IT’S being hailed as a golden age for television, with more complex dramas hitting the small screen than ever before.
Certainly, the sheer scale of quality TV has made it a busy time for actress Elaine Cassidy, who returns to our screens in Channel 4’s No Offence on Wednesday.
The first series of the show — an unconventional blend of police procedural, comedy and drama, laced with acerbic humour — won an army of fans, among them Cassidy herself, who embraced the opportunity to play a far-from-perfect character.
She is DC Dinah Kowalska, a work-obsessed policewoman who will stop at nothing to see justice served. The first series, penned by Shameless creator Paul Abbott, was widely praised for its cutting-edge approach and inventive clashing of genres.
For Cassidy, a softly spoken actress from Co Wicklow who has worked steadily and successfully throughout her two-decades-long career, it’s been a fun departure.
“What I do love about her is that she’s flawed,” Cassidy tells me. “I love that she — all the characters — are allowed to be true to themselves. It’s not about ticking boxes, or about: ‘We can’t have this character doing that because they might not be likeable’. For me, that’s what I enjoy watching, where it feels more believable. When you see people’s imperfections you can warm even more to them. It makes you feel ok about you!”
The first series was shortlisted for best drama series at the BAFTA TV awards and Cassidy’s returning character is set to feature more prominently in the second series.
“She’s second generation Polish, she’s a bit gung-ho. She’s a maverick, a rogue, she will endeavour to get the job done regardless, whether it’s abiding by the rules or not. She has a goal in mind and she won’t stop until she achieves it. She’s kind of married to her job. She lives with her mum and her daughter — they don’t get a lot of time from her because she’s pretty much at work all the time.”
Cassidy’s striking features and raw talent first came to the fore in 1999’s Felicia’s Journey, Atom Egoyan’s eerie psychological thriller in which she played a pregnant Irish teenager who accepts the help of a middle-aged man (Bob Hopkins).
Though she was just 19 at the time, it garnered her huge attention and her performance opposite Cillian Murphy in the big screen adaptation of Corcodorca’s hit play, Disco Pigs, two years later, confirmed this was no flash in the pan.
She flirted with Hollywood attention, most significantly opposite Nicole Kidman in the supernatural horror The Others, but while the film roles still come, in recent years it is in television that she has thrived, with lead roles in series including Harper’s Island and The Paradise.
The year sees her star in two major TV series, and she agrees it’s a great time to play the sort of complicated characters that make her job special.
“There seems to be more of them now. There’s been a lot of noise about the fairness, the balance of things. It feels to me like it’s gone the other way — in my last three jobs there’s been more women than men,” she observes. “For TV at the moment, it’s a golden age — there’s just such a huge demand for content and after the recession, work for actors gets more interesting, because more difficult subject matters get tackled.
“I think it’s always been there. When you think back to The Sopranos, you’ve got Tony Soprano, on paper, a vile character, but because they got a brilliant actor to bring him to life, people become invested and enjoyed watching him. The same more recently with Breaking Bad and Bryan Cranston’s character. But not to the extent we have now, which is great.”
Endearingly, she speaks of her characters as people and loves that Dinah Kowalska comes into her own in No Offence series two.
“She’s even more physical in the second series than the first, because in the first series I ruptured two ligaments in my ankle, very early on in the shoot. That was very frustrating in the first series because I knew it wasn’t Dinah’s body language a lot of the time. I was limited in what I could do — I couldn’t move the way she would.
“Series two was lovely. She caught me off guard. Physically she became who she always was and I realised then: ‘Jesus, I knew she was lively but I didn’t think she’d move this much!’ When she feels something she feels it in every tissue of her body. You get to know your character, you spend time with them and then they tell you who they are, how they’re going to behave, to react in situations and you just have to honour that and facilitate that.”
Raised in Wicklow, Cassidy has lived in the UK for over a decade and is married to actor Stephen Lord. They have two children, Kila and Lynott.
Kila, six, knows that mammy acts for a living. “We watched The Paradise when she was about two and a half. I thought she’d love it because it’s family viewing, and all the costumes.
“Then it got to the bit where my character kisses another character and I thought: ‘Oh crikey’. I didn’t think about it until the scene was happening. I thought: ‘What is she going to make of this because she’s going to realise that that’s not daddy’. When they kissed, she turned around to me, and her eyes were dancing, and she went: ‘they’re gonna get married!’ She totally got it — it wasn’t me, it was the character I was playing. She understood and it wasn’t confusing.
“She just loves stories, whatever way they’re told. I always try and bring them at least once (on set) so that they know where mammy is when I’m not there, and they have an image of what work is.”
It’s been an exceptionally busy year and she has numerous projects on the way, including Strangeways Here We Come, a comedy/drama set in the Manchester suburb of Salford. “It’s a savage comedy set in the flats. It wouldn’t be dissimilar to Roddy Doyle, I think it’s very humorous. Terry Christian has done the music for the film, featuring all unsigned bands from Salford.”
She will also return to RTÉ later this year for their major new drama Acceptable Risk, which she has been filming in Ireland. “I’ve been filming here and going home to Wicklow, so my mum was delighted. It’s a thriller, set in the high-stakes world of big pharma. It’s predominantly in Dublin but it’s also set in Montreal, where we’ll be filming in the new year.”