With her upcoming thriller series 'Then You Run' about to air on Sky, 5ELEVEN Magazine spoke to Irish Actress Leah McNamara about her craft, her love of her hometown, and being a powerful role model to women.
Words by Leigh Maynard.
Although actress Leah McNamara initially had designs on life as a pop star, that quickly transformed into aspirations as an actress. She cites one of her earliest memories as a small child at the theatre, straining to see up onto the stage. With her parents’ support, she soon found herself up there herself, attending stage school at the tender age of five. "I started doing musical theatre and performing, and it was kind of as I got a little bit older as I became a teenager that I realised that acting was singularly what was pulling me in, the dancing, music and everything, I still love those, and it's still something that I am very involved in, but I realised then that becoming an actor, being in films, being in television, that was what I definitely wanted to do."
It was one of director Paul Haggis's films that cemented Leah's desire to pursue her place on the screen. 2004's 'Crash', with its outstanding performances from an ensemble cast including Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon and Thandie Newton, made a deep impression. "I remember watching it when I was young, and I thought it was such a clever story the way the characters were intertwined. I remember being enthralled at such a young age and thought it was incredible all the emotion and the great actors." Since then, though still in the early years of her career, Leah has an exemplary portfolio and seems to be on a stellar trajectory featuring in works like the acclaimed romantic miniseries 'Normal People', crime drama 'Dublin Murders', as well as the epic action-adventure series 'Vikings' that takes place in the mysterious world of warrior Ragnar Lothbrok. Whether portraying characters in imaginary or real worlds, one place Leah is always happy to travel back to is her homeland. Hailing from Limerick, she is fiercely proud of her heritage. She represents many Irish talents who have a particularly warm, friendly manner. Talking animatedly about her home, she is clearly immensely proud of Limerick's acting legacy. She's always happy to see one particularly important person when she's there. "I love being from Limerick. I'm so proud, and there are loads of amateur theatre groups that my parents were involved in, and Richard Harris obviously comes from Limerick. He's one of the most incredible actors of all time, and every time I go back and work in Ireland is such a lovely thing because I get to see my family and my grandad."
Leah explains that while she's always happy to work on series there, she is thrilled to see a burgeoning acting industry for others in her hometown. "It's always so good the amount of things filmed there. Troy Studios is a huge studio close to my family house, so I would love to shoot a series there someday. I love to see a big studio like that opening there because it opens up so many possibilities for people, bringing so much opportunity and a great economy into Limerick, so a lot is happening there, and I hope that I get to go back and work there soon."
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Leah is fully aware of the level of competition in her industry, particularly in terms of the talent that comes out from online platforms and social media, "I think that social media has definitely added to that in terms of competitiveness, ten, twenty years ago those elements didn't really exist." Though she feels relatively early in her career to offer advice, she mentions a quote that others should perhaps take note of, "I remember watching that documentary on Netflix, The Defiant Ones with Jimmy Iovine, and he makes this comparison to race horses and said you have to have the blinders on, don't look left or right." It's also imperative to give your all, she says, and take care of all the more minor elements that can make a difference, "I would say just really focus on yourself and your own work and if you get an audition in, put 110% into every audition, make sure your tape is set up well, make sure it's lit correctly, get a tripod for your phone and make sure someone is reading in for you, things like that can help to set you apart. If you are putting in the work, eventually you are going to get the results."
With many prominent productions already behind her, Leah is eager for the launch of her latest work as the lead Tara in the new Sky series 'Then You Run'. The thriller adapted by Ben Channan (Cyberbully, The Capture) is based on Zoran Drvenkar's thriller 'You'. 'Then You Run' is the coming-of-age story of a group of close-knit disaffected, unruly teenagers who reluctantly become embroiled in the world of criminality on a trip to Rotterdam. It's a tale of family ties and trauma, female friendships and solidarity in the most testing times. Tara has never known her parents, but circumstances thrust her together with her father. Leah agrees that Tara shows a deep vulnerability, yet underneath, there's a remarkable resilience to a young woman that has experienced so much in her short life. "I feel like she has had a lot of difficult things happen in her life, a lot of traumas that a young girl does not necessarily deserve. She's had to come up against many things, including mental health. I think that mental health is so important in young people, and I am a huge advocate for that. Tara is suffering with her mental health along the line, and you see this progress throughout the series. I have huge empathy for anyone dealing with mental health issues, and I think you'll see that in Tara."
Having been raised by a strong matriarchal figure, Leah agrees that some of Tara's strength comes from a strong female role model. "She's always been tough; she's been raised by a very tough Irish grandmother, ha-ha, so no messing, no-nonsense. I think it was very much a no-nonsense home. Even in those difficult moments, she carries the strength with her within the group and amongst the four girls, and she sometimes makes those hard choices for the safety and wellbeing of the people she loves the most." It's a character that Leah feels most resonates in her career to date. "Tara is so fresh in my head. I am seeing so much of the show now, obviously doing interviews. I empathise with her situation, and you'll see as the show goes on, she makes some questionable choices and decisions, and you'll see that your protagonist isn't always going to be someone that is perfect and that you love."
One of the main threads of ‘Then You Run’ is the power of friendship between the girls, and Leah is proud of the powerful message it sends to young women. "I think they learned the importance of womanhood and the importance of having your female companions in your life, there's no comparison in terms of that female bond that they share, and I think that they are very much there for each other throughout the series and even in the hardest of moments and tests they still hold onto each other show the meaning of true loyalty."
Though the other girls are more gregarious, Tara is perhaps the more serious alpha, demonstrating quiet stoicism. Leah believes the feeling of dark and light, the nerve-racking moments intercut with skilfully crafted humour-filled dialogue, makes the show work so well. "I love the comedy moments that they have. I loved reading them on the page when I first read the script and seeing the balance that Ben found between the psychological thriller and the gangland crime element and the girls coming of age, the way that he was able to pepper that with the comedic moments coming through it. I think it has a great symbiosis and is so cohesive. The fact that Tara was the more serious one, you need that balance between the dark between the light. I love those moments between the girls. I think they are so fun."
With its mix of family relationships, crime, action and coming-of-age friendship, Leah agrees that ‘Then You Run’ is a show that crosses genres and will have broad appeal. "It's so original and entertaining if you like explosions, crime, road trips and stories of friendship. To see four young women who are on screen and who have such bold characters. They are on this incredible journey. They find so much out about themselves and the unit, and it's a rare portrayal on-screen of four such young, strong women. They go on this incredible adventure and do some pretty badass stuff along the way, and I think it's a cool thing to see for all the women out there, but there's definitely something in it for the guys too!"
Coming up, Leah has just filmed a new series, ‘Gentlemen’, as well as a part in ‘Hellboy’, and she has a few other projects in the pipeline, so she has much to keep that stellar trajectory on course. But she says she'd like to do something funny next, and she’d love the opportunity to do it with a few of her favourite comedy talents. "This character is so serious I'd love to work with someone like Seth Rogan or Jonah Hill, and I thought that Elizabeth Banks's film 'Cocaine Bear' was so hilarious, so something that's really whacky and off the wall, where you get to be a bit funny with some of those comedic legends!" Let's hope Seth, and Jonah, hear that Klaxon or, indeed, sit down to watch Leah’s latest powerful performance in 'Then You Run', where she's being quite legendary herself!
‘Then You Run’ airs on Sky on 7th July.
With thanks to Leah, and to Georgia at Public Eye.