Charlene McKenna: ‘I spent lockdown in an Irish Rugby fleece covered in paint and dust’

The actor converted outbuilding on parent’s farm into a home and had a tiny 6-person wedding

A childhood spent on a Co Monaghan mushroom farm doesn't exactly scream showbusiness. But speak to actress Charlene McKenna, or watch her in primetime hits such as Peaky Blinders, and it's clear she could bring star quality to any role - even labelling punnets in a shed in Glaslough.

Today she’s back on the farm, in that very shed, “or the barn, if you want to be fancy”, bundled up in a chunky knit for our Zoom call, nursing a heavy cold.

After years spent living in New York and London, McKenna and her now-husband, US actor Adam Rothenberg, spent lockdown turning the old outbuilding into a four-bedroom home.

The couple, who wed in January on the nearby Castle Leslie Estate, completed the hands-on renovation with help from McKenna's family.

“This was the big store with the fridges you keep mushrooms in,” says McKenna, surveying what’s now a cosy living space, winter sunlight streaming through the window. “I used to be in here as a kid putting labels on them, and now I’m sleeping here. It’s weird. But it’s heaven.”

The actress lives “about 100ft” away from her parents’ house. One of her five older brothers looks after the farm, now focusing on sheep and cattle.

“I can see Daddy walking up and down the yard right now,” she says, smiling. “It’s kind of perfect, because every time I land back in from somewhere and I don’t have milk or bread, I just go to their house.”

The barn conversion wasn't without its stresses, however, and McKenna was delighted to get back to the day job last September. She flew to Austria to film the second series of Vienna Blood, the BBC drama based on the bestselling Liebermann novels by Frank Tallis.

Set in the 1900s, the three-part series follows Max Liebermann (Matthew Beard), a young English doctor who uses his fascination with psychology to help a local detective solve mysterious cases.

McKenna, who landed her breakthrough role starring alongside Cillian Murphy in the 2005 film Breakfast on Pluto, plays Max's widowed older sister, Leah, "a high society girl with a sassy sadness about her".

“I was so happy to be back to being an actress. The [renovation] was proper manual labour every day. I was like, ‘I used to be able to have cappuccinos and wear nice clothes’,” laughs McKenna.

I would have went insane. I'm way too much of a grafter and a worker," she adds. "You'd have to have sherry at noon. You'd be so bored

“I spent the whole of lockdown in an Irish Rugby fleece covered in paint and dust, and work trousers. That was me for months, so I was very happy to be sitting having little coffees in Vienna.”

It was McKenna’s first shoot since the pandemic began. While Austria has since imposed strict rules to control the spread of Covid-19, there were already rigorous measures in place on set to keep cast and crew safe including regular testing, and different coloured lanyards for access to different sections (“like being a singer on a world tour”).

Filming on location in the historic city, with its palaces and opera houses, also helped McKenna get a sense of turn-of-the-century Vienna.

“I feel like I never get the exotic locations. So when this [role came along] I was like, ‘Is it really going to be in Vienna though? Or is it going to be in Slough?’” she says.

“I can’t tell you how much it helps. Your research is on your doorstep every single day. All we did was go to the galleries, first and second season. You’re just fully immersed in everything.”

Still, there’s no way she’d trade places with bourgeois Leah, who has “NOTHING to do. And just all day to do it”.

“I would have went insane. I’m way too much of a grafter and a worker,” she adds. “You’d have to have sherry at noon. You’d be so bored.”

McKenna's CV indeed points to her being a grafter. Since Vienna Blood wrapped, she's been to Manchester to film series six of Peaky Blinders, playing IRA boss Captain Swing, and on to Co Cork to film the upcoming ITV adaptation of Graham Norton's novel, Holding.

She also found time to marry Rothenberg, who stars in Netflix series Ozark, during January's lockdown. The pair met in 2012, on the set of the Victoria TV drama Ripper Street.

Only six people, including the couple, were allowed to attend the nuptials. The New Jersey-born groom’s family had to join them via Zoom.

Aside from the sadness of loved ones not being there, it sounds like a magical day.

"It felt like a secret, which was nice," nods McKenna, who wore a dress and matching white silk facemask by Monaghan designer Natalie B Coleman, and hair slides and shoes by Simone Rocha.

“It was just after New Year – you know when everyone’s kind of in hibernation after Christmas? We were in full lockdown and the castle was closed; everything was closed. It was about minus five, so everything was white and frozen solid.”

We were in a little bubble at the hotel so we met up and raised a glass to her and just talked about what an amazing actress she was

The couple hope to have a bigger celebration for family and friends someday (“if Covid would just do one”).

Newlywed McKenna was soon back to work, filming the latest instalment of the massively successful gangster drama Peaky Blinders.

In April, news came through mid-shoot that the acclaimed actress Helen McCrory, who played matriarch Aunt Polly, had died of cancer at the age of 52.

“We were at the studios filming that day and everyone started – you know when you just know that the room has changed?” McKenna recalls.

“And then we were all called together and the director and the producer told us. I didn’t know Helen, other than I loved her as an actress, and I knew friends of hers. But the crew who had worked with her all the seasons, they were so destroyed.”

“Everyone just went home. We were in a little bubble at the hotel so we met up and raised a glass to her and just talked about what an amazing actress she was,” she adds. “Such a loss.”

When filming resumed, McCrory remained at the forefront of McKenna’s mind.

“I remember talking to her at the premiere of season five and the last thing she said to me was, ‘I can’t wait to see what you do’. And so, I had that in my head all through filming. Even though she’d passed away, I was like, ‘Do not let her down, do not let her down. What would Helen do’… So, I hope she’s not disappointed.”

Norton's Holding, like Peaky Blinders, has a stellar line-up of talent. Directed by English actress Kathy Burke, it stars Brenda Fricker, Antrim actor Conleth Hill (who also plays McKenna's on-screen father, Mendel, in Vienna Blood), and Derry Girls actress Siobhán McSweeney.

It’s hard to imagine down-to-earth McKenna being flustered by stars, but she made an exception this time.

"I was quite starstruck meeting Graham Norton, but I acted like I wasn't," she admits. She was also nervous about meeting Burke, "because she's such a formidable woman". As it turned out, the pair got along brilliantly.

And what about Fricker, the Oscar-winner? “You’re sitting going, ‘I’m talking to Brenda Fricker. I’m talking to Brenda Fricker. I’m talking to Brenda Fricker. Oh my God. My Left Foot, My Left Foot...’” says McKenna, eyes widening.

She goes on to recount a story about Fricker getting into a taxi in Cork.

“The driver was like ‘I know you, I do, I know you’,” says McKenna, adopting a Cork accent.

“Then she went, ‘I’ll give you a clue’. And just held up her left foot and pointed at it! So she could be very funny.”

McKenna says she caught the acting bug as a child. She appeared in the chorus of a local production of Oklahoma! (aged 11, "singing, badly, and just having loads of fun"), and took part in youth theatre, but ended up enrolling in Dublin's Mater Dei Institute, to study classical music and theology with a view to becoming a teacher.

Any pressure to pursue a more traditional career came, not from her parents, who also ran a pub and guest house, but McKenna herself.

“They worked so hard, bootstrapping themselves, that I think they were like, ‘Just go after your dreams, live a good life.’ They were very supportive. I was the one thinking I should get a real job, and they were like, ‘Just see. You could always come home.’”

Well, McKenna did come home eventually. “I did! Maybe it was reverse psychology...”

After winning a role alongside Cillian Murphy in the Neil Jordan-directed Breakfast in Pluto, she returned to college for a while before her next big break: playing the troubled, wild, compelling Jennifer in RTÉ’s Offaly-based drama Pure Mule.

It felt like I better keep collecting while the universe is giving me these gifts. I better do them all, and I didn't conceive of saying no

McKenna deferred her studies for a year, but when the time came to return, she was already on tour in Martin McDonagh’s play The Lonesome West.

“That was kind of a sign. I was like, ‘That’s three things now; three big things that have got in the way of me going [to college].’ By that stage I had a big, proper agent, so then you knew you were getting auditions. And then the next job I got was Raw…”

McKenna played the diminutive but tough young chef Jojo in the Dublin-based restaurant drama, which ran for five series, saw her named Best Actress at the IFTAs, and cemented her status as one of Ireland’s most talented young stars.

Since then, she's had rich and varied roles on screen and stage, including a turn as Daisy Buchanan in the Gate's Theatre's 2017 production of The Great Gatsby (with Jay played by future Normal People superstar Paul Mescal).

But success hasn’t come without challenges. She has previously spoken about living with anxiety, and experiencing a breakdown about a decade ago after putting “immense pressure” on herself as a young actress.

“It felt like I better keep collecting while the universe is giving me these gifts. I better do them all, and I didn’t conceive of saying no [to work],” she admits.

“And you can only keep going [for so long]; you’ll burn out. You need to just go back and play yourself for a while, and live real life.”

“Listen,” McKenna continues. “It’s not in a coalmine, but it is hard work and it’s 12-to-16-hour days, every day. You’re playing someone else, so you’re in someone else’s emotional state, you’re in someone else’s head, you’re literally in someone else’s clothes.

“And I think our own little bodies, there’s only so long you can do that before you need to just go home ... ” She breaks into a smile. “Do Charlene’s washing!”

McKenna is getting better at finding that balance, and is currently enjoying some well-deserved time-off before her next gig.

Home no matter where I've lived has always been here. It's always been Monaghan

“[Adam] told his manager and I told my manager. I was like, ‘We’re gonna just be off. Unless it’s something like Dolly Parton wants me, or Spielberg calls ...’.”

However, the break won't last too long. In January, she'll reunite with James Nesbitt to film series two of the BBC police procedural drama Bloodlands.

A pivotal scene in the last series saw her character, Detective Sergeant Niamh McGovern, covertly conversing with a colleague as Gaeilge.

She’d love to speak it again on the show, if she has a bit more time to prepare. “I got that whole four or five pages of Irish the night before filming. I was like, ‘Wow, I haven’t spoken Irish since I was 18’” she says. “But we made it.”

Rothenberg, meanwhile, has been picking up the local Monaghan vernacular. “He knows when people are a dose. He even knows a dose of sh*te, which I don’t know if you’re allowed to print, but yeah. He knows that’s when it’s an elevated dose.”

For now, the couple plan to split their time between Glaslough and the States.

“Home no matter where I’ve lived has always been here. It’s always been Monaghan. I think that’s very Irish; it’s just in your bones,” says McKenna.

But they’ll always have their New York connection.

"I still need to pretend I'm Carrie Bradshaw every now and then," she adds. "Drink cocktails and then come home and put the wellies on and get real."

Vienna Blood will air from Friday December 10th at 9pm on BBC Two