Olwen Kelly: 'There was an ad on Gumtree wanting a girl to be in their film, it could’ve gone really wrong'
Playing dead is just one of the roles that model and actress Olwen Kelly has won rave reviews for, writes Liadan Hynes.
No clothes, no lines, no audition — Olwen Kelly’s breakout roles have been anything but typical. In 2016’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe, the actor played the corpse in the title and it was a feat which won her rave reviews when the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.
Kelly, the eldest of five siblings — a sister and brother, and then two brothers who grew up separately — was raised in Celbridge, Co Kildare. Her mother, a teacher, was a singer in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe was just her second part as an actress since studying biology in Maynooth — Kelly had worked in retail and then as a model, mostly in London. Her agent put her up for the part, despite her not having many acting credits, and the director told her that after they met — she was the first person he saw for the part — he knew he would cast her.
“When I saw the reference of who they were looking for I thought ‘oh that does look like me’,” smiles Kelly, who, with her thick brunette hair and gapped front teeth, looks like a 1960s movie star.
Her modelling career has seen her work with big high-street names, Next and TK Maxx, as well as numerous publications. The part would require two things that would challenge most actresses — nudity throughout and maintaining the stillness of a corpse.
To deal with both, Olwen took up yoga and meditation. “It was getting closer and closer to filming,” she recalls with a laugh, “and I was thinking ‘how am I going to be nude, and still, in what will probably be a room full of men?’”
The shoot lasted for six weeks, all shot in London, where she still lives with her partner. They met “in a Hackney dive bar. Not somewhere I’d have expected to meet a boyfriend”.
“We were living together when I filmed The Autopsy of Jane Doe and he’s pretty much the only person outside of the production that I saw.”
For the duration she decided to shut herself off from her outside life, in order to fully immerse herself in the process. It’s testament to Kelly’s easy-going charm and total lack of any preciousness that she manages to say this without sounding in the least bit pretentious.
“I made the decision that I wasn’t going to meet anyone, this was all I was going to focus my energy on,” she explains. “I think that was helpful, that I put everything else on hold. It was my birthday on the first day of filming and everybody had a cake and was singing ‘Happy Birthday’. And I was thinking ‘I’m not celebrating my birthday this year — but thanks guys’.”
Her background as a model helped her cope — an early modelling job on moving to London was a tastefully shot editorial in which she wore nothing but shoes. “I don’t think anyone notices the shoes in those images, so I don’t know if that worked,” she laughs.
During her modelling work, she has experienced body issues on occasions. “I’ve had incidences where they can’t close a dress on my bust. Other people tend to get really embarrassed about that. I don’t. I remember watching this girl crumple because she didn’t know what to say to me. And I was like it’s fine, we’ll just pin it. And it was fine,” she laughs.
“Another time somebody said to me: ‘Oh don’t worry. When I first worked with what’s-her-name, she was fat too — and she’s gone on to be a Victoria’s Secrets Angel’.
“It was intended as a compliment. I thought it was funny, but I guess on some level it must have gone in, as I generally don’t remember what is said to me on shoots, I’m on so many.”
After The Autopsy of Jane Doe, she decided to take lessons before any further auditions. “There’s a certain amount of pressure, because people have seen my two films and they’re amazing starting points. I’ve been seen for quite a few lead roles. Most people start off doing smaller parts and build up to that.”
Before the The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Olwen had a part in Patrick Ryan’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Her first acting role, it came about after she responded to an ad on Gumtree.
“I had been working in London and had come back to Ireland thinking ‘oh what am I going to do next?’ I guess you go over to London thinking you’re going to land a massive job. But actually the reality is that you do all these little jobs and you build it up. I was doing quite well.”
As is often the way, a career as a creative (to give it its millennial term) hadn’t seemed like a valid life choice.
“When I was younger, I had thought of maybe doing acting, but I wasn’t brave enough to say ‘right, that’s it, I’m going to go for it’. I think it takes a lot of balls to just go ‘I’m going to go into the creative arts’. I was quite good at school. I studied biology in university. And I wasn’t brave enough to go actually ‘no, this isn’t what I want to do’… until I ran off to London,” she laughs.
She had done some child modelling, “but I never thought, oh I want to go into modelling”, she explains.
As a student, it had seemed like an easy way to earn cash. When the acting bug bit again she had, she says, no idea how one might actually begin, and resorted to Google to find out. It seemed impenetrable; years of study, moving to LA, acting dynasties. In her online trawling, she came across an ad on Gumtree for an actress to appear in a film commercial being made as part of an application for funding from the Irish Film Board.
“The description fitted me and there was no dialogue. So I thought ‘oh I could do that. Brilliant!”, she smiles.
They responded immediately to her email of headshots. The piece had been shot, but if they were successful in gaining funding, the part was hers, no audition necessary.
Several weeks later, back in London, she received another email. Funding had been acquired, was she interested in the part, which was a speaking part?
“As naive as I was, I thought ‘yeah sure cool, where do you want me to go?’ They said ‘oh no, we need to Skype you, and we need you to know we’re not perverts on the internet’. I mean, it’s an ad on Gumtree wanting a girl to be in their film — it could have gone really wrong,” she laughs.
That was Darkness on the Edge of Town, also starring Brian Gleeson, and later picked up by Netflix US. “I sort of blagged it. They thought I was an actor. I turned up, and they were like ‘oh what have you done before?’ ‘Oh nothing’,” she trills, with a smile.
She has two releases this year — Winter Ridge, a British psychological detective thriller. “It’s funny,” she says of continuously being cast in films with dark subject matter, “because I’m quite cheery and smiley”.
There’s also a short film out in early March, a sci-fi thriller, Ascension, directed by Juice Black, in which she plays a character called Kirsten. The role required that she speak Russian and swim underwater. “It was my first time swimming underwater as I have a phobia of having my head under water,” she said.
Having turned 30 last year, she keeps thinking maybe it’s time to give up modelling. “And then I’ll shoot something amazing,” she reflects.
“My booker always says you don’t really start making money until you’re 30-plus anyway — if you’re commercial you can keep going.”