Interview with The Derry Girls – Saoirse-Monica Jackson (Erin), Louisa Harland (Orla), Nicola Coughlan (Clare), Jamie-Lee O’Donnell (Michelle) and Dylan Llewellyn (James, aka The Wee English Fella)

Category: Press Pack Article

Where are the Derry Girls – and I include James in that, obviously – when we catch up with them this season?

Saoirse: They’ve done their GCSEs and it’s that time where you’re going up to the next stage at school where you're starting to be the oldest kids in the school, but they're still sort of children. Erin especially has such naivete to her, and still feels like a child, but is trying to pretend that she's an adult or that she's more grown-up than she is. Adult things happen to them and they feel like that's changed their friendship and changed their lives forever. There are some quite poignant moments for each of the girls in this series but obviously it’s the Derry Girls so it’s always met with chaos.

Nicola: They’re about to get their GCSE results, and they’re slightly older but not really any wiser. They’re not kids any more, and they have to face some harsh realities of life. It changes them. Clare’s still a complete nervous wreck. I’d forgotten how exhausting it was to play her because it requires so much pent-up energy and stress. She’s all frenetic, mad energy, which isn’t like me at all. She’s taking life seriously, just as she always has. There’s a big storyline for her this time that I can’t talk about, but Lisa called me a couple of years ago to make sure I was comfortable with it.

Louisa: This season runs up to the Good Friday Agreement, which is a huge coming-of-age moment, as it was for people of that age at that time. Orla still has a child-like innocence, and brings that child-like view of dealing with the situations that we get ourselves into.

Jamie-Lee: The third series is like season one and series two x 1,000. We’ve completely outdone ourselves. Lisa says each episode is like a wee mini movie, there’s just so much packed onto each one. The girls find themselves in situations that they've never been in before. When I first read the scripts I thought, ‘How are we even going to do that without looking insane?’ but thankfully, she's pulled it off. There’s so many twists and turns and crazy situations that they end up in.

Dylan: As you say, season two ended with James finally being accepted as a Derry Girl. That was a big thing for him, as an outsider, to be accepted, especially during those times. But these girls are like his sisters, and they’ve got his back, so even though it’s tough love with all the teasing, he knows that they’ll be there for him when it matters, and he’ll be there for them. There’s still banter, obviously, but it’s coming from a good place.

I really hope that you still get called “The Wee English fella”.

Dylan: Oh, we haven’t lost that! That’s going to be on my gravestone. I get it a little bit in the street too. “Wee English Fella,” or, “Don’t be a bitch, James.”

Derry Girls is globally popular. Did that surprise you, given how ‘Derry’ it is?

Dylan: It’s because it’s so relatable. People relate to the coming-of-age stories, and being at school and having that tight-knit group of friends.

Nicola: I think why the show is successful is that there’s so many different parts. It takes a village to make a TV programme, and the basis of that is having a really strong script. If you don’t have that, you’re not going to make a good show. If it’s a bad script, you’re failing from the off, but we had the strongest foundation possible. It was amazing that it took off in the way that it did; I don’t think any of us could ever have anticipated that. And also being successful in so many places around the world, we didn’t expect that at all. I thought it was way too Irish for people in Pakistan or Canada or South America to get it. It’s wild.

Louisa: It’s bizarre. Being from the south, there are jokes even I still miss, so I was surprised that it was such a global phenomenon. But everybody relates to how people deal with adversity using humour and getting through tough times. I can’t say exactly why it’s really popular in Brazil or all these places, but it must have to do with the script. Plus, it’s a great ensemble piece. It’s that thing of wanting to be part of the gang, or whichever member of the gang you relate to.

Nicola: It’s lovely like that people can see themselves or see their friends in it. It’s really a privilege when you make something that people connect to in that way.

Saoirse: It was such an incredible thing to go through, especially being from Derry myself. I always think, ‘Thank God I got the part’. I mean, I would have obviously been delighted for my hometown that the show was successful but imagine having to watch it if I hadn’t got the part! It's been the most incredible journey and I don't think that any of us could have expected it. We really lucked out as actors because the scripts have so much warmth. As Lisa always says, it's like a love letter to our hometown. I remember that first read-through and hearing out loud all the characters for the first time. I’d already had chemistry reads with the girls and Dylan and that was special but the first read-through when you heard Ma Mary and Aunt Sarah and Da Gerry and Granda Joe, that really felt so electric. Then those first couple of weeks on set, it was like everybody was giving their all and giving a gift to the people that they love no matter where they're from.

Jamie-Lee: I think there's just so much genuine heart and I think the people who work on it – the cast and crew, and everybody involved – really, really believe in it, and really love doing the job. All of that created a great show and I think people love it because it's so relatable, all the scenarios and situations, and Lisa has made every character really full. All over the world, if you change the accent, the relationships are still very similar.

Have you been recognised abroad?

Saoirse: Yeah, I think we've all had crazy moments. For me it was when I went to New York for the first time. I went to see two of my friends who were on a play on Broadway and on the way there I stopped to get a picture in Times Square. I was on my own and I was looking for someone to take my picture and these guys just came running up screaming, ‘Erin, Erin!’ It felt like a moment in a movie, I was screaming back at them with as much excitement. It’s amazing that everyone has really taken it to heart.

Jamie-Lee: I got recognised recently in Portugal and on holiday in Spain and when I was in LA. We get mentions from literally all over the world. I’m delighted. It’s what every actor wants to hear: that you do a piece of work that you really love, that you're really passionate about, and people globally respond so positively. It's the dream.


Does it take long to slip back into character?

Louisa: I thought it would, but it didn’t.

Nicola: I thought so too. I was filming Bridgerton on the Friday and started Derry Girls on the Monday. I was stressed out in my mind about it, like, “I don’t even know how to do this.” But it’s weird, you just slip right back in. There wasn’t enough time to even think about it.

What was it like knowing that this is the final season?

Dylan: It was emotional but I was also very happy to be a part of that, and to go back to it all feeling like, “Wow, we did that. That was a cool journey.”

Louisa: Towards the end it was like, “Oh, this is the last day we’re going to be in the uniform,” and, “This is the last time filming with the family,” or, “This is the last time in Erin’s bedroom.” There are lots of those emotions.

Nicola: It was definitely bittersweet. It’s sad to think that we’ll never play these characters again, but at the same time you want to send it off in the right way, on a high. You don’t want to drag it out, and we always knew that Lisa wanted to take it up to the Good Friday Agreement. Also it’s about that particular time in their lives, so I don’t think seeing them in 10 years would be as fun, because they’re all so different. So you want to say goodbye to them when they’re still there, if that makes sense.

Saoirse: It’s really bittersweet. I think the journey that I've been on with Erin, especially on the third series, feels like a really nice place to leave this series. There's definitely been a lot of growth with her and a lot happens between the girls and James and the dynamic of their friendships. The best way to describe it is I've been fulfilled by the experience. I don't think I could have wanted or wished for anything more from this job and it's been such an incredible journey. I'm extremely proud of the show and extremely proud of Lisa and I think that she's ended on such a beautiful note. It feels like a really nice place to leave it. 

How did you feel on your last day of filming?

Saoirse: Everybody was starting to cry throughout the day and I was like, ‘Does it look really bad that I’m not crying?’ and I tried to bust a tear out but I always get like that when things are a bit overwhelming. But seeing Tommy Tiernan being emotional and our crew started me going, then Dylan came up to me and said, ‘Jesus, what a journey we’ve been on’, and then I broke.

Jamie-Lee: That last scene was really surreal because there were only a few hours left and suddenly we were like, ‘Is this really it?’ People were getting a bit teary and biting their lips and trying to hold it all in, even the crew. And when they said ‘That’s a wrap’ it wasn't the usual thing of everyone going crazy. It was claps and hugs and it was bittersweet: that’s the only way to describe it. This will be one of the most important jobs I've ever done and I think it's always going to stay at that. It's the job that launched my career. It’s the city I'm from and it's my community and my family and friends and loved ones, and it's something that I’ll always be incredibly proud of.


What’s it been like to go home to Derry and realise how much the show has meant to people?

Jamie-Lee: It’s overwhelming and something that I'm incredibly, incredibly proud of. The further away I get from finishing it, the more I can look back with sheer delight that we went for it. We made all the decisions that we made and we just went for the characters and didn’t hold back from the Derry-isms and the Derry-ness. I hope we represented it well and did Derry proud because the people from that town deserve it.


How do you feel about the way Lisa ended the series?

Saoirse: It’s extremely poignant: it makes your heart swell. The Good Friday Agreement runs in parallel with some storylines about the girls growing up, and at the same time Derry is growing up, and even talking about that now makes me emotional, and makes me want to cry. It has such a swell of pride and hope and that runs throughout the episode. You really feel that. But with that sense of hope is also a sense of trepidation that it could be broken at any moment and that makes it feel like it has a heavier weight, that it's more fragile.

Jamie-Lee: It actually makes me want to cry because it was so overwhelming. It was such a perfect day and such a perfect end to a perfect show. I say this every year but every time, Lisa completely outdoes herself, and this year was no exception. She handled it with respect, grace, and honesty, she really did, and it's beautiful. I'm really proud to be part of that,


Where do you think your character will be in ten years?

Nicola: I feel like Clare probably goes to Queen’s University, meets a girlfriend, falls completely in love. The girlfriend writes poetry and smokes, and drinks red wine. Clare still dresses like a giant toddler.

Dylan: The only thing I can come up with for James is like an astronaut, or he could be a young Steven Spielberg. Maybe win a few awards, a few Oscars.

Nicola: I wonder does Clare end up regretting how awful she is to Orla? I also have a theory that James and Orla are the only two good people in the group, and the other three are just not good people. Orla has such a hard time, but she’s like this innocent, sweet angel.

Louisa: She’s not easily fazed, so I think it’s okay, don’t worry!

Jamie-Lee: Do you know what, I think Lisa has developed these characters to the point where you could do a million spin offs, you could do a million prequels. I think Michelle will work in a bookies and then end up owning a chain of them like an absolute boss. She’d work to the max. She’ll still be friends with the girls. They’re besties, and they’ll be friends for life. There will be more shenanigans. These sorts of people don't just go through life being normal with no madness.

Saoirse: I’ve always wanted to meet Erin in her twenties! I’d love to see her when she’s peeled back those layers and things have settled down more with herself. Your twenties are so turbulent as well and you’re still trying to figure yourself out and have imposter syndrome, but you don’t have that naivete and freshness of a teenager. So I’d love to see what she’s like then. I think she’d have quite an exciting life which, as always, she’ll find hard to manage, but she’ll be lucky enough to still have these amazing people around her. They’ll definitely all still be friends. These people are based on Lisa's group of friends that are all still amazing friends.

What will be the legacy of this programme for you personally? Any favourite moments?

Nicola: It’s so hard to encompass all of that. It was so life changing for all of us. It was a job I got when I was 30. I didn’t know if I was going to ever have a career doing what I love doing, so that’s a privilege on its own. The fact that people enjoy it is an even bigger privilege. To get to play these outlandish, funny young women, it’s all a privilege. Seeing the mural in Derry was pretty mind blowing. It’s gigantic: it’s like 30 foot tall. I don’t think any of us ever imagined something like that would happen. There have been so many moments, and people from all over the world have connected to this show. The final season is really a love letter to the fans of the show. That’s why, even after three years, we all fought so hard to get back on set and do this one last time. And I hope we’ve done them proud.

Louisa: Exactly what Nicola said. I think being part of this female-led, Irish comedy which has done so incredibly well is the most incredible feeling. There are many moments throughout the last four or five years that I hold so dear to me. But also just finding the confidence to do comedy has been great.

Dylan: It was so amazing to work with such brilliant, talented people: writer Lisa McGee, director Mike Lennox, and the lovely cast and crew. It has been very special to me to be part of Derry Girls, and to be part of a female-led show, an Irish show. Also, especially as there hadn’t been a lot of light shone on The Troubles, particularly in English schools. So, this is almost a lesson to everyone, showing what happened, and these important stories that occurred. It’s great to be part of that, and to tell these stories, and show that perspective.

Jamie-Lee: Probably our very first day on set, it was brilliant. And there is one scene in particular from the third series that I can’t talk about but I said to Lisa, ‘I'm so happy that you have trusted me with this storyline’. I'm so delighted with it.


Did you take anything with you as a keepsake?

Saoirse: No but I have so many jumps on so many things from that house! I need to follow it up. I want the Cranberries poster from Erin's bedroom. And I wanted the Dolly Parton as well from the living room but Tara Lynn who plays Ma Mary said she’d already asked for that so I don’t know how I can wangle that.

Jamie-Lee: Yes, I have a couple of Michelle's rings. There’s one from the third series with an inscription on it, it’s got dates and initials inside, I don’t know where Cathy Prior (costume designer) got it from but it’s such an interesting piece.