She’s played the ‘nice girl’ opposite Johnny Depp and The Inbetweeners but in a new Irish comedy, A Kiss For Jed, Jayne Wisener gets to show her wild side, she tells TARA BRADY
SHE MAY BE looking pretty in pink today but Jayne Wisener is deep into a military-style operation. “It’s two months and five days away,” she says, with rather impressive accuracy. “I like to think I’m a step ahead of everybody else on this.”
Precise thinking and a pincer strategy are required for a double family summer wedding – here’s the drill: Wisener will marry Wayne, her partner of four years, on July 6th. That leaves just enough time for a honeymoon and then back to matron of honour duties for her sister’s wedding on August 4th. How could they do this to their poor frazzled parents? “You’re not the first person to say that,” nods Jayne. “Everyone keeps shaking their head and saying ‘Oh, and two daughters as well’. Like it’s a terrible thing we’ve done. I’ve had to turn down work as well.
“Anything that was going to clash with those dates was out. But we’re all excited really. It’s at the front of my mind nearly all the time at this stage.” We will, sadly, have to tear her away from pondering her nuptials just for a little while. This week sees the release of the small but big-hearted Irish comedy, A Kiss for Jed, a sweet screwball two-step between a Co Antrim tearaway (Wisener) and an older hangdog cameraman (Mark O’Halloran). Orla is the cowboy-booted, boy-chasing winner of a reality show let loose in New York to track down country music sensation Jed Wood (Smash’s Neal Bledsoe). Ray, her initially reluctant companion, would rather paint American civil war figurines in his hotel room or moan to his sound technician, Mike (Pirates of the Caribbean’s Lee Arenberg). Sparks eventually fly, but not before Orla takes the Big Apple by storm.
“Please let there be a sequel,” says Wisener. “I had a month in New York and so much fun. I had met Mark before at the IFTAs in 2008. He won two awards that night. I couldn’t believe when I ended up working with him. It was a fantastic opportunity for me.”
Orla bursts on to screen in a splurge of hen party clobber and into the men’s cubicles: because sometimes the urge to vomit waits for no girl. For Wisener, the Northern Irish, nightingale-voiced star of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the role was a sea change.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she says. “I like playing the soft, gentle English Rose parts. But I was so thrilled to get to express myself in a wild, different way. People who’ve seen it say ‘you know, I’ve never seen you or even thought of you like that before’. It made people realise I had some versatility. Because even when I’ve been in stuff like The Inbetweeners – as amazing as that was – they all get to be mad, but I was the straight, boring, nice girl.”
Born in Ballymoney in 1987, Wisener has always been a natural performer. “I won’t lie,” she grins, apologetically. “I always wanted to act. And I always loved to sing. I was never snobby or precious about it. Away from the stage I was very shy. But give me a song or something to say or something to do and I was away. I was in my comfort zone.” She was still in her teens when she represented Antrim at the Rose of Tralee pageant and gained admission into the prestigious Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, alma mater of Ruby Wax, David Tennant and James McAvoy. By then, she was already an old hand when it came to treading the boards. “I had always done amateur stuff outside school,” she recalls. “But at Coleraine High School we did a show every year and they were always really good shows. My teachers were very supportive. When I said I wanted to act nobody ever discouraged me or told me to focus on something more sensible. Instead they wrote really nice letters of recommendation which got me into drama school.” She was performing in West Side Story at Derry’s Millennium Forum when a talent scout spotted her and asked her to audition for Sweeney Todd.
Every English Rose wanted the role of Johanna in Tim Burton’s film of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Tony Award-winning musical. At 19, Wisener was initially dismissed as too old to play the teen innocent. But then she took her make up off and took the prize.
Wasn’t it daunting to find yourself sharing screen time with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter on your very first film? “Well, I get star-struck with everybody,” says Wisener. “I meet Gareth Gates: I’m star-struck. I meet Mark O’Halloran: I’m star-struck. I meet The Inbetweeners: I’m so star-struck I have to audition three times because I loved the first series and I forget how to speak. When I meet anyone famous I can never really believe they’re real. But with Sweeney Todd it was all so unreal that I didn’t quite believe it was happening.
“If reality had set in I probably would have freaked out completely. But it didn’t until we had finished shooting. It’s only now I can look back and appreciate it for what it was.” Sweeney Todd led to other maidenly roles in musicals such as The Secret Garden and movies including Jane Eyre (“Michael Fassbender is just in a league of his own,” she says of her Jane Eyre co-star.) But her unladylike antics in A Kiss for Jed, says Wisener, have been liberating. Later this year, having earned rave notices for her work as a juvenile delinquent in Martina Cole’s The Runaway and as the troubled Sandie in BBC NI drama 6Degrees, Wisener will feature in the Dogme-alike British indie film, Life Just Is.
“I feel like things are really happening not just for me but for lots of Irish actors,” says Wisener. “If you look at the American pilot season that used to be a closed shop. But now they want to see actors from Ireland and Britain. Now they want to take a chance on something or somebody a bit different. I keep turning up for work and I’ll discover there’s somebody else Irish already there. And I’ll think ‘Yay! Go us!’”