, just as long as it's a great script and a good job," she says.
"I just want to work with brilliant people and learn."
Scripts involving strong-minded women particularly appeal to the petite actress. And there are several well-known women she would love to portray.
"I would have loved to have played Jodie Foster's role in the Accused or Chalize Theron in Monster," she says.
"I love women of conviction.
"It doesn't matter whether I agree with them morally or ethically. It doesn't matter if they are perceived to be good people or bad people. I love strong, independent women, women who believe in something.
"I don't necessarily have to share their opinions. But women like that fascinate me.
"In fact, I'd quite like to play Mary Robinson or Amanda Knox. I love to get inside people's heads, I love to question and I love to learn. It's all part of being an actor."
The taste of success
* The World's Biggest Coffee morning is the largest fundraiser for Macmillan Cancer Support charity
* To take part simply invite friends and relatives around to share a cup of coffee and some treats and donate the money raised
* Last year 115,000 people around the UK registered for the event and raised £15m
* The first coffee morning was held in 1991 when 26,000 people registered. Since then the annual event has raised more than £75m for the charity
* For more details go to coffee.macmillan.org.uk