Three shows in one month? Sounds ridiculous, but that’s actress Morgana O’Reilly for you.
If you haven’t seen Morgana O’Reilly on your screens, chances are you’re just not paying attention. The actor has been ubiquitous for over a decade now – you may know her from indie horror Housebound or, more likely, from her 18 month stint on Neighbours – but it’s her output over the past month that makes her quite literally unmissable. As well as taking the lead in Inside, the lockdown-themed drama which airs on Prime tonight, she’s also starring in Mean Mums, now in its second season, and has a plum supporting role in Neon’s crime thriller The Sounds. That’s a lot of screentime for one person.
It’s a rare thing to happen for an actor anywhere in the world but especially in New Zealand. O’Reilly relishes it. “It gives the sense that you’re really busy but really you just were busy. It’s lovely because I think actors are all just like gross exhibitionists anyway. No other profession is like, ‘Hey, come watch me work.’
She says it’s “really satisfying” when so many shows are released at the same time. “It makes me look really dynamic!”
Even though the projects couldn’t be more different – a high budget crime thriller, a broad punchline-heavy comedy and a low-budget drama she literally shot in her house – O’Reilly’s approach stays more or less the same for each.“I think with each job you have to find a little thing. With Inside, I did a really intense thing I called a character rant, and just went on a really big nice stream of consciousness, fleshing out her story. The writers liked to have that as well.”
It was easier for her to find Jess, the ironically un-mean mum at the centre of Mean Mums, given that it’s O’Reilly’s second go at the character. “I’m a great believer in rest, and the more rest I can have in between takes on a character – and I’m not being lazy here – the more it gets into my muscle memory. Approaching a character again always feels deeper.”
The depth shows. While I enjoyed the first season immensely, Mean Mums is one the closest things we’ve had to an American-style sitcom since the debacle that was Melody Rules. It’s broad, the punchlines are relentless and it requires a lot of work from the actors to keep everything running smoothly. The second season pumps the joke brakes a little bit and gives the actors more room to breathe. O’Reilly benefits from this especially and Jess is a much funnier and more human character as a result.
It’s pretty much on the opposite side of the spectrum to her role in Inside. Set during the first lockdown, the show revolves around Rose, the helpdesk manager for a Zoom-like app. It’s a thriller with quirky, comic elements and features the likes of Antonia Prebble, Josh Thomson and Sam Snedden. There’s a very internalised turn here from O’Reilly: she dims her natural light way down to play a woman who isn’t damaged just by her teenage trauma, which delicately unfolds over the series, but by being trapped inside by a global pandemic. The premise hits close to home, but O’Reilly’s performance hits closer.
The Sounds sits somewhere in the middle. O’Reilly isn’t quite the comic relief – there’s none of that to be found on the show – but her character, Hannah McGregor, is a breath of fresh air. While everything going on around her is full of mystery, Hannah is clear-eyed and good-hearted. Every thriller needs a soul, and O’Reilly lends this one hers.
It’s a lot of work to all come out at the same time, and unique in that it’s all local since O’Reilly’s been branching out overseas for some time. While she’s fully established here, that’s not necessarily the case in Australia, and especially in the States. “I was starting to look at my career in New Zealand, and how it had started to do what I’d always wanted it to do, and then I went to Australia and was at the fucking bottom of the rung, and then again in America.”
In an ideal world, there’d be crossovers between our industries. But the reality is, you can be a lead on a show in New Zealand and a core cast member on one of Australia’s biggest soaps and still be, in O’Reilly’s case, auditioning for an Outback Steakhouse commercial in the US. It’s not one career: it’s three distinct careers (“gardens” as O’Reilly refers to them) that might just pollinate each other.
“My garden here is pretty self-seeding and doesn’t need too much pruning or anything, but it’s nice to be back and give it some love. And my garden in Australia … well, it’s alright. It’s growing away but it still needs some maintenance and I fear with Covid that it might all shrivel up. Then there’s America! We have kind of this plot of land, and I’ve tried to grow seeds there, and it’s really hard. It’s a harsh, harsh environment.”
O’Reilly isn’t just humble, she’s realistic. The acting game isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. She points to her mother, Mary Jane O’Reilly, a choreographer who’s been working for over 50 years in the business. “It’s now 13 years that I can say I’ve been working professionally, which doesn’t sound so impressive.
“Honestly? It won’t start to sound impressive until I can say I’ve been in this game for 15.”
Inside premieres on Prime tonight, Mean Mums is on Three every Tuesday at 8:30pm and The Sounds drops weekly on Neon every Monday.
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