GORE IN THE STORE
IN CONVERSATION WITH EILEEN O’HIGGINS
Victorian Dublin, in the heyday of the macabre practice of post-mortem photography, finds renowned memorial photographer, Brock Blennerhasset (Michael Smiley), drawn into an investigation of a series of suspicious deaths.
The six-part series DEAD STILL, written by John Morton and Imogen Murphy begins when an unfortunate accident with his coachman Carruthers (Jimmy Smallthorne), forces Blennerhasset to take on his would-be actress niece, Nancy Vickers (Eileen O’Higgins), and a new, eager assistant and former grave-digger, Conall Molloy (Kerr Logan), to help keep his macabre memorial photography business afloat. Meanwhile, Detective Frederick Regan (Aidan O’Hare), of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, is interested in advancing crime scene photography with Blennerhasset’s help, but is also pursuing the case of a murderer who appears to be cashing in on the sordid market for ‘snuff’ imagery. With the trail leading to Blennerhasset’s door, he and his niece and new assistant soon find themselves drawn into the lurid mystery.
In conversation with FRIGHTFEST, Eileen O’Higgins discussed playing comedy for truth, the addictive and attractive appeal of a character with “verbal diarrhoea” and a harmless curiosity, and the transformative nature of performance.
FRIGHTFEST: From her entrance, Nancy has such an energy, and continues to make an impression throughout the series. Are there those characters that make you appreciate your craft more than others?
EILEEN O’HIGGINS: I felt that way when I read her, but also it’s such a gift to be given a brand new type of show and a brand new part - nobody has ever done it before; nobody has ever seen anything like it. So as an actor that’s a gift, and the line reach, the words, and the speed at which she talks, it’s like she has verbal diarrhoea coming out of her mouth most of the time. It’s this thirst for life she has that’s so attractive. She has been so sheltered and she knows there’s so much more, and she really wants to live. Nancy felt like she had been wasting time, and so when she arrives [at her uncle’s house in the city] it’s strapping yourself into the rollercoaster - the speed and the momentum of the character is quite addictive, and quite attractive to play.
It’s interesting because sometimes there is something, and you never know what it is, but there’s just that something where you click and you say, “How can I know how to play that?” It’s a learning experience and you’re always learning, and I’ve been lucky enough to play some very interesting parts, particularly recently. There’s just something about your interpretation - you see it and you go, “I know how I would like to play that and here’s my offering of how I see it.” And luckily for me, they’ve ran with how I’ve seen them. But so much of it was absolutely the bones of the part [of Nancy], and the language of it was already on the page in John and Imogen’s script.
FRIGHTFEST: Were you able to improvise on set and did the final cut of the series deviate from the original scripts?
EILEEN O’HIGGINS: As soon as I got the part I took absolute ownership over Nancy, thinking, ‘This is where I can give you so much.’ The lovely thing about working with the likes of [directors] Imogen and Craig David Wallace, is that both of them will let an actor express themselves. They’re collaborative and they have the gift of being able to work actors.
You can play a part any way, and every actor makes the part their own and the character something. When I saw how Michael was playing Brock and Kerr playing Conall, it was so interesting and then it becomes a game of tennis - a backwards and forwards interaction between how my Nancy interacts with Michael’s Brock and Kerr’s Conall. It’s fundamental listening, and empathy is how you would respond to them.
I think the script did change slightly when we went into the scenes, but the plot and the language was very much John’s. We had the freedom in how the words were expressed, and Imogen and Craig really created the environment for that. And that’s the gift of having a nice director, of someone fairly intelligent, a person that respects the craft of acting because the more you trust the director, the more vulnerable you are. We had total trust in them, and I had total trust in the other actors, which is why I think it was just this very organic relationship stirred into this pot, because there’s so much going on – it’s funny and it’s fast, and the things that are happening are so extreme. But it was always played for truth and to be relatable, so that you could imagine how you would feel if you were Nancy, or how you would feel if you were Conall or Brock, or if you wanted to be Aidan and be the detective [laughs].
FRIGHTFEST: The dynamic of the characters is interesting because while the performances convey an awareness of the humour of the scenes, the characters themselves are not fully aware. Although your character is perhaps the one that sees the humour in the scenarios that plays out between Molloy, Blennerhasset and Carruthers. The series if it chose to could be quite slapstick or self-consciously aware of its humour, but what it does is it effectively balances a seriousness of tone with comedy.
EILEEN O’HIGGINS: It’s so bizarre and also we didn’t have all the scripts when we started shooting [laughs], so what was going to happen was a surprise. We were like, “What! We’re going where? We’re going to a séance!” It was absolutely played for truth, and I think you do have to play it for truth because if I find it funny, then it’s not going to be. For me it was playing the genuine naive elements of Nancy’s character, and particularly when she dresses up as a prostitute it has been my [Nancy] not seeing that could be: one offensive, or two that I could have got it wrong. I [Nancy] see myself as an excellent performer, and obviously I see myself as excellent at acting, and she does quite a few impressions of people as we go through the show. But I genuinely think that she’s not doing this out of any malice, it’s out of fascination and love for things that are different than her. So as long as those kinds of things are done, and you and I genuinely believe that’s the case, then it’s an unawareness.
In terms of the comedy of the three I know what you mean about Nancy being more aware. She has an awareness of the difference between Brock and Conall, which is why she is constantly communicating with both to keep them in line, because she really likes this trio. With having Connor as part of the trio it establishes her as quite a high business lady - I’m running the operation. Yet she totally respects his opinion and when things go awry, he’s the person that she goes to.
She’s such an interesting character for seeing people for the qualities they possess, as opposed to their class, even though she can see it in herself. It’s that understanding of personalities she has that makes her slightly more aware of how odd the three of them are. But she’s 100% unaware that anything is funny about this situation [laughs], because shes a 100% in it, and it’s so fun to play ‘not funny.’
FRIGHTFEST: Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: "You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before." Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process of playing a character?
EILEEN O’HIGGINS: I always feel slightly different at the end of something, and especially with DEAD STILL, it’s 6 hours of television, and it’s different almost even to a film. There are some films where you’ve been on them for months, at different locations, and considering we didn’t have all the scripts when we started, this whole thing moved with such a pace that it was just an incredible process.
I feel very close to the people I worked with, and I do think playing that part has changed me as a person. People always say there is an element of you in a part, and sometimes you end up keeping hold of a character, which is the opposite way around. There are those things about a character, and particularly with Nancy where I thought, ‘I’d like to hold onto that’ [laughs], but I don’t know what it is. You get so emotionally in touch to not only the set, but the part, that I can’t help but feel different, and feel different because of everybody who was part of that experience and I bonded with.
The first two episode of DEAD STILL premiered exclusively on Acorn TV on Monday, June 29th, and will be followed by two episodes weekly through Monday, July 13th.