Charlene McKenna: ‘The further you go, the further you have to fall’

Charlene McKenna is starring in three of the biggest TV shows of the year. She speaks to Jen Stevens about playing newlyweds, Holding, and working with Cillian Murphy
Charlene McKenna: ‘The further you go, the further you have to fall’

Charlene McKenna as Evelyn in Holding.

Charlene McKenna is on a high. She’s currently on our screens as ruthless IRA leader, Captain Swing in the brilliant final season of Peaky Blinders, she’s starring as Evelyn Ross in the TV adaptation of Graham Norton’s wonderful book Holding and she’s in the middle of filming the new series of the Jed Mercurio drama Bloodlands with James Nesbit.

She had been filming on the windswept County Down coast and got back to her Monaghan home at 2am the night before we speak.

“Me and Jimmy [Nesbit] were only wondering why we always forget how cold this job is? He was asking me yesterday why he is always freezing at work, and I said it’s because we’re Northern Irish, we always end up in the cold places. But I can’t really deal with the heat either, so I don’t know why I’m complaining. My husband was filming in Atlanta for a year, so I would visit him, but I was so Irish about it. It was too hot. It was like 40°C — that’s not constitutional. I had a full-perm, I was Monica in Friends. It was out of control.”

Charlene’s husband, who she married during lockdown, is actor Adam Rothenberg who stars in the new season of Ozark. Between the two of them, they’re in some of the biggest TV shows of the last two years.

“It’s terrifying. Someone asked me recently what advice I’d have for young actors, and I said something that I always say to myself which is, ‘your career is tidal; you go in and you go out and you go in and go out’. Mines obviously all the way in right now, but there’s always a little voice in the back of your head saying, ‘Oh, no, she’s going to go out again, and then what?’ It’s like store up your nuts for winter. I’m beside myself, and I don’t know if it’s being Irish or what, but I’m always a little scared about what will happen, the further you go, the further you have to fall.”

Charlene McKenna: a face in three of telly's biggest shows right now
Charlene McKenna: a face in three of telly's biggest shows right now

There’s absolutely no sign of that fall and Charlene is currently starring in Holding, the whole cast of which is a veritable pick‘n’mix of Irish talent.

“I think when you watch it you can see the chemistry that we all had on the screen. Of course, you can all not get on and still make a good show, but I always think when you do get on, which we all genuinely did, it translates to the screen and to the quality of the piece. There was mighty craic, and I always think when you’ve got that level of craic and camaraderie and banter and trust and a mutual respect for each other, then you’ve got such a safe foundation to play on. Everyone’s willing to go the extra mile, work the extra time.

“There were great people at the helm, especially with Kathy Burke directing and Conleth Hill there. It always filters down from top I think, and Conleth, who I’ve worked with before, just sets the tone of being lovely, punctual, professional, knowing the lines, having the craic. It was a lovely environment and I think that’s what you need to create good work. I love him. I’ve been very blessed with really wonderful leading men, and he was another one of them.

One person on set that Charlene was very excited to work with was Brenda Fricker.

“It was a cast full of national treasures but when I saw her name I was like ‘Oh my God’. I was terrified to work with her. Brenda Fricker! She’s such a character. Oh my God, she’s such a legend. My character and her character don’t have loads to do together, so it was more back at the unit base that I’d see her and have chats and stuff. Brilliant. Oh, and Pauline McLynn. Good God, the woman is just the kindest, funniest person. She’s on for a full chat at 5:30 in the morning if you want to, she’s available for you. She’s just wonderful.”

 Charlene McKenna: Holding was "a cast full of national treasures"
Charlene McKenna: Holding was "a cast full of national treasures"

Holding filmed in West Cork during last year’s glorious summer which added to the joy of being on set for Charlene. “Pauline McLynn is now the mayor of the West Cork Hotel! The people were so welcoming. It’s a lot to have a big film crew coming to a small town. I guess they’re a tourist town, so they’re conditioned, I suppose, to have all sorts coming through, but they were really lovely. The scenery is just exquisite. I’d never been to West Cork before, so it was a total treat for me. So, to get to live there and work there and play there, was just a gift.”

Charlene’s characters have all been very different this year and fans have loved seeing her play out-and-out villain Captain Swing in Peaky Blinders. When asked how she feels about playing someone so cold-blooded: “I love it. I love it because she is nothing like me. I’m so animated and bubbly and she is stoic, formidable. Her face barely moves much. She gives nothing away. It was just so much fun and I love showing that side of myself and what I can do because I’m like, see, I can be calm!”

“The characters in Bloodlands, Holding, and Peaky are so different, which is by design. I do love to keep going through all the different filing cabinets in my head, figuring them all out.” Filming Peaky Blinders also saw her back playing opposite Cillian Murphy who she first worked with on Breakfast on Pluto in 2005.

“He’s so brilliant at being Tommy Shelby, terrifying and then he just starts talking in between scenes in his Cork accent and you’re like, ‘wow, ok’.” It’s been a very busy year and a half for Charlene, but she managed to build in some downtime at the end of last year to spend three months with new husband, Adam.

“I had a deliberate gap from October till I started Bloodlands there in January. I took a bit of time because Adam was filming Ozark for a year in Atlanta and he wasn’t back in Ireland for all that time, so it was only on my gaps that I could get out to him. Once we both wrapped, it was like ‘let’s maybe see each other and hang out’. What’s being married like? Let’s play that role for a few months. We’re over it now. We’re ready to be back on set. We had a nice three months together, it was fun. I like nice shorts stints of being married. I think that’s the key to longevity,” she laughs.

Charlene McKenna as Rose in BBC's Ripper Street
Charlene McKenna as Rose in BBC's Ripper Street

Rural Monaghan is definitely a departure from New York, where Adam is from, but he embraced his new home.

“It’s so different. At first, he was all ‘oh I’m only going to live in Ireland forever and it will be amazing’, remember now this is a guy from New York City, and then about four months in, he said, ‘I think I need to head back to see people now’ and I said, ‘Yes, you need to be socially adjacent for a while.’ There’s the country walks and the dogs and it’s wonderful but a few months in, you’re like, ‘Do you remember sirens? Do you remember restaurants?’ He was ready for a wee taste of New York.”

“When people ask me where I live, I say Monaghan and New York, and everyone stops and looks at me like I’m mad. It’s like, no, Charlene that’s not a bi-coastal thing that anybody does. But I love it.”

Charlene is filming Bloodlands until May and has more projects coming up afterwards, but she’s grateful for work and wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m a bit I’ll sleep when I’m dead at the minute, but with everything that’s going on in the world, genuinely, I am not complaining. Sometimes you feel like what you’re doing is so irrelevant, but then you think, well, if you provide entertainment or escape for people and give them a mental health break, then that is important. You’re not a doctor saving lives, but if you can offer a reprieve, then it’s worth doing.”

  • Holding will premiere on Virgin Media More on Tuesday April 12 at 9pm. Virgin Media More is exclusive to Virgin Media TV subscribers.

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