THE WORLD AT HER FEET
As Cork-born actress Sarah Greene sits at the precipice of stardom, she talks to Carolyn Moore about her upcoming role in Penny Dreadful, being dressed by Anna Wintour, and the sacrifices she’s made to follow her dreams.
When Sarah Greene walks in to the room, the first thing I notice is a huge “YES” badge pinned to the front of her Marc Jacobs handbag, and I instantly know I like her. Having found success through an admirable combination of talent, hard work and sheer determination, by all accounts she remains refreshingly down to earth in the midst of Tony Award nominations, Met Gala invitations and constant buzz about how she’s “the next big thing”. This month, she moves one step closer to what feels like inevitable stardom when she hits our screens playing Hecate Poole in season two of Penny Dreadful.
Aside from a few bit parts here and there, Penny Dreadful marks her first foray into television, and it’s a formidable starting point. Joining a prestige production with an all-star cast, Sarah plays the daughter of spiritualist Evelyn Poole – played with zeal by the legendary Helen McCrory, with whom Sarah shares both a theatrical background and a strong physical resemblance. “We’re really alike, yeah!” she laughs, explaining that when series creator John Logan told her she would be playing Helen McCrory’s daughter, “I said ‘Yes please! I will do that!’ I’m obsessed with Helen, she’s one of the most incredible actresses I’ve ever worked with.”
This perfect casting came about after John saw Sarah playing Helen McCormick on Broadway during her acclaimed run opposite Daniel Radcliff in the Cripple of Inishmaan. “He’s part of the same theater company, so he’d seen me playing Helen, who’s this bold, brash little Irish girl, but he also wrote Gladiator and some of the Bond movies, so I was well aware of his work before that,” she says of the award winning screen writer.
“He writes incredible parts for women. The two main characters in season two, representing this great battle between good and evil, are both female, so it was very empowering being on set.”
And for those not yet initiated into the intricately drawn underworld of Penny Dreadful, season two sees Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green) go head to head with Evelyn, who is described by McCrory as “vicious, aggressive, and highly sexually motivated.” And as Sarah tells it, the apple has not fallen far from the tree.
“Hecate was born into evil, she knows nothing else. In season one, we watched the central characters come together and form a kind of family relationship, and their common thread was that they were all struggling with their inner demons and fighting to be the best version of themselves, especially Vanessa.
“In season two you to get to watch Evelyn and Hecate embracing that dark, evil within. Hecate is blood thirsty, she enjoys the hunt.”
And it seems Sarah enjoyed being Hecate, although she acknowledges it was challenging. “I did go into kind of a dark place when I was doing it. I’m not method in any way, but I definitely think characters get into your psyche. You take on their energy.
“But with these characters, as massively fantastical and supernatural as the show is, they’re all real people. Hecate is very much of the supernatural world, but you see moments of humanity in her.”
As a denizen of the supernatural world, Hecate takes both a human form and a witch form – the costume for which brought its own challenges, particularly when it came to the physicality of the role. “When I’m in witch form I’m fully naked – well, not fully naked, I have fake silicone breasts and a silicone vagina” she laughs, “and I’ve got these green contacts in.
“I hit my back off the camera one day because I had the contact lenses in, and I didn’t realise it, I didn’t feel anything until I came home and saw I had a massive bruise going down the side of my back. You don’t feel it, because your adrenaline is pumping and that kind of takes over.
“It’s very like theatre. They say that being on stage is like being in a car crash, the rush of adrenaline you feel.”
That adrenaline is also addictive, so it’s no wonder she’s itching to tread the boards again. While we’ll see her next in the upcoming movie Adam Jones (Burnt), with another all-star ensemble cast, Sarah admits she misses the theatre. “Working on TV and film is fantastic, but it’s a very different medium,” she says. “Theatre has that instant high, that adrenaline and that immediateness with the audience. I miss it. It’s all I know really.”
It’s also all she’s ever wanted. “I went to see a pantomime in the Cork Opera House,” she recalls, “and I just said ‘Oh! That’s what I want to!’
“I was so lucky, my parents were always supportive. They felt they were lucky that I knew what I wanted to do, and that I was so focused. When my friends went off on summer holidays I worked. This was my dream and they stood behind me. And hopefully I can look after them now.”
Being away from home is one of the drawbacks to the career she’s so passionately pursued, but having the opportunity film Penny Dreadful in Ireland meant she could see her parents and her sister regularly. Though following her dream to Broadway earned her a Tony Award nomination and “opened a lot of doors”, it also meant missing multiple weddings of family and friends. “You sacrifice a lot, I mean you cannot leave. You’re there, you’re doing eight shows a week, and you’ve only one day off.”
“I love my job but that is the hard bit about it. You’re away and you’re on your own a lot, but that’s the choice you’ve made.”
It’s a choice that, luckily, her boyfriend of four years, Aidan Turner, can relate to. The Irish actor is winning legions of new fans in his role as Poldark in the BBC drama, but Sarah just laughs when I ask if this is a cause for concern. “Aidan’s fans are really loyal, they have been with him since the get go. I’m just delighted for him, and the second season is going ahead, so it’s very exciting.”
While her Penny Dreadful co-star, Josh Hartnett, has been opening up about his struggle to come to terms with the “intensity of his sudden fame” when his star was ascending in the early 2000s, Sarah seems pragmatic about facing the pressures that fame could bring. “You have to just take it in your stride and take every day as it comes,” she reasons. “It gets a bit overwhelming and I do get quite scared of it. I’ve seen people lose themselves.
“But I’m a bit older. I think if it happens when you’re younger and you haven’t found yourself, and you don’t know who you are, it’s harder to see it for what it is. Working in film and TV, they’ll tell you everything you want to hear. ‘Protect the talent’ is something you hear a lot, no one says no to you. But I come from the theatre where you’ve to muck in.
“What’s scary to me is that people write whatever they want about you, people just make up stories.”
Citing the fact that “no one recognises me ever” as one of the benefits of being on the cusp of fame, she has nonetheless caught the eye of one very influential tastemaker. “Vogue are really kind to me, Anna especially,” she reveals, almost shyly, when I ask her about attending last year’s Met Gala, one of the most prestigious events on the fashion calendar.
“I was really well looked after,” she continues, “I was on my own and no one knew me, so I could kind of people watch, and the people watching there is pretty incredible!”
She’s typically unaffected when I compliment her on making Vogue’s Best Dressed list, telling me with a shrug “Well, Anna dressed me, so me you’d hope!”
Ms. Wintour chose an elegant Thakoon gown, with diamonds borrowed for her by Edmund O’Sullivan, a Kerryman who represents Harry Winston, among others. “He came up to the apartment with these earrings and I asked ‘How much are these?’ ‘You don’t want to know’ he said!” Collected by a security guard at 7am the next morning, she tells me she didn’t worry about losing them. “They were so sore, I felt them all night long!”
Well, everyone has to suffer for fashion, I say, and Anna would have been proud!
“Exactly!” she replies. “No pain, no gain!” Parting words that I suspect could be this girl’s personal motto. Sarah Greene seems unstoppable.