Belfast Telegraph

'The Fall hasn't gone too far with all the violence ... I definitely didn't feel exploited'

Belfast's own Karen Hassan will keep us on the edge of our seats when the thriller returns next month

By Una Brankin

In her latest head shots she looks like a sophisticated golden-era Hollywood film star, a cross between Donna Mills of Knot's Landing and a younger Donna Reed of It's A Wonderful Life.

Her soulful eyes and classic bone structure set her apart from the hordes of pretty brunettes on the screen these days, but, for all the glamour and polish, former Hollyoaks star Karen Hassan still sounds like a little west Belfast schoolgirl.

The taxi driver's daughter is a dab hand at accents, however, a talent that's coming in handy for her latest role in the big-budget adaptation of the JG Ballard novel High Rise, currently filming in Dublin and starring Sienna Miller and Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss.

It's only a small role but she's sure to light up the screen.

In the meantime, Karen (33) will appear in the upcoming second series of the hit thriller The Fall, starring the equally chiselled Jamie Dornan and Gillian Anderson.

She will reprise her role as accountant Annie Brawley, who will recover from an attack in the last series by Dornan's creepy serial killer character, Paul Spector.

"The question is, what effect has the horrific strangulation had on her brain," says the actress in that young, unaffected voice.

"The script's a real page turner – I love thrillers and scary movies. My friends were all watching me being attacked in the first series behind cushions, but that's my genre and I'm really excited about it. The audience definitely won't be disappointed by the new series."

She's speaking from London, where she shares a flat with a friend called Adam. (She's dating some mystery man she doesn't want to talk about).

London's been her base for the past few years since moving from Manchester and Liverpool, where she moved to begin filming Hollyoaks in 2008.

The fact her west Belfast cadence hasn't changed is due, in part, to her frequent trips home to visit her parents Roddie and Jean, a former nurse with a similarly beautiful face to her middle daughter.

Karen has four sisters – Lynsey, Therese, Dawn and Barbara – but sweetly she balks at giving their ages away.

She was the quiet one in "a family of storytellers" and, apart from Nativity plays, showed no real interest in acting during her Holy Cross and Dominican College schooldays.

Yet she went on to study drama at Queen's University and, after some theatrical work, landed the role of an IRA prisoner's girlfriend in the multi-award-winning film Hunger (2008), starring A-lister Michael Fassbender.

In the same year, she played murder victim Pearl Gamble in BBC NI's documentary drama Last Man Hanging, the story of Robert McGladdery who was the last man hanged in Northern Ireland. That led to a small part in the film Fifty Dead Men Walking, a loose adaptation of former agent Martin McGartland's 1997 autobiography of the same name, starring Jim Sturgess (One Day) and Ben Kingsley (Gandhi). But it was her role as Lynsey in the often racy Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks that really put the young actress on the map.

The character of Lynsey was created as the former girlfriend of fellow Northern Ireland actor Gerard McCarthy's character Kris Fisher and was intended to feature only in Hollyoaks Later, a spin-off from the Hollyoaks series, but Karen so impressed producer Paul Marquess that he added her to the main cast with two new characters (including Brendan Brady played by Emmett J Scanlan, who was also cast in The Fall) to "bring more fun, drama and sexiness to the show".

Karen declared herself "dead chuffed" with the promotion and didn't mind appearing in a skin-tight black catsuit for some scenes, and posing in lingerie for shoots to promote the series.

"It's the only bit of modelling I've done – I much prefer acting," she asserts. "Hollyoaks was quite hard work and it was great training, getting to work with different actors, directors and technicians.

"It's so different to acting on the stage – in TV and film I feel far more relaxed and confident. I get anxiety dreams when I have to go on stage and I'm convinced I'm going to forget my lines, but I'm usually ok after the third night."

That strong regional accent will have to change for her next stage role in early 2015 as a posh English crime writer, but it was allowed to stay intact, like her friend and co-star Bronagh Waugh's, for her part in Hollyoaks.

She was involved in some of the soap's most dramatic storylines and was the only character to work out the true identity of the village serial killer, before she was found murdered in the episode aired on June 29, 2012.

Sounds a bit familiar – but she shrugs off those critics of The Fall, who have claimed that violence against women is being increasingly used to titillate in modern TV drama.

"I definitely didn't feel exploited in any way and I was treated very well as an actress," she says, clearing her throat. "I don't think it was the writer's intention to offend anyone.

"A lot of it was shot in shadow, movie macabre style. Alan Cubitt, the writer of The Fall, knows his stuff so well and how to build up suspense.

" It's as scary to see Spector just standing on the victim's stairs or looking through the window. I think you're affected by the anticipation more than anything – you have to make it believable but I don't think it goes too far with the violence at all."

But the burning question remains: is Jamie Dornan as dreamy in real life?

"Yeah, of course!" she giggles. "He's lovely, a real gentleman from Belfast. "I don't know any other male models to compare him to for height but I'm only five foot four, so he's tall to me!"

  • Karen Hassan stars in the second series of The Fall which returns to BBC2 in October. @karenhassan2

Her top five beauty tips...

Described by her agent as "the prettiest actress you could wish to represent", Karen Hassan has made some stunning red carpet appearances, most notably when she wore a knock-out form-fitting white evening dress at the British Soap Awards in 2012, when she was shortlisted in the Best Actress category. And she was happy after our interview to pass on her top five beauty tips exclusively to Belfast Telegraph readers:

1. Some people don't realise I have a slight pigmentation on my skin. It's only on my face and gets worse with exposure to the sun. I used to cover it with makeup but now I use Obagi gel on my skin twice a day, followed with Obagi sun screen that has an SPF of 35. Now it's barely visible and easily maintained but I do have to be careful when in direct sunlight and stick to my skin care routine. Everyone's skin is different though, so always go to a trained dermatologist for advice on skin issues

2. Last year I trained and qualified as a nail technician. A lot of actors train in different professions so they can have a back up to turn to. A sneaky secret my trainer told me to help nail growth and strength is eating jelly. I don't know how it works or the science behind it, but it works for me. It's also a good excuse to eat lots of Haribo

3. I never get spray tans, I always prefer to DIY. If I've got a red carpet event I'll always apply my tan three days before the event to give it a chance to even out. Then if I need a second coat I quickly do it the day before. Personally I use St Moritz mousse.

You can see it when you are applying it, so you can avoid any dark circles around elbows and wrists, and it's also very affordable. You don't need to spend a fortune. Plastic gloves are a must and a quick buff with a fluffy bed sock (above) always works

4. Three things I always have in my bag for day-to-day maintenance are Carmex for my lips, Nivea hand cream and a tangle teaser. They are all small and compact and fit into all of my bags

5. Moving about a lot with acting means shopping around for new hairdressers, which can be costly and you always have to rely on recommendations. For me it's a bit like finding a dentist you trust. I have come out with ginger and black striped hair before and quickly popped to the chemist for a cover up.

Now, I just use people I know and trust. Even if it means waiting another month until I'm in that city again. If I get back home to Belfast and need red carpet hair I call and book Danibelle Design; if I'm in London I visit Paul Edmonds. Basically, if you find a good hair stylist, then hold onto them

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