For Orla McDonagh’s most recent TV role, she plays regular character Rihanna in the new BBC series Phoenix Rise, filming alongside a cast including her on-screen brother Alex Draper (as Billy) and Paul Nicholls (as their on-screen father Carl), and she attended the show’s premiere event in March, with Series 2 already announced for release later this year. On screen in 2022, Orla played Young Ceelia in the Netflix series The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself, joined the cast of the final series of Peaky Blinders as Ruby Shelby – the daughter of Tommy and Lizzie (played by Cillian Murphy and Natasha O’Keeffe) and was part of the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical. Orla’s first film project was the 2021 release of Belfast, in which she played Karen Lambert, and she also has theatre experience, having played the role of Molly in the UK Tour of Annie for her first professional acting job. Talking with Orla, she told us about her regular character Rihanna in BBC’s Phoenix Rise, being in the final series of Peaky Blinders and touring as Molly in Annie.
You play Rihanna in the new BBC series Phoenix Rise, can you tell us about the character and what is she like to play?
Rihanna and her brother Billy have recently lost their mum and are hiding a big secret that they are scared of getting out. She is such a fun character to play as I get to be really sweet and sassy at the same time and, although we have differences, we are also very similar in some ways! Just like Rihanna, I’m from Coventry, I’m in year 7 and I have brothers that I’m really close to.
Was there anything that drew you to the role and how was it meeting the rest of the cast for the first time?
I will never forget when I first saw the email come through telling me about the self tape for Rihanna. I always had a strong feeling about this role as, like I said, we are very similar and growing up in Coventry I thought I could bring a lot to her character. I actually did my self tape in my Coventry City football top. Meeting the cast was amazing, it was so much fun. Some of us already knew of each other from auditions, and I was close with Imogen (Baker), who plays Leila, from the moment we met at auditions and the friendship you see on screen between Rihanna and Leila is so similar to mine and Imogen’s friendship, we have a lot of fun together and are always laughing.
What is it like on set of the show and what are some of your stand-out highlights from filming as Rihanna?
It was such a good atmosphere, before filming even started, there were team activities like bowling arranged so that we could all bond with each other, we were all one big family on set. A stand-out highlight for me is when Rhi and Leila give Rani advice on Nathan and there’s a line where we say “You do you Boo!”, and me and Imogen kept it a massive secret that we were going to do the sassy click at the end of the line and we just did it to see what Claire (Tailyour), the director, thought and it actually made the final cut! Another highlight was when they asked my mum to play my mum in the show so she had to come to set and have her photo taken for a scene with Paul (Nicholls), who plays my dad, and she got to watch me filming all day. My favourite highlight from filming was on the last day at the wrap party when all of the cast were given a book full of photos from the show and behind the scenes with a card from Matt (Evans) and Perrie (Balthazar), the writers, with their favourite quote from your character and a message from them inside, which is something I will cherish forever.
How was it attending the show’s premiere earlier this year and how did you feel watching the completed episodes?
I loved it! The premiere was such a good experience as I also took one of my best friends from school with me so it was so cool to show my friends what it was that I was doing while I had time off school to film. Watching the episodes felt so surreal as, when I was watching a certain scene, I would remind myself of so many memories that I made filming that scene.
Why would you recommend watching Phoenix Rise and who do you think it will appeal to?
I would recommend Phoenix Rise as it shows a real view of school and the things teenagers are dealing with these days. It covers a lot of important topics like bullying, period poverty, anxiety, panic attacks, popularity, but it also includes lots of funny moments and shows there is a good side to school, the friendships you have and people that can help when things are hard. I think it portrays this in a really good way. The music is also soooo good. I think it would appeal to anyone in senior school or college but also parents of teenagers wanting to get an idea of what their son/daughter could be facing.
Last year, you played Young Ceelia in The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself for Netflix, how was this?
Ceelia was a good character to play, she witnesses her parents being murdered by a wolf whilst she hides so, although I only filmed for a very short time, it was a very good experience. It was my first ever night shoot and my scene had a wolf in it so there was also a dog on set with us which was changed to a wolf in CGI later so I got to learn all about how that works. My character was Irish so I got to speak in an Irish accent, which is one of my favourite accents to do. It was an emotional scene to film as my character is terrified so that gave me a chance to use different acting skills to my other roles. I had to scream a lot and, I must say, screaming at night is something I unexpectedly loved!
What was it like joining the cast of Peaky Blinders as Ruby Shelby for their final series last year and how was it working alongside Cillian Murphy as your on-screen father?
I know I was very lucky to be able to be part of an iconic show like Peaky and play Ruby, I will always be grateful for being given that opportunity. I actually learnt so much from working on the show about how screen filming works from blocking out scenes to ADR which I’d never done before. Working with Cillian was really cool, we’d talk about Ireland quite a few times as I also have an Irish background on my dad’s side. The first thing he told me when we first met was that me and his sister have the same name, which is a fun fact.
What did you enjoy most about playing Ruby and being part of Peaky Blinders?
I absolutely loved the clothes I got to wear as Ruby, the dresses were beautiful, especially the green one from the Christmas scene. I really like fashion myself so to wear actual vintage clothes was amazing. One of my top moments was actually finding out I got the role. To surprise me, my mum got me a scrapbook and sat me down with my family and said, ‘I got you a scrapbook today as I thought it would be nice to collect memories for Matilda’ as I had recently been confirmed for that too, so I opened it up expecting it to be blank, and on the first page was a picture of Natasha O’Keeffe, who plays Lizzie (my mum in the show), and she had photoshopped a picture of me next to her and wrote Orla McDonagh, Ruby Shelby, Season 6 and I was so happy, I cried. It got filmed and I love watching it back even now. Working with Natasha was one of my favourite things about working on the show, we both love Beyoncé and, on my last day on set, I drew a picture of Beyoncé for her and she cried and she told me she would frame it at her house and she was very kind and had one of her artist friends make me a personalised red right hand with items related to Ruby’s journey in the show which now hangs in my bedroom, I love it.
How did you find the experience working on the new Matilda the Musical film?
Matilda was crazy (in a good way). The cast was so big with lots of talented dancers. I was filming Peaky at the same time so would sometimes go straight from one set to the other, it was early mornings and COVID tests every week, which was super hectic, but I will be very grateful for the friends and memories I made from filming Matilda. Watching it for the first time with the rest of the cast in the cinema in Leicester Square was brilliant.
Can you tell us about your time filming for Belfast as Karen Lambert?
Belfast was also an amazing film. I loved the vintage clothes I got to wear. It was my first film project and it was about a year since I’d done anything. I was getting really down as even though I was auditioning a lot, nothing was going my way and I was only young so I didn’t really understand then that rejection is very common in this industry so when I found out I got confirmed for Karen I was so happy, especially as it was a Northern Irish speaking role and I love doing new accents.
On stage, you played Molly in the UK Tour of Annie, do you have any favourite memories from performing in the musical?
Annie was my first ever performing job and I had the best time playing Molly. My favourite line was when she says to Miss Hannigan “Your days are numbered”. We spent a lot of time away from home and I was only eight at the time so everyone was like my older sisters. I think my top two favourite memories were in Ireland and Birmingham. In Dublin, it was so fun getting on the plane with the girls and the thought of being in Ireland with my best friends made me so happy, and while we were there we went to a park where there were lots of deer, we were feeding them and at one point they started chasing us! And in Birmingham, I’m pretty sure it was one of our final shows, but my tooth fell out during It’s the Hard Knock Life and I had to hold it in my hand the whole time until we came off stage and the girls made me a letter from the tooth fairy that night because I still believed in her.
How much did you know about Annie before auditioning and what was it like touring with a theatre show for the first time?
I first auditioned for Annie because my singing teacher had just finished performing it in the West End and I watched her so I knew a few things about the show, but I mostly knew the songs from the original film. When I first started singing lessons with her, she always told me that I look just like a Molly, so when the UK Tour auditions started, she told my mum to put me forward for it. Touring was so cool. I had not long turned eight so I’d never really been away from home for that long before. I was in Team Chrysler and we opened the tour in Manchester so were away for nearly two weeks with all the rehearsals we had to do leading up to opening night. It was tiring as we also had to be tutored each day but I had the time of my life and enjoyed every minute of it. I still remember the dances now.
We understand you have also worked on commercials, can you say about some of them?
With my commercials, I have always worked with the same directors, the Bobbsey Twins. I first met Tim when I did The LEGO Christmas Commercial, which I filmed in Prague, which was a really great experience. The advert itself is so cool, I’m proud to be part of it. I had some days off so got to explore Prague too, which was really pretty. I think they must have quite liked me because they asked for me to film a number of John Lewis idents too. My favourite one was when I played a cowgirl having a Wild West face-off with my teddy bear.
Where does your love of acting come from and how did you get into it?
I’ve always loved performing. I started dancing when I was three or four, and in the annual show I performed a song and dance from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical, which I really enjoyed, so I joined some drama clubs and just knew it was what I wanted to do. I auditioned for Annie and during the tour I got an agent so I get all my auditions through them. I’ve been really lucky to have worked on the projects and with the people I have. I can’t thank my mum enough – she has taken me to countless auditions, and no matter how tired I was or sad when something didn’t go my way, because of her I never gave up and I hope that I make her proud!
What are some of your favourite films, TV and theatre shows to watch and how do you like to spend your free time?
My all-time favourite show has to be Friends and any collab film with Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler. I know every word to Just Go With It. My favourite theatre shows are Hamilton, SIX, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Annie and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical (there’s too many to choose from). In my free time, I actually just love to hang out with my friends and make memories with my family and shopping with my mum!
Do you have any upcoming projects that you can tell us about and what are you hoping 2023 brings for you?
For the rest of 2023, I will be filming Season 3 of Phoenix Rise!
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