- 23 Dec 19
Roe McDermott discovered what makes the Dublin actor tick in a fascinating interview
If you’ve been paying attention to Hot Press’ annual Film Faces To Watch lists, you’ll know that we’ve been lauding the work of Irish actress Seána Kerslake for years. At 19, while studying English and Music at Maynooth, the Tallaght native was snapped up for the lead role in Kirsten Sheridan’s experimental drama Dollhouse, for which she got an IFTA nomination for Best Actress. After a screen-acting course at the Factory in Bow Street, Kerslake appeared in a few features and on the stage – but it was in 2016 that she blew away both Irish and international audiences with a powerhouse performance in A Date For Mad Mary.
Darren Thornton’s Drogheda-based drama saw Kerslake play Mary, a young woman fresh out of Mountjoy after a six-month stint for assault, left feeling hurt when her best friend begins to ignore her. Mary was aggressive and defensive, but also fiercely loyal, confused, and searching for acceptance – the type of meaty, complex role that many actresses can spend an entire career waiting for.
“Oh a hundred percent, when I got the part I just went ‘Thank you!’ I was so ready to play it!” recalls Kerslake. “She was such a complicated character – she’s sad, she’s angry, she’s tough but also soft and vulnerable. She was such a unique character but her story just came back to the basics, that we all want to be loved for who we are and we all want to feel safe. It was such a pleasure to play – not always easy, but a dream role.”
Her performance was rightly hailed as revelatory, and she’s now making waves again with her role in Lee Cronin’s horror film The Hole In The Ground, which just premiered at Sundance to great reviews.
Kerslake is delighted to be part of the film, which is adding to the current resurgence of intelligent, complex and wildly entertaining horror – something she hopes to see more of in Irish cinema.
“Our culture, our myth and our folklore and even our landscape all really lend themselves to horror,” she asserts. “But horror can be tricky - there’s a certain perception of horror that is slowly changing. It’s having such an interesting resurgence thanks to films like A Quiet Place, Hereditary and Get Out. Even series like Black Mirror and Stranger Things; they’re all really interesting, character-driven stories which gets people behind them.”
I suggest that these films chart a return to psychologically driven horror, rather than the more shallow, gore-driven “torture porn” horror that dominated much of the nineties and noughties.
“You’re so right,” enthuses the 28-year-old. “They play on people’s real loves and anxieties. Even if the world is heightened, it’s still about our primal fears. Because horror can be a such an intelligent genre – stories like The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, all of Hitchcock. They appealed because they get at social issues and those primal emotions that connect everyone.”
The Hole In The Ground plays with an intriguing trope of horror that is also having a resurgence thanks to films like Hereditary and The Babadook; the relationship between a mother and child. Kerslake plays Sarah, a Mum who moves to an eerie rural town with her young son, Chris. When Chris begins acting strangely after a trip into the woods, Sarah begins to suspect that he is a changeling – a terrifying idea for any parent that takes on an even more complex resonance when we realise that Sarah had been abused by her partner.
“It plays with the idea of reality, whether something is happening to the son or to the mother, while not falling into the trap of the hysterical, unstable female,” says Kerslake. “It’s about her knowing if she can trust herself, and examining what happens when you think you know someone inside out, but they do something out of character. It questions if we can ever really know someone, if we can really feel safe. Which is terrifying, the idea that we can walk amongst monsters. So the film plays with traditionally Irish ideas of changelings, but what I think audiences are really connecting to is the very human story of a single parent trying to find the best future for their child.”
It’s yet another fantastic role for Kerslake, who has also become instantly recognisable thanks to the success of Stephanie Preissner’s television series Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope. Kerslake plays Aisling, whose life and friendship with Danielle (Nika McGuigan) begins to unravel when the two young women move from Cork to Dublin. Like A Date For Mad Mary, the series explores the complex relationships between close female friends – a rare occurrence when women onscreen are all-too-often pitted against each other as romantic rivals.
“Yeah, they definitely pass the Bechdel test!” laughs Kerslake. “Playing three-dimensional women and representing female friendship is a huge thing for me, I want to explore both the great aspects and then what happens when the relationship turns toxic or co-dependent. And how two people in any relationship grow – and if they can grow together. Because I’ve strong female role models in my life, but I grew up with rom-coms and Disney movies, princesses and things like that. It wasn’t until I was older that I found really strong film role models that made me say, ‘I want to be Gena Rowlands! I want to collaborate with my friends, like Cassavetes did with his friends!’ You only slowly come into that when you find your own voice. And still, I think we see a lot of stories about teenagers and young women in their twenties coming into womanhood, but there are still limited stories about women in their forties and fifties and what that journey is. It’s slowly moving, but we’ve still more work to do.”