Seána Kerslake may be the hottest name in Irish cinema right now but that doesn’t mean that everybody knows how to call her over should she happen to be sashaying down a red carpet. “I’m always having to tell people, ‘Don’t be scared, it’s just Seán with an a’,” says the young actor. “But I still get: ‘See-an-a Curs-lackey?’ ”
Today, the 24-year-old is glamorously turned out under glossy, cascading locks. But even without make-up she looks like a movie star; not just any movie star, mind: the phrase “Irish Scarlett Johansson” is already in common usage.
Kerslake has previously (and often) been made aware of the resemblance. She still gestures a “whoosh” over her own head. “Ah, people says all sorts of things. I think I have one of those faces that reminds people of someone else. I often get ‘Do you have a cousin in Wexford?’ or ‘Are you related to so-and-so?’ ”
She smiles with her Johansson-like bouche: “It’s probably a good thing for an actor to look like lots of other people.”
She may look like a certain movie star, but Kerslake still lives at home in Tallaght with her parents and two sisters, Amie – a make-up artist who has recently returned from Vancouver – and Niamh, who is studying science at Trinity College Dublin.
“I’m in the middle,” she says. “People say that explains a lot. Niamh has the brains but I used to read to her and make up stories for her when she was younger. So I’m trying to take the credit for her imagination and ability: you’re welcome.”
Performance has long been a hobby. As a kid she loved speech and drama classes. “Even when I was a kid getting ready to go on stage for a Feis or something, my mother was always really cool about it: ‘If you don’t want to go on, you don’t have to: you do whatever you want to do.’ It’s the best thing to hear when you have nerves.”
At 19, while studying English and music at Maynooth, Kerslake was snapped up for the lead role in Kirsten Sheridan's experimental drama Dollhouse, for which she got a nod for best actress at the 2013 Iftas.
"My mam and dad always went to the theatre, and when I was studying English that became a much bigger thing for me. I was always interested in acting and theatre. But Dollhouse opened my eyes to the possibilities there are in the film industry."
Factory production line
Emboldened by her first feature and the completion of her primary degree, Kerslake enrolled in a screen-acting course at the Factory (the facility reopened on its new premises on Bow Street during her training). Kerslake, a bookish kid who loved Enid Blyton and JK Rowling – "I still love reading young adult fiction," she beams – would drive her friends crazy by reciting chunks of Disney movies ("even the ones with girls who needed rescuing") and Matilda. The Factory, however, broadened her film horizons.
"I love John Cassavetes. Especially A Woman Under the Influence. I love that idea of this couple remortgaging their house to make that film. I know it sounds very rose-tinted. I'm sure it was very hard for them. But wow."
Her screen training would also give her a new sense of freedom with her craft. "I just thought, I might as well give this a go after college; I'll take a year to audition for things. And the great thing about Bow Street is that you can work as you are training. You do the work you want to do. In every way. So I picked up a couple of good jobs and then along came Mad Mary."
Director Darren Thornton's low-key charmer A Date for Mad Mary has been tipped as "crossover hit" by industry bible Variety. The film has met with rapturous notices at its festival bows in the Czech Republic and Galway. (It shared the Fleadh's best Irish feature with The Young Offenders.) "We were blown away by the response at Karlovy Vary. We didn't really realise what we had. Galway was still a test. And then we got the same response on home ground. Now it's just about getting it out there for everyone else to see it."
The Drogheda-based comedy concerns a young woman (Kerslake) who is released from jail just ahead of her childhood best friend’s wedding. Mary, a committed trouble-maker, is quick to kick up when she learns that she hasn’t been given a plus-one for the big day, a kerfuffle that leads to a series of disastrous dates and, finally, a most unexpected outcome.
Colin Thornton's script, adapted from a play by Yasmine Akram, might have been just another "ex-con tries to make it in the straight world", or worse, another variation of the manic pixie dream girl romcom. But Mad Mary, even at its most formulaic, feels entirely novel.
“The focus is on the female relationships,” says Kerslake, who puts in a tremendous performance as the eponymous tearaway heroine. “It’s about how influential females are on each other. It’s not like anything we’ve seen before.”
Mary is a ball of anger, determined to lash out lest anyone notice her tender-hearted side. “That was the hard part,” notes Kerslake. “Between takes I had to keep bubbling away. I’d start freaking out a bit. I found it difficult carrying Mary around. That headspace could get you in trouble. She’s down. Constantly on edge. Bit paranoid. Very angry. And then totally soft.” She laughs. “But I did enjoy how blunt she is.”
In October, Kerslake will grace smaller screens in Can't Cope, Won't Cope, an RTÉ2 comedy about two sesh-loving twentysomethings. The project reunites the actor with director Cathy Brady, who was one of her instructors at Bow Street.
"I've been really lucky because in an industry that isn't great for women, I've got to work with some fantastic women," says Kerslake. "The script is by Stefanie Preissner, who is from Cork. So she was on hand if I got the accent wrong. Only time will tell. We've gone through post-production and they haven't asked me to revoice the whole show. Not yet, anyway."
A Date for Mad Mary opens September 2nd