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Actress Leah McNamara talks with IFTN
29 Jan 2021 : Feature Desk
Leah McNamara
We caught up with Normal People and Dublin Murders star Leah McNamara to find out more about her subtle rise in recent years, advice for young actors breaking into the business, and keeping busy during lockdown.  

A Drama and Theatre graduate from UCC and an alumni of the prestigious screen acting college, Bow Street Academy, McNamara has enjoyed a impressive rise to prominence over the last two years with roles in BBC/Starz series Dublin Murders in 2019 and Element’s smash-hit Emmy-Nominated series Normal People last year. 

The collaborative process and auditions 

From Limerick and the daughter of actor Brian McNamara, since her debut in David Keating’s horror, Cherry Tree, Leah has learned to love collaborating on set, “I had a tiny part (but) I learned how much of a collaborative place a film set is, everyone in each department is so connected, one thing doesn’t work without the other. You don’t fully realise just how many people are involved until you are on a set for the first time!”  

No stranger to the audition process, with principle roles in major TV series VikingsDublin Murders, and Normal People, Leah has made the process her own. “When trying to prepare a whole character in such a small time window it’s important to go with your instinct,” McNamara told IFTN.“Don’t try and give them what you think they might be looking for because there is simply no way of knowing that. Only you can be you, trust in that!” 

Leah played the role of Rosalind Devlin in the BBC/Starz limited series Dublin Murders, the sister of a murder victim being investigated by Detectives Cassie Maddox (Sarah Greene) and Rob Reilly (Killian Scott) in a series written by Sarah Phelps (The Casual VacancyGreat Expectations). “I read the first two episodes before my audition and the quality of Sarah Phelps’ writing was instantly incredible,” said Leah.

“I knew Rosalind’s character arc before I auditioned and it’s such a meaty role; I couldn't wait to go in. Julie Harkin was the casting director for the project, I had auditioned for her before and every audition with her is such a positive experience, she is so supportive and creates such a relaxed atmosphere so I could really look forward to the audition.” 

Saul (Dibb, director)was also so nice in the audition and Carmel (Maloney, producer) was just lovely,” McNamara continued.“When you know you will be working with great people it makes the project that bit more appealing. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been given the opportunity to take on such a fantastically layered role this early on in my career.” 

Revelling in the collaborative process and taking early learnings on set lay the groundwork for a widely-acclaimed performance as Rosalind, “I love the collaborative process. When you are preparing a character, it is a very isolated exercise. Collaborating with the director opens you up to so many new angles of the world and the character. At the end of the day you are creating this story together, and it is ultimately the director who has chosen you to be a part of their vision.”

“Everyone on set was so lovely and really hard-working,” said Leah.“All three directors on the shoot were really friendly and chilled, which makes all the difference when you are spending so many long hours together on a set, trying to make big days. The writing was so brilliant that I couldn't wait to get filming every day, it was a really enjoyable and rewarding experience overall. My favourite moment was probably filming the interrogation scene in the episode 8. The material was so rich, I had so much fun that day.” 

Advice and Constructive Criticism 

Whilst still only in the infancy of what promises to be an impressive career, Leah is a firm believer in not being too hard on oneself and taking constructive criticism in her stride “I think it’s important not to be too hard on yourself,” she told IFTN.“Self-belief and confidence are vital for longevity in this industry. It’s important to be open to change and growth and to never think in finalities. I try not to allow external feedback, be it negative or positive, in too much. I do my best to stay focused on the creative work.” 

In a profession that is often hard to break into, Leah has impressed in a very short timeframe, with a prolific two-year period that saw her on screen in two feature films (Hugh O’Conor’s Metal Heart; and Cellar Doorwith Viko Nikci) as well as international TV series VikingsDublin Murders, and Normal People.  

“This wasn’t so much given to me directly but it stuck,” says Leah when asked about advice for actors breaking in to the industry.“If you haven’t watched The Defiant Ones on Netflix, you should! Jimmy Iovine says the following: ‘I don’t give a fuck what anybody thinks. When you’re a race horse, the reason they put blinders on these things is because if you look at the horse on the left or the right, you’re going to miss a step. That’s why the horses have blinders on. And that’s what people should have. When you’re running after something, you should not look left or right — what does this person think, what does that person think? No. Go.’

“Acting and the industry is a marathon, not a sprint. Stay true to yourself and trust that you are on your own path, don’t compare yourself to anyone else,” McNamara added.“Enjoy the journey you are on without yearning for the final destination. Don’t wish to be in anyone else’s position. As soon as you start doing that, you’re screwed.” 

Normal People  

In a year that has seen most of us spending our downtime in front of our TV and laptop screens, part of the time spent indoors for many people was consuming the phenomenal Irish series Normal People.ElementPictures' adaption of Sally Rooney’s best-selling novel Normal People has become the BBC’s most-streamed series of all-time, earning 62.7m views since it launched in April of this year.

Leah plays the role of Rachel, the former romantic interest of Connell (Paul Mescal) while attending secondary school in Sligo; “I loved filming on Normal People, it was so enjoyable. 

“I have made friends for life in Daisy, Niamh and Meadhbh. They got me into Love Island when we were away filming in Sligo, there were a lot of laughs and late night chats in hotel rooms! I feel really lucky to have had that experience on a job,” Leah told IFTN.

“Filming in Ireland also meant I got to see my family loads which were a big bonus. Lenny Abrahamson is a really kind person and a wonderful director. He created such a relaxed atmosphere on set which is invaluable during a day’s filming. I am so proud to have played a small part of this very Irish story,” McNamara continued.“Sally Rooney wrote a really beautiful book and script and I loved bringing Rachel from page to screen. The show came out at the beginning of lockdown and it’s wonderful that it struck a chord with so many people, the reaction has been amazing.”

What Next for Leah 

As for what Leah’s next plans are, her creativity and talent has stayed far from idle during lockdown, “I’ve taken up oil painting, made collages, done some writing and have read so many books that I didn’t have the chance to read before. I’ve watched a lot of films and tv series, there is so much content out there now, one will never be without something to watch!”  

Leah’s 2021 is also set to be busy on-screen as she recently wrapped filming on BBC film Danny Boy, directed by Sam Miller (Luther;I May Destroy You) opposite Toby Jones (The Hunger Games; Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Anthony Boyle (Lost City of Z). “I had so much fun filming Danny Boy, Anthony and I play husband and wife and he is genuinely the loveliest guy, as is Sam Miller and fellow cast mates Alex Ferns and Pauline Turner,” she explained.

“They are all so talented. Sam is incredibly chilled as a director and makes you feel totally at ease. We all had a great laugh on set. Though we enjoyed ourselves, we were still dealing with a really serious subject, particularly as it is based on the true story of real people. Danny Boy is a really important film that will hopefully highlight the devastation of war and the impact it has on those who have served and their families. 

This was Leah’s first experience of filming during Covid, and highlights the resilience the cast and crew had, and the joys in collaborating once more;“…it was definitely a really different experience. While it comes with its challenges, it’s amazing to see everyone pull together and I think in some ways it has introduced a more efficient way of working on set. I felt safe at all times and the crew were just fantastic. Hopefully we can all get back to some normality by the end of this year.”

The lockdown certainly hasn’t slowed Leah down, as she gets back to filming very shortly, “I am commencing filming in the lead role of a new series soon. I can’t disclose any information on it at this point other than it’s an amazing part and I’m really excited! I am also very grateful to be able to continue with my work during a pandemic, which has had a truly devastating impact on so many.”

Read more IFTN features and interviews.

“I think the reality of the situation is a terrifying concept in itself;” Actor Niamh Algar on new ITV drama Malpractice
“If you don't have your stories and your songs, you're doomed as a people;” Showrunner Declan de Barra discusses The Witcher: Blood Origin
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