Nicola’s talents extend beyond playing a jittery teenage girl from Derry, as she has starred in the Hulu original show Harlots, a drama set in 18th century London, where she worked with big industry names such as Samantha Morton, Liv Tyler and Lesley Manville. “I was lucky,” she says, “because you worry that when you get one really great job that that’s going to be it, and you kind of think ‘I’ve tried my luck here, and I guess that’s it now’. I was lucky, I got cast in Harlots before Derry Girls had come out, so it was reassuring to me that I could play a different character.” After finishing playing Hannah in Harlots, she then moved on to working on a play, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London, which she says was “amazing.” “I’d always wanted to work somewhere like that, so get that opportunity was incredible. I’ve been very, very lucky.” The mention of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie brings us to a topic that I really wanted to chat to Nicola about: the issue of body-shaming in the acting industry.
The casting has been a huge element of the show’s popularity, as well as the vividly written and portrayed characters that Lisa McGee, the show’s writer, has created.
In 2018, Nicola wrote an article for The Guardian in which she called out a theatre critic for constantly commenting on her physical appearance. When I ask her about this, her tone of voice noticeably changes, and the inflection indicates how strongly she feels about this subject. “That blew up in a way that was very unexpected. The reviewer had come to a show I had done before in Edinburgh, called Jess and Joe Forever, and had written a similar review where he didn’t review my acting whatsoever, he only reviewed how I looked . . . then when it happened again at the Donmar (during The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), I thought ‘this is so reductive;’ I’d had to work way too hard to get to the point where I’m at . . . and I thought how disappointing it is to have a man come and then only say ‘well she’s a fat character, that’s why I don’t like her.’” Nicola took to Twitter in order to call out this behaviour, and says that the reaction it received was “a bit overwhelming”, because “when you stand up for yourself, you run the risk of people turning around and being very cruel, and there was that, but there was so much more support.” When The Guardian approached her about writing a piece for them, she decided that was the ideal platform to raise the issue. “I didn’t want it to be turned into something it wasn’t; what I’m trying to say is that the size of my body doesn’t have any relevance to my talent or my work . . . I think that people need to know what’s ok and what’s not ok - and just come and review my acting! If you thought my acting was terrible that’s perfectly fine, I wouldn’t be able to take issue with that, or if you thought my accent was off, of course you could say that, but it doesn’t matter if I was 20 stone or 5 stone, it wouldn’t make any difference to what kind of an actor I am.”
Nicola continues to use her social media platform to discuss a variety of social issues and topics close to her heart, and I asked her whether she feels that it’s important to use voice in an age of influence. “I think we’ve been given an incredible platform - we never anticipated the level of success that Derry Girls would have, we couldn’t have dreamt it really. That comes with a lot of pressure on the side; people are looking at you for what you’re going to say. I try to make a rule for myself, I won’t comment on anything that I feel I haven’t informed myself about. I went from 800 followers on Twitter to 38’000 in a year - and I thought that if I could try and use that for positivity and if I can stick up for people; it’s very tough for people who are part of a marginalised group in society, and they’re being shouted down, but if I could add a positive voice to that mix, I’ll try.”
If you thought my acting was terrible that’s perfectly fine, I wouldn’t be able to take issue with that, or if you thought my accent was off, of course you could say that, but it doesn’t matter if I was 20 stone or 5 stone, it wouldn’t make any difference to what kind of an actor I am.
Nicola’s success has rocketed very rapidly, but she’s not taking any of it for granted; she’s too aware of how much work it has taken to get here. “You’ve got to be very hungry in this job, if you don’t really want it, there’s 10 people standing behind you who want it more, so you have to be very tenacious,” she muses. “But rejection is also such a part of it, but I don’t know if people see that enough. I get rejected from jobs all the time. People always say ‘oh you must be fine now’, and no, it’s constant, there’s no ‘making it’. I remember hearing Judi Dench saying that she was just happy that people were still hiring her, and that’s Judi Dench!” Despite this, something tells me that we’ll be seeing lots more of Nicola on the stage and screen in the future.
Derry Girls series two is showing on Channel 4 now.