Ava Merson-O’Brien

On CBBC, Ava Merson O’Brien plays Marcie in the new series of Lagging, which was filmed during the pandemic, and she played Harriet in Hetty Feather from Series 1 to Series 3, having started filming at twelve years old, and reprised her role when she returned for The Final Chapter which aired last year. Ava worked on the short film Female Faces, which recently had its first screening in New York, with the film directed by Thanos Pantsos, and she played Young Miriam in the radio show Miriam and Youssef. In theatre, Ava has performed in a number of shows included The Sound of Music, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical and The Wizard of Oz, which was also her first musical theatre audition. Chatting to Ava, she tells us about playing Marcie in Lagging, her time as Harriet in Hetty Feather and the short film Female Faces.

Can you tell us about your character Marcie in new CBBC drama Lagging?

Marcie is monosyllabic, deadpan and somewhat passive. Generally in a scene, Marcie will be staring at the other characters and most likely believing them to be complete morons (to put it nicely!). Hopefully people would say that we are completely different in personality.

What was it like on set and filming for the series?

Filming was met with lots of COVID regulations in place. Obviously I was grateful for this, it was both reassuring for our personal health and the health of our families. However, generally as a cast and crew, creating entertainment is always a collaborative experience; you become very close with one another, which I love. Sadly, due to the distancing and mask wearing in between takes, this was lost. I also had to do my own hair and makeup, which I have always wanted to do, even when I started in this industry as a child… however, very slowly I missed the expertise of my makeup artist Nancy, who had to watch from the side and give me reassurance.

You played Harriet in the screen adaptation of Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather, what did you enjoy most about playing her?

I started filming the show as a child (twelve) and finished the series as an adult (eighteen). Predominantly I have spent most of my life in the theatre; generally you play that role for six months to a year, so I felt a closeness to Harriet, being with me for so long. I love period dramas more than anything, from the costume to the props and language, so I definitely felt passion for the project and setting. Harriet in her personality is very safe and generally isn’t a fan of taking risks… I can confirm I do relate to her more as a character, compared to Marcie!

What was it like working alongside the rest of the cast and returning for the final series?

When I was asked to return for the final series, I really couldn’t say no. To be back with the old gang and act out Helen Blakeman’s truly fantastic writing, was an automatic yes! Obviously it goes without saying; you grow a friendship with the cast and crew, spending every day with them, through all types of weather (especially in the sweltering summer… in a corset!) so you automatically feel a connection.

When I did return, I felt a sense of comfort in the déjà vu. From the hotel, to Cobham Hall where we filmed.

How was it seeing the character’s development in Series 6 and the fan response to The Final Chapter?

I really feel like all the characters developed in a positive way. Personally Harriet gained a confidence, which I put down to her romantic relationship with Mathias, leading to their wedding! The fans of the show loved the wedding, I think even more than me. I still get messages on my social media asking “Are you and Mathias still married?” or “When are you coming back from America?”.

One person asked “In the next series, can you and Mathias get a divorce for some drama” (I try not to take that one personally).

Do you have any favourite memories from filming Hetty Feather?

One of my favourite memories is the wedding dress, which feels like an obvious choice. If I were to delve slightly deeper, I would say in either Series 1 or 2 we had lots of scenes where we were gardening. In my day-to-day life, I have a genuine love and passion for gardening, so for me, I felt an unbelievable amount of enjoyment from this, even if I was just picking up the soil and putting it back on repeat.

Can you say about the film Female Faces?

The film Female Faces was one of my career highlights, which is hard to say, as I feel like I personally have so many. The film is the exploration of the inequality that women face, especially in the media. The project came about when the phenomenal director Thanos Pantsos pitched the idea to me, while we were filming for another film. I loved the originality of the concept, matched with his enthusiasm for the cause. Recently, the film had its first screening in NYC, I feel like the project and the set design for the promo (pitch black scenery, with spotlights, my character running from an unknown being behind me) is extremely relevant right now and the story portrays a critical question that many need to ask themselves.

On radio, you voiced the role of Young Miriam in Miriam and Youssef, what was this like to do?

I truly loved being part of this project, I have listened to BBC Dramas since I was a child, so to be part of this radio drama as my first meant so much. The majority of my career had been carried with voice work; sometimes I feel just as comfortable in a dark booth than in front of the camera, or even on stage. I felt like for my first time with them, you really get all aspects. You move to create the sounds with props; like theatre. You have the same authentic feel, that you would with screen but you have the expression through the delivery that you do with voice work.

We understand you’ve performed on stage in The Sound of Music, how was it being involved with the production?

Funnily enough, I have actually been in The Sound Of Music twice. Once at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre playing Brigitta, and more recently playing the role of Louisa on tour for Bill Kenwright.

I thoroughly enjoyed both productions, although different, they shared the ‘unknown’ when it came to the venue. The Open Air Theatre could have perfect weather, burning our skin with the hot sun or making us look like drowned rats when it would rain. On tour you never really know what you are going to find at the theatre. This is why I think it is so important to be adaptable and spontaneous as actors.

You played Amanda Thripp in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical in the West End, what are some of your highlights from performing at the Cambridge Theatre?

Playing Amanda was just such an amazing experience.

Recently, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical celebrated their 10th Anniversary. We were all invited to watch the show and reunite with the cast, sadly I was working late, so couldn’t make it (story of my life!).

My favourite memory is when Bertie would swing me round by my plaits… however, I loved the dance routines. The standard was very high, the best was expected from us, I love being pushed. I am a complete and utter perfectionist to the core (sad to say) but for this job, I felt like that worked very well. I remember in our lunch breaks at rehearsals, I would eat my food then go through the routines on repeat in the corner, to get them exactly how Ellen Kane wanted it.

What are some of your favourite films, TV and theatre shows to watch?

Generally I have a deep love for the theatre… especially plays. Anything to do with Shakespeare is an automatic yes! I also love National Theatre Live, especially during the pandemic. It felt like the one time I would actually stop everything I was doing and just stare at the screen… without blinking. When it comes to watching television, I love period dramas. However, my favourite series is Hannibal with Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy (just to name a few). The series has the obvious gory, dark and spine-chilling features which I love, however, one of my favourite themes is the underlying comedy that Eddie Izzard brings to the show. The subtilty she brings, while being deadpan, in my humble opinion, is her best performance!

How do you like to spend your time away from your career?

One word… gardening. During lockdown, I was actually landscaping our garden (no, I have zero training, or experience so I wouldn’t recommend hiring me), I am in fact a fan of Monty Don. I watch him on the television talking about gardening and I’m currently reading his latest book. I am also a complete bookworm. I like to generally read books regarding topics I am somewhat uneducated on, or maybe themes I don’t agree with. I believe reading something new, that challenges opinions is the base for our growth.

Is acting something you always wanted to do and how did you start?

I have always wanted to perform. For my first job, I was eighteen months old… obviously I didn’t openly ask for this, but as a younger child I was in commercials all the time. I felt a love for being on camera and on set.

When I was about four/five, I told my mum I wanted to be in musicals. The first musical theatre audition I went for (The Wizard of Oz at the Southbank Theatre), I booked the job! (I think I impressed them with my gymnastic skills).

Funnily enough, I actually appeared years later in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of The Wizard of Oz at the London Palladium.

Then like dominoes, my career continued… sixteen years on and I haven’t had a break (or a holiday!).

Can you tell us about some of the other acting work you’ve been involved with throughout your career and what upcoming plans do you have?

This is always tricky, as production can be so hush hush about the project. However, I can say that I start this project in the new year… all hoping that COVID and safety regulations comply. It feels funny to talk about work, as I actually never discuss it with friends. When people ask me what I do for a living or what I’m up to, I usually just say not a lot, then they wonder why I never have time to meet up… I blame it on COVID.

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