“I’m a fast talker,” laughs Gemma-Leah Devereux. “ I’m bubbly.” She’s not joking. A live wire who could easily represent Ireland at the Olympics, if only they had a speed-talking event, for too long Gemma-Leah Devereux has been Irish cinema’s best-kept secret.
Over the past decade, the 30-year-old has stealthily progressed from being a regular on Casualty to two Ifta nominations. She has starred in a spooky Irish-language series (Saor Sinn ó Olc), a German murder mystery (Inspektor Jury: Der Tod des Harlekins), and a video for The Coronas.
She has, to date, worked with Henry Cavill, Renée Zellweger, Eoin Colfer and Pauline Collins.
In her native city of Dublin she knows – and has impressed – everybody. By the time she shot the crime drama Broken Law in 2019 – playing a part that director Paddy Slattery wrote specifically for her – she had already collaborated with many of her co-stars.
When I read the script I said: I have to play this part. It's such a fresh take on something that touches so many people's lives. It has new angles and things to say about cancer and suicide
“It took a few years to make the film so we were always in contact,” says Devereux. “There was a lot of trust on that set. It became a little circle. I’d worked with loads of them over the years. I knew Graham [Earley] and John [Connors] and Ryan [Lincoln] from Cardboard Gangsters. I’ve worked with Tristan [Heanue] a lot, so Broken Law was a unique film to make. I really enjoyed all the energy on set. Paddy’s a real actor’s director. We forged such friendships that we want to work together again. And it turned out to be such a great movie. It’s so punchy. It moves so fast.”
Devereux’s newest Dublin-based performance could not be further removed from her much-admired turns in the northside thrillers Cardboard Gangsters and Broken Law.
The Bright Side, writer-director Ruth Meehan’s loose adaptation of Anne Gildea’s bestselling memoir I’ve Got Cancer, What’s Your Excuse?, casts Leah-Devereux as Kate McLaughlin, a jaded stand-up comedian who is diagnosed with breast cancer. Many black jokes and a suicide attempts later and Kate begrudgingly begins chemotherapy treatment alongside four very different women.
“When I read the script I said: I have to play this part,” says the star. “It’s such a fresh take on something that touches so many people’s lives. It has new angles and things to say about cancer and suicide. I really fought for it. I don’t think I was at all what Ruth had in mind. She saw my tape and I met her and I met her again. And I was like, please, I know I can do this f***ing part.”
You can see why she wanted the role. Literary heroines get to have edges; movie heroines not so much. Becky Sharpe is such a disloyal schemer that Vanity Fair carries the subtitle “A Novel Without a Hero”. Scarlett O’Hara is a plantation-owning malignant narcissist. Anna Karenina loves her own misery. It’s been quite some time, however, since Bette Davis warned her chums: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
Likability has become something a curse in contemporary cinema, especially when it comes to female characters. It’s the reason that we get light banter in Jungle Cruise when the script might have aimed for the fireworks of The African Queen.
When I played a drug addict, I went to a drug rehabilitation centre. But you can't just walk into a cancer ward and say, oh hi, I'm doing research. Because that would be really inappropriate
The Bright Side, commendably, does not shy away from putting ghastly things in the mouth of its heroine. Even the character’s cute niece asks such awkward questions as: “If you die, can I have your iPad?” and “Auntie Katie, if you have no boobies and no hair, will you still be a girl?”
“I’m totally mortified, then there’s the touch of nausea,” says Devereux’s Kate. “Then there’s the flu-ache, my bloodshot eyes, sore mouth. My brain feels like it’s shrinking inside my bald head. I’ve no energy to do anything. My teeth even hurt. But, you know, other than that I’m fan-f***ing-tastic.”
“I always make a book for every character,” explains Devereux, who shaved her head for the role. “I will have the script, and my book will have all the ideas, pictures, everything that I want for the character, and so I can lean on that and be in the moment. I love researching the roles I play. When I played a drug addict, I went to a drug rehabilitation centre. But you can’t just walk into a cancer ward and say, oh hi, I’m doing research. Because that would be really inappropriate. But I watched documentaries. And I listened to the Big C podcast.
“And it was funny because when we finished shooting – for a good month after – I was just so angry. I didn’t realise how angry I was when we were making the film. I went on a road trip afterwards and for days I was just in a really angry place. It was like I didn’t realise how much she faces, and how angry she is, until I finally let her go. There was one scene with a water fight and she says the most awful things. I couldn’t stop crying afterward. And then, when we were done, I – oh my God – I felt so much lighter. I definitely kept her with me for weeks. I really gave everything to the part. I wanted to. I just think she’s so great.”
Devereux has wanted to act for as long as she can remember. One of four siblings born to Francis and Irene Devereux, she’s the youngest in a glamorous clan. Her brother Brian is a television presenter. Her mother is an award-winning hairdresser. Her sister Clare is a stylist who has readied everyone from Ruby Wax to the late Patrick Swayze for the screen.
“I never wanted to do anything but act,” she says. “I loved watching movies as a kid. My mom would put on All About Eve which I loved. I loved The Wizard of Oz. We never went on many holidays. Instead, my mom would bring us to London and we’d go to the theatre a lot. So I’ve always been surrounded by creativity. I always found playing different people to be more interesting than just being myself. Which sounds really depressing, But it’s true. I love losing myself in characters. I’m generally always trying to push myself to do different things. Whatever you think I can’t do, that’s what I want to do.”
Aged 16, Devereux relocated to London to study drama at ArtsEd. Along with Seána Kerslake, Jack Raynor and Brian Gleeson, she was one of the first graduates of The Factory, the collective space for film-makers and artists founded by Kirsten Sheridan, John Carney and Lance Daly in 2010.
That same year, she landed the role of Lady Fitzgerald on The Tudors. Last year, she finally got to work with her friend and former classmate Seána Kerslake on RTÉ’s Lahinch-set thriller Smother. The two actors have just completed work on the second season.
“It’s funny because for years we’ve wanted to work together and there have been so many projects, over the years, that we were going to work on together that fell through,” says Devereux. “And finally we got Smother but because we’re in different kinds of storylines, we’re not in the same scenes. But it’s nice to be able to hang out, anyway.”
Smother and The Bright Side, notes the actor, are emblematic of welcome changes that are happening in the Irish film industry and beyond. The latter arrives as part of a grander slate that includes Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever, Aoife Crehan’s The Last Right, and Cathy Brady’s Wildfire.
“There are so many female-led projects coming through,” says Devereux. “Smother is a completely female-led drama. There are suddenly many more scripts showing different aspects of women that weren’t there before. There are more female writers and directors and crew. It’s happening on both sides of the lens. We’re getting stories that weren’t being told before. I’m sure there are more gems coming. It’s a fantastic time for Irish cinema. And cinema in general.”
It’s a good time for Devereux, too, having recently scored a major international breakthrough as Liza Minnelli in the Oscar-winning biopic Judy. A biopic fan who did lots of reading on Ruth Shine for her role in Citizen Lane, the actor was delighted with her homework for Judy.
“I was so excited to get the part,” she recalls. “And then I put the phone down and thought: Oh God, now I actually have to do it. If you have to play Donald Trump, for example, you have to get past the image of him you have in your head. But with Liza, there’s so much material. You can watch the way she talks, the way she moves. You can do as much research as you want. It’s all there.”
The Bright Side opens August 20th