Derry Girls

Saoirse-Monica Jackson interview (who plays Erin)

Category: Interview

For those who haven’t seen Derry girls, explain a bit about the show.

The show follows four girls and a boy as they’re making their way through school – they’re all completely different. It’s about growing up in Derry during The Troubles, but The Troubles are just a backdrop for that. The show doesn’t focus specifically on that. I think what Lisa has done so well is create such different characters that complement each other in such a lovely way. It’s about finding out who you are as a teenager and finding your place in the world.

You play Erin – how do you see her?

Erin is selfish, self-righteous, self-absorbed. She would do anything for herself, she would throw one of her friends under the bus. She’s really out for herself as selfish teenagers are. She’s ambitious, she wants to be a writer, she wants to move away, but in reality she’s so much more naïve than she pretends to be. She pretends to be really worldly, and she has such romantic ideas of herself. But her friends are always there to remind her that they’re completely untrue.

The first series was a phenomenal success. When did you realise it was going to be a hit?

I was actually doing a show in the West End when it aired, so I came offstage and looked at my phone, and the whole thing had just completely blown up. We all knew, between us, that it would be a success in Ireland, but never did we think it would translate so well across the water here in England. And now, of course, in America, with it being on Netflix Worldwide. It’s incredible, and I put it down to Lisa and her writing – there’s a character there for everybody to identify with. And even though Erin is selfish, you’re still rooting for her, because we all remember being that selfish teenager.

It’s the most watched show in Northern Ireland ever. Everyone likes watching where they’re from on TV, but this is more than that, isn’t it?

I think that there’s been so much done about The Troubles, so many dramas, but Lisa has really captured the true nature of it, and the true sense of humour that comes with being from the North of Ireland, which involves taking the p*ss and giving each other stick. Obviously, I’m from Derry myself, and I’m extremely proud of the show, and I think she’s portrayed Derry people so well, and the warmth of our city. Lisa mentioned last year that there’s a real ‘Ma culture’ there, and it’s a real thing. Growing up in Derry, whenever you’re in anybody else’s house, you’re welcomed in there, and their mum will treat you like you’re her child. We had a scene in the last series where Ma Mary strips down all the rest of Erin’s friends to wash their school uniform. That’s true, that is something that would happen. If you went around to someone’s house on a Friday, you were sent home on a Saturday with your uniform washed. It was such a lovely place to grow up.

Do you think it’s really important to people from home that this is a portrayal of life in Northern Ireland back then that isn’t solely focused on The Troubles?

Yeah, it’s fresh, and it’s new, and it’s not been done before – to be able to make the point that people did just live through this, and they just kept powering through.

It must be mad, walking around back home?

The first time I came home I was with all the Derry Girls. We went back to meet the Mayor of Derry – which obviously my parents loved – and it was a lovely day, we were all together and all of our families were there. And I just couldn’t believe it – from the moment me and Nicola got off the flight, it was so surreal. The people at home, and especially in Derry, have really taken it to their hearts. They have an ownership over it, it’s their show, and we’re their girls, so they’re delighted when they see us, and everyone’s asking for selfies – it’s lovely. People tell you their funny stories from The Troubles, or try and feed you ideas to give back to Lisa, which I think she probably already has nailed, to be honest!

The show’s also on Netflix internationally. Is it true that in America they show it with subtitles?

I have read a couple of comments on Twitter, where people said “For the first two or three episodes they had to watch it with subtitles, and then after that they were fine. But every time I meet someone new, it always takes them about 15 minutes to gauge my accent. We speak so fast! I’ve seen one bit where they got the subtitles wrong. Jamie Lee calls Nicola a sh*t-the-tights, and they’ve understood it wrong and written it as “sugartits.”

You’re from Derry yourself – does that help? Do you think people from Derry have specific characteristics?

Definitely. I am proud to be from Derry, it's a brilliant place. Our director Mike Lennox has done a beautiful job of capturing its vast sense of vibrancy - he once described it as a mini San Francisco and I love that! In terms of specific characteristics, the characters that Jamie-Lee [who plays Michelle] and I play are the cheekier, sassier characters. Michelle is a rebel and she’s foul-mouthed, whereas Erin is super sarcastic and super-cheeky, and super-sassy to her parents. I think that’s very much in the nature of a Derry woman – we’re quick.

What was the atmosphere like filming in Derry?

Being in Derry this year was such a surreal experience. It sort-of felt like doing a play, because after they called ‘Cut’ on each take, we got a clap. It was the loveliest experience ever. The street we walked down in episode one of series one, where Clare says, “I’m not being an individual on my own’, my best friend lived on that street, and I used to walk down that street every day after school. So, filming there, in a school uniform, last year, as the weirdest thing ever. And three girls walked past in my old school uniform while we were shooting – it was mad.

How was the show to film? Did you all bond as a cast?

We’re sort of best friends for life now. We’re five very different people, but we’re the best of friends, and we have the best of craic now. I think we’ve got closer and ballsier with each other. I think that makes the comedy a bit better as well. I found it even better this year, reading through the scripts, because you could guess how the guys were going to deliver their lines. And they’re fantastic actors, so it’s a privilege to be able to work with them.

How do you think Dylan finds hanging out with the four girls?

He just thinks we’re mad, but it’s great to have him as part of the group – he sort of cuts up that massive female energy. We need him. There’s an episode this season where the girls lose James for half-an-hour, and they get into so much trouble with him not being there for half an hour. They don’t know what to do. He’s the voice of reason, he’s the person that steers them. And it’s not dissimilar in real life.

What were your favourite scenes from the last series?

I love when the Ukranian comes to stay, and Ma Mary and Aunt Sarah are jealous of granddad Joe’s new girlfriend, I think that’s absolutely brilliant. All the “Maeve, Maeve, Maeve, Maeve” stuff. And then the Ukrainian turns around and says, “Why does your mother make this noise?” I thought that was brilliant to watch – I love that relationship that Tara and Kathy have grown between them, playing sisters. It rubs off on Erin’s relationship with Orla as well. And I think all the relationships get stronger during series 2.

The show centres around a Catholic family and a Catholic school – does that mean some people will be predisposed to dislike it?

I think that was originally the thought – I know a lot of people wanted it to be called Londonderry girls. But I think what Lisa’s done – it’s about the culture of growing up in a Catholic school, and going to Mass on a Sunday, yes, that’s an element to the show. But the main element of the show is being a selfish teenager, and being a massive family, so I think anybody from any religion and any community can connect to that.

You could replace it with a Protestant family and it would be the same?


The show is full of music from the 90s. Do you like it? Does it help you get into character?

I’m a big fan of 90s music – I love a bit of drum’n’bass, and a bit of 90s dance – you can’t go wrong. I think the soundtrack in season 1 was absolutely incredible, Lisa’s done such a good job. She’s got top quality music taste. Dylan has brilliant music taste as well, he’s our DJ when we go out. He stands in the corner, doesn’t drink, and we make him play music.

The series ended on an incredibly powerful note, and was voted TV moment of the year by Radio Times readers. What did you think of the ending?

It was just so well done, I think Lisa really struck that balance between bringing in that hard-hitting moment when things really were awful at home, and bringing it back to such a beautiful moment of friends coming together and supporting each other. It was so emotional watching Louisa do that dance as Orla. She’s been practising it for weeks and weeks in her apartment and watching her do it really felt real.

Do we pick up the next series from that moment?

No, it’s a bit later on. When we rejoin it. It’s on the approach to the ceasefire.

And there’s a rumour that it features the Clinton visit as well.

Yep. Which is amazing, because when we were filming the episode, I stayed at home that weekend in Derry, and my grandmother showed me photos of them up there to see him, and my mother showed me photos of me as a baby up there to see him, so it was amazing.

Yeah, you were a baby at the time the series is set. Did you mine your family for research details, or do you just know it all anyway, because it’s such a recent period of history?

I talked to my family, asked them all sorts of questions. I’d heard all the stories already – growing up, you hear about the checkpoints and about cars getting taken apart, getting searched over the border, and obviously I’ve seen marches growing up, and seen and heard of the army on the streets.

The show’s never been afraid of tackling sensitive issues, making comedy out of everything from the IRA to the Orange Order. Does this series have a similarly courageous approach?

Yep, it’s not afraid at all. We have an episode with a group of Protestant boys this year, and I think it’s one of my favourite episodes of the series. Lisa isn’t afraid to say what everybody thinks, or to use the sayings that everyone uses back home. I think that’s what she did so well, for example, with Clare coming out as a lesbian. Erin was an asshole at that moment, telling her to go back into the closet, “don’t blame me,” and “I’m just not that into you.” Lisa’s not afraid to be bold at all.

Are there people in Northern Ireland for whom this is all too raw?

Not really. I’ve had a taxi driver who thinks that it’s blasphemy, because the dog pissed on the Virgin Mary, but that’s been the height of it. When I say that people have really taken it on as their own, I really do mean that. It’s the first time their sense of humour has been captured, and it’s the first time they’ve seen a comedy being done about the Troubles, and it sort of gives people a bit of recognition about how amazing it is that they just ploughed through, and mothers did just raise their teenagers normally, there were no special circumstances, nobody was mollycoddled, you just had to get on with your day and go to work. That’s how it was.