Meet five of Ireland’s future Oscar hopefuls

 

Ruth Negga is just the beginning. As we wrap up another Hollywood awards season, Carolyn Moore meets Ireland’s rising stars. 

Young Irish actors Catriona Ennis and Aoife Duffin, with model Eve Connolly (right) photographed at the Liquor Rooms, Dublin. Picture: Dave Meehan

Eve Connolly

As one of Ireland’s most successful models, Eve Connolly will be a familiar face to many; however the Kildare girl has her sights set, not on the cover of Vogue, but on the silver screen.

“I’ve always wanted to act,” she says. 

“I went into modeling at age 16 because I thought it might be a good stepping stone, and it really helped me come out of my shell.” 

Now 21, Eve graduated from the Gaiety School of Acting last summer. 

By August she had been cast in AMC’s martial arts drama Into the Badlands; before she caught the eye of a British casting agent who cast her in the horror film, Muse. 

Now shooting season five of Vikings, the foray into screen work has been a whole new learning curve for Eve, who learned her craft on the stage.

“I’ve always wanted to do both theatre and screen,” she says, “but for the moment I’m really drawn to the screen. I grew up loving movies, and being on set I’m learning so much on the job. It’s scary, but it’s the best way to learn.” 

“I find screen is a lot more subtle,” she says. 

“In college we did of a lot of bigger theatre, and I was always being told: ‘Be louder! Bring it up!’ “My first day on set I was told: ‘Bring it down; be more quiet’,” she laughs.

She also had to train in martial arts for her small screen debut, which airs in the US this spring. 

“I play a ninja and I have a lot of fights. Not how most people see Eve,” she acknowledges, “but I actually really enjoyed the fight scenes!” 

It’s been a whirlwind six months —“I can’t pick a highlight,” she says. 

“Right now everything’s a highlight!” — and one suspects this is only the beginning.

“I think there’s an element of luck,” she says of her stellar start. 

“But I’ve also been told I audition well because I make a firm decision on how to play it and I go with that.

“Every audition I do, I leave thinking, no, that was terrible, but you never know what other people see. In modeling you bring some of yourself into a casting, and I try to do that with acting too. 

"I breathe, I ground myself, and I say: they might hate you or they might love you, but you can only be yourself.”

Makeup by Lorcan Devaney for Make Up For Ever. Dress by Maje, €295, Brown Thomas.

Caitriona Ennis

Since graduating from UCD in 2012 with a Masters in Performing Arts, Dubliner Caitriona Ennis has been causing quite a stir on the theatre scene.

Nominated this year for her third Irish Times Theatre Award for her one woman show, Test Dummy, Caitriona has moved into the Best Actress division, alongside heavyweights like Barbara Brennan and Aisling O’Sullivan. 

But as her career choices have proven thus far, she is not one to shy away from a challenge.

Having studied drama since the age of ten, she made her professional debut in Bugsy Malone at the Olympia theatre. 

But it was her post-UCD turn playing a 12-year-old girl in Anu Productions’ immersive and unsettling The Boys of Foley Street that — literally — caught people’s attention.

“We actually got complaints about a child being in the production,” she recalls. 

“They had to release a statement and say, it’s ok, the actress is 24!” 

“I was wearing a school uniform, and I was spending time with local kids, picking up on their energy. They got a kick out of it — knowing the audience didn’t know how old I was, and seeing how shocked they were — but I was always very conscious of the fact that it was their life I was playing.”

Giving voice to complex characters in often challenging situations has been the driving force behind many of the projects she has pursued.

“I always end up really caring about my characters,” she says. 

“Test Dummy was such an interesting, special piece, but it was hard to go through that.

“Sometimes as an actor you carry the heart of your characters, and she was quite broken.” 

Though her first feature film — Aoife McArdle’s Kissing Candice — is set for release this year, Caitriona won’t be turning her back on the theatre any time soon.

“I think it’s really important to do both, for your own love of it and to keep it interesting,” she says. 

“Plus, there’s a real buzz in theatre here at the moment, with young actors and new writers. Funding is difficult, and that’s frustrating, but I’m passionate about new writing and new work. 

"Once you believe in the project or the script or the character, it doesn’t matter what the medium is,” she says. 

“You find a way to give that person a voice and tell that story.”

Makeup by Donna Morris Conlon for Make Up For Ever. Dress by Sandro, €295, Brown Thomas.

Aoife Duffin

For Kerry-born Aoife Duffin, there was a never a moment when she decided she wanted to be an actress; she simply found herself “driven to do it”. 

She began taking drama classes in primary school and at 15 she joined Tim Patton’s Marahees Mime Company.

“In sixth year, our guidance counselor asked if anyone was interested in drama in Trinity,” she recalls. 

“I remember my hand going up and not really knowing why. Obviously I was working with the mime company and that influenced my decision, but I don’t know that I’d ever said ‘I want to be an actress’.” 

“Then in college, a teacher told us, ‘You don’t chose acting; it chooses you’.” 

Since graduating from Trinity in 2005 she has worked steadily, though it’s a job she admits comes with its fair share of stress. 

“It goes hand in hand with being an actor,” she says. 

“But the other day I was doing an improv in an audition and I was reminded why I love it – it’s just getting lost in the work.” 

The work for Aoife has been nothing if not varied. 

Alongside numerous critically acclaimed theatre performances, she played teenager Trisha Moone in Moone Boy, and has appeared in a number of Irish features, including What Richard Did.

But 2016 was arguably her breakthrough year. 

Though she premiered Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2014, Corn Exchange toured the production for almost four months last year, an experience she describes as “very special - arduous but good, as all the best things are.” 

Nominating Aoife for their 2016 Emerging Talent award, the Evening Standard described her performance in the one woman show as “majestic”. 

“It was an emotionally draining run,” she says, but she enjoyed “a beautiful boost” when she got to meet her hero, P J Harvey, who saw her per form during the show’s London run.

“Going straight from touring Girl into a two month run in The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe theatre was a lot of theatre work!” she says, explaining that she’s turned her focus for now to film and TV. 

While “things are heating up in London”, she finished 2016 on home shores, filming season two of Rebellion.

“It was brilliant,” she says. 

“It was so nice being back on set. You get to know the crew; it’s very different to being on the road for a one woman show.”

Makeup by Donna Morris Conlon for Make Up For Ever. Dress by Whistles, €225, Brown Thomas.

Rex Ryan

A student at the National Performing Arts School from the age of eight, Rex Ryan’s early interest in drama was almost derailed. 

Son of the late broadcaster Gerry, he describes appearing in Blood Brothers at the Olympia as “a profound experience”, but says: “In secondary school the drama thing wasn’t cool, so I bailed on it.” 

He had caught the bug though, and after a detour that involved a business degree and “a lot of travelling”, in 2013 he enrolled in the Gaiety School of Acting. 

“I was scared,” he recalls. 

“It was a big deal to finally commit to this, but when I started drama school, it just immediately felt right.” 

Since graduating in 2015, Rex has established himself as a dynamic creative force in Irish theatre. 

His one man shows with playwright Philip Doherty earned him rave reviews; then, while doing workshops in UCD, he connected with a group of actors who would later become The Corps Ensemble.

“We were training there and I said, look, we’ve got a theatre company here. Let’s do it.

“We looked to famous ensembles like Steppenwolf in Chicago, or Druid or Corn Exchange here at home. That’s what I was continually drawn to — companies where actors are coming together, workshopping, finding new work. 

"Everyone has a stake in it; it’s a way to connect and do plays with a different energy.” 

Channeling that energy into engaging with a young audience is the group’s focus.

“Theatre is the most immediate and pure form of connection,” Rex says, “but we need to consciously engage people. A lot of theatre in Ireland is for ‘theatre people’, and that’s dangerous.

“I wasn’t a theatre person growing up, but I’ve had some of the most magical moments of my life in Irish theatres. Things I’ve seen here have profoundly changed me, but theatre here would also break your heart, especially if you’re invested in it.”

Like Caitriona, Rex feels lack of funding is “a massive issue”, but he adds, “There’s a galvanized sense of energy” among the community.

With The Corp Ensemble’s Made in China recent opening in the Viking Theatre, Dublin, his directorial debut lined up for July, and a big ensemble piece planned for the end of the year, Rex says 2017 will be “pretty full on.” 

“I also adore film, and I want to do more of that, but right now I’m entrenched in the theatre. I love the rigor of it and I’m very happy to be in that place.”

Chris Walley

Growing up in Cork, Chris Walley asked his parents at the age of eight if he could take drama classes, and as a teen he performed with the National Youth Theatre in the Everyman and the Abbey. 

“I always wanted to be an actor — except for a brief period when I was 11 or 12 and thought I was going to get scouted and play for Manchester United,” he laughs.

An improbable boyhood dream, perhaps, but no less fanciful than beating 3,600 other young hopefuls to a place at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, which is exactly what Chris managed to do in 2015, one year into his drama degree at Cork’s School of Music and mid-way through filming last year’s hit comedy, The Young Offenders.

“The timeline was lucky,” he says, “because you’re not allowed do professional work while you’re at RADA — they want you immersed in the training. 

"I started the audition process while filming The Young Offenders, then found out on set that I got in.

“Coming here was the dream,” he adds. 

“My parents always said, if you get in there’s not a chance you’re going because it’ll to be too expensive,” but when opportunity came knocking they agreed they would “figure something out.” 

“I’ll be very much indebted to them,” he says. 

“This is where Anthony Hopkins, Mark Rylance and Fiona Shaw went — it’s incredible. It’s tough work, so it can be easy to forget how lucky I am. Some days I have to stop and remind myself: I’m coming in the door to RADA, and then I just walk through that door with a huge smile on my face!” 

Now in his second year, Chris will perform in six public RADA productions between June and his summer 2018 graduation, at which point he hopes to continue to follow in the footsteps of notable RADA alumni like Kenneth Brannagh, Tom Hiddleston and Irish actor Ciaran Hinds.

But there’s another homegrown whose success he’d love to emulate. 

“I’m a big fan of Cillian Murphy,” he says.

“His career is so diverse and he does such a variety of roles.

“I love the rush of theatre,” he says, “but doing a feature film I realised I love that too. I’m hoping to do it all. For me that’s what acting is — doing as many different things as you possibly can.”

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