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Dearbháile McKinney on playing Derry Girls’ Wee Aunt Sarah: ‘It’s such a Derry thing to find humour in trauma’

Dearbháile McKinney speaks exclusively to NationalWorld about starring in Derry Girls’ season 3 flashback episode as the younger Aunt Sarah

<p>Claire Keenan as Wee Janette, Martin Quinn as Wee Cousin Rob, Jessica Reynolds as Wee Deirdre, Dearbhaile McKinney as Wee Aunt Sarah, Shauna Higgins as Wee Ma Mary, and Lucy McIlwaine as Wee Geradline (Credit: Peter Marley/Channel 4) </p>

Claire Keenan as Wee Janette, Martin Quinn as Wee Cousin Rob, Jessica Reynolds as Wee Deirdre, Dearbhaile McKinney as Wee Aunt Sarah, Shauna Higgins as Wee Ma Mary, and Lucy McIlwaine as Wee Geradline (Credit: Peter Marley/Channel 4)

This week’s episode of Derry Girls focused on the parents, offering flashbacks to the 1970s as a school reunion threatened to bring a long-buried secret to light. As Ma Mary (Tara-Lynne O’Neil) and Aunt Sarah (Kathy Kiera Clarke) reunite with their old classmates, Wee Ma Mary (Shauna Higgins) and Wee Aunt Sarah (Dearbháile McKinney) take to the dancefloor, intent on making memories that’ll last a lifetime.

Dearbháile McKinney recently spoke to NationalWorld all about her appearance on Derry Girls. She explained how she first got involved in the show, which character she auditioned for when the series began, and whether she’d be interested in taking part in a 1970s-set Derry Girls spinoff, as well as discussing her own emotional attachment to Derry Girls and what the show means to her.

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So, we’re speaking on Tuesday afternoon, it’s a few hours now until the episode goes out. How are you feeling?

I’m really excited, but the nerves have started picking up a little bit. It’s not long now since we filmed it, but I’m just really looking forward to it coming out and seeing it on TV.

Are you doing anything special for it, having friends round to watch it live or something?

Yeah, I’m going over to my mammy’s house, and a couple of friends are gonna come over there. I think my aunties as well will make an appearance. I’m from the usual big Derry family, who all want to watch it with me.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved with the show? What was that process like, were there many rounds of auditions or…?

It’s funny, actually, because I auditioned when the first series was being cast in 2017 – I think it was around then? I actually DMd Lisa McGee [the writer/creator of Derry Girls] on Twitter, and I said, “Hey, I hear you’re writing a show about Derry, could I get an audition for it?”

I wasn’t successful that time around, but once I saw the casting coming through this year for the Wee Young Sarah part, I was like, “this is perfect. This is exactly what I’d want to do in the show.” I had three rounds of auditions, and it was all it was all over Zoom, because of COVID – it was really actually more nerve wracking I think, doing it over Zoom, because I was conscious of not being able to fully show them how I was interpreting Aunt Sarah, physically and everything.

Dearbháile McKinney as Wee Aunt Sarah and Shauna Higgins as Wee Ma Mary (Credit: Peter Marley/Channel 4)

Which character did you audition for, when you auditioned in 2017?

I think originally, I read for Erin, then they asked me back to read for Orla.

I can see that actually, that makes sense.

And it’s funny now that I’m playing her mother!

How did you feel about joining the show, were you a fan at all? Well, isn’t everyone, I suppose.

Yeah, I’m a huge fan! To be honest, I’m so delighted because it’s the final series – besides the fact that when I tell people that I’m an actor from Derry, the usual response I get is ‘well, why are you not in Derry Girls then?’ Now I’m like, well, I’ve done it now, you can’t say anything!

But no, I’m really, really delighted to be a part of it. [Especially] with the new cast, you know, for the special seventies episode. I was the only one from Derry to end up getting the part in it, so helping the guys out with the Derry accent was fun. I was the go-to voice coach. [laughs]

When I was watching it, your performance – it’s got elements of Kathy Kiera Clarke’s performance to it, some aspects of Louisa Harland as Orla to it, and of course there’s something you bring to it as well yourself. How do you balance those aspects of playing an established and popular character from a different perspective?

When I was first watching it, and I was watching Kathy Kiera Clarke playing Aunt Sarah, there’s elements of her character that I relate to in real life – the way she goes on that, like, kind of lackadaisical slow talking? I just find that so easy to relate to anyway.

But finding the balance, not just imitating Kathy Kiera or Louisa, and just kind of adding in notes of it, it was hard. I think just remembering that I was playing the version of Aunt Sarah when she was with age 15 [helped] – so, just trying to remember that she still hasn’t developed all of her like little quirks, like the smoking and everything.

I remember when they gave me the chewing gum, I was like okay, this is a good key to have: she’s always fiddling, she’s always fixating on something else. [I was] just focusing more on the child, the childlikeness in her – I think she never really lost that – keeping that in my mind, trying not to just do a bad imitation. Just staying true to what Kathy Kiera Clarke has done, she’s done an amazing job of making that character.

Did you get a chance to meet Kathy Kiera Clarke at all during filming?

It was, I think, the second day, myself and Shauna [Higgins, who plays Wee Ma Mary] we had to go do rehearsals for the dance scene. We had great craic, it was myself, Shauna, Kathy Kiera and Tara-Lynne [who plays Ma Mary]. It was really funny, and they were both so lovely and so welcoming.

I remember we did this dance rehearsal, and then Michael Lennox [the director] and Lisa, they wanted me to just do a quick read of some lines. Having to do that in front of Kathy Kiera, I didn’t want her to be disappointed in the way I’m portraying her – it was a big pressure, to have to do that in front of someone on essentially the first day of meeting them!

But she was very happy, she was so kind to me, and she was genuinely kind of impressed with it? She was like, that’s brilliant, and I was like thank you so much! On set, they were all so welcoming, just so nice and kind. I think that gave me excitement for this, that they were really looking forward to this episode, because it was a big deal for them and their characters. Having that, while paying homage to them and doing it justice, it couldn’t have made us feel better to do.

Lisa McGee, the creator of Derry Girls, she’s said that writing the show and this episode in particular really changed her perspective on that generation who came of age in the 70s. Did you find, being involved in this episode, that you had a similar experience?

Yeah, it’s quite a personal thing, because my mammy actually went to [the college that inspired Derry Girls]. So, doing this episode… I feel that way when I’m watching any of the episodes, I find myself getting emotional about it. I cry after every episode.

During this… It just reminded me of the naïveté of the girls, during that time when everything was so scary, but everybody still managed to find the humor in it. It is such a Derry thing, to try and find the humour in a traumatizing situation, no matter what it’s like. Being part of this episode, I think it’s gonna be it’s gonna be a hard watch for some people, you know, especially those growing up at the height of the troubles. But I just hope that they can relate to the humour that’s there, obviously, because Lisa does a brilliant job of it every time. It’s just so nice seeing the threat, and seeing how the story ended and was told: there’s just something so beautiful about that friendship, that close friendship of girls.

One of your big roles so far is Bright Lights Dead City, which is this radio drama satirising the way this Hollywood prestige drama presents Ireland and presents the Troubles. Do you think that perception of Ireland that we see in film and television is changing – maybe as a result of Derry Girls, maybe just generally?

Especially on British media now, with Derry Girls and Bright Lights Dead City on Radio Four. I think that just was always – I mean, you know yourself, there’s always been this kind of fear to talk about the troubles. Even myself, having worked in England, going over there and talking about our history, I think maybe 10 years ago it would’ve been met with more of a “it’s awkward to talk about.”

But doing the radio show, and doing Derry Girls, it’s given an easier opening to talk about these things and have an open ground on it. It’s great that it’s getting to the English and the Welsh and the Scottish, and all the world, you know? I think it’s a great way to show that we’re not all just killing each other [laughs]

Couple of broader questions. How did you get into acting, what’s your career path been so far? I know you trained at the NWRC and you’ve spent time with the Lyric Theatre, what was that like?

When I left school, I was in two minds of what to do. Maybe I should be a podiatrist? Maybe that would just solve so many stresses, of not getting jobs and not getting into theatre, but I had a chat with my mammy about it and she said to do what you want. Getting the work and getting the jobs, think about that after.

So, I [started] a course in Derry at the tech, and then through that met people from the local theatre scene here, and started doing auditions for shows in Derry locally. That’s where I found out about the Lyric Theatre. After that, I booked my first job with a company in England called Alter Ego, and they do theatre and education shows. So I was touring around different schools, I did that for five years and then did the same kind of thing in Belgium and France.

It was actually, during that time that I signed with [her now agent] Michael, because Michael was my tutor at the tech. I went all that time not having an agent or anything, and everyone was saying, you should probably get an agent, so I signed with him. I’ve been getting more and more TV auditions and everything, and it was over lockdown that more of the screen work was coming through.

The first job I had [after that] was with Netflix, on The Winx Saga. That should be coming out soon, it’s for season two. I’ve got another show coming up called Blue Lights, so I’ll be filming that in June. It’s been fantastic actually, the past few years. I know everybody’s found it really really tough, but I’ve been so lucky that I have been able to do auditions from home, self-tapes and zoom, and paying my way through that. I’ve been very blessed the past few years.

What would you say are some of your big creative influences?

I’m a big – I’m a huge Father Ted fan. Always watched that from when I was wee, and I loved the comedy side of that. I’ve always been a huge fan of comedy like Billy Connolly and everything, that harsh humour. I don’t know if I have like singular influence, you know? I try and go to the cinema at least once a week, so I’m constantly going and watching [new things].

The adults reflect on their younger days, looking at polaroids from the 1977 leavers’ disco (Credit: Peter Marley/Channel 4)

Any recent favourites?

I saw the new Nicolas Cage film [The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent] recently, I thought it was absolutely amazing.

Ah, I’m really looking forward to seeing that.

Yeah, it’s so funny, it’s so good. Also that movie X, the one with Kid Cudi and Brittany Snow. You know, there’s just so much good stuff coming out recently – really looking forward to the Elvis movie as well, can’t wait to see that.

Finally, then: if they said to, look, Dearbháile, we’d like to do a Derry Girls 1977 spinoff, please come and reprise this role. Are you interested, what do you say?

Yes, 100%, I think it would be amazing. You know, so many people, when the show first came out, they were like, “oh, we’d love to see it when it was, in the height of the 70s, when it was much more scary.” Lisa just does such a wonderful job of this one episode that 100% I would say yes.

I had such an amazing time, and a great experience working with the cast as well. Me and the guys are still in touch. We’re actually chatting today about the episode coming out tonight, we just had such a great wee connection for the week that we were filming together. That’d be amazing to be able to work together again.