A HINT of a smile ghosts across Sarah Greene lips.
“I have scars all over my body, no lie,” says the Cork actress. “As has been said, men put women in corsets so they wouldn’t take over the world and it’s true.”
It’s press day for Rebellion, RTÉ’s chunky New Year drama chronicling the prelude to and aftermath of the 1916 Rising. A ripe, big budget affair (the €6m price tag is a record for an Irish production), the five-part series features Greene as part of an ensemble cast of protagonists swept up in the events of Easter week.
“She’s from Cork, but she has ideas above her station,” says Greene of her character, May,
As we meet May she is employed as a secretary at Dublin Castle, seat of British power on the island, and conducting an affair with one of big-wigs from London — a fling destined to end badly. “She is trying to fit into a world where she doesn’t belong.”
Greene came to Rebellion straight from Gothic horror romp Penny Dreadful and thus found herself in period dress for the best part of a year (which explains her rant about corsets.)
“I didn’t have to do much running in them this but some people did but you’re so weak when you wear one,” she says. “If you eat anything it just sits in your chest for the day, it’s just not comfortable. They’re barbaric.”
Having played American and British characters through her career, it was a novelty to portray someone whose background was similar to her own (she is from Glanmire, just outside Cork City). “The funny thing is, on set the Cork accent is infectious. People were staying away from me so they wouldn’t pick it up,” she says.
It’s been a tumultuous 12 months for the actress. When she last spoke to the Irish Examiner she was acclimatising to life in the tabloids, a byproduct of her relationship with Poldark’s Aidan Turner.
The couple have since parted — which, while undoubtedly painful for Greene, means she is no longer a paparazzi person of interest.
“Drama and cinema in Ireland is growing every year”, she says of her decision to sign-up for a homegrown production (something successful Irish actors have been traditionally sniffy about).
“The industry here is enormous, especially in television. Over the last few years, more and more people want to come back and tell stories. We are a nation of storytellers. Now we’re finally getting decent budgets to tell these stories,” she says.
In a refreshing departure, Rebellion chronicles the experiences of three women from across the social spectrum. In addition to May we meet Charlie Murphy’s Elizabeth, a medical student born into the upper classes and seeking to bring meaning to her stuffy life through her involvement with James Connolly’s Citizen Army (in episode one she receives a lesson in shooting at point-blank range from Camille O’Sullivan’s Countess Markievicz).
“One of the main things that drew me to this is that it is a huge privilege to be able to recount something about your own heritage. Looking at these characters in the script, I just thought I can’t pass this up,” says Co Wexford-born Murphy, best known as Siobhan from Love/Hate.
“I don’t think something like this [that has been told from a female perspective] has happened in Irish television before,” she says.
The triptych of female leads is completed by Ruth Bradley, another Love/Hate veteran who was also seen in Channel 4’s acclaimed dystopian thriller Humans.
““I was interested in doing this because I saw it was focusing on women”, says Bradley, cast as a firebrand nationalist in the orbit of Padraig Pearse (in an early scene we see her instructing pupils at Pearse’s St Enda’s school in the delicate art of creating improvised explosives).
“Sometimes you get scripts and end up as somebody’s girlfriend or wife, you’re not doing anything in your own right. Also, sometimes as an actress you record a big speech in a scene but then when it comes to the screen, the focus is still on the man and it’s just your voice you hear,” she says.
“We’ve all grown up with the story so to play some part in it was great. It was about people rather than historical figures and is told through those ordinary people from the time,” she says. Rebellion was written by Colin Teevan, also behind last year’s successful Haughey biopic Charlie. The new show was given the green light weeks after Charlie aired, though Teevan thinks it unlikely the positive reaction to the earlier series was a factor.
“As a writer, Charlie had no effect. The two are very different. One is the story of a man, this is the story of a time and a city, I suppose. What Charlie DID show is that there is a huge appetite for drama that tells our own story.
“When I was growing up, Strumpet City was the first time I had seen my own city and country on screen — other than the Quiet Man, which didn’t reflect the Ireland that I knew.”
Teevan was determined that Rebellion would not be glorified news reel. Historical figures such as Pearse, Markievicz and Connolly have prominent walk-on parts.
Yet the impact of the Rising is relayed primarily through the eyes of every-day characters, including a British army private returning to his family in the tenements, and an idealistic soldier in the Citizen Army.
“We would have required 100 lead characters had we sought to give a thorough historical account,” says Teevan.
“I wanted to write about people who had stuff going on in their lives. With the female characters, I was keen not to define them by their relationship with men. Yes there were men in their lives but that isn’t what drove them. There were a lot of professional women in Dublin in 1913.
“By 1924 those doors had been closed. The collision of politics at the time was really interesting,” he says. Sarah Greene nods agreement. “We usually play the girlfriend or the wife, the stock characters. I was so excited when I read the script and it was about these strong women.”
Rebellion begins on Sunday on RTÉ One at 9.30pm