Jamie-Lee O’Donnell is best known as Derry Girls’ beloved and mischievous Michelle, but today she’s Zooming in from her living room ahead of a very different series. Wearing an emerald green blouse, her hair tied up in a classic top knot, O’Donnell has a demeanour far warmer and entirely lacking in the expletives that come so easily to her character — though she shares her quit wit. Instead, O’Donnell has that infectious lightness and humour that makes our conversation feel like chatting to an old friend in the pub.
Though we’re technically discussing Channel 4’s gripping new drama, Screw, a dark and gritty thriller set in a men’s prison in Northern England (more on that later), the highly anticipated final series of Derry Girls isn’t far from our lips. The first season alone amassed an average U.K. audience of 2.5 million, making Derry Girls Channel 4’s biggest comedy launch since 2004 and one of the most talked-about shows since its launch in 2018.
What will happen in the third and final season, then? “There’s a really nice mix of the usual madness and allowing the audience to see us mature — very, very slightly,” O’Donnell explains. “I don’t think the fans are going to be left wondering; they’re going to think it’s a really beautiful wrap-up. [Lisa McGee, series creator and writer] just does it all incredibly well.”
Filming has been an emotional and bittersweet experience for the tight-knit crew — Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Nicola Coughlan, Louise Harland, and Dylan Llewellyn — she says. “I’m so proud to have been involved in such an incredible show that represents Derry in such a positive light. But I guess at some point, it does have to come to an end, so it’s a very bittersweet feeling. We’ll always always have that bond.”
“We’re all quite busy but we have a group chat, and we do try to keep in touch as much as we possibly can. But we're also always happy for each other that we’re all off doing amazing things on the back of this incredible experience. No matter what, we’ll always have Derry Girls.”
Not that it has been fun and easy. With the show’s popularity, so too has the interest in her personal life grown. Coming from a working-class family and background, the financial security of her career has also taken some getting used to. “It feels a bit unfair that I’m now on the other side of things. And it makes me feel heartbroken because with the amount of potential there is in Derry and all the amazing things that are here, with the resources, I think it would be unstoppable.”
It’s this mindset and drive that led O’Donnell to becoming a patron of 20 Stories High, a Liverpool-based organisation dedicated to theatre productions with, for, and by working-class and culturally diverse young people. Though she hasn’t been able to cross the Mersey and meet everyone IRL (courtesy of lockdown, mainly), she is beaming as she speaks about the project and the joy of being part of something so “unbelievably impressive.”
“As doors open for me, I want to always be looking behind me to let others also come through that door,” she says. “Not just for my own community, but any other communities that are struggling and their path isn’t so clear, even if I don’t share the same lived experiences.”
Having the capacity, drive, and enthusiasm to support others in the industry — which O’Donnell clearly has in abundance — is only really possible if you have that kind of support in your own life. Her female friendships, she says, are a huge source of comfort and support — especially during lockdown. Like so many of us, a group chat is obviously involved, which is used for “therapy, learning about different things, and of course, having a laugh,” she says.
“We’re, dare I say, quite funny and witty, like a lot of the people are in Derry,” she tells me, laughing. Voice notes, she adds, are key. “If you were to scroll through our chat, you’d honestly just see a sea of voice notes.”
But even with such a solid support network of friends and family, lockdown was still tough on O’Donnell. Like many others, she found herself struggling with her mental health, being overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety and loss of control. “It was the unknown that worried me, and I had to eventually stop watching and reading headlines because it was just too overwhelming,” she explains.
As doors open for me, I want to always be looking behind me to let others also come through that door.
Exercise (or the promise of it) became part of her lockdown routine too. “It was hard at home, without equipment though. You end up doing like 10 sit-ups and then just having a cup of tea,” she laughs.
And so, she turned to both old and new passions. O’Donnell bought herself a bodhrán — an Irish drum — that she’s learning to play, as well as learning the Irish language. “Lockdown definitely reminded me how important it was and how much fun it is to have those kinds of skills.”
Seeking out familiar and soothing TV shows and films became a must, too. Currently, she’s re-watching 30 Rock and The Mindy Project. “It’s the ease and hilarity of it all, and the fact you know it’s going to be OK in the end. There are a lot of shows I’ve wanted to watch but haven’t been able to because I just haven’t been in the headspace to properly engage with them yet. I’ve just wanted that comfort and familiarity.”
Work, of course, has been another outlet for the actor. In Channel 4’s new drama, Screw, she is joined by cast members Last Tango in Halifax’s Nina Sosanya, Honour’s Faraz Ayub, and McQueen’s Stephen Wight. O’Donnell takes on on the role of Rose Gill, a rookie prison guard with a complicated past getting to grips with a complex job. Though a world away from from the the characters O’Donnell has taken on in the past, she uses her own working-class background and lived experiences to really flesh out this new, spirited persona.
“I think it helps with her going into the unknown. That kind of strength of character, that she’s able to sort of adapt to her surroundings, and these were the similarities to my own background that I drew on,” she explains. “For Rose, going into this kind of environment, you can’t really be intimidated, and I definitely see myself in that.”
Authenticity, she says, is at the heart of the show. Real-life prison guards were even brought in to support the production with representing the prison environment as accurately as possible. “We were really lucky to have them on hand,” says O’Donnell. “They’d show us exactly what to do if an alarm started going off or if a fight ensued, and it’s through these intricacies that they learn on the job, that the show has that authentic feel running through the heart of it.”
There is a turning point midseries, she warns with a cheeky, Michelle-like smile, that “changes everything.” Much like this moment on new TV and film projects and the conclusion of the show that propelled her career (Derry Girls), it would seem that O’Donnell is also at a turning point in her already illustrious career. One thing’s for sure, however, is that as she reaches new and dazzling heights, O’Donnell will never forget her Derry roots.
Screw will air at 9 p.m. Jan. 6 on Channel 4.