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"I never imagined that I would land this role!" - Derry Girls actress Louisa Harland talks about playing Sally Wainwright's exciting new protagonist.
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“I never imagined that I would land this role!” – Derry Girls actress Louisa Harland talks about playing Sally Wainwright’s exciting new protagonist.


When Louisa Harland was selected to star in the new Sally Wainwright show, Renegade Nell, the director expressed the need for the character to be captivating even when not actively present on screen. This was no easy feat, as Nell is a larger-than-life role, filled with swashbuckling moments, diverse accents, and intense action sequences. Despite this, Harland’s performance draws the audience in every time she appears on screen, making it hard not to miss her when she’s not around. During our meeting in central London, I understood why she was the perfect fit for Nell, especially considering her initial reaction that she never expected to land such a role and her parents still find it random.

Rebellious and daring, Nell is a renegade who defies societal norms. In the 18th century, she displays boyish qualities and constantly finds herself in life-threatening situations caused by others. The setting is the year 1705, and Nell is now a widow who possesses supernatural abilities, but only intermittently. The production boasts a lavish historical atmosphere and pays close attention to the beauty of the British countryside (Harland describes the meticulous search for trees that would have been fully grown in 1705), but it is fueled by mischief – intense battles, clever disguises, fantastical creatures, and numerous instances of highway robbery.

There are various impressive performances that have unexpectedly led to the demise of talented actors (I will not reveal who); each death comes as a genuine shock, as you may think: “They cannot truly have eliminated them?” Harland must appear stunning then immediately blend into the background, change from speaking with a cockney accent to a posh one, and seamlessly transition from being a dancer to a boxer, all of which she is capable of – but more than that, she has a natural talent for humor. As we know, she portrayed Orla McCool in Derry Girls. It is difficult to envision a Sally Wainwright protagonist who is not sharp-witted and humorous before anything else. The first thing Harland mentions when I take a seat is that Wainwright “does not find joy in writing for men. I mean, she writes excellent male characters, but she wholeheartedly loves writing for women.”

Styling: Michael Miller; Makeup: Zoe Taylor; Hair: Sophie Sugarman.

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According to Harland, she didn’t realize that living in Limehouse, East London for two years after attending Mountview drama school and then living with her boyfriend Calvin Demba (an actor from Hollyoaks) and his aunt and uncle during lockdown would inadvertently train her for a cockney accent. She didn’t even need a voice coach because she could just ask Calvin to send her a voice note to check on her pronunciation. Before filming, she would switch into a Poplar accent, which she found humorous. Harland believes confidence plays a big role in mastering accents; her partner advised her to think and sigh in a cockney accent. Later on, she imitates her character Orla’s signature squeak, which always makes her laugh. As mentioned before, she has a great sense of humor.

Harland, the youngest of three sisters, was raised in Dublin by cultured parents. Her older sister used to be a dancer and the middle one is a psychologist. Her father worked in advertising and her parents were well-versed in films and foreign series. She realizes that she may have portrayed them as pretentious and admits that they are not very complimentary. At the age of 19, she left for London, eagerly announcing to everyone that she was moving there. However, she was unprepared for the vast differences between Dublin and London. While Dublin was the capital city where everyone knew each other, London offered anonymity and Homesickness quickly set in. She now enjoys her life in London, although she initially struggled to adjust.

Harland did not rise to fame through her role in Derry Girls alone. Prior to this, she had already been a part of the groundbreaking project, Lost in London, starring Woody Harrelson. This film was the first of its kind to be shot in one take and shown live in cinemas. It was praised by critics for its “silly yet clever” concept, but unfortunately did not launch Harland’s career. However, her involvement in the project created a strong mutual admiration between her and Harrelson, which was later revisited in the successful stage play, Ulster American. This production explores themes of Brexit, Britain, Ireland, and the US, and was met with rave reviews.

According to Lisa McGee, the creator of Derry Girls, the casting process for the show involved searching for the perfect chemistry. It took seven months to find the right combination of girls for the roles. During this time, Harland worked at a pub in Victoria called the Jugged Hare. When asked about the role, Harland stated that he would have taken any part, but it was an added bonus that it turned out to be brilliant and with great people. The success of the show internationally was unexpected, and even those from Dublin didn’t understand some of the jokes about Derry. Despite their fame, they still consider themselves to be more like national treasures at home.

During the transition from series one to two, she expressed her struggle to get recognized while her co-stars were flourishing with incredible opportunities. She found herself reverting back to working at a pub. However, in 2019, she had a successful show, Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp, at the Royal Court in London, alongside Toby Jones and Deborah Findlay. Sadly, after the production ended, the pandemic hit and she feared she would never be able to work in theater again. She even questioned if her personality was not fit for the industry, especially when comparing herself to others on set or in the media.

‘Have I found my tribe now?’ … Harland on acting.View image in fullscreen

I understand her point: she has a natural and unpretentious demeanor that may not be typical of actors. She mentions, indirectly, that she considers herself an “ordinary-looking person,” which is not accurate – she is quite striking. However, I believe that is how she sees herself and how she presents herself: a regular person who also happens to act. Although she maintains connections with some people from drama school and her boyfriend, a Cockney voice coach and actor, she is not influenced or blinded by the glamour of the entertainment industry. She ponders, “Have I finally found my group?” As an actor, it is important to have friends with regular jobs. Two of her closest friends, one works at Dunnes Stores (an Irish version of M&S) and the other at Paddy Power.

The pandemic also caused the delay of the third season of Derry Girls until 2021. The actress reflects on this, stating that the gap was challenging due to the fact that adult actors were portraying children. Fortunately, the show was a comedy. Her time on the set of Derry Girls also led her to audition for the role of Nell. She believes not being able to travel for callbacks due to filming may have worked in her favor, giving the perception that she was in demand.

The storytelling style of Renegade Nell could be considered traditional in many aspects. It belongs to the Disney+ platform and straddles the line between being appropriate for both adults and young adults. It incorporates elements of fantasy and features themes of class conflict, while also providing a satisfying David and Goliath dynamic. According to the creator, the show is classified as a 12, meaning it contains mature content such as blood, guts, and violence but does not include any explicit language or nudity.

In many of its traditional practices, particularly when Nell disguises herself as a man with just a simple hat, the characters easily believe they are speaking to a man rather than a woman. This dynamic can be compared to both Shakespeare and panto, but with an understanding of its own purpose. When asked about the gender politics, the actress explains that there is no specific message being conveyed and Nell’s dressing as a man is purely for the sake of blending in. Prior to filming, the actress underwent three months of stunt training and was impressed by her stunt double, Melissa Humler, who was a member of the French Olympic bouldering team and grew up in a circus. The actress even took inspiration from her stunt double’s stance in her own performance.

After Renegade Nell’s shooting, Harland was chosen to star in Eugene O’Neill’s renowned play, “Long Day’s Journey into Night”, set to premiere on 19 March in the West End. The cast is star-studded, with Brian Cox leading the way. Harland expresses her desire to perform on Broadway and add an American accent to her repertoire, stating that as an Irish person, she naturally has a nasally tone. When asked if she would need a new boyfriend to help with voice coaching, she confidently and faithfully responds that her current partner, Calv, already has a strong American accent.

Before anything else, she expresses a strong desire to see a second season, at minimum, where she portrays Nell. She believes that the world they have created has limitless potential and has even suggested working on the second and third seasons simultaneously if the first season is successful.

The debut of Renegade Nell will be available on Disney+ starting March 29th.

Source: theguardian.com