Kerry Condon’s a long way from the county Tipperary of her childhood, but it’s still clear as a bell in her voice. When she picks up the phone there’s no mistaking the country of her origin or the sheer sense of fun that she brings to her roles.
First of all she’s taking in the unexpected news that the short film she signed up for with director Terry George has somehow won an Oscar. The sheer unlikelihood of it -- it was just a small Irish film shot over six days after all -- delights her.
“It was so surreal,” she tells the Irish Voice. “Suddenly we were on the red carpet and because I had to go to work shooting Luck the next morning I left the Oscars right after the ceremony.
“I worked 15 hours the next day so I still have digested it all yet. It all seemed to go really fast.”
Luck, the new breakout HBO hit where she plays an ambitious young jockey, is a behind-the-scenes look at the world of horse racing and gambling including the owners, trainers, jockeys and gamblers. The show sees Condon sharing screen time with screen greats Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte as it films at the famous Santa Anita Park and other Los Angeles locations.
The story starts just after Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Hoffman) has been released from three years in federal prison. His loyal driver and bodyguard, Gus Demitriou, who claims to be the owner of a $2 million Irish horse that in fact Bernstein has just bought, meets Bernstein at the gates. Now the prized Irish thoroughbred needs a talented jockey, which is where Condon comes in.
But Luck really kicks into high gear whenever Condon’s spirited character Rosie picks up the reigns.
Condon, 29, plays her as a girl who’s just coming into her own in life and in her career, starting out as an exercise girl but quickly moving to competitive racing. But does she actually film those high-speed scenes and ride those horses herself?
“Yeah, I do,” she reveals. “I have a license to work with horses now because I practiced it for the show. There are certain things in the race scenes that I can’t do because of insurance issues. I have a double for those scenes.
“But all the other stuff I did myself. I really wanted to impress the director Michael Mann.”
In fact Condon grew up around horses on her father’s farm in the countryside of county Tipperary and it really shows. She’s comfortable racing, walking, and taking to horses, a gift she picked up years ago from her father who used to breed them at home.
Her cousin, she says, is a jockey. She’s familiar with the challenges and reward of the life.
“What was different for me in this role was the amount of commitment I had to put into it. I was surrounded for the first time with legendary actors, the ones I had seen growing up in Ireland,” she says.
“There are so many movies that they were in that I know. So the pressure was on and I really had to pull my weight and shine.”
For Condon, that meant she had to live like a jockey and become one. And that was exactly what she did.
On set she had encouragement for her dedication from Nolte, a method actor who throws himself completely into each role to the point that he becomes the character while the shoot is ongoing. To some that can be intimidating or a distracting nuisance, but to Condon it was helpful to see.
“Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, that’s pretty much what they do. They just become the people they’re playing and so I followed their examples and I’m pretty much like a jockey now,” Condon says.
“I’m even thinking of being a jockey altogether and not being an actress anymore! The lines have become very blurred!”
Looking back at her career to date, Condon first came to prominence at the age of 19 when she was cast in Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Early roles in hit shows like Ballykissangel and the film Angela’s Ashes also helped.
But it was her hilarious and sadistic turn as knockabout local girl Mairead in McDonagh’s celebrated play that really turned heads and showed her talent for both drama and comedy.
“My very first acting job was with Alan Parker on Angela’s Ashes but as a child I had written to so many other productions just applying for any role. I always wanted to be an actress and I did loads of acting summer schools,” she says.
“I didn’t have the money to go to drama school, so getting a role on Angela’s Ashes really changed things. Before that I didn’t know what I was going to do. That was my first job and it all went from there.”
The message of Luck, Condon says, is that horse riding can change your whole life, and it’s one of the strongest themes in the show.
“My character is sort of proof of that idea in motion. It’s hard for me to see the show outside of my experience of it, because I feel like I’m deeply inside it at the moment,” she says.
“I can only say my thing is the sheer delight in horse racing, because for me that part is really great.”
Meanwhile, she reveals it felt like a holiday shooting the Oscar winning The Shore with Terry George, who she had always wanted to work with.
“When he finally had a job for me I was busy doing Luck. Then he said, ‘I’m doing this little thing over the summer, do you want to be in it?’ I love short films because I think they can be such a cute art form and I immediately said yes.
“I was thrilled to be in it. I’d never stayed in that part of Ireland before and I have to say it’s bloody gorgeous. Watching the sun come up in Down is so magical!”
Kerry also knew actor Ciaran Hinds from their work together on the HBO hit Rome, and so working with him again on George’s project was both fun and relaxing, she confesses.
“It was a really relaxed shoot over just six days with the sun breaking the stones every single day.
How often do you get two good days in a row in Ireland? We got the whole of the shoot! And I never thought the film would do so well!”
“Ciaran is great to work with,” she adds. “He’s very present to the other actors the entire time so you can really trust him. I like watching him and being around him as an actor. He comes across as very relaxed on set – he might not be in his head, but to look at him that’s the impression that you get and I was grateful for it.”
Another recent major credit on Condon’s list is This Must Be the Place, a critically admired flick where she spends screen time with Sean Penn.
“The experience was incredible and I really wanted that part so badly,” she confesses. “I had so many emotional scenes to do in the film. The character I played was so sad though, I felt sorry for her.” The film, which also stars Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson, will open later this year.
Currently Condon is filming the second season of Luck, and then there are a couple of other movies she’s assigned to, but right now all of her focus is on Luck until November.
“I’ll try to focus on that for the time being and maybe after it I’ll focus on becoming a jockey!” she laughs.
HBO's "Luck" trailer:
Here's the trailer for "The Shore":