Eileen O'Higgins: Dead Still star sees the funny side of filming and of life in Castlewellan

Dead Still is the macabre new drama series on RTÉ that's had us all talking, with its mix of dark comedy and horror. Castlewellan actress Eileen O'Higgins tells Gail Bell about how her role in the show is her funniest yet – and how her family's snacking habits while watching her on the telly tickle her

Eileen O'Higgins, from Castlewellan, Co Down, plays Nancy Vickers, one of the main characters in Dead Still on RTÉ. Picture by Bernard Walsh
Gail Bell

IT'S never a laughing matter to argue with a Cork detective but Eileen OHiggins was on the verge of a fit of the giggles and nothing, even her very tight corset, could stop her.

The Castlewellan-born actress, currently appearing in RTÉ’s comically macabre new drama, Dead Still, is recalling one of her favourite scenes and bemoaning the architectural confines of period costume when it comes to an often unavoidable occupational hazard: laughing on set.

“I love my costumes – I get to wear great costumes,” she enthuses down the line from her home in locked-down London, “but it’s not easy to laugh in a corset, so wearing one helps keep you focused.

“During scenes with Michael Smiley – who used to be a stand-up comedian – I’m going, ‘No, no, please don’t make me laugh... it’s too difficult to go the bathroom!’ With Michael, who plays memorial photographer Brock Blennerhassett, and Kerr [Logan – another Co Down actor who plays grave digger-turned-photographic assistant Conall Molloy] there are always lots of laughs that have to be held in.”

In one episode when the trio find themselves drugged, “out of it” and in a carriage, she even had to resort to nipping herself to stem the sniggers: “Michael was so funny at playing drunk; he was doing such a great job – eyes glazed over and everything – that I told myself I couldn’t laugh and ruin it, so I nipped myself hard on the leg until it hurt. It worked.”

Eileen O'Higgins as Nancy Vickers in Dead Still on RTÉ. Picture by Bernard Walsh

O’Higgins, who plays aspiring actress Nancy Vickers, the niece of Smiley’s Brock Blennerhassett character – a top-rated memorial photographer in 19th century Dublin – has been enjoying the public reaction to the offbeat show penned by Irish writer John Morton but is loathe to watch herself on screen.

“People seem to be enjoying how different it is and it’s always good when people find themselves laughing at things they didn’t expect to,” she says. “I haven’t been watching myself this time – it’s more that I don’t like people watching me watching me, as I find that a bit weird, but I did see the show when it was completed.”

As a co-production with RTÉ and US-owned streaming service Acorn TV, Dead Still premiered earlier in the year in the US and Canada, but now that it’s going out to local audiences, O'Higgins gets hilarious updates from the family in Castlewellan who are “glued to it” every Sunday.

“What I’m most impressed about is the different array of snacks they have have set up – you would think they were at the cinema,” she says, laughing. “I can see them all ready in their photos which include close-ups of toes propped up in front of the television screen!”

Described as a blend of mystery with drama and gallows humour, Dead Still was “great fun” for O’Higgins but, dark comedy aside, she says the series is a clever take on societal norms in the late Victorian era and care was taken to ensure that even small details were authentically portrayed during filming.

“Memorial photography was an actual thing back in the Victorian era when people used to have photos taken of themselves posing with a recently deceased loved one,” she says. “I think people today have that initial ‘Eugh’ reaction, but it was just a token to remember someone by and it was a respectful thing to do at the time.

“It all gets a little more crazy, though, in Dead Still, when we become embroiled in a murder-mystery plot involving some gruesome copy-cat-type photographs which emerge of people who have died violently and are then posed and photographed at the scene…”

Each episode has been a “crazy adventure” for the actress and her “quite eccentric” Nancy. In one programme she is seen helping carry a coffin removed from its grave in the dead of night, another time she is kidnapped, bound and gagged and on still another occasion she gets to try out her acting skills as a ‘working girl’ on an ill-fated rescue mission in the one-time Monto red-light district of Dublin.

Nancy Vickers, with her “little bit of fire in the belly” has been a joy to play for the down-to-earth O’Higgins who trained at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff (she was the only student from Ireland among the 19 selected in her year) and who continues to wear her quiet celebrity with an endearing lack of hauteur.

This despite fast becoming a familiar face on TV and on the big screen, whether with Saoirse Ronan in IFTA-winning 2015 film Brooklyn – the two since became best friends in real life – or as Mary Beaton, companion to Ronan’s Mary Queen of Scots (2018).

Her breakthrough role, though, was a young pregnant woman in the play, Hold Your Tongue, Hold Your Dead, first staged at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annamakerrig, Co Monaghan, and later in Boston – a part that led to Brooklyn – but O’Higgins has also confidently made her mark in BBC mini-series Emma, TV film Enid (based on the life of Enid Blyton and starring Helena Bonham Carter) and in BBC drama series My Mother and Other Strangers.

Next up is new Netflix drama The Irregulars, but she’s not allowed to say much about that other than it’s in post-production, is due to air possibly next March and is described as a twist on the old Sherlock Holmes stories.

Filming during the Covid-19 pandemic, though, brought its own unique challenges.

“You have to go into full isolation with the people you are working with and you get tested nearly every second,” reveals O’Higgins, “so, it has been different. But, being on a job like this, you’re sort of ‘bubbled’ away from real life anyway.

“All acting is escapism and I have been so fortunate with roles I’ve had to date which have all been so different. Brooklyn was my big break, but I wouldn’t have been cast for that role if I hadn’t being doing certain things beforehand. It’s interesting how all things lead to something else and when you look back you can see a path, but it isn’t necessarily in the place you thought it would be.”

Always a performer, she says it was the thing that made her “the most happy”, whether participating in poetry competitions at school or volunteering recitations at various GAA Scór competitions close to home.

“I did say a lot of poetry when I was younger,” she reflects humorously, “but my first ever job resulted from a play I did at drama school. I had such a small part – I literally walked on as a nurse – but it was like a baptism of fire and I thought, ‘OK, this is it, I’m going to be professional pretender now'.”

After spending the first lockdown with her parents and siblings in Castlewellan, O’Higgins is hoping to return again for Christmas.

“When you grow up in that environment and then live in a very urban place, you really crave it,” she says. “My natural instinct is to be upbeat and positive and that feeling is always more pronounced when I’m back home.

“You know you’re always going to find something in your day that’s going to be funny and you know things will always get better. I can’t wait to get home, get my walking boots on and go climb a mountain.”

Dead Still continues on RTÉ 1 tomorrow evening at 9pm.

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