- Film & TV
- 08 Oct 21
Acclaimed for her performance in the new BBC drama, the actress discusses landing the role while still at the Lir, working with an incredible cast, and her great-grandfather Sean O’Casey.
Agnes O’Casey delivers a star-making performance in the compelling new series Ridley Road, currently being broadcast Sundays at 9pm on BBC One. Adapted from the novel by Jo Bloom, Lir alumnus O’Casey – a 25-year-old London native and great-granddaughter of Sean O’Casey – delivers a brilliant and complex lead performance as Vivien Epstein, a woman who reflects the shifting social landscape of ’60s Britain.
Escaping a stultifying suburban background, the Jewish Vivien joins anti-fascist organisation the 62 Group and infiltrates the dangerous world of the racist and anti-Semitic far-right in London’s East End. It’s a gripping exploration of a perhaps overlooked period in British history, with an agreeable shading of John Le Carre’s espionage thrillers. It’s also a story which has unfortunate resonance in today’s sociopolitical climate.
You can only assume that O’Casey – talking to Hot Press from London, having just arrived back from Prague – felt that Vivien was a truly brilliant role to land.
“There’s so much to do, I couldn’t really believe it,” enthuses O’Casey. “I was still at the Lir, and things were shut down because of Covid. It was very bizarre – when I was auditioning for this part, it all sort of felt too good to be true. I think was strangely relaxed, because I was like, ‘Oh, this’ll never happen.’ Vivien is so interesting anyway, and then she changes alias and goes undercover. So you get to do so many things. It’s like every part of humanity; it’s so much fun: it’s great.”
It’s remarkable that the actress secured the lead in a BBC drama whilst still at college.
“Oh my god,” says O’Casey. “I was thinking, I’d love to be in a BBC drama at some point. I wonder if five years down the line, that might be able to happen. It’s crazy, we were doing a play over Zoom at the time, while I was auditioning. I’d be logging off the Zoom and then running into a room, and trying to remember lines. I was trying to deal with these two funny worlds.”
With Lisa Mulcahy as director and Sarah Solemani as writer of the series, I wonder what it was the creative team behind Ridley Road saw in O’Casey.
“The director and the casting director were there, but everyone was involved in the decision,” she reflects. “I feel so lucky that they chose me. I think it’s a real testament to them, that they took a risk on someone who was totally unknown. Because they could have so many people… But what was it about me? I don’t know, I’ve heard the writer, Sarah Solemani, talk about what it was about me, but I actually feel embarrassed to touch on that!
“There are loads of parts of Vivien that I really understand, like her ability to see that people are underestimating her. Being underestimated as a girl was very in my remit – I kind of know what that feels like. I really cared about the idea of getting to do something so meaningful and important; maybe I have some of that drive in me. I just feel very lucky… It feels like a bit of a stroke of magic!”
How much rehearsal time would the cast get on a project like Ridley Road?
“That was the thing that really surprised me,” says Agnes. “I’d gone from the Lir where you get four weeks rehearsal – and that never feels like enough anyway – to having a read-through for Ridley Road. I think we had a few days to talk through the different elements of her life. I talked to Tom, who’d be playing my boyfriend, and the people who’d be playing my family.
“We had a day each for those, and we’d just go for it. Everything was shot out of sequence as well, so we did a lot of the final scenes towards the beginning of filming. It was a huge learning curve.”
Was it stressful – or do you have just to have to pragmatically deal with it?
“I think it’s a bit of both,” Agnes considers. “The idea of not getting any rehearsal time is terrifying. I mean, I am a big fan of rehearsing, but on films, you just don’t have the time. I do think there is merit in giving up your control and going with it – that can create something. Maybe my love of rehearsing is just my desire to feel like I have some control over it.
“One day I had to do a scene where Vivien has gone through hell, and it’s a scene at the very end. I was sat in the make-up chair thinking, ‘How on earth am I gonna do this?’ It’s a huge exercise in focus. I had to learn to not feel embarrassed to just do that. A lot of time it was just me on set with the crew, and the crew were lovely. It’s funny, cos they’re doing their job, and you’re doing yours – which sometimes happens to be sitting in the corner, just being really strange!
“You have to let go of the social awkwardness of that, and be like, ‘This is my job – it just happens to be a weird job.’”
It certainly must have been whirlwind time for O’Casey. What was the time-frame from getting the job to commencing filming?
“I think I had about two months,” she says. “So I was walking about Portobello where I was living at the time, going, ‘Is this real? Will it happen?’ It was like I was in a dream. It was so strange, cos it was during lockdown. The world was so different and I was isolated. Also, when I got it, I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone for a week. It was so strange and I really couldn’t believe that it was actually going to happen. So I was stressed – it was like, ‘I just need to be on-set and then I can enjoy myself.’
“I remember really strongly the phone- call, cos when I got the part, I just knew about Vivien; I didn’t know about the rest of the cast. So I remember being told who else was in the series, and a lot of them were actors I’d looked up to. I kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to see Rory Kinnear in the flesh and act with him.’”
Funnily enough, the previous night I attended a screening of No Time To Die, which also stars the ubiquitous Kinnear. How did Agnes find working with him?
“It was pretty amazing,” she enthuses. “Actors of that calibre make you better. I found if I was worried – and I had so much to potentially be nervous about –Rory would make it so real, suddenly was real for you. Actors like that take you on a journey with them, and he’s been there so long, he has this ease about him that’s a bit infectious.
“Also, he’s really good fun; he’s a really nice guy. There’d be hours where you’d be stuck on the train during filming – we had a lot of time to fill, but it was actually really easy. That was after I stopped being so starstuck; I was so boring at the beginning! Rory would be like, ‘Tell me about this’, and I’d just give him a one-word answer!”
Given the depth of Vivien as a character, O’Casey certainly must have had plenty to think about in between takes…
“Yeah, but at the same time, the writing was so good,” she notes. “What’s so interesting about it is that she enters this incredibly male-dominated, intense, macho 62 Group energy. But she stays true to herself and uses her own skills – that sort of personable hairdresser role. Unknowingly, her life has set her up perfectly for what she’s about to do. She can change her appearance and people-please, and that’s how she does it. I love that.
“You sort of watch her grow up and realise what she’s capable of. She starts off and she’s so bored and sick of her life. Then when she enters this world, even though it’s terrifying and she’s in so much peril, it’s what she’s been craving. She’s desperate to be put to use in some way, and then it becomes apparent, so it was great fun.”
Given the intense schedule, what’s an actor’s relationship with the director like on a production like Ridley Road?
“It really depends day to day,” explains Agnes. “It became a really intimate relationship in many ways. You know each other so well by the end that you get a shorthand. You’d go ‘What about this?’ And it’d be, ‘No, because of that.’ It’s clear – it’s great when you both respect each other so much that no one gets their feelings hurt. If she says to me, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, fair enough.’
“Because Vivien goes on such an obvious journey of maturing, that was something I found really hard, given that we were shooting out of sequence. That was something that I really loved having Lisa there for, because she’d bring you back to being, ‘No, this is way younger, this is more innocent.’ Sometimes I’d be ‘episode one Vivien’ in episode four by mistake. With directors, the thing I find most helpful as an actor is their ability to set the space.
“Because sets are very busy and everyone’s doing their job. And then they say ‘Action!’, and it’s like you suddenly have to be in a different world. The thing I love the most about great directors like Lisa is them being able to set the space, and letting you do your thing – letting you sit there quietly or move around if you need to.
“Like, when I’ve forgotten little details like how she got there, or what the weather was like, I love directors who can step in and help you. Things like that are easy to forget, especially when you’re filming in a studio.”
I conclude by asking Agnes about her great-grandfather Sean O’Casey. Notably, she got to perform onstage in Ireland again this summer, acting in Druid’s production of Chekhov’s The Seagull.
“I was meant to do Shadow Of A Gunman at the Gate before the pandemic,” says Agnes. “I was so sad about that, because it’s really a huge want of mine to do it, especially while my grandmother’s still alive. But then I did The Seagull with Druid in Galway, which was incredible. I was walking around like, ‘This could be the happiest I’ve ever been.’ It was so amazing to be there, and to be at Coole Park, where Lady Gregory had lived and Sean had visited.
“When I arrived, Garry Hynes did this thing where she was like, ‘Okay, you’re Sean and I’m Lady Gregory!’ Then she walked up the lane and was like, ‘Okay, Sean, welcome to Coole!’ That was a moment Lady Gregory had described. That was actually really emotional, to be standing on that ground, and doing something connected with Lady Gregory and Sean. Our dressing room had a huge poster of him and I was right there with him.
“Every time I walked downstairs to go onstage, I could go, ‘Hello!’ It was actually really emotional. I love feeling close to him, so that was brilliant.”
Ridley Road airs Sundays at 9pm on BBC One.