It’s an unusual plot for a comedy – when a man refuses to have treatment for cancer, his friends kidnap him and force him to have chemo. Ill Behaviour airs on BBC tomorrow – with UCC graduate Jessica Regan in a starring role. Jennifer Regan meets meets the rising star.
Let’s be honest, the word ‘cancer’ isn’t exactly synonymous with ‘comedy’. However, Sam Bain writer and executive producer of the new BBC/Fudge Park series Ill Behaviour carefully executes an incongruously themed plot with a stellar cast.
The result is a funny, provocative and suspense-driven story about three friends who embark on a journey that takes them to the extremes of their friendship.
Irish actress Jessica Regan stars as Tess in the three part darkly comic thriller which premiered on BBC iPlayer last month allowing UK residents to binge watch all three hour-long episodes much to the dismay of those of us who can’t access BBC IPlayer on this side of the pond.
The good news is Irish audiences will be able to watch the show this weekend on BBC Two, which also stars Lizzy Caplan (Freaks and Geeks, Mean Girls and Masters of Sex), Chris Geere (You’re the Worst, Waterloo Road) and Tom Riley (The Collection, Da Vinci’s Demons).
The story revolves around Charlie (Tom Riley) who is diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He is young and healthy, the cancer has been caught early and the prognosis is good.
Charlie, however is suspicious of conventional medical treatment and refuses chemotherapy in favour of an alternative all-natural approach.
When his oldest friends Joel (Chris Geere) and Tess (Jessica Regan) fear he’s written his own suicide note, they hold him hostage and administer chemotherapy themselves with the help of Nadia (Lizzy Caplan), a sex addicted alcoholic oncologist, with a penchant for cocaine.
Born in Kilkenny, actress Jessica Regan was raised in Tipperary where she first dabbled in youth theatre under (the late) Mary Cummins.
Her appetite for performance was further whetted when she performed with The Granary Theatre as an arts student at UCC.
Since graduating from the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in 2007 her theatre credits include sharing the stage with Jeremy Irons in Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre along with numerous performances at The National Theatre in London.
Her TV credits include roles in popular TV dramas Silent Witness and Call the Midwife.
This autumn, Jessica will feature in the upcoming female-led comedy series Nowhere Fast (RTÉ/Deadpan pictures), written by and starring Alison Spittle and directed by Simon Gibney on RTÉ 2.
Her first major TV breakout role was playing Dr Niamh Donoghue in BBC One’s daytime medical drama Doctors, for which she won the Best Newcomer Award at the 2015 British Soap Awards.
While at The Granary Theatre in Cork, Jessica performed a one woman show The Yellow Wallpaper (based on the novella by Charlotte-Perkins Gilman) directed by Cal Duggan and this, she says was the catalyst in her decision to pursue acting as a career
“It was quite late in the day. I was about 20 at the time. It wasn’t really until after The Yellow Wallpaper that I began to think maybe I could do this for a living.
“I wasn’t sure if I had the ability or the stomach for acting and The Yellow Wallpaper helped me to figure that out.”
When Jessica told her parents that she was considering applying for RADA, she says they weren’t surprised.
“In fairness to my parents, they’ve always really nurtured and encouraged any interest I had. I think they were glad that I was going to study and train and take it seriously.
“It was actually kind of surreal to go from pulling pints in Cork and doing a bit of stage managing to all of a sudden living in London.
“I made amazing friends in UCC so I had a good nose for good people and London has been very good to me over the years in terms of opportunities.”
Jessica is candid when it comes to the precarious nature of the business but believes that authenticity and hard graft are skills that generate further work.
“I mean, I’ve had long periods of unemployment and have had some success. I’ve experienced both. When you are doing a job, you are auditioning for the next job. If you are genuine, work hard and make yourself an asset, work will breed work and that is the only way it becomes sustainable.”
BAFTA award winning writer Sam Bain (co-creator of Peepshow) worked briefly with Jessica back in 2008 when she had a small role in one episode.
Her route to Ill Behaviour began when he invited her to come along to a reading for a new show he was writing which unfortunately for Jessica had been already cast.
Jessica duly agreed and recalls having a great time with the other cast members around the table.
The following morning, she was offered an audition for the role of IT nerd Tess in the upcoming series.
“Sam wanted me to think the part was cast already so that I would be relaxed. People ask, ‘is it ever okay to lie?’ I can tell you, yes it is!
“I was never happier to be played because I walked in to that reading all ‘you’re welcome!’ as opposed to going along with the need to impress. I was almost obnoxiously casual that day,” she laughs
Jessica says she is very grateful to Sam Bain for the opportunity to play Tess and is delighted to be part of the series particularly as she agrees with the story’s standpoint on cancer treatment,
“I believe in science and medicine. Yes of course, I think anything that makes a patient feel better or boosts their mental well-being, by all means go for it but you cannot cure cancer with carrot juice. You just can’t.”
Through researching the role, Jessica was shocked to learn from an oncologist that a number of patients regularly turn down chemotherapy treatment on the NHS,
“It is difficult to understand because with the NHS, treatment is free. In the US unless you have insurance which costs thousands of dollars, you won’t get treatment. So I found that quite chilling.
“At the same time, the series doesn’t shy away from the toll that the effect of chemotherapy takes. Chemotherapy is incredibly exhausting and tough on patients.”
The tumultuous nature of her relationship with on-screen best friend Joel is what propelled Tess forward as a character, says Jessica.
“So much of Tess comes from the dynamic between the characters Tess and Joel. Tess loves Joel so much but he drives her absolutely insane so there is that tension of ‘I’m mad about you! You’re wonderful but I’m so angry at you all the time’. I think we’ve all been furious with people we care deeply about so that was great to tap in to.”
Jessica says she didn’t have to ‘dig deep’ to play the cardigan-wearing burgeoning sci-fi novelist Tess as the sharply comic writing spoke for itself.
So, how much like her character Tess is Jessica?
“Socially I’m probably more confident than Tess but internally I’m more like her. I can be in a room and feel like an absolute bog monster or something but outwardly I’ll be holding court in a glamorous dress!
“Tess is much more than a female sidekick and I felt like I really wanted to get her right.”
Jessica’s role as Dr Niamh Donohue on Doctors informed the more technical aspects of her performance on Ill Behaviour.
“Working on a show like Doctors which turns out so many episodes will just stand to you in any technical capacity.
“You are used to being pressured for time and getting things done swiftly and efficiently. You tend to go on set with the bulk of the work done.”
Jessica says she owes her success to hard work, perseverance and surrounding herself with like-minded people.
“It’s important to find your tribe and stick with those you feel secure around. Some say you find out who your true friends are when the chips are down but I think the same can be said when things are going well.
“Misery loves company and sometimes it’s easier for people to be there for you when you’re not flying high”.
Jessica hopes that Irish viewers will enjoy watching Ill Behaviour as much as she enjoyed working on the series.
“It’s just a great yarn. I hope that viewers laugh, feel the stakes and feel empathy with the characters.
“At the end of each hour-long episode, no one can predict what’s next and that’s what makes it exciting.”
Ill Behaviour starts tomorrow on BBC Two at 10pm
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved