Derry Girls

Interview with Siobhán McSweeney (Sister Michael)

Category: Press Pack Article

Where do we find Sister Michael this season?

One of the fundamental pillars of story writing is that a character needs to change, but what’s beautiful about Sister Michael is her reliability. The sass is still there, the eye rolls are still there, her cynicism. But this season is interesting because she is forced to confront that in a real way. She is an educator, and as much as she only became a nun for the free accommodation, she does have a sense of duty. As much as she is bored by it and doesn’t like doing it, her pastoral care of these girls seeps out of her. Her cynicism is confronted somewhat, and she’s forced to buck up and take a stand in a way that we haven’t seen before. But her are put-downs are still there, and her absolute disdain for the church, God and priests – not necessarily in that order – remains.

Can you describe how her relationship with Father Peter develops in this season?

It’s a very beautiful relationship. They’re my favourite scenes actually, and always have been – although don’t tell him that – because they’re a perfect couple really. It was Louisa, who plays Orla, who said after a scene, “How lovely it is, she’s so cross because she has a friend.” It broke my heart, because that’s what they are. He’s her friend. And she hates it!

Do we see a slightly softer side to her in this season, then?

I think that’s taking it too far! But the illogical conclusion of cynicism and of eye rolling is not caring, and actually then being very passive and sitting back and letting loads of stuff happen. What’s interesting in this season is that she is forced to take a stand about a few things, and she’s forced to step up – and that’s where the change is. The suspicion and the cynicism can still be there, but it’s very hard to lie back when you’re going forward.

It’s really interesting that Derry Girls has become such a global hit. Does that surprise you in any way?

It delights me, and it confirms a couple of things that I have suspected for a long, long time, in the decades that I’ve been working before Derry Girls, but now I have the proof. The first thing is that if you make something very specific, it becomes universal. And secondly, there’s something about humour that properly captures the true human experience more so than any Hamlet walking about with a book and a sword. The truth about our human experiences is that we laugh through the tears, we make the best of a bad lot, and we try to get through things. There’s a luxury with tragedy, which is sitting back and wallowing. But with comedy as an art form, we really come face to face with our humanity, and that’s why it’s successful.

I didn’t know half the stuff that was going on in ER, I didn’t know all the medical terms, and I’m still confused watching The West Wing – but I know what’s happening, and I go along with it. You don’t need to know what everything is. You don’t need to know the specificities, the colloquialisms. Audiences are smart, and Derry Girls proves that.

Most of the people watching this won’t know what life is like in Northern Ireland, and certainly not what it was like in Northern Ireland during The Troubles.

Completely. I’ve never met a nun, and I wasn’t taught by nuns, and I don’t understand what that is, to a certain extent. But the amount of people who go, “Oh, you were directly referencing my Principal.” I really wasn’t. You don’t need to. Fake it till you make it.

Sister Michael has been a breakout in many ways, hasn’t she? She’s got a massive gay following as well. What reaction do you get from people?

Isn’t that lovely? Who’d have thought a nun would be a gay icon? I find the whole fan thing a bit weird, but because I want to celebrate her with the fans I see her as separate to me, so I don’t feel like I’m complimenting myself or being big-headed or anything. I adore the woman! I want her to be celebrated. So when I meet somebody who is a big fan of her as well, I’m like, “I know, isn’t she great?” Also, structurally, I’ve really lucked out because, unlike any of the other characters in the show, I come in, land the clanger, and leave. They do all the hard work. They set it up, and I stroll in and take all the glory.

And not so much time in hair and makeup?

Pretty easy in the hair and makeup. That said, the first season was a nightmare with the wimple. We couldn’t figure it out. At one point we were talking staple guns and nail guns. At the end of season three, I’m still not happy with how we got the wimple on. I don’t know how these women do it. But in the end, I was like, “Just put it on and let’s see.” But costume and presentation-wise, luckily I had a partner-in-crime with our costume designer. I’m fiercely interested in costume and clothes in general, and I believe they do so much of the work with you. I found out more about Sister Michael by figuring out together what she would wear, and myself and Cathy Prior (costume designer) had an immediate complicity. We were very simpatico with each other in that I kept going, “I think she’d have an Aran jumper.” And Cathy went to the wardrobe and pulled out the Aran jumper, having had exactly the same thought. Then there were those little pixie boots. We thought long and hard with her costume because if you notice it, it’s wrong. It’s like the score – if you notice it, somebody has failed.

Did you take any of these items home? Did you take any souvenirs?

*laughs* No, I wanted to burn the wimple! If that ever passes my doorway again there will be some choice words! The beautiful Aran jumper, though, I have that. And I am in touch with our art director to get the picture of Daniel O’Donnell that was her desk. I also want to have her smoking jacket. I always try to have something in a role that means something to me. She also has these amazing cowboy boots, because when she goes out, she goes line dancing. My little weird nun will be with me for the rest of my life.

What is it like to finish the series?

Bittersweet, really bittersweet. It’s changed my life, this experience, in so many ways. I will never not be Sister Michael. If I’m ever spoken about it will be, “Oh, she was the nun in Derry Girls.” So that has changed my actual bones, my actual identity. I’ve never worked on anything for such a long period of time, and got to work on a character, and revisit a character. That’s so rare in our industry, so that was wonderful. Because it did take so long, we were ready to finish. It felt like the right time. If it went on for much longer it was going to be Derry Menopausal Women. And I mean that with love, and with humour. But because everything got delayed for so long, because of Covid, we’ve all been waiting a long time for the third season, the fans and ourselves, so it felt great to finally get it done.

Lisa said you’ve never been better. She said you came back and hit the ground running.

That’s lovely to hear, but I think she was being ironic considering I was on crutches! I fell off my bike when I was filming another show during the summer, and I broke the back of my knee incredibly badly. So doing Derry Girls felt like, “Finally, we’re doing this. Oh God, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do it.” So it was a bit of a nightmare. It was very frustrating, and I was in a lot of pain for and on crutches, but I’m glad that hopefully hasn’t affected us. It’s not ignored, it’s acknowledged, and we’ve got at least one good gag out of it as well!

How do you feel about the way that it’s all wrapped up?

Oh, my God, there should be content warning: This is going to break your heart. Lisa has gone full throttle, no tear ducts left standing. Our audience will be broken after this. And that’s exactly what they should be, because it’s the final, and it’s a story that deserves to have you broken at the end. And again, going back to what I said previously, only comedy can do that. Only comedy can break you open that way. You’re in for such a treat. Seriously. That finale, you’re going to be broken.

Lisa has spoken about her concerns when it comes to writing about The Troubles sensitively. How do you feel she has handled it?

I do, of course, understand her apprehension. The Good Friday Agreement is still with us. It’s under attack. Northern Ireland isn’t solved now. It has a well-fought, and tragically fought, well-earned peace, but a very, very delicate, fragile peace is there at the moment. The apprehension is not necessarily talking about a historic act. It’s about the reality of the situation there now. You can’t mess that up for people, because there are lots of sensitivities. There are lots of things still going on, there are lots of injustices that are still happening. What you can do is contribute to a conversation that isn’t being had, and Derry Girls has allowed people to start having that conversation more than any other piece of popular culture. It has hit more people than any other thing I can think of. It is quietly revolutionary in that way. I have the best friends in the world, some of the prettiest, most intelligent, handsomest friends in the world. And five years ago, when Derry Girls started, highly educated friends of mine were creeping into my door and going, “Could you give me a brief history lesson?” And my friends are the crème de la crème, but they just didn’t know. So to have this show starting a conversation, this isn’t in the past. It’s set in the 90s, but it’s not a place that no longer exists.

That is a nice legacy to have, along with perhaps putting Northern Ireland on the map in terms of comedy.

Yes: in terms of comedy, in terms of women, in terms of a philosophy. Please God, by the time it comes out, everything with Ukraine will be over. But in Derry Girls Lisa’s talking about conflict, and roaring with laughter, and we’re seeing each other’s humanity, and we’re trying to identify with people who are in that situation. It’s intelligent, and it’s female. That’s extraordinary. And for primetime viewing. What more do you want?

Where do you think the Derry Girls and Sister Michael would all be in 10 years’ time?

I think the girls would all be in jail, and Sister Michael will be on a tropical island, sipping a mojito, still wearing the habit, but rolling it up to go paddling in the waves.

Would you like to see it come back one day?

I think you have to leave it alone. As a fan myself, and as a television fan as well, I understand why you want to keep something going. But there’s an integrity and a dignity to the storytelling that needs to stop at a proper place. It’ll never be up to me anyway, but I think it’s finished. Unless we all have huge tax bills to pay in a couple of years, like the Sex Pistols!

Congratulations on your recent role in Holding.

Thank you very much. That’s sort of the opposite of Derry Girls in that it’s just starting its little journey. Going from the juggernaut that is Derry Girls to that new show: I loved doing it. I had a life-changing accident in the middle of filming it. I was in so much pain, and I still don’t remember a lot of what happened. I had two life-changing surgeries, but it was still the best summer of my life.

So were you actually shooting on the bike?

No, it was a day off. It was the most sedate accident. There’s a basket on my bike, that’s how sedate it was. I’m built for comfort, not speed.

What have you got on after that?

I’m currently filming a show for Disney+ called Extraordinary, which is written by, coincidentally enough, a new Northern Irish comedy writer. It’s without a doubt the funniest script I’ve read since Derry Girls, it’s set in London. It’s got a wonderful angle to it, full of all these talented young people, which makes me furious. It’s very much not a kids show. But I think it’s great.

Irish creativity is on fire at the moment.

It’s women. Irish women, dude. We are taking over the world. We call it revenge. You can have your Colin Farrells, and your Pierce Brosnans, and your Cillian Murphys. Never mind the cheekbones, the boobs are in town.

The whole cost of Derry Girls is popping up left right and centre as well. Do you support each other’s projects?

That’s what I mean. This show has changed all of our lives. I’m so proud of Nicola’s success. I don’t know if Louisa’s show has been announced yet, but Louisa has the most extraordinary career ahead of her. There are really exciting things happening for her. Tara Lynne O'Neill is just flying, she’s also a writer. The talent in the cast. You have to remember, the grownups are stalwarts of Irish and British film, theatre and TV. It’s extraordinary.