Professional dancer, model turned actress Nicole O’Neill is one of Penny Dreadful’s new additions this second season, playing a witch out to get Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives. We caught up with Nicole to talk about working on Penny Dreadful, observing and working with Eva Green and her hopes and dreams for her young career.
You’re a film and television actress, professional dancer and commercial and print model. How did it all come about for you in terms of being casted as one of the witches? Was there an audition process and how was it like?
Ahh yes, I am quite the grafter work-wise, and enjoy having a good mix of professions to keep me on my toes. However, it is safe to say that acting is my real passion! Yes, I did audition for my role. But it is how I got this amazing opportunity in the first place that will be forever humbling!
This game changing experience really all came about for me because of the wonderful Sarita Allison. Penny Dreadful’s Key Prosthetic MUA. I had the pleasure of getting to work with this exceptionally talented lady 4 years ago on X-MEN: First Class. After which, through the various forms of social media we thankfully stayed in touch. As I am sure you know being great fans of the show, Sarita has a BIG input into the design of new “creature-esq” character looks… the witches, really being her “big project” for season 2 so to speak!
In August last year, casting was already well underway but there was some struggle I believe to find actresses 1) who would do partial nudity, 2) full body prosthetics, (it is really not an experience for everyone!) and 3) who had, if any some kind of combat or stunt experience ideally.
As Sarita relayed it to me…One day while sat in her kitchen reading the new season 2 scripts, she was trying to envision which actresses she could see playing the witches… and amazingly, I apparently sprung to mind. Like WOW, what a compliment!!!
Next thing I know, she blows me away with this random phone call out the blue. Asks me to send my CV and showreel to the Penny Dreadful producers in LA! Just CRAZY, and all over the space of an intensely nerve-wracking 5 days, I was given an audition scene, was put on tape by a top casting director and after a nail biting 2 day wait, I got word from across the pond that I had gotten the part!
I literally cannot express how much I owe Sarita for believing in me enough to put her own personal judgment on the line! I could, of course completely fallen flat in my audition. Totally flaked! As let’s face it, I haven’t had a ton of acting experience, and this was no small audition! Yet, I enjoyed it so much! I felt I had absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain, and most of all this “Little Monster” was not about to let her “Head Witch” down!!!
Prior to auditioning and being casted, did you know anything about the show?
Yes, I had seen a few adverts on Sky Atlantic that had caught my attention. I was amazed to see such a high profile cast come together for what looked like a series I couldn’t compare to anything else. Also, you will be pleased to hear I was already a big admirer of Eva Green. Not to mention I am personally a sucker for any type of period drama! Win, win! Haha.
On the day prior to my audition, I did watch the entire first season back to back. I was totally hooked and blown away by how brilliant it was. This only made me even hungrier to do the best I could to become a part of this phenomenal show!
John Logan is very much known to be very collaborative and hands on when it comes to Penny Dreadful. How is it like to work with such a deeply involved and knowledgeable showrunner?
He is truly the most inspiring, passionate, humble man to work with! A complete genius of literature whose vision is so beautifully relayed in our scripts it’s hard not to be on the same level as him in terms of his vision! Of course, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was nervous to meet him especially as unusually I never got to audition for him in person. We met for the first time actually on set! He took a leap of faith from my one video audition and I’ll be forever grateful!
Nicole as Mystique behind the scenes of X-Men: First Class wherein she played Jennifer Lawrence's stunt and body double
One little known fact about you is that you were Jennifer Lawrence’s stunt and body double for Mystique in X-Men: First Class (2011). The character Mystique and the witch that you play in Penny Dreadful have similarities in terms of their gift of camouflaging and the kind of physical stunts that they do. Did your experience in X-Men: First Class play a part in your portrayal of Witch #1?
Yes definitely!!! However, considering the uncanny similarities of the characters special skills set, I didn’t want to completely mimic what Jen and I did as Mystique! These witches are from another era and deserved a different air about them. Perhaps a deeper, more fearful sense of duty to their actions.
Also, Showtime were kindly made very aware again by Ms. Allison about what stunt experience I had from XMEN. I think it’s safe to say the Penny Dreadful producers, stunt team and I were all very excited to see what we could come up with in terms of physicality and how far we could go to make our big stunt scenes pretty epic!
You’re a professional dancer in your own right having graduated from The Royal Ballet School and having performed around the world. You performed a lot of physical stunts in Penny Dreadful. Did this specific skill help in your performance and in what way?
Completely. I will be forever grateful for my background in ballet! Not only the discipline you gain from training so intensely but learning a fight sequence for example is just like learning dance choreography. Also, I believe posture can really help set a scene. My witch may be a kick-ass super strength fighter, but at the same time very regal, elegant and aware of her body. Particularly the shock factor of our nudity, scars & branding. As I am sure you have gathered, we witches aren’t wallflowers!
I am also quite the daredevil naturally and really enjoy being challenged physically! I loved working with Pete Miles (Penny Dreadful’s Stunt Coordinator) and his team. They had total faith in our individual abilities and made sure we got to showcase them in our stunt scenes. Pete really went to town with my stunts! He would say “JUMP!” and I’d say how high?! Literally!!!!
Nicole (left) with Helen McCrory (Evelyn Poole) and Olivia Chenery (right) in "The Nightcomers" (Season 2 Episode 3)
There’s a generic pre-conceived idea of witches in popular culture but John Logan took a different and more classical interpretation that’s more faithful to history and literature. What did you think of this and was it more of an added challenge?
No, quite the opposite. How wonderful to have historical references to draw from as a character. Like all things in John’s dreadful world, there is a strong sense of human nature alongside the supernatural. Yes, our witches can essentially shape shift and camouflage ourselves in wallpaper but other than that our occult ways is devil worshiping. A practice that has been noted in history for decades by the recitation of incantations, by the performance of physical rituals, by the employment of magical herbs as amulets or potions, by gazing at mirrors, swords or other specula for purposes of divination and by many other means.
A witch with a pointed hat and broom would just not quite have the same terrifying effect I think!
Penny Dreadful is littered with big name high caliber actors. How was it like to work with such powerhouse ensemble of actors? Did any of them give you any acting advice?
I would literary pinch myself most days on set and in rehearsal. Having not trained as an actress formally, I felt like I had the best 8 month acting masterclass of my life! Being a dancer, I am a very visual learner so I would literally just watch people like Eva, Helen, Simon etc. like a hawk. Taking in their every mannerism and personal approach to their roles. I would even rush down to set to watch scenes I wasn’t even involved in. Too good a learning opportunity to pass up!
Yes, I was very fortunate enough to gain some fantastic advice from various cast members. Even on the subject on how to further my career which has been very helpful. However, they were also gracious enough to congratulate me on the fact that I was in a series of this standard without having a top acting agent behind me. Usually pretty unheard of in our industry. However, I know that luck can only get you so far. I need to keep this ball rolling and I certainly plan to.
We all became very close during filming and hung out often socially. Some of the best advice I gained was even hearing, in my opinion, tremendous actors dissecting their own performances perhaps negatively. It made me realize how we are all striving for greatness in our art and no one is perfect after all!
Apart from being a dancer and actress, Nicole is also a model
You shared a lot of intense scenes with Helen McCrory and your fellow witches Sarah Greene, Olivia Chenery and Charlotte Beckett. How was it like to work with them? Did you all bond together?
I have made some friends for life! I really could not have asked for a better group of actresses to work with and to share such an amazing experience! We went through a lot together. The sometimes crazy long hours, the highs and lows but overall, had such a laugh on and off set…and I mean hysterical!
Sarah is just a force to be reckoned with! I predict great things for her and for the lovely Olivia and Charlotte as well. Such talented ladies with the most beautiful humble souls to match!
Helen being our “master” witch so to speak, was just hilarious and great fun to work with too! Even though I must admit we were all a bit intimidated by her at first though who wouldn’t be by such a powerhouse actress of stage and screen!
The witches relentlessly attack the main characters, especially Vanessa. In “Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places” (Season 2 Episode 4), your witch got a lock of Vanessa’s hair which made the fans squirm. How was it like to work one on one with Eva Green?
Eva is just simply amazing! I was incredibly excited to meet her in general being a fan myself, let alone actually getting to share the screen with her! She is truly a wonder to work with, very down to earth, and hardworking with absolutely no diva like ways you could expect from any top Hollywood actress!
I felt so fortunate when reading the script for Episode1 that it was my witch that was mainly gunning for Vanessa in the carriage attack sequence. Our rehearsal together for this scene went so smoothly! I had already done a few days training as I was essential swinging around the sides of a stunt carriage, balancing on a thin wooden platform above the ground. Not to mention the added challenge of nudity and restricted vision from the “Nightcomer” contact lenses. She was very sympathetic to my situation but we didn’t let this hold us back. We WENT FOR IT so to speak! I knew she was a great action actress but I was blown away by how tough she was! Like me, she likes to make the stunts as real as possible, of course within means.
I believe this is why when finally got my script through for Episode 4 (Mr. Logan keeps the scripts under wraps until he feels it necessary for his actors to read them) that yet again my prey was Ms. Ives! I have to say it was hard to overcome the fact that she really did want me to pull her hair pretty hard and throw her to the ground…afterall, it’s only EVA GREEN I am dealing with, no pressure!
Prior to working with her on Penny Dreadful, have you seen any Eva Green film and is there a particular project of hers that you liked best?
Yes many! She first came to my attention in “Casino Royale”. I thought she was magnetic and loved her deep husky voice. After which one late evening, I got glued to watching “The Dreamers” on TV. I loved it! I am quite a fan of the more unusual films. What a role for a young woman to take. Very brave, very brilliant! I think Eva makes great career decisions and I love how she doesn’t want to be the figure of beauty but to choose the grittier, darker characters. I really admire that and I hope I can do the same!
Nicole as Witch #1 in "Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places" (Season 2 Episode 4)
What are the easiest and most difficult things about playing your character?
I really enjoy playing evil roles generally. Not sure what that says about me but I found it very easy to be dark, sinister, otherworldly and death stare out the other actors. The most difficult was probably still powering through on the already long shoot days after going through a very long full body make-up FX process. Even then, I got to say I enjoyed every minute! Even the graveyard shift 3am call time…but I am quite weird like that!
What is your favorite thing about filming the series?
Simply getting to be a part of this wonderful series!!!
You work with highly capable and professional actors but could you tell us some on set tidbits? Who’s the joker/prank master in the cast? Who forgets his/ her lines the most? Who does not break character?
Ohhh you want the juice haha! Well, we had no method actors. Jeez what a dark production we would be if we did….Dublin would be in uproar! Werewolves, witches and creatures running around haha!
Honestly, you are right, every member of this cast was incredibly professional. Being a series and not a film production you are pretty pressured to complete everything on schedule so there is not much room to mess around or forget your lines! Of course, funny things did happen that couldn’t be helped though. A good example being some of our most “vital” naked prosthetic pieces having been applied over 15hrs prior to running around, jumping staircases etc… would decide to fall off!!! Usually at the most inconvenient of times as well….NIGHTMARE!
Also, we had a lot of great comic talent in the cast,. Rory and Helen both had a wickedly dry sense of humour which always had me in stitches!
Penny Dreadful is one of the few shows on television that has consistently written and portrayed women well and in a lot of ways, takes a firm stand on feminism. The witches on the show are non-gratuitously naked during their supernatural state. What’s your take on this? Was it easier and liberating for you as an actress?
I think when understanding the reasoning behind doing full nudity for a role definitely makes it a lot easier. However, our most private parts were in fact covered essentially so we did, in a way, feel like we were in some sort of creepy bikini!
The witches are liberated by their master the devil and the shock factor of nearly being unashamed of their branding makes them that bit more sinister. Especially in a Victorian setting where if a woman even showed her ankle it was considered coquettish! Our nudity wasn’t to please but to frighten!
Nicole O'Neill modeling
Was it freeing to be able to play the baddie? Did you bring anything different to your process to refresh the portrayal of a witch given that playing a witch has its danger of being repetitive and or falling to the usual tropes?
As I have already mention before, I seriously love playing the baddie!! I often get cast that way as well funnily enough. I think because you are literally playing out a character that couldn’t be further from your natural personality is just so much fun and really freeing! Like being the naughty child at school but not getting told off….how brilliant! Also, I believe darker characters have more depth. You have to ask yourself how did they become this way?
I think when working from such a fantastic script it would be hard to steer off road and become generic. I also loved getting to put some physical input into how the witches had this nearly snake like quality. They really let us play with our characters in that way. Slow and calculating yet with a venomous attack!
How long did the prosthetic and make-up process take to transform you into a scary naked, bald, scarred and branded witch? What kind of activities did you have to do to cope with the long process, waiting and hours of shooting?
It was around 7 hours give or take….sometimes maybe longer due to the fact Nick, Sarita and team would have to have all 3 witches or on a few occasions 4, 5 even 6 members of cast to be ready on set at the same time….no pressure! However, we got this process down to a fine art with the least amount of stress possible. As essentially, our work as actors hasn’t really begun until we get to set. That was always the hardest challenge. Keeping your energy reserved until the moment you need to bring your characters to life! It’s no small task, as it felt sometimes like we were doing 2 full days work back to back. Not to mention having started the process at 3am in the morning and working for nearly 18-21 hours in total!
However, having been painted blue with scales for 7 months filming X-MEN, I was somewhat the veteran of the prosthetic make-up process. I weirdly enjoy it! I love watching these artists at work literally making me into this amazing creature…it’s fascinating! Though, of course I would have my occasions of literally falling asleep standing up into Sarita’s make-up brush! On those occasions, I would go for a quick jog round the trailer in the cold haha!
Otherwise, being an all-female team we had great girly gossips, sang along to music, counted the minutes to breakfast and made a million cups of tea!
Nicole as Witch #1 in Penny Dreadful
The fifth episode, “Above the Vaulted Sky”, looks like a very thrilling and heart- stopping episode to watch. What can we expect from it and from the rest of the season?
Obviously I can’t say too much but we nicknamed this episode the “sexy one”! The entire cast are featured which is always great and I think a lot of fans will be screaming in suspense and awe at their TV screens!
Do you have a favourite scene or episode? Who is your favourite character and why?
That is a really hard question as I love all the characters for different reasons and scenes well, there is just too many to mention! A few absolute stand outs from season 1, I LOVED “Séance” under J.A. Bayona’s direction. The scene with Proteus rediscovering London and the first meeting of Dorian and Vanessa blew me away! That slow hand hold was electric! From this season,“The Nightcomers” even exceeded my imagination! Anytime we get the chance to delve into Vanessa’s past is well worth a watch, and Patti’s poignant performance…..EPIC! Filming on that “Witchy Mountain” as we called it, in a cloak I felt pretty badass too!
Yet, I have to say there is so many more gems to come! I think Episode 6 is going to go down a treat as well. It is going to be a Bloody wonderful spectacle! You’ll understand my pun soon enough haha!!!
Would you say that your experience on Penny Dreadful inspired you to pursue acting more? What kind of roles who would want to play? Do you have any current or future projects that you have in store?
110% YES!!! Penny Dreadful has literally helped me take a giant step up the ladder career-wise and made me SO hungry for more!
I will be eternally grateful to Sarita Allison for thinking of me that fine mid-summers day in her kitchen. She helped me get that one chance to prove myself, grab my dream and run with it!
Overall as an actress, I have never been in this industry to get famous and fast. I want to work hard to be the best I can be. Continuously learning and growing, take risks and definitely steering clear of being stereotyped! I’d love the chance to play everything from a serial killer to one of Jane Austen’s many great female protagonists. I also,being Scottish, have a real passion for comedy. I want to tick every box!
Currently, I have just started production on the new live action Disney film “Beauty & The Beast”, which is really exciting and yet another childhood dream come true!
“The First Musketeer” a web series I am really proud of has also just been launched online! Please do check it out. Blood, sweat & tears made this series possible as our budget was practically non-existent! I hate to plug but any support would be fantastic!
Nicole (right) with Olivia Chenery (Witch #2, left) and Sarah Greene (Hecate, center) in "Glorious Horrors" (Season 2 Episode 6)
You have a strong presence on social media (Twitter) and you interact well with fans. What can you say about the show’s fans (Dreadfuls) and do you have a message to them and to your loyal fans who have followed your career?
Thank you so much…that makes me really happy! I love having a little tweet back and forth with the fans….after all, I feel like I am a Dreadful too!
I have been so overwhelmed by the amazing support from the fans of the show. I feel incredibly flattered and so honoured to have anyone be interested in my work at all, let alone, getting to wake up the morning after the US episode launch to so many kind words! You guys are simply AMAZING!!!! LOVE THY DREADFULS!!!!!
Follow Nicole’s adventures on Twitter!