Bettystown actor, Helen Behan stars in a new eagerly awaited four-part drama that begins tonight on Channel 4. The Virtues, a powerful and gritty series directed by Shane Meadows ( This is England) tells the story of a troubled man, Joseph, played by Stephen Graham who sets off for Ireland to reconnect with his long-lost sister to confront his past. Joseph’s sister Anna ( Helen Behan) lives in Ireland with her young family and has long been separated from her brother.
The role of Anna was written specifically for Helen who worked with Meadows previously on This is England 88.
"Joseph, the main character, comes back to rediscover his past and things that went on in his life," says Helen, adding "Anna hasn't seen him for a long time and it's quite a shock when he reappears. She has her life together until he arrives. She's a strong woman, good mother and protective of her family including her brother. She's a force to be reckoned with, with a slightly foul mouth," laughs the down to earth actor.
Late to the acting scene, mum of four Behan who trained and still works as a locum nurse between acting jobs got her big break when she had a chance encounter with renowned director Shane Meadows in a pub in Bettystown some years back.
"I met Shane in McDonoughs pub in Bettystown when he was over here on holidays and a friend pointed him out to me. I was a big fan of his work. It was so unfathomable that he would be there that I had to go up and talk to him. When I did go up to him, he was so nice and we had a great laugh. As the night went on, I said, I just have to ask you, is there any chance of getting involved, you can tell me whatever you want but I have to ask you. I wrote my number on a till receipt as I had no other paper and he folded it carefully in his wallet."
Two months later, he called Behan to try out for the This Is England ’88 TV series.
"He called me a few months later and brought me over for an audition. I was frantic, I remember trying to be composed when I was on the phone and trying to sound calm and all the while jumping up and down like a lunatic.
"When I put the phone down, I thought, oh my god what have I done, I am completely out of my depth here. I went over to England for the audition. I was sick with nerves but instead of comforting me, he just laughed at me, he's very down to earth and that allowed me to relax."
Helen did the audition and got the role with Meadows later commenting, “She absolutely smashed it. Her hands were shaking but her performance was sublime.”
Even though the Laytown native is relishing in having the career she always dreamed of, the life of an actor still takes some getting used to as she explains,
"It's very different to be run ragged on a 12-hour shift as a nurse to being in your trailer and having someone knocking on the door saying can I get you anything and walking over with you to the car with an umbrella so your hair doesn't get ruined because it's raining. It took a while to adjust to those niceties."
Helen's is one of those stories that you usually only see in far fetched Hollywood movies but this was real life and both Behan and Meadows believe that the stars aligned in Bettystown the night they met.
"It absolutely was fate. Shane says that himself, he said, you get numbers all of the time from people and you say yeah I'll give you a shout. You mean well but inevitably a lot of them go by the wayside but some of them are just meant to be. We just clicked."
"I got the acting bug when I was 15, I took part in school plays and I did a few courses in the Gaiety but then life got in the way, I went to college, I had kids but the hunger was still there. When this opportunity was handed to me with Shane, I thought if I don't make the leap now I never will. It was never something I was going to give up on really. It was so fortunate the way that I came into it but I don't think that I would have ever stopped trying.
Despite the good fortune, it was no mistake that when he was writing The Virtues, Meadows wrote one of the main characters just for Helen. Known for casting untrained actors, Meadows values the less polished approach to a performance.
"He enjoys those characteristics in performances. If you are untrained you have more a naturalistic instinct I suppose. I think that if I had trained professionally as an actor I might have a different approach so I'm kind of grateful in a way that I landed this opportunity without that.
"He has said to me since, that if you have the ability in front of a camera, you have the ability in front of a camera. I don't know what it is that I have that he is drawn to but he tells me I have it so I think I'll just run with it," she laughs.
The Virtues, tonight, 9.00pm, Channel 4