With roles on acclaimed shows like Normal People and Vikings, Leah McNamara truly is an actress everyone should be keeping an eye on.
To say acting was always going to be the career for Leah McNamara would be something of an understatement — especially when you find out her first memory consists of her, as a toddler, desperately trying to peer over the heads in front of her to get a glimpse of a theatre stage. Now, over two decades later, it’s because of Leah’s feverish commitment to her craft that we are having a chat, albeit over Zoom, about everything she has experienced since starting her professional career. Known for her roles on Vikings and the biggest show of 2020 Normal People, Leah McNamara has quickly become Ireland’s best export; a passionate, tenacious actress who scopes out characters who bring depth to the stories they exist within.
McNamara’s latest project is BBC’s TV movie Danny Boy, a biographical drama about army veteran Brian Wood and the accusations made by a human rights lawyer against him. Leah plays Lucy, Brian’s teenage sweetheart & wife. With most retellings of real-life war stories, much of what is shown is centred on the lived experiences of the veteran, but Danny Boy highlights the world around Wood; his PTSD, his family, and how integral Lucy was in helping Brian open up and speak about the things haunting him. The role of Lucy marks the first character based on a real-life person the actress has ever played and she does it with equal parts grace and grit; she brings her interpretation of the character while keeping Lucy’s essence at the core.
1883 caught up with the rising Irish actress and spoke about portraying Lucy in Danny Boy, what she cherishes most from her time filming Normal People, and why she has such a deep love for vintage clothing & a passion for sustainable fashion.
You studied Drama and Theatre at University College Cork, but I’d love to know what was the exact moment you decided to pursue acting as a career?
It was a gradual process. My earliest memory is sitting in my chair, trying to see over all of the heads in front of me, at a play. I must’ve been three or four and I was completely amazed at what I was seeing. Where I’m from in Limerick, there’s a great stage school called Spotlight where I attended and it’s a close-knit community there. There was always creativity around me; my grandmother was a voice coach and a musician, there are journalists on my mother’s side of the family. The tenacity to have careers in the arts was always encouraged and supported, so from a young age, I never thought it wasn’t a real job or anything.
This is lovely because you could lean into it and explore!
Yeah, it happened organically as a hobby and I loved performing. When I was around 15, I was dancing, singing, and acting, but acting became the primary focus.
Your first big role was in 2015 when you played Caroline St. John in Cherry Tree. How would you say you’ve grown as an actress and human since then and now?
The biggest thing would be from doing parts exclusively in Ireland, being part of the casting process there, and making the transition to where I am now in London. It can be a difficult transition to make if you don’t have the springboard of drama school, so it was the biggest change and challenge for me. Ireland is quite small because everyone knows everyone and I felt like I reached a point where I needed to explore and come over here [to London].
It’s been amazing to see all of these young Irish actors thriving!
Yes! It’s really exciting, we’re everywhere! [Laughs]
Your latest project Danny Boy premieres tonight on BBC Two — can you tell me a bit about the TV movie and your character Lucy?
The show is about Brian Wood, a British Army soldier who had an abhorrent claim made against him and several soldiers who served in Iraq. It was the most expensive public inquiry that ever happened in the UK. I play Lucy Wood, Brian’s wife, and the show follows his story and the people around him who are gravely impacted by the inquiry. Although the show is about the Al-Sweady Inquiry and feels like a courtroom drama, it also explores the post-traumatic stress he has after serving in Iraq and how Brian and Lucy deal with everything that’s going on. She’s a mom and she’s an amazing woman; I feel like moms don’t get enough credit because she is the glue that holds everyone together. She was raising kids on her own for a long time when he was serving and I know they moved around a lot as a family and she didn’t have outside family members nearby to lean on all of the time. She is a deeply loyal person and I feel Lucy is the heart of the story.
You see how she is the pillar of strength. Typically with films like this, it’s very much centred on the person but it’s really beautiful to see the rapport between you and Anthony [Boyle] and how you both played the husband/wife dynamic so well. It feels like it’s Lucy’s story just as much as it is Brian’s.
Yeah, he is great. We had such great chemistry and we got to rehearse before which I think was so beneficial and so important to me to do before I start a project. Since we are telling a real-life story it needs to feel natural and not something that’s been over-rehearsed, so it was really important and beneficial to get to know one another to play husband and wife. Brian and Lucy have been together for a long time; they are teenage sweethearts. Anthony and I spent time together just hanging out because when you’re playing a character with such an intimate relationship with another person and meeting on your first day on-set is something that can be quite scary because you have to suddenly find out a lot of stuff immediately.
Danny Boy shows the ripple effect the accusations have on his loved ones like Lucy. Was there anything special that you did to prepare for this role? I know Brian Wood wrote the book Double Crossed.
The book was great source material because it’s in his own words and it does look at the different tours he served with a lot of background information regarding the army. I feel it gives an honest and interesting look into what their relationship was like throughout those years and the challenges they experienced; it’s a really honest depiction of their home life and the tougher moments. “Danny Boy” isn’t an adaptation of the book, but it was really useful to have that information and the knowledge about the moments they shared even if it wasn’t going to be part of the film. I did a lot of reading on army spouses and looked into real-life accounts from people who have had spouses serve in the army. It is predominantly women who have husbands serving and it’s quite heartbreaking to read because they don’t always realize what they are getting into when they become an “army wife.” I don’t have anyone in my family who served, so it was a whole new world for me.
Yeah, not everyone thinks about those who are left when someone goes off to war. Their life is somewhat put on hold because they are always thinking about their partner, somewhere else, who could potentially be in danger.
Exactly! They don’t know if their partner is going to come back and if they do, what state of mind will they be in? They might change or come back as a different person. Dealing with that, on top of raising kids and everything else is something I never thought about or knew much about. It was both interesting and heartbreaking to read about. I have so much respect for those women because they deal with so much. One woman I spoke with talked to me about feeling blessed because her husband came back when so many others didn’t, but he came back a completely different person. That, itself, is so tragic and hard to grapple with.
Brian Wood visited the set and worked closely with your co-star Anthony Boyle to make sure things were as authentic as possible. What was it like to have him collaborate on the telling of his story?
I only met him once at a costume fitting because he was making sure the army costumes were exactly the way they should be. I just finished the book when I met him so it felt surreal because I had everything that he wrote about in my head and the details of some of the stuff he went through… Some of it is shocking and harrowing. I just thought “you must be so strong to have done so much for your country and go through so much after coming home from war.” He experienced something that would’ve broken a lot of people, but he turned it into a positive thing and educated people on the army and how he felt abandoned by them. What he’s managed to do is inspiring and admirable. I have so much respect for him.
When you’re playing a real-life character like Lucy, do you come at the character differently than you would someone fictional?
We had a conversation about playing a real person and how you don’t want to do a direct impersonation. We’re doing our version of what it is and it shouldn’t feel like a carbon copy because it needs to be natural and not forced. Although we spoke and exchanged a few messages, Lucy and I never met. She’s a very private person who is on the shyer side and we wanted to respect that. I knew they wanted me to bring my version of Lucy to “Danny Boy” because for Anthony, there was lots of footage of Brian and a lot of source material. For me, I just focused on nailing the accent because they grew up in a similar area and they’d lived together for so long at that point, too. You have to take little things like that and make it your version. We just wanted to respect her space.
I know “Normal People” came out last year but it was such a special project I think we should still discuss it! It became such a hit. What does it mean to you to be a part of something that impacted so many people on a global scale?
I feel so lucky to have been a part of it for so many reasons, both personally and just how I view things and how I am as a person. Above everything, I’m so grateful for the friendships I made because of it. It’s the first job I’ve ever done where I have really solid long-standing friendships. We’re going on two years now since we filmed and we’re all still so close and in constant contact. A few weeks after the premiere, Neve, Daisy and I had a Zoom and we were just amazed at what was going on! We were sad we couldn’t get together to celebrate, but I think that’s exactly why it [Normal People] had such an overwhelming response — everyone was locked down and it was the first big show to come out during the first lockdown. Everyone was lonely and scared and didn’t know what to do, so they put it on and everyone watched it together. People like James Corden tweeting about it and others who typically would have 16-hour days suddenly had the time to do things they wouldn’t normally be able to do!
It’s lovely that you say the friendships you made were the greatest thing that happened because when I interviewed Daisy earlier last year, she said the same thing.
Aw! I love her so much, she’s the nicest person. Anything you could imagine of her is true. She has a heart of gold and I’m so delighted for everything that is happening for her because there’s no one I can think of who deserves it more.
With roles like Lucy and Normal People’s Rachel, when you’re reading a script what typically draws you to them?
What draws me to a character is their place within the story. If the story is well-written, the chances are the characters are going to be well-written. I know that sounds like such a basic thing for someone to say, but you’d be surprised! [Laughs] I can get on board with a story if I’m reading it and can’t put it down, like a good book. If I can read it in one sitting, that’s a great sign for me. With Rachel, I read the books because Sally Rooney is amazing and she wrote the script for “Normal People.” With female characters especially, they must be well-rounded and there’s depth to them. There are so many female characters who feel two-dimensional, so having that depth is important.
I saw on Instagram that you’re very much a lover of fashion and particularly vintage — I love that beautiful vintage blue coat you posted! Is sustainable fashion something you’re passionate about?
Thank you so much! One of my best friends started a line called Second Soul Studio and she curates and finds some amazing vintage pieces. She has the best sense of style. It’s funny, we always joke about how she never wants to part with some of the pieces!
I don’t blame her, I wouldn’t want to either! Vintage shopping and curating are both amazing but also can be so hard when you want to keep everything!
[Laughs] Exactly! Eventually, she knows when she’s meant to give it to Second Soul.
Has sustainable fashion been something you’ve always been interested in?
In recent years, yes. When I was younger I was a shopaholic and bought things quickly and cheaply, but with the way the planet is going, we all need to make the effort to look at things long-term and get sustainable things. It’s really important for the generation coming in and making sure we are bringing them into a world that is sustainable and healthy. Vintage shopping and recycled pieces are so fun to work with, too! I love designer Freya Simonne too, she creates beautiful pieces and this incredible vintage patchwork quilt dress.
There’s something fun about sourcing unique vintage pieces, too. You know no one else is going to have it.
Yes! And I’ll do a big vintage shopping spree and feel completely guilt-free because it’s vintage.
Lastly, I know you can’t talk much about the upcoming project you’re about to film so I’ll ask you a much bigger question: if you could manifest something for yourself this year, whether that’s personally or professionally, what would it be?
I was having this conversation yesterday! I want to work with Daniel Kaluuya. I have seen everything he’s ever done and he elevates every project to a completely new level. I’m in awe of him. He’s probably the person in our generation that I look at and think, you are just incredible.
Let’s speak it into existence: Leah will work with Daniel!
Yes, that would be a dream.
Danny Boy airs at 9pm on Wednesday 12th May on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer
Interview by Kelsey Barnes
Photography by Stephanie Galea
Hair by Patrick Wilson
Make Up by Anna Payne
Styling by Caitlyn Leckey