Joanne Brennan is an actor from County Monaghan. She has appeared in films such as The Boring Diary of Frances Noone (short), Volkswagen Joe (Feature), Killer Instinct (Short) and The Ballad of Honky McSwaine (Short). Joanne has also had television roles for RTÉ in Rebellion, RAW, and Blood Relations (IFTA Award 2009), as well as several advertisements (LowLow, BOI, Charleville).
She has ‘trodden the boards’ in such plays as Calendar Girls, Happy Birthday Dear Alice, Steel Magnolias, and a radio play, Coma. To top it all off she has extensive modelling experience and directing credits, is a qualified costume designer, and the current IBYE (Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur) for County Monaghan. One gets the feeling that if you were to hand her a script, she might well be able to tackle the entire project by herself.
I was lucky enough to be invited to her home in Co. Monaghan, where she and her husband run an award-winning organic farm, Mulberry Meadow Farm. Welcoming me into her country kitchen, Joanne was effusive and friendly, and completely different from the characters I’ve seen her play on television. She even made lunch, although where she found the time to between her work with Cavan Institute, Arts Education, auditions, sales/marketing job with the business, and three young children, is beyond me. The fresh salads and home-grown vegetables were delicious; if it weren’t entirely impractical, I’d almost consider travelling to Monaghan for my weekly shopping. Like most people, I had thought a potato is just a potato – but I stand corrected.
Eventually, I remembered I was there to conduct an interview. The life of an organic farmer seems incongruous with that of an actor and I wondered how her acting career came about.
“Even in primary school, I was into performing. In sixth class, we used to recite a poem every week. Most people would try and get it over with as quickly as possible, but not me; I would stand at the top of the room and act it out, making it as dramatic as I could – I had no inhibitions at all,” she laughs.
“And in secondary school, I remember one of the teachers worked with us on putting together a small production. I was so excited, making costumes and playing about ten different roles because nobody else really wanted to; it wasn’t ‘cool’ but I didn’t care. At the end of the school year, the teacher took me aside and said ‘Don’t give up on the acting,’ which really stuck with me.”
However, Joanne didn’t take the direct path into acting, instead choosing to study English and French at NUIG.
“There wasn’t much happening in terms of acting opportunities where I grew up”, she tells me, “unless I travelled to the Garage Theatre in Monaghan town, and that wasn’t always feasible; there were nine of us children and my parents worked. I had wanted to study drama in college, but when I was filling out my CAO form (Irish college application), the teacher responded by telling me that she’d look forward to getting her Big Mac and fries from me in the future. This really had a major impact and knocked my confidence. I don’t think she was trying to be mean, but the result was that I changed my mind and went for something more conventional.”
Luckily, NUIG had an active drama society so Joanne could indulge her love of performance there, and take some drama modules. Afterward she went on to do an MA in Drama & Theatre studies at UCD.
Acting can be difficult to break into, particularly in a small country like Ireland, and Joanne didn’t pursue her dream for a while, choosing to teach instead.
“I was disheartened at times,” she tells me. “I tried to convince myself that it was a silly idea of my youth and not something that real people do. My husband, Marty, encouraged me to start going for auditions again, probably because I was driving him mad moping around”, she laughs, “and I haven’t looked back. I think when you’re a creative person, you have to follow it. It’s part of your being, and trying to ignore that side of yourself leads to unhappiness. I got cast in some small productions and got so much joy out of it. Once I realised that it was more about artistic fulfilment than getting some big T.V. or movie part, I relaxed and began to enjoy the whole process again, and that’s when I started getting better roles.”
Successful auditions followed and she was picked up by agent, Annette Walsh, of CASTANNETTENOW.
Joanne is not the first performer to come out of the ‘wee county’, and she follows in the footsteps of Catriona Balfe, Charlene Mc Kenna, and Aoibhinn Mc Ginnity. Maureen Hughes, who cast Joanne in Rebellion and Raw, complimented the high skill level of actors emerging from Monaghan. Joanne attributes this to the tutelage of Krista Hamilton in the Garage Theatre, Monaghan.
“She gave me my first real break, and really helped me to polish my craft; I learned so much working with her.”
Joanne also attends acting workshops and courses when she can, most recently having a one-to-one session with one of Hollywood’s leading acting coaches, Stephen Bridgewater, in Dublin’s Bow Street.
“It was amazing and he was so encouraging,” she tells me. “He really makes you think, not only about your art, but also about how the industry works. In some ways, it’s still quite new here and there are shortfalls you need to be aware of.”
Joanne is reluctant to criticise, but with prompting she admits, “sometimes when establishing yourself, you can be expected to work without pay on the basis that it will be exposure. Stephen emphasised the importance of actors sticking together and standing up for the fact that they are an important part of the artistic process and deserve to be paid for their work. While there are still people willing to work for free, there will be people who take advantage of that. It’s about respecting yourself as an artist. While you have to be adaptable as an actor, there’s a fine line.”
And yet, Joanne is known to go the extra mile for a project. When she was cast in The Boring Diary of Frances Noone, there was a last-minute dilemma with the film-site. Joanne called her sister, Sinead, who is vice-principal of Annyalla National School, and secured it as a new location. She sourced B&Bs for the crew, and even had her husband bring their lawnmower to the set for one scene.
I admire her commitment, but as she says, “That’s how work happens in Ireland: you need to be willing to do the hard graft and put on any cap. I loved the script so I was happy to do it if it meant the film could go ahead.”
Her hard work paid off; the film proved a success, and was screened at the 28th Galway Film Fleadh, Ireland’s leading film festival.
Joanne isn’t the only member of her family to be in the public eye. Her six-year-old son, Willow, has filmed an ad for Denny ham. And her three-year-old twins, River and Hazel, have shot a Harvey Norman print advertisement.
“I definitely wouldn’t push them to do it,” she hastens to add. “They ask to go to auditions. I think it’s because they see me doing self-taping at home, practising my lines, and they hear a lot of talk about acting and auditions generally. Plus they’ve seen me on the ads for Tesco and LowLow. It’s clear how much I enjoy it too, so I suppose it’s only natural that they would see it as something positive.”
The accomplishments extend to the rest of the family too. Her niece, Poppy Carragher, co-starred with her in The Boring Diary of Frances Noone. Her sister, Jacinta Carragher was a finalist on MasterChef Ireland, as well as being a successful designer with her own company, Purple Peach. Her youngest sister, Grainne Duffy, is a touring musician, who has played various events, including Glastonbury. And last but not least, her brother, Dessie Duffy, is reigning champion of the Adventure Quest Series.
I ask if they are competitive with each other. “I always get asked that,” she says. “My friends joke that you have to list your achievements before sitting down for family dinner, which is hilarious, and not the case. I do think a lot of our individual successes are down to having a supportive family network though. Mam always encouraged us to follow our interests and see where it would lead. And we’re close, often getting involved in each other’s projects, and cheering each other on. Also, we’re lucky in that we have supportive partners. I couldn’t do what I do without Marty; he can be flexible in his work, and if I have a last-minute audition or have to do self-taping at home, he makes sure I have the space, and quiet, to do that.”
When asked about her favourite role to date, Joanne is bemused.“It’s so hard to choose. I suppose I have a special affinity for Dr. Kathleen Lynn in Rebellion. Maybe because she was a real person, who played such an important part in Irish history. I did a lot of research for that role, and felt I really got to know her; she was way ahead of her time, training as a doctor, and forsaking a life of privilege to fight for Ireland. I wanted to show all sides of her; the soft femininity, as well as the passion and bravery she showed when the situation called for it. She was hard to leave behind, and left a mark on me. It was a privilege to play such an inspirational woman. I really wanted to do her justice.”
Much has been made of Meryl Streep’s overtly political Golden Globes speech; she has been accused of exaggerating the importance of actors and ‘smug liberal elitism’, so I asked Joanne for her opinion on this.
She agrees that “it can be a dangerous thing, you are always going to be judged on what you put out there. At the same time those who are in the public eye do have a platform for social change, maybe even a duty. And it is valuable to have someone who is willing to use their influence for good. Leonardo Di Caprio is very passionate about climate change; he was involved in the documentary Before the Flood, and it was amazing. Woody Harrelson also does a lot for the environment, living in an eco-village, and promoting environmentalism. I have so much respect for them because of that as it’s a topic close to my heart.
Joanne is currently working on The Cowboys, a new stage drama set to premiere in March 2017 in the Garage Theatre, Monaghan. There are high expectations for this project; writer, Peter Trant, is also a performer, and starred in ‘The Revenant’, a one-person play written specifically for him by Patrick McCabe. Joanne is understandably excited about the production.
“I felt the magic when I read the script, it has a wonderful cast. The writer, Peter, is directing it too and it’s such a great opportunity to work with the playwright. He has so much insight into the characters, and is as passionate about the work as we are. One of the things I love about stage work is that during the rehearsal period, you really have time to explore the role, and give the character depth. Then when it opens, you get to bring your character on a full journey every night for a live audience, which is exhilarating.”
It’s refreshing to meet someone who isn’t particularly focused on fame and fortune but instead enjoys practising her art (although I daresay she wouldn’t turn down an Oscar if it were offered). She is clearly a hardworking and ambitious young woman who picks her scripts carefully, and it’s not hard to believe she will continue to grace our stages and screens for many years to come.
Cowboys will be showing at The Garage Theatre, Monaghan on Friday 24/03/17 and Saturday 25/03/17. Tickets are priced at €12-15 and are available for purchasing on http://www.garagetheatre.com.
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Dirty Fabulous, Papermoon/short film: