Tara Lynne O'Neill on Derry Girls, celebrities asking her for selfies and why the time is right to play Shirley Valentine
As the Belfast actress prepares to star in her new one-woman show, she talks to Ivan Little about fame and the importance of family
It's a testament to the astonishing popularity of the hit TV series Derry Girls that after a newspaper photographer has finished taking his pictures of Tara Lynne O'Neill at Belfast's Lyric Theatre he politely asks her for a selfie.
And the down-to-earth Belfast actress, who's nothing like the often terrifying Ma Mary she plays in the award-winning Channel 4 comedy series, smiles and puts the cameraman at his ease, laughing off his assertion that his heart is thumping with nerves.
Tara Lynne (43) knows what it's like in selfie-land. At a recent awards ceremony in London she took pretend selfies of herself with more seasoned TV personalities in the background.
But Tara Lynne, who's rehearsing for a new Lyric production of Willy Russell's classic comedy Shirley Valentine, doesn't see herself as a star and insists recognition and acclaim aren't everyday occurrences for her.
"People don't tend to recognise me all that much," she says. "And that's possibly a good thing because it means I don't look as bad as I do in Derry Girls.
"Fame is a funny thing for me because I have no interest in being famous or a celebrity."
She got a taste of all that when she was seen by millions of TV viewers in the early 2000s playing the part of Phil Mitchell's nanny in EastEnders.
And it's clear that the constant and instant recognition on the streets and on the Tube didn't sit easily with her.
"You think when you're young that's what you want but it's not until you get it that you realise that it's maybe not what you want after all," she says.
EastEnders may have been a big break professionally but Derry Girls has topped anything that Tara Lynne has ever done.
She says she knew Lisa McGee's series was going to be a big hit in Northern Ireland but the worldwide success has surprised her, with rave reviews for Netflix screenings in every imaginable language on social media. From Australia to Austria, Monaco to Mexico.
"Who knew that an Irish family are just like a Mexican family?" laughs Tara Lynne, adding that the enthusiastic public response of stars she admires, like comic actress Kathy Burke, has been awesome.
"I went to London for the Broadcast Awards (at which Derry Girls was voted best comedy) and it was fascinating. I stood around taking selfies of my ears so that I could get pictures of celebrities behind me.
"But what was really crazy was that the very same celebs were then coming up to me and asking me for a picture."
Actress Aisling Bea has said her Channel 4 series This Way Up would never have been commissioned if it hadn't been for the success of Derry Girls, which she has described as her favourite comedy in the world.
What has also made Derry Girls so important for Tara Lynne, apart from its popularity, are the new friendships she has forged, especially with the younger members of the cast who have astounded her "with the sort of bravery and confidence that I didn't have at their age".
She adds: "It's fabulous to be around them and their energy makes me feel that I can do anything too."
Working alongside comedians Ardal O'Hanlon and Kevin McAleer - and his eyebrows - has also been a thrill and she says: "Kevin has the funniest eyebrows in the world. He doesn't even have to tell a joke. I only have to look at those eyebrows and I start giggling."
A third season of Derry Girls will start filming next July. And there's speculation that a movie isn't just a possibility, but an inevitability.
But Tara Lynne, who spent youthful summers in Derry at the home of a sister, says: "I'm only an actor. They don't let us in on that. But a movie would be nice. I've just bought a house and there's dry rot!
"And I don't know anything about the talk that the next series will be the last. If I had my way the girls would all go to university and their mas and das would move in with them after they got married.
"That way I would be in work for ever."
Tara Lynne still hasn't actually been to the must-see mural of the five younger Derry Girls actors on the wall of Badger's pub in the city.
But she plans to swing by during a short stint at Derry's Millennium Forum with Shirley Valentine next month.
And, mischievously, she jokes that she's going to paint a "wee tiny me" beside the mural.
"I can't wait to take Shirley Valentine to Derry," says Tara Lynne. "I hope people will come and see the play and stay behind for the craic. Derry has been very good to me."
But before the Maiden City, Shirley Valentine is set to be a huge box office seller in Belfast during a lengthy run at the Lyric where it opens later this month. And playing Shirley will complete a happy circle for the actress who starred in a production of another Willie Russell play, Educating Rita, at the Lyric 13 years ago.
Wearing my other hat as an actor, I had the privilege of playing her lecturer, Frank, in the show whose run was extended for several weeks in the summer of 2006, despite the counter attractions of a heatwave and the World Cup finals in Germany.
"I'd always wanted to play Rita." says Tara Lynne. "But I had a terrible audition with the director Roy Heayberd and when I got outside I burst into tears, though I got myself together again sufficiently to march back in to see him and tell him I was right for Rita.
"I think Roy saw something in my determination that made him think I could indeed be Rita."
Thirteen years on, going from Rita to Shirley has been a natural progression for Tara Lynne and insiders say it's been a perfect fit for one of the most naturally gifted and versatile actresses in Northern Ireland, who actually tried to get the rights to the play earlier this year to stage it herself.
"I had set my heart on being Shirley. I was just waiting to reach my 40s, it seemed like the ideal time," she says. "But when I went looking for the rights I was told they had already been acquired by the Lyric.
"I later found out that the theatre had me in mind for Shirley and it feels right to do it at the Lyric after having done Educating Rita, which was a very special moment for me."
Tara Lynne says Educating Rita opened her eyes to the "genius" of Willie Russell's writing, which she insists speaks to her, as do the women he creates in his plays.
Shirley Valentine tells the story of a bored housewife who has drifted apart from her husband and who wants more in her life, a frustration that sees her talking to her wall before heading off on holiday to Greece where she has a brief romance.
Actress Pauline Collins starred alongside a raft of top British actors including Tom Conti in the movie version of Shirley Valentine but the play is a one-hander and the Lyric have set it in Belfast instead of Liverpool.
"And that's what happened with Educating Rita too," says Tara Lynne.
"We've only had to make a tiny number of adjustments because Liverpool and Belfast are very similar and so is the humour."
Tara Lynne says she hasn't watched the Shirley Valentine movie just as she didn't see Julie Walters bringing Rita to the silver screen.
"I want to do my own thing," stresses Tara Lynne, who had a chance encounter recently with Pauline Daniels, the first actress to play Shirley Valentine in England.
Tara Lynne says: "The best piece of advice she gave me was to be my own Shirley and not to be influenced by anyone else.
"Shirley essentially wants to follow her own instincts. And that's the same way it was with me when I was younger.
"I always dreamt of being an actress but at the time the very idea was pooh-poohed by many people I knew.
"There weren't many actresses in Belfast or so I thought until I realised that Paula McFetridge was a brilliant actress and she lived around the corner from me."
Tara Lynne initially hoped to train as a dentist but didn't get the right qualifications. And she set about realising her acting dream and leaving dentistry behind.
She cut her teeth, so to speak, in the acting world through youth theatre - and the bug bit.
A series of presenting roles on TV shows for young people came her way along with a number of movies like The Most Fertile Man In Ireland, Disco Pigs and Omagh and, latterly, television dramas like The Fall and Line Of Duty.
One of the big pluses about Derry Girls for Belfast girl Tara Lynne is that it is all shot in Northern Ireland.
She says: "All I have ever wanted to do is to be able to work at home. I've tried London and I've tried Dublin but I love Belfast. My family are so, so important to me and I want to stay here to be close to them.
"So many people I know have had to go away to get work. Game Of Thrones has obviously been wonderful for Northern Ireland but there weren't all that many local actors in it. Maybe if I'd had a beard I would have got a part!" adds Tara Lynne, who lived through the Troubles in Belfast and found that the now iconic ending of the first season of Derry Girls with the Omagh bombing struck an emotional chord.
"I was that Derry Girl, only in Belfast," says Tara Lynne. "I remember my mother telling me that I had to be home by 9pm and I would always push the boundary of that. But I didn't realise then that she was doing that for my own protection."
Tara Lynne says that when she read the final scene in the script she thought it was brilliant. "But when I watched it on screen I wept," she adds.
Surprisingly perhaps, Tara Lynne says Derry Girls hasn't opened that many doors for the self-avowed "jobbing actress" in terms of work offers but she's always busy off her own bat.
Earlier this year, in April, she starred in a production in Belfast about the legendary singer Dusty Springfield.
Like Shirley, that was also a one-woman show and Tara Lynne jokes: "I'm starting to think that nobody wants to work with me."
Which could scarcely be further from the truth. For Tara Lynne is in big demand as a writer as well as an actress.
"I'm writing a new version of the Christmas Carol for the MAC in Belfast and I'm doing another show, Christmas For Dummies, at the Opera House with Chris Robinson," says Tara Lynne who has also just been commissioned by the Lyric to complete a new play, Rough Girls, which has nothing whatsoever to do with Derry Girls.
It's a play about women and football, something about which Tara Lynne has long been passionate.
"I love women's football and it was fantastic to see how popular the World Cup was recently. The final was breathtaking and the standard and the skills were magnificent."
Shirley Valentine runs at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast from August 31 to October 5 with a break from September 5-7 when it will be staged at the Millennium Forum, Londonderry. For more information and tickets, visit lyrictheatre.co.uk and millenniumforum.co.uk