Ann Skelly stars in Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy AKA the Desperate Optimists’ latest project – here, the actress discusses her breakthrough year, the feminist revenge-thriller paradox, and the peaks and pains of Irish identity
When most people do nothing with their face, they look robotic, bored, or just stoned out of their mind. Ann Skelly, though, in Rose Plays Julie, conveys the existential anguish of someone whose life has reached a secret crisis point. In the intensely powerful drama (written and directed by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, a duo also known as Desperate Optimists), Skelly takes on the role of Rose, a Dublin-based veterinary student who dissects videos of an older actor, Ellen (Orla Brady), with a similarly scientific approach. In a gory B-movie within the movie, Ellen battles a backwards-speaking zombie with a pistol; Rose perches at her laptop with a cold, transfixed gaze, attempting to deconstruct the emotional resonance behind the fake blood and guts.
A phone call soon reveals Rose’s motivations: she’s identified Ellen as the birth mother who gave her up for adoption. Against Ellen’s wishes, Rose travels to London and surprises her on a shoot day; by impersonating a house buyer, Rose then infiltrates Ellen’s home and encounters Ellen’s 16-year-old daughter. Before this reunion of sorts, Rose and Ellen each stare into nothingness and suffer in silence; under the Desperate Optimists’ direction, these wordless snapshots of women weighed down by their thoughts are profoundly cinematic.
“Joe and Christine shoot very close to your face,” Skelly tells me from her home in London, over Zoom, during late August, with a playful dog in her lap. “Or, at least, close to mine. They pick up on big moments, and negotiate the tempo for it all to come together and not look robotic.” Skelly, 24, is having a breakout year; along with starring in Rose Plays Julie, she’s also the co-lead of HBO’s big-budget steampunk sci-fi comedy The Nevers. Both projects require completely different acting skills. “I’ve always loved quite still performances like in Rust and Bone. Marion Cotillard was a big influence of mine to act. I’ve always loved how much she can convey with her eyes.”
Similarly poignant with her eye-acting is Brady, particularly in a car when Ellen acknowledges to Rose the reason for the adoption: in her 20s, Ellen was raped and decided against an abortion. Despite Rose’s request, Ellen cannot utter his name out loud – but she’ll consider writing it down. From then on, Rose Plays Julie evolves into an nuanced mother/daughter love story. Simultaneously, the drama examines how an act of sexual violence still affects both women in their day-to-day lives, two decades later.
So much so, at a virtual film festival Q&A, Skelly heard from the director of counselling at the Rowan Centre, an organisation that helps victims of sexual assault. She recalls, “He said that he really recognised my character. That was hugely validating, to know you weren’t just facilitating the style of what the filmmakers wanted, but it made sense in the world… It’s a self-protective thing, where you need to adapt to your surroundings, and you need to be ready for change. And if you can keep yourself as still as possible, then there’s a chance of your body not totally breaking down with its nervous system and collapsing into itself.”
Although Skelly is now London-based, she grew up in County Wexford and took acting classes in Dublin as a teen. At 19, she became a regular on the Irish crime-drama Red Rock and, whether intentional of not, a slew of roles on televised period-dramas followed: Little Women, Rebellion, Vikings, Death and Nightingales and, eventually, The Nevers. On the big screen, though, Skelly is allowed to be more modern – or at least own a laptop. For 2017’s Kissing Candace, she was nominated for Best Actress at the Irish Film and Television Awards. Likewise, Rose Plays Julie has earned nearly universal praise from critics, with the New York Times praising how Skelly presents “a thought-provoking interplay of pain and self-preservation”. It just isn’t easy to market.
For instance, Rose Plays Julie could conceivably be sold as a feminist revenge-thriller, but that doesn’t accurately describe the cold, glassy tone or the quiet introspectiveness. “When I was filming it, I never thought of it that way,” Skelly says. “When I look at feminist revenge-thrillers…” She pauses. “Feminist revenge-thrillers? It’s a funny genre, I guess. What’s the man’s revenge-thriller?
“I didn’t think of it as vengeance. I thought of it more in a Greek-tragic way, because there’s the Zeus character played by Aidan Gillen, who’s the destructive, chaotic, damaging force in Rose’s world and Ellen’s world. These two women are vulnerable because they’re mortal, whereas he feels untouchable and mythic – until you hear from him. I thought that was quite subversive, to actually hear him speak. Because in real life, I don’t want to hear them speaking. I don’t want to hear from people who commit such damage on vulnerable people, and who take advantage like that. It’s all relating back to them – it’s not to do with the victims themselves. It’s so perverse and strange.”
Skelly considers the description some more. “I wouldn’t put it in that genre in the first place. It’s about mothers, daughters, and trauma – but it takes female sexuality out of the equation. Though it deals with the subject of rape, it’s not a sexual act to me. I see it as purely violence, and an infliction of power.”
By donning a wig, Rose impersonates an inspiring actor, Julie; under this guise, she convinces a celebrity archaeologist, Peter (Gillen), that she’s at his workplace to research a role. Peter, of course, is unknowingly her biological father, which makes his flirtatious behaviour even more distressing. Add in Ellen’s career as a screen performer, there appears to be a commentary on acting – the ulterior motives behind choosing a role, the abuses of power within the industry, and the catharsis of escaping one’s own life. Although perhaps not – Skelly hadn’t considered this angle before.
“Hmmm. Christine and Joe never talked about it that way. But you do have an archaeologist digging up the past, and an actress trying to get away from past events.” I refer to a wordless scene in which Ellen stares out the window in between shots on set; she’s evidently cogitating about Rose, and the further awakening of past trauma, all of which will manifest in whatever she’s about to perform for a camera. “I wonder why Ellen became an actor. Is it the ability to chop and change, and never have the same day, over and over?
“When my character falls into the role of pretending, she’s reliving the past of what her biological mother went through. Rose is trying to understand it in her own way. She finds out how she was conceived, and all of a sudden, she’s not a person anymore – she feels abstract, and like she’s made up of a bunch of wrong things. She reframes herself – not as a life interrupted or someone unwanted or abandoned, but she is now a cause of harm; a piece of pain existing against her biological mother, who was an innocent. She’s trying to recreate the past in order to exact her destiny or fulfil a prophecy.”
“It’s about mothers, daughters, and trauma – but it takes female sexuality out of the equation. Though it deals with the subject of rape, it’s not a sexual act to me” – Ann Skelly
Are a lot of actors simultaneously processing off-screen emotions when they take on a role? Like writing about films for an online publication, acting can be a strange profession when you deconstruct the motivations. “I think being alive is very damaging, isn’t it? Existing is not something we all ask for. And now we’re here. It’s a conundrum… I’m not going to break down and cry in a car – most days! But I think it’s cathartic and investigative. To put yourself through a situation, and be safe, is pretty amazing and rare.” She adds, “I’m Irish and was raised quite Catholic. I would imagine there’s definitely an internalised quietening – a need to express or communicate.”
Notably, in Sight & Sound’s rave review, the critic theorises, “Rose Plays Julie offers a resistant re-interpretation of the poetic trope of the colonised nation as a raped woman, called the aisling in Irish tradition.” While Skelly didn’t discuss the issue with the Desperate Optimists, she says, “Ireland has endured a lot of assaults over the years, with the British Empire trying to colonise Ireland, and the attempted genocide of a culture – pockets have pushed through and survived… I feel so sad sometimes when I look at Irish culture, and see how much of that is a reaction against being colonised, and how much of our language has integrated the idea of God or Mary or Jesus – it’s all very Catholic or Christianised. There’s so much more to Irish people and Irish culture. I’m interested in the idea of: where can we pinpoint being Irish without the influence of the negative effects, which has been the Catholic Church, which has been the British Empire?
“I feel so sad that I don’t know Irish. I feel like a part of me is missing. And I feel like a part of Ireland is missing. Even in the rebel songs and the amazing poetry that 1916 or centuries of oppression have created – we’ve been very creative people about it, but there’s something that I can’t help but feel forever sad about. In Ireland, if you do history in secondary school, we’re always taught about the English, and how we survived that, and how our culture survived that. But we’re a small blip in the British curriculum. That makes me sad. I go, ‘You’re nearly our whole world, still.’”
Skelly does note, though, that she moved away from Ireland a few years ago. In 2019, she shot the pilot for The Nevers in London, playing Penance, a quip-heavy inventor (“Fucking prototype!”) who battles baddies in the Victorian era. Operating at 10 times the speed of Rose, Penance regularly delivers one-liners in the middle of action hijinks and high-speed car chases – oh, and she possesses telekinetic powers involving electricity.
If you haven’t seen The Nevers, you’ve certainly heard of it – if not for HBO’s huge marketing campaign, then for the role of Joss Whedon. While Whedon was the showrunner for the first six episodes, he departed in November 2020, citing the “exhaustion” of filming during COVID; in the following months, exposés followed about Whedon’s abusive behaviour on various projects (though not The Nevers). When I speak to Skelly, she’s in the middle of shooting episodes eight and nine; episodes seven through to 12, which will air in 2022, have Philippa Goslett as the new showrunner.
“I’m noticing a confidence in everyone with their characters, which is nice to see, especially after the hiatus and everything,” Skelly says. “But Philippa’s brilliant. She communicates with us all really well. So that’s continued. It’s very different, but the humour and excitement is still very much contained. The storylines are elaborated on as well. I’m biased, but as a viewer, there’s so much more of the orphanage I want to see. There are so many personalities I want to hear from. We really do. The world gets coloured in, in a really gorgeous way.”
“I feel so sad that I don’t know Irish. I feel like a part of me is missing. And I feel like a part of Ireland is missing” – Ann Skelly
In the meantime, Skelly is eagerly awaiting reactions and responses to Rose Plays Julie. I mention that trauma, recently, has become a fashionable subject for movies. Even Marvel releases – Black Widow, WandaVision – market themselves as explorations of trauma. Yet in these superhero stories, the trauma can feel surface, like a character backstory added by a script doctor during punch-up sessions. In contrast, Rose Plays Julie feels like a more complex, more artful investigation of the subject matter.
“In this film, the experience of trauma, and the aftermath of trauma, is a lot more quiet than you think,” Skelly says. “There’s no ‘come to God’ moment a lot of the time. It’s just ongoing. It doesn’t exactly go away – well, in some cases, I guess. I don’t want to generalise it too much. There isn’t a huge conclusion. In this film, when Rose does decide to exact that moment of karma on her biological dad, it fails. Then…” She thinks about how to describe the ending.
“Something happens that maybe you hoped would happen as an audience member, or maybe you feel is right. But it doesn’t tie up everything. The tying up is in the love. For me, when I’m watching as an audience member, I don’t feel the satisfaction from that moment. I feel the satisfaction when the mother and the daughter come together. They have a long road ahead of them. There won’t be a moment where they do save the world; they’re just trying to live.”
Rose Plays Julie is in cinemas on September 17