Interview with Ian McElhinney (Granda Joe) and Kathy Kiera Clarke (Aunt Sarah)

Category: Press Pack Article

How does it feel to have finished filming Derry Girls?

Kathy: We really had such a ball doing this, but on the final day, and that last scene with myself, Ian, Tara Lynne and Tommy in the kitchen, we definitely shed a tear.

Ian: We had a few tears, yes – but we also had a lot of fun. We did a lot of stuff together, the “adults” on the show. We had a lot of fun doing it. It’s a shame it’s over, because we really have enjoyed it. Hopefully we’ll all get to work together in the coming years. Who knows?

It’s been the role of a lifetime for many of the gang, but for you guys who have had very successful careers already, does it still mean as much to you?

Ian: It’s a funny thing, you could be an actor for donkey’s years and people will know the face, but they have no clue who the person is. They’ll say, “Oh, I’ve seen that face before. What’s his name?” and then something comes along that changes everything. In my case – it only took about 35 years! – but it would have been Game of Thrones that gave me a bit of visibility. And for a period of time, I was known for that character, especially in Northern Ireland. But when Derry Girls came along, it changed to, “Hi, Granda Joe.” So you are lucky enough sometimes to be in a show that, for whatever reason, gets a wider spread, gets a bigger response, and suddenly the character that you play becomes the guy that everybody knows. And that’s what’s happened with this. It’s lovely.

Kathy: I’m not too far behind Ian in terms of 30 years in the industry, and I’m usually playing tragic characters, killing kings or killing babies or killing myself. Aunt Sarah put me in a whole different category. There’s so much love for the show, so people will come up and talk to you about it. When people come up to you in Belfast, it’s never a shock, because it’s close. But if someone comes up to me in London, which they do regularly now, it always comes as a shock. I’m always surprised, but it’s a joyous thing. Lisa has written something really, really special and it resonates with people.

Ian: I met someone the other day who said to me, “That is the best cast show that I’ve ever seen. Every part seems so right.” It was a lovely thing to hear. Because I’m so rude to my benighted son in law (Tommy Tiernan), people usually expect me to swear at them so they’re rather surprised when I don’t swear and don’t always look grumpy, that I’ve actually got a smile on my face. They say, “Oh, you’re not as aggressive as I thought you might be.”

Kathy: I also think it’s because it is so beautifully written. We were cast initially five or six years ago so we’ve became so embedded in those characters. Lisa went with that, so by the time we got to this season we’d actually become them. We all love our characters so much. I think people are surprised by the fact that I’m not Tango-ed from head to toe in real life.

Ian: It’s a wonderful symbiosis in the relationship between the writing and the characters over the years, that we’ve all grown into each other a little, you know?

What are your characters doing in this season, and how do you feel your characters have grown since season one?

Kathy: I don’t know that Sarah has grown very much, because she lives in a world that I don’t think anyone else inhabits other than Orla.

Ian: I’ve probably got more sensitive moments than I might have had previously. Joe is ostensibly gruff and very tough on his son-in-law – who deserves it, by the way *laughs*! – but he’s also deeply, deeply devoted to his daughters and his grandchildren, and the memory of his past wife as well, and there are moments in this season where that sensitivity, that softness, is apparent. That’s one of the strengths of Lisa’s writing as well. She is undeniably very funny, but the show is so heartfelt, and it’s got such sensitivity in it, and it has some wonderful moments that really catch you unawares as an audience in what is ostensibly a comedy. It’s very powerful.

Kathy: There are 10 laughs a minute, and then suddenly there are moments of such pathos that it completely pulls the rug from under the audience. And then, within a second, it flips back the other way again. What Lisa packs into each episode is extraordinary in terms of the journey she takes an audience on and the journey that the characters go on. Particularly in season three, she has really, really pushed further than ever before. It’s very moving.

Does Granda Joe give Gerry a bit of a break this season?

Ian: Not really, no! Somewhere in there you see that obviously that’s his way of caring, and he accepts that.

Kathy: If anything, Sarah has become more like Granda Joe in terms of relationship with Gerry this season.

Talking of sensitivity, how do you feel about the way Lisa has written about The Troubles?

Ian: The great thing about it is that it doesn’t shy away from The Troubles, but they’re never centre stage. They are a very rich part of the background, and you’re very aware of the fact that these people live in this world, but they get on with their lives and they have whatever fun they can have, which is fantastic. It’s the human ability to make sure that you try to live your life and you have fun, no matter what is happening around you. And certainly, Irish people are known for finding lightness even in the darkest of moments. It’s human nature to try and do that, so she’s never shied away from it.

I did a lot of TV shows about The Troubles in the 80s, almost to the point where we were all despairing, and the audience was probably despairing with us. I certainly remember doing a lot of heavy stuff back then. It’s nice to do something that is very, very much about that world but isn’t dominated or weighed down by it. Lisa does that brilliantly. One of the hardest things as a writer is knowing how to end something, and she’s brilliant at endings. The end of season one was really powerful and had a huge impact on people, as did the ending to season two. And the way she ends not just this season but the entire three-part series, is incredibly moving. It’s a real skill to know the right point to actually say, “How do I make sure I can end this in a way that satisfies me, and satisfies the audience?”

Kathy: Of all of the seasons so far, the moment where we were watching the news and Granda Joe put his hand on Gerry’s shoulder, intercut with the kids in the most joyous moment, still gives me goosebumps. What Lisa does so brilliantly – growing up, as I did, during the height of The Troubles – was to show how the younger generation weren’t navigating their way through anything. We were just living our lives. I had a joyous time at school, I had a great time – it was the adults who were trying to navigate The Troubles and what was going on, and finding the way to shield us from it, to allow us to have a normal childhood and teenagehood. I’m watching the news now and watching what is happening in Ukraine, and crying, and then you think actually, thank God for something like Derry Girls, because of the joy that it brings into people’s living rooms. To hear people tell me they gather round to have a Derry Girls night, or that they watch and rewatch, it’s a credit to Lisa to have created this world that we are so lucky to be a part of.

How much of a pleasure has it been for you to watch the girls’ careers take off?

Kathy: It makes me really happy to see Nicola in Bridgerton, and have such huge success, to see the profile that Nicola has, and how she conducts herself in life. And what a brilliant actress she is. Siobhán McSweeney is everywhere. You can’t turn on Channel 4 without seeing her. I take such pleasure in that.

Ian: They’ve all done brilliantly, and they’re all doing well, because they’re all very good. You need to have the ability, which they certainly all have, but then you need to have the opportunity, and they’ve all had this opportunity. And inevitably, that leads to other opportunities, and it’s great.

Kathy: Dylan has a show coming out soon as well, and is also in Danny Boyle’s Sex Pistols series.

Ian: It’s been very good for all of them, and I know that Louisa and Saoirse have done a lot as well. They’re all out there doing what they love, and doing it to the best of their ability.

Kathy, have you got any keepsakes from Aunt Sarah?

Kathy: Well, actually when I took her nails off, I was about to throw them in the bin and my friend said, “No! Keep them.” So I now have ten talons, and costume gave me one of Sarah’s rings to keep. I’m going to have some of her pyjamas too.

Will this show always mean a lot to you?

Ian: It will be one of my fondest memories, without question. It’s been a joy to do. When the material is good, then your responsibility is to simply make sure you don’t let the material down. You want to work with a gang of people that you enjoy working with, and you want to be able to look back and say, “You know what, that was a really enjoyable part of my working life.” And as far as I’m concerned, that’s absolutely true.

Kathy: Ian, Tara Lynne and I go back many years, so when Channel 4 cast the show they got that chemistry, affection and the genuine love between us. There’s a sense of actual family. I don’t think we’ll ever have a working experience like that again.