Agnes O’Casey: ‘It’s just been so easy to hate women, no matter the period. And that is terrifying’

The great-granddaughter of the playwright Seán O’Casey is doing the family name proud, starring in two new films, Lies We Tell and The Miracle Club

Agnes O’Casey, an actor on an unstoppable rise, is surely ready for the question I just have to ask. She will be getting it for the rest of her career. The name offers a clue. Raised in London and Devon, Agnes is the great-granddaughter of Seán O’Casey. I imagine Agnes Ibsen and Agnes Chekhov have the same problem.

She laughs at the suggestion it might be a burden.

“I was taken to see the plays when I was five,” she says. “My grandma says I wasn’t that young. Maybe I was eight. But I was brought along ever since I was very young, anyway. I love them a lot. I’ve been very invested in it. When I first saw The Plough and the Stars I went home and dictated the whole play to my grandma. And I was an English eight-year-old.” O’Casey laughs. “That’s what made me want to be an actor.”

She is doing the family name proud. A graduate of the Lir Academy, in Dublin, O’Casey broke through early as the lead in the BBC’s 2021 adaptation of Jo Bloom’s novel Ridley Road. She appeared in Chekhov’s The Seagull for Druid theatre company. This month she’s all over our cinemas. She squares up to Maggie Smith, Kathy Bates and Laura Linney in Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s The Miracle Club. Before that we see her as the lead – in virtually every scene – of a new take on Uncle Silas, Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1864 Gothic classic. Titled Lies We Tell, Lisa Mulcahy’s film allows Maud, the young heiress isolated with the sinister title character, to develop into a robust heroine of vim and resilience.


“I think she’s a more assertive character than I see normally,” O’Casey says. “Because she’s had this strange upbringing, where it’s just been her and her dad, she’s freed from conditioning that might otherwise have been put on her. She doesn’t really have a sense of what it is like to perform womanhood.”

Just look at the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trial. Look how much everyone hated her. It’s just been so easy to hate women, no matter the period. And that is terrifying

The film has a lot to say about a school of Victorian misogyny that really did prescribe icy showers for the symptoms of “hysteria”. But it also gets at how such attitudes persist in modern life. Every day there is a news story that confirms how far we still need to travel. The internalised misogyny is not so often medicalised. But it is still there.

“Exactly. It definitely still happens to a social extent,” she says. “Just look at the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trial. Look how much everyone hated her. It’s just been so easy to hate women, no matter the period. And that is terrifying. That happens all the time. Women have been sectioned throughout history – for nothing but control.”

O’Casey seems still to be enjoying the novelty of being put before the press. She buzzes through her answers and gives the impression she’d happily gab for another hour. She is at home with a joke. She is happy to dig through the subtexts of the work under discussion. I am not surprised to hear she has been brooding about the art of performance since she was eight (or maybe five).

We know about the heritage. But having a theatrical great as an ancestor doesn’t necessarily prepare parents for the worry that comes when a child takes to the stage.

“My dad was a bit, like, ‘Oh, Go-o-od!’” she says, adopting a comically exasperated tone. “Both my parents are creatives. My mum studied film editing. My dad studied composing. My dad had hopes for me because I was mildly academic. He thought, ‘Yes, she can do a normal job! She can be saved from this!’ I feel like it was very obvious that I was going to be a creator. My grandma was an actor and a director.”

She admits that, understandably enough, her parents remained nervous as she launched into the business. She did, indeed, spend a while at Edinburgh University before opting for the Lir. Mum and Dad relaxed considerably when she so quickly landed Ridley Road. It sounds as if her great-grandfather was a factor in forming those early ambitions.

“Oh, I think it’s fundamental,” she says. “I actually have no idea how I would be without that. I don’t know if I would have been an actor. My grandma probably would have still taken me to the theatre. Maybe she would. I don’t know. But I think my life would just be totally different. It’s such an amazing thing to have. It’s also amazing to be able to read what your great-grandfather thought and felt.”

She was born Agnes Kenig. So she chose her stage name with the great playwright in mind?

“Yeah, basically I wanted to keep the name going,” she says. “The idea was always to change my name. As more O’Caseys passed away, I thought I would take it on. It is a good way of having both names in the world.”

Ridley Road also helped O’Casey connect with her Jewish heritage. The engrossing series went among a busy clutter of Jewish characters living in and around the eponymous Hackney street in the 1960s. Thrown beside experienced actors such as Rory Kinnear and Eddie Marsan, O’Casey relished the opportunity to learn and grow. It also fleshed out another strand in her ancestry.

“Definitely. It gave me a really good excuse to talk to my dad about his dad,” she says. “Because his dad passed away before I was born, when he was 20. So we actually haven’t talked about that much. It was great to get that conversation going. Amazing to find all these old letters and things that traced our journey from Lithuania and then to Connecticut and then New York. To learn about the family I had over there. You know dads: they’ll need an excuse to bring out all that stuff. That was lovely.”

O’Casey is of that generation who were stopped in their tracks by Covid. We last talked when I was identifying her as an actor to watch, at the start of 2022. The pandemic had put a crimp in everyone’s life. She seemed admirably optimistic. But she says that it wasn’t so easy at the time.

“I was in the Lir in 2020,” she says. “We were going to do our showcase in March 2020. So it felt really catastrophic at the time. I went back to Devon, where my family lives. And I basically thought I wasn’t going to be an actor. I thought, ‘Oh, God, well, this is such an important year. And if we can’t showcase then what am I going to do? That’s it.’ I have a tendency to be dramatic.” She laughs again. “Then I got Ridley Road.”

And now O’Casey has Lies We Tell and The Miracle Club. That latter film sees her play one among a party of women who travel from Dublin to Lourdes in the middle 1960s. One can only imagine how it must have felt to turn up on the first day confronted with the likes of Kathy Bates and Maggie Smith. They don’t teach you how to deal with that at drama school.

“I was obviously so nervous to meet them,” O’Casey says. “I was surprised by how normal and nice they were. I met Maggie first. She was in the garden. I thought, ‘Now is the time.’ I walked up to her, and she stroked my arm and said, ‘Ah, Maggie and Aggie’. Then it was very easy. Sometimes I’d make a fool of myself. She’d recite poetry. I’d say, ‘Did you come up with that?’”

She adopts the famous Smith rumble.

“‘No, that’s Wordsworth, darling!’ That was so funny. But she was really nice. It’s funny how quickly you get used to all that.”

O’Casey is now based in London, and she doesn’t have any plans to move soon. The business has changed. Technology allows communication with Los Angeles and New York that would have been inconceivable a few decades ago. The actors’ strike has, of course, put a pause on any incoming American work. But she seems poised for anything. She is certainly up to the interviewing game. I’ve rarely encountered anyone who appears to enjoy it so much.

“Oh, that’s good,” she says. “Well, you’re very easy to talk to. I think that makes it easier. Sometimes I absolutely waffle, waffle. I’ve started making notes now before I do things. Otherwise I’m just useless.”

I think she’ll be fine.

Lies We Tell is in cinemas from Friday, October 13th