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Kate O’Flynn: ‘I didn’t want to be typecast as tough, damaged and northern’

Kate O’Flynn.

With a mischievous laugh, Kate O’Flynn admits: “I’ve never done Edinburgh before, or even been to the festival. Isn’t that naughty?”

But she’s now making amends, starring in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, which is being revived as part of the Edinburgh International Festival in a production that was first seen on Broadway in 2013, and for which she is one of three newcomers to the company and, intriguingly, the only Brit.

“I’ve got to get the accent right!” O’Flynn says. “At the first read-through, I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ But it’s not just about the accent itself but also not getting stuck in the tune of it and being able to be in the moment with it.”

Sitting in the Young Vic cafe, where we meet during a break from rehearsals taking place in studios nearby, she is utterly in the moment. O’Flynn is a burst of unaffected fresh air that has made her such a joy to watch on stage and screen, from her debut film co-starring with Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky (they played sisters), to her award-winning turn in the National Theatre’s revival of Simon Stephens’ Port in 2013.

Reviewing the production for the Daily Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish wrote: “I’d happily walk to Stockport and back if that was the only means of catching Kate O’Flynn’s mesmerising central performance as Racheal. She graces even the most prosaic, job-lot batches of dialogue with a quicksilver alertness to complex emotions.”

She won that year’s Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for most promising newcomer, while her RADA contemporary Phoebe Waller-Bridge took that year’s award for most promising playwright jointly with Rory Kinnear.

The Glass Menagerie: cast members Kate O’Flynn, Seth Numrich, Cherry Jones and Michael Esper with director John Tiffany (second right). Photo: Johan Persson
The Glass Menagerie: cast members Kate O’Flynn, Seth Numrich, Cherry Jones and Michael Esper with director John Tiffany (second right). Photo: Johan Persson

Last year, O’Flynn appeared at the Young Vic in The Trial opposite Kinnear, in a production that was directed by Richard Jones. Continuing the multiple and overlapping threads of her career, who should walk into the Young Vic bar during our interview but Jones himself. “He’s such a one-off,” she remarks admiringly after he says hello.

But so is she. “I feel really lucky with what I’ve been able to be part of. To have done Port at the National, which was phenomenal and such an amazing opportunity, with Marianne Elliott directing. I still pinch myself that I got to do that part on that stage with those people. And then A Taste of Honey, a northern classic also at the National.”

Was she fretful about being typecast in her native northern roles though? “Obviously I was never going to say no to A Taste of Honey, but I was worried – was I always just going to be playing tough but damaged northern people? But then I got to do The Trial, in which I played six characters, none of whom were northern, so it’s not a worry any more”

Now, of course, she’s playing southern – American southern. How did it come about?

“Completely out of the blue. John [Tiffany, who directed it on Broadway] asked to meet me to talk about it, and he asked if I knew it. I’d seen it a few times but had never read it, and I told him I loved it – and he said, ‘Well, you’re playing her!’ ”

It was her easiest audition so far. “It was a no-brainer: to do an American classic, with a creme-de-la-creme cast, in a production I’d already heard was beautiful and brilliant.”

She stars as Laura Wingfield, the fragile, damaged daughter of aspirational single mother Amanda, played in this production by the great Broadway actor Cherry Jones. “She’s just incredible. Sally Hawkins – who I did Happy-Go-Lucky with – did Mrs Warren’s Profession with her on Broadway a few years ago, so I knew she was Broadway royalty, but she doesn’t act like it at all. She’s so warm and lovely and generous, and watching her act, she doesn’t look like she’s acting.”

That sense of utter naturalism is also a feature of O’Flynn’s own performances. So is her generosity to her fellow actors. She says, for instance, of watching Hawkins filming Happy-Go-Lucky (and later Timothy Spall in another Mike Leigh film, Mr Turner, in which she had a much smaller role): “Watching them propel the action is very impressive. It’s a tough task and it’s amazing what they do.” Doing Happy-Go-Lucky fresh out of RADA was, she says, “like another year’s training, really amazing but also hard”.


Q&A: Kate O’Flynn

What was your first non-theatre job? Sales girl on reception at Liz Earle Spa, Sloane Square.

What was your first acting job? An episode of Heartbeat.

What’s your next job? Another episode of No Offence.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? You’re in it for the long game, so don’t stress out immediately.

Who or what was your biggest influence? I like lots of playwrights – Duncan Macmillan, Lucy Prebble, Lucy Kirkwood, Annie Baker, Alice Birch and James Graham.

What’s your best advice for auditions? You’ve got to prepare – don’t try to wing it. The more prepared you are the calmer you will be so nerves won’t take over, and you can be a bit more playful in the room and listen to the notes you’re given.

O’Flynn went to RADA straight from school when she’d just turned 18.

“I didn’t really know anyone in the business,” she says. “Acting is not in my family at all, but one friend three years older than me had gone through the audition process and went to Italia Conti. I’d been in school plays and the choir when I was a child. I remember playing Adelaide in Guys and Dolls when I was 14. And then I joined the Royal Exchange Youth Theatre when I was 15. We did an improvised show, working with Paul Hunter from Told by an Idiot, and it gave me a sense of the potential of that world. I thought it was something I wanted to do more of, but I kept it fairly quiet. I wanted to see what would happen with it.”

O’Flynn remembers her time at RADA as being “quite intense”. She admits: “I didn’t really think about it and process it all till afterwards, you just get on with it and there are so many things going on.” Describing the 10 years since she graduated, she says, “It has been slow at times, but I think that’s an actor’s career. Sometimes you work, sometimes you don’t. It’s peaks and troughs, but you have to hold on for the good times. Since Port it’s got a lot easier.”

But she has no game plan for where she’s heading. “Everyone has their own journey, and I don’t think about it that much. I don’t think you can have a strategy. That’s not how this career works. You don’t know what’s next – that’s the joy of it and also the stress of it. You have to keep sane and have other interests and another life, otherwise life can get very small and out of whack.”


Kate O’Flynn’s top tip for aspiring actors

Get in with a group of new writers – and if you can write yourself, that’s very useful too. I wish I had the nerve to make my own work, like Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It would give me independence rather than being dependent on others.

She is attracted to new writing, “because it’s all about the writer, which is what it should be and moves the focus out from you”. She adds: “There’s less stress and ego – it’s all about creating a part and finding it out together and having the writer in the room and then putting it in front of an audience for the first time. It is nice to be a part of that original creative process.”

The Glass Menagerie is something else: a play with the deep footprints of others who’ve played it before. “I’ve seen three productions – one at the Young Vic, another with Jessica Lange and Amanda Hale, and one at Manchester’s Library Theatre. But we’re approaching it as if it is a new piece. It’s such a brilliant, robust play that it can take different interpretations.”

She can’t wait to take it to Edinburgh. “I want to see loads of other shows and get the buzz. It’s going to be quite a special few weeks – working on an amazing play with amazing actors, it doesn’t really feel like work.”

Last year she was part of Paul Abbott’s TV series No Offence, and is going straight from Edinburgh to film another episode. “I’ve also got Bridget Jones’s Baby coming out in September, in which I play her new northern hipster boss who is the antithesis of her. I’ve seen a screening and it’s really funny, and Renee Zellweger is brilliant.”

I just hope we don’t lose her to screen work in the future, like her RADA contemporaries Andrea Riseborough and Tom Hiddleston, who also began in the theatre. “I’d love to do a play a year,” she says. “But anything is possible. You never know what is around the corner.”

CV: Kate O’Flynn

Born: 1985, Bury
Training: RADA
Landmark productions: The Children’s Hour, Royal Exchange, Manchester (2008), A Miracle, Jerwood Upstairs, Royal Court, London (2009), Port, National Theatre (2013), A Taste of Honey, National Theatre (2014), The Trial, Young Vic (2015)
Awards: Theatrical Management Association Award for best supporting performance in a play for The Children’s Hour at the Royal Exchange – her first professional stage role (2008), Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for most promising newcomer (other than a playwright) for Port at the National Theatre in 2013
Agent: Nicki van Gelder, Conway van Gelder Grant

The Glass Menagerie runs at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, from August 5 to 21

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