Agnes O'Casey recalls her childhood was "like having two lives". For the most part, she had a relatively normal upbringing as the daughter of hospitality and retail workers, living in Finsbury Park, in London, and attending a nearby Steiner school. But then, once a year, her grandmother, Shivaun O'Casey, whisked her away to Dublin to watch plays written by Agnes's great-grandfather, Seán O'Casey.
“I was always really proud and excited,” O’Casey, the younger, recalls. “It’s so rare and lucky to be able to hear your great-grandad’s thoughts and feelings. I feel like I have a relationship with him, even though he died in 1964.”
Each whirlwind visit – with its flights, hotel stays, exquisite restaurants, and meetings of Dublin's theatre glitterati – had the expected effect on her impressionable mind at that time, but none more so than an Abbey production of The Plough and the Stars, in which Cathy Belton played Nora.
“I really remember the feeling of watching her, and I just believed her. I was totally transfixed,” O’Casey says. “Whenever I saw a really good performance, it made me want to be an actor. I’d perform my own versions of plays around the house, in my really bad Dublin accent at the time.”
How it's come full circle. After graduating from Dublin's Lir Academy during lockdown, 2021 is the year that she steps on to the stage herself. Her opening gambit is in a Druid production of Thomas Kilroy's The Seagull no less, and in autumn she'll play the lead in the major BBC drama, Ridley Road, which has already led to the promise of some wildly interesting projects, none of which we can commit to print, as is so often the way.
You’d never guess her theatrical heritage or next-big-thing status as she sits cross-legged on the floor of her friend’s room in Dublin, laughing as she awkwardly searches for the Zoom function to hide herself from her view. Hers is a face made for screens, but she explains, “I’ve noticed that if you have insecurities about how you look, the more that you get rid of outside stuff and not think about it, the better. It’s good to start that habit.”
On the hot summer day we speak, the Druid cast have been busy putting the finishing touches to The Seagull. An Irish reimagining of the Chekhov play, it centres on a mother and son who arrive in the west of Ireland to spend their summer at their family home, which sets in motion tangles of romance and artistic ambition. In a cast that also includes Eileen Walsh (The Magdalene Sisters, The South Westerlies) and Jack Gleeson (Game of Thrones), O'Casey is now comfortable swapping her refined English tone for an Irish one – a result of performing most of her plays at The Lir in Irish accents. Druid director Garry Hynes speaks of O'Casey's evident talent: "It might be Agnes's professional debut, but you'd never know it in the room," she says. "She's got acting in her bones."
Her character, Lily, is “a real free spirit”, O’Casey explains. “She’s confident, which is fun to play. But she’s totally obsessed with the idea of being a famous actress, because her home life is horrible. She never thinks about how to be a great actress, she just daydreams about standing ovations. Then she goes on a journey of learning what it is to be an artist through the hardship and the rejection. It’s so much my lived experience – not what actually happens to her, but the idea of dreaming about what life will be like and realising that it’s hard. I think that every actor has to go through that.”
O'Casey's journey might seem easier than most at this point, but it was the lead-up that she found tricky. The eldest of two daughters, her first hurdle was her parents' gentle resistance to the idea of her being an actor, given they understood the drawbacks of being creatives. As she considered her career, she returned to London to waitress (her family moved to Devon when she was 11), did the near-obligatory rite of passage that is travelling in Australia, then studied art history and English literature at the University of Edinburgh. "But I was really worried about the debt that I was incurring and I knew that I wanted to go to drama school, so I dropped out after the first year and worked in a bra shop for another year," she says. "That was amazing. There were so many characters coming in and talking to you about their lives, their holidays, the menopause."
At 21, when her friends were completing their degrees and stepping into the world of work, she moved to Dublin to train at The Lir. "I always felt like I had roots here, but it turned out to be a totally new journey," she says. "It wasn't what I expected in lots of ways. Like early on I was sat in class and someone made a joke about a nun, and everyone burst out laughing. I realised there were cultural things that I just don't get because I wasn't brought up there. I guess I had this idea of myself as being London-Irish, or Devon-Irish. But I was learning what it actually was to be from here, rather than my imagined version of it. It was the same when I lived in Edinburgh. I think everyone who was born in England should move elsewhere, just to get a little bit of perspective," she adds, with a pointed laugh that also nods to the politics of the day.
Drama school turned out to be a smart choice; she landed the lead role of Vivien in Ridley Road just before she graduated. Adapted from Jo Bloom's book by in-demand writer Sarah Solemani (who now lives in LA and is working on adaptation of Mary Trump's tell-all book about her uncle Donald), the series tells the compelling story of a Jewish woman who hides her heritage to infiltrate a fascist group in 1960s London and find her love interest, played by Tom Varey (the ex-boyfriend of Normal People's Daisy Edgar Jones, gossip fans). Even in the very rough cut that I see, the hair-tearing jeopardy involved bursts through, as does O'Casey's nuanced acting that draws the viewer into her turmoil.
It's a salient topic as the number of anti-Semitic incidents reaches a 30-year high in the UK. However, the series has already drawn criticism as it has mainly a non-Jewish cast portraying the Jewish experience – actors also include Eddie Marsan, Rory Kinnear and Tamzin Outhwaite.
On Twitter, media personality David Baddiel commented that "most of the lead actors here, playing Jews, in a story about anti-Semitism, aren't Jewish. I'm fine with that. But it wouldn't be fine for the BBC to cast like this with any other minority.
“I’m fine with it because I think actors should be allowed to play people they’re not. However. That isn’t the landscape we live in. Except as regards [to] Jews.”
O’Casey nods when I bring up the topic. “My grandad is Jewish – my actual name is Kenig but I took O’Casey because the name was dying out. I had talks about my family heritage with Sarah Solemani and Nicola Shindler, the executive producer, who are Jewish. I can’t speak for them but I feel like those conversations had a part in my being cast.
“[But the criticism] is something that I don’t take lightly, and going forward, now that I have more choice, I’m going to think about that much more clearly. I learned so much in this role, which was part of why it was so painful to realise that my casting might cause harm. Anti-Semitism is vastly overlooked, and I hope that Ridley Road starts the conversation about modern anti-Semitism. David Baddiel wrote a really good book called Jews Don’t Count that I really recommend.”
Me Too movement
At the very least, enlightenment in the TV industry is evolving in the right direction. Elsewhere, the new generation of actors already benefit from the groundwork laid with the #MeToo movement. Certainly, it’s prepared O’Casey for the road ahead.
She’s only worked with women directors so far, but she is particularly attuned to the difficulties she faces as a non-heterosexual female (she mulls over the terms queer and bisexual, but is still figuring out the right terminology for her) in an industry that’s framed for the heterosexual male.
“Actors are so out of control of their career, and the male gaze gives you so many sticks to beat yourself with,” she says. “Like when I got Ridley Road, I got it over Zoom, and I called my agent and I was like ‘do they know that I’m not really attractive in that way? Will I arrive on set, and they’ll realise that people won’t see me as attractive?’ I do feel quite uncomfortable being seen as just another female lead on the rise, who’s just for male consumption. Because I’m very feminine-presenting, I see that happening.
“But there’s so many parts of me, and I’m still figuring them out. When I realised that I didn’t just fancy men, I was suddenly like, ‘What does that mean? How do we interact?’ I just felt like my world just went like this,” she says, flipping the imaginary world on its side. “I realised how ingrained in this patriarchal mindset I was. Like if I’m flirting with women, I realised that I naturally wanted to be pursued, and why do I want to be pursued? So everything unravelled. We’re so quick to place people in boxes, especially women.”
The benefit of arriving into acting at this time, and age is that she’s “more comfortable saying when I feel uncomfortable. I know myself when I was younger, and I feel I could have been in danger”. It’s also meant that she has the wherewithal to make firm decisions, such as when she considered the role of a mute, naked woman – “that was the first time I said no to an audition”.
Her career goal, she says, is ultimately to have agency over work, and cites Tilda Swinton as a particular example. “I like the control she has over her and her ability to be her own person. I really aspire to that. I see her as an artist; the way she moves her body is so sensual and subtle and beautiful.
“But career trajectory is a difficult question, because also I feel like I’m sure that whatever’s in store for me is totally different to what I imagine. I’m just interested to see the journey.”
Agnes O'Casey performs in Druid's new outdoor production of Thomas Kilroy's The Seagull (after Chekhov) at Coole Park until August 21st and on demand at Galway International Arts Festival 5th-12th September. See druid.ie. Ridley Road will air on BBC One this autumn