“I think the audience are going to be like ‘oh!’” says Charlene McKenna, co-lead with James Nesbitt in the BBC crime thriller Bloodlands. “That’s Jed Mercurio not wanting to give too much away. You’re like guessin’ all the time.”
McKenna isn’t giving too much away about the Northern Ireland-set series from Line of Duty/Bodyguard executive producer either for fear of spoilers, something that also applies to the other series she’s a well kent face from, Peaky Blinders. The Irish actor is filming Peaky now in Manchester when we speak on the phone, but we have to wait till later this year for that to air, after Vienna Blood, the Freud and forensics crime drama set in the early 20th century Austrian capital which McKenna filmed during last summer’s lift in lockdown.
A familiar face since she arrived on TV at the age of 16 in Pure Mule, the award-winning pioneering Irish TV drama, her screen and stage credits include Whistleblower, for which she won awards, AD Kingdom and Empire, Raw, Single Handed, The Fixer, Misfits, Merlin and Skins Pure. Between 2012 and 2016 she starred as Rose Erskine in Ripper Street, alongside Matthew Macfadyen and future husband Adam Rothenberg, while she won plaudits alongside Jack Lowden and Lesley Manville for the Ibsen's Ghosts in the West End in 2014.
McKenna’s been busy during Covid, filming on socially distanced sets and when lockdown saw her and Rothenberg, of Ozark fame living at her family home in Glaslough, County Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland, they took the opportunity to build a home and get married.
“Well, I don’t like to be bored,” she jokes. “My parents used to have a mushroom farm and there’s an old shed that we converted into a house for me and Adam to live in when we’re in Ireland. Me and Adam and my brothers - I have five (well one’s in Sydney) - and my parents, who have a pub so that was shut from day one, did the work. That got us through the first lockdown. We did the bulk of it and then when things opened up in the summer we got the plumber in, and I went to work on Vienna Blood.
McKenna is a bundle of energy, the youngest of six, she’s the only girl - sound familiar to Peaky Fans, a bit like the Shelby clan?
“I know,” says McKenna. “It is. I’m a bit of an Ada. I’m the youngest, feisty one like a terrier at their heels. We are like that. But less violent - although we probably drink as much whisky. Yeah, we’re a bit like that in the nice family dynamic way, less of the razor blade way,” she laughs.
Badlands managed to complete filming before the first lockdown. Set in contemporary Northern Ireland, it sees her play DS Niamh McGovern alongside James Nesbitt as DCI Tom Brannick. A body is found in Strangford Lough, there’s an assassin on the loose and a trail that links back to murders committed at the height of the Troubles. A twisting turning plot leaves viewers unsure who to trust and keeps the tension hiked up right to the finale.
For McKenna, the character of DS McGovern is a bit of a departure in terms of character. Calm and collected, she doesn’t give a lot away as she digs away (at times literally) to get to the truth.
“She’s a real diversion for me. I’ve always played very strong but heavily emotional characters whereas she’s everything under the radar. She doesn’t show her feelings, she's very cool. She’s surface swan with the feet going underneath. I love her astuteness and that she calls a spade a spade. She’s by the book, not a rule breaker, but will bend the rules and go around the houses and down the fox holes if it’s for the truth. And she’s got a sense of humour when there’s scope to show it.”
There’s also an ease to her double act with Nesbitt as she had worked with him before on crime drama television series Lucky Man (2016-18).
“I tried to kill him on that,” she laughs. “He’s great. He’s so well read yet such good craic. He’s a great lead because he sets the tone of no bullshit, no egos, just good work, good humour, let’s do a good job and have a good time. We got on like an absolute house on fire.”
Filming Badlands close to home was a joy for McKenna who usually splits her time between New York and her home in County Monaghan. Having grown up at the end of the Troubles, the history and background to the story is part of her DNA, as it is for writer Chris Brandon.
“Albeit I’m from the Republic of Ireland and Niamh is from the other side of the Border, we both grew up five minutes from it, and she’s very much a rural girl. I could just tune back into my own upbringing, and she’s my age, my background, so that was easy.
“Niamh is from South Armagh and it was important that they had her as a Catholic officer. That makes her more interesting and will probably only resonate with people who know the intricacies of the sectarian element. If they don’t know the history it won’t land, but that won’t take away from the story,” she says.
“I tried to be well versed in the background - I did grow up towards the end of the Troubles so I experienced that - but I also watched documentaries and listened to podcasts because you want to do justice to the story. Even though our story is fiction, it’s rooted in truth.”
Turning 37 this month, for McKenna growing up, soldiers and checkpoints were part of the everyday routine.
“Oh yeah. I remember we would go shopping in Belfast, and because we lived close to the Border we always had to go through the checkpoint and get our bags searched and step out of the vehicle, and you got so used to having British soldiers with guns. It was only when I grew up and would be telling stories to my now husband and he’d be going ‘what?’, Because for me and my friends that was normal. Then you realise maybe that’s not normal, to go five minutes down the road and have this huge machine gun and this soldier going, ‘where are you going, what are you doing?’ Er, I’m just going to the shop,’ she says.
“But I remember it from a child’s point of view, because I remember being so fascinated by their accents and their uniforms and I would see them training all the time. You had such a child’s fascination with that without knowing the undercurrent of it until you grow up. Yeah, it’s an interesting way to grow up,” she says.
Grounded in truth, Bloodlands is also rooted in location, with the province’s harsh history and haunting beauty - Belfast and its cranes, Strangford Lough and its secrets - lending authenticity to the action.
“It really showcases Northern Ireland,” says McKenna. “I think Northern Ireland and Scotland have that same kind of beauty and it adds a great backdrop to tell the story from. It’s another character really. Because in Northern Ireland the land really holds so many secrets and mysteries from the past. I’m glad we weren’t just in a studio pretending.”
She says that, but out on Strangford Lough filming in the middle of a gale, McKenna, Nesbitt and the rest of the cast didn’t need to pretend when it came to battling the elements. There’s no doubt they were definitely out on an island in high winds and rain.
“Oooh yes! Oh we were!” she says. “I don’t know how I didn’t die. There are behind the scenes videos where I look like the most depressed elf you’ve ever seen, wrapped in about ten layers and the wind is just battering my head and the hail is cutting my eyeballs off! You know when you just go into survival mode? I was thinking right, it’s going to be 12 hours of this and my face will get beasted with the wind, but that’s OK, you can do this! I was giving myself an SAS pep talk.”
“It sounds so soft,” she says, “but you’re in 12 hours of it every day and we had a solid ten days of shooting out on that island with no facilities or tents or nothing. And you’ve to let the scene be about the story, not about how cold you are!”
Fortunately Rothenburg was on hand, on a break from Ozark. “Adam was great. He really took care of me. I’d get home really late, and he’d say right, dinner then let’s read lines. I had a month when he wasn’t there and I was like ‘there’s no food! I have to cook?’ ‘What do you mean you’ve got your own life? Get over here, I need potatoes!’. She laughs.
“People say how did you find him? And I’m like, I don’t know, and I don’t care. He’s decided to take care of me and I’ll let him. It’s going really well.”
So much so that during the most recent lockdown McKenna and Rothenberg married at the castle next door to her village.
With the house complete and lockdown lifted during the summer, McKenna was able to head to Austria to film the second series of the BBC2 crime series Vienna Blood, due to be screened later this year.
Penned by Sherlock writer Steve Thompson and adapted from the best-selling Max Liebermann novels, it is set in 1900s Vienna and follows Liebermann (Matthew Beard), English doctor and Freud fan, and detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt (Jürgen Maurer), as they unravel the mysteries of murders and minds. Playing playing Max’s sister Leah is a labour of love for McKenna, who enjoyed being able to shoot entirely on location in the Austrian capital last autumn.
“I love, love, love shooting in Vienna. It was all shot on location - there’s not even the hint of a studio - and in the most iconic buildings and places. There’s something amazing about Vienna because the art and culture and architecture of that time, like the buildings of Adolf Loos, are all still there, so you can just immerse yourself in it. I was always ‘Paris is my number one’, but now it might be Vienna. And we all just bonded. Conleth Hill, he’s my dad, is also from the North, Amelia Bullmore is our ma, and with Matthew Beard, the four of us together. I love our family scenes.”
It isn’t just the architecture and art that has McKenna hooked on the series, however. She’s always been interested in psychotherapy so Vienna Blood is right up her strasse.
“I’ve always been fascinated by how the mind works. That’s where I go in books and conversations and Vienna Blood has only fuelled my interest.”
If Leah Liebermann is concerned with the complexities of the mind, McKenna’s character in Peaky Blinders is definitely more a woman of action. After making her debut as IRA boss Captain Swing last time round, she returns for the final season.
Can she give us a sneak Peaky?
“No, sorry, I can’t.”
What can she tell us about what we have to look forward to in the hit series?
“Literally nothing. Other than we’re having a really good time,” she says. “I can say I am working with Cillian [Murphy] a lot but also other characters who aren’t even revealed yet, so I can’t say who they are. It’s a useless show to talk about because there's just nothing we can say. Captain Swing was peppered through season five when she kidnaps Michael and holds him to ransom to get to Tommy Shelby, and I can say that...
“In season six ALL will be revealed.”
And that’s all we’re getting. For the moment, McKenna and the rest are still filming in Manchester, with scenes also being shot in Scotland and Portsoy doubling as a French port.
“I didn’t get to go to Scotland,” she says, “though I would love to have ‘cos it’s like a school trip when everyone goes away together. But looking at how cold they were, maybe I was better off. They hit that cold snow snap so it was freezing. But oh my god it looked beautiful, and great for filming.”
In terms of grit and grime, violence and crime, Peaky Blinders is up there with Bloodlands, but McKenna isn’t someone who particularly relishes blood and guts.
“When I started on Peaky Blinders I thought … ooh, I really don’t like violence, and I still don’t. It really upsets me, even though I know how it’s shot, know it’s fake, even though I’m in it!” she laughs. “But, if a character is particularly heinous they always get their comeuppance. And I know Tommy and Arthur have been awful, but I think they suffer psychologically as a result and I think that’s what makes it palatable. But sometimes you watch it and you’re like ‘Somebody get me a whiskey!’”
McKenna is well placed to be served a nerve-calming snifter since her parents own a pub - The Pillar House Hotel in Glaslough.
So what does she drink when Bloodlands, Peaky Blinders, not to mention her husband’s Ozark make her reach for something to calm her nerves? Irish or Scotch?
“Irish!” she fires back immediately. “No, I do like some Scotch but I find it very smoky and peaty for my delicate little Irish tongue. Jack Lowden [still a pal from Ghosts] talks a lot about Scottish whisky, so I need to go to Scotland and do it all right, because I’ve only been exposed to the peaty ones and I know there’s more. But I really like Irish whiskey, Green Spot and Yellow Spot, they’re nice and fancy, then Powers - this is controversial - but I think it’s very good.”
Farmers, her parents bought the pub in the village when she was young and from the age of 15 or 16 she worked there, collecting glasses.
“You know those local pubs with a very special rare breed of individuals that come through the door? Well I was exposed to the most fascinating characters from a very young age, and I think that was my drama school. I’ve a brother who is amazing at impressions, and I think it’s from that too. It’s the people sitting telling stories, that’s the DNA of the Scots and Irish.”
With the pub as her drama school, McKenna who had already been involved with the village musical Oklahoma! when she was 11 - “I remember being on stage and being like ’oh yes, I really like this” - joined a youth theatre in her local town of Monachan, then landed her first TV job in Pure Mule.
“After that I thought no, you better go and get a ‘real job’, so I studied classical theatre and thought I’d be a teacher. But then I got my first film role, Breakfast on Pluto, playing Cillian Murphy’s sister - he reminded me the other day it was 17 years ago, and I said ‘oh my god!’ He hasn’t aged though - he’s still perfect.”
Suffice to say the ‘real job’ never happened.
Does McKenna regret not having more confidence to go for it when she was younger? Would she advise her younger self to stop worrying so much?
“Yes, I would, because I was so… I didn’t have any self-belief…I had no confidence even to apply for drama school, even though I had worked professionally already at 16, so the signs should have been there that, you know, you’ve got something.
“But something must have been OK, because I started to get parts, so really, I wouldn’t change anything. Because maybe then I would have been an arrogant wee prick!
"But yeah, I’d say to my younger self, ‘Stop worrying, it’ll be fine.’”
Bloodlands continues on BBC One at 9pm, tomorrow (Sunday) and the entire series is available on BBC iPlayer.