Exclusive Interview: Emer Kenny

Though her career began with acting, creative north Londoner Emer Kenny now turns her hand to almost every aspect of television production, she tells us how everything comes together in her latest project, Karen Pirie.

Photography by Jake Walters | Styling by Kate Barbour | Hair by Narad Kutowaroo | Make up by Samantha Cooper

When Karen Pirie, ITV’s new police drama, hits our television screens this month, it will be the exciting culmination of years of hard work for north Londoner Emer Kenny, who not only appears in the series, but wrote it and exec produced it, too. And she couldn’t be more excited to see the reception it receives. “I have been working on it for three or four years now, so it feels like it’s been a long time coming. I just really want people to see it. I have watched it so many times. I’d say that I have seen every episode about 40 times,” she laughs. “I was involved in the editing process, as well, so I know the show inside out from every angle now. And I feel so proud of it. So, yeah, I’m very excited. I think maybe the nerves will come in just before it comes out, but at the moment I am just really excited,” she tells me when we sit down to talk.

The story is based on Val McDermid’s novel, The Distant Echo, the first in a series of best-selling books about a young female detective set in the beautiful Scottish university town of St. Andrew’s. “It is about a young female detective who is assigned to a cold case because the police department are worried about a true crime podcast that has come out about this unsolved murder from 1996,” Emer tells me. The case is that of Rosie Duff, a 19-year-old barmaid who was killed while walking home one night. Though the university students who found her were suspected, nobody was charged with the crime. “The podcast accuses the police of victim shaming, and malpractice and neglect. Because of this they decide that it would be a good look for them to put a woman on the case, but they also don’t want to use their best personnel, because they think that the case is unsolvable without new evidence,” Emer explains. “So, they put this young, very underestimated detective on the case, Karen Pirie.”

Emer wears: suit (jigsaw-online.com); shirt (boohoo.com); earrings (haloandco.com)

Revealing how she came to be involved with the project, Emer tells me: “I wrote an episode for a great Sky show called Save Me a couple of years ago. The production company that was making that, World Productions, I had worked with them quite a bit – they make things like Line of Duty and Bodyguard – and they said to me that they had a series of books that they were hoping to adapt, and would I like to take a look. I had never read any of Val’s fiction, but I had read Forensics, which is really good. It’s a non-fiction book that she wrote about the history of forensics, and it is really interesting, and I loved that. And I had seen her on TV and listened to her on the radio, and always thought that she was a really clever, impressive person, so I was really excited to be asked,” she explains. “They sent me the first one and I read it and it had something about it that really spoke to me. I had an instant reaction to Karen’s character. She was really unusual and really relatable. So, I took the project on, and we went to ITV with it and pitched it. And, yeah, they loved it and we got to make it…”

Though she has the sole writing credit for the series, writing isn’t something that Emer ever thought she would do professionally. “I think that I have always written in some form or other since I was very young. But it was never something that I imagined I would do. I always felt quite in awe of writers – and felt that I could never be that clever,” she explains. “But once I started acting, and reading a lot of scripts, I started having ideas. And the format of scriptwriting just made sense to me, because I watched a lot of TV and films, so it felt like something I already knew. But it is also something that I find really, really hard. And it can be a really lonely process, because you are in a room with just your laptop and your thoughts, for days and days and months on end.”

Emer wears: jacket, Foam of The Days by @ivkovickristina

Emer has been working in the industry for over 15 years – she made her professional acting debut in the BBC drama Coming Down the Mountain aged 17, back in 2007 and began writing for EastEnders in 2010 – but this is the first time she has been involved in a project on quite so many levels. “It felt really natural,” she tells me, “I have been juggling several different hats for a long time and it felt really good to bring all of those things together on one project, to write and act. And then to exec produce as well, I got to see lots of the other creative aspects of the show. So, it was really satisfying for me to do that on one project.”

One such aspect was casting, which Emer was thrilled to be involved with. “I got involved with almost everything that I was allowed to, really. And I loved the casting process,” she reveals. “We had a brilliant casting director called Dan Jackson, and the Scottish talent pool is just so impressive. We wanted to cast as many Scottish actors as we could, to make it feel really authentic and rooted in Scotland. So, that was one of my favourite parts of the whole process.”

Emer wears: dress (gigisdressingroom.com); earrings (riverisland.com); bracelets (carolinstone.com and sorujewellery.com)

It also proved eye-opening. “I thought the most painful rejection was when you don’t get an acting job that you really want, but then, when I was casting, we sent the scripts out to various actors, and some came back and said, ‘I don’t really relate to the material’,” Emer admits. “I think feeling the burn in the opposite direction was actually more painful. I was like, oh wow, I am just finding new ways to get rejected,” she laughs. “When we were going through that, Dan said to me: ‘The right person always ends up doing the job, trust me, I have been doing this for long enough.’ And he’s so right.” Indeed, the cast is excellent, headed up by Outlander star Lauren Lyle, who plays Karen Pirie.

Learning to deal with rejection – from both sides – has been one of the hardest things about working in the industry, Emer tells me. “It’s so hard!” She exclaims. “I still can’t watch TV shows that I auditioned for and really wanted but didn’t get. I think when something doesn’t go your way you just have to cry! I think it is about lack of control – that is the scariest thing about the rejection in acting. The frustration of the rejection in acting is that you just really, really want to work, and express yourself, and be creative, so I think that if you have other ways of doing that in your life, it just takes the hurt out of the rejection a little bit.”

One way Emer does this is through writing; I ask whether she could see herself moving away from the acting altogether to focus entirely on this. “I think I will always write; I can’t imagine not doing it. But, at the same time, my favourite thing in the world is to be on set,” she explains. “And the acting and the exec-ing part of the job definitely fills me with more joy. I love being around people, I love the more collaborative, hands-on elements to creativity, but I think writing will always be there.”

Emer wears: dress (gigisdressingroom.com); cape (karenmillen.com); earrings (riverisland.com); bracelets (carolinstone.com and sorujewellery.com)

It may always be there, but it is not necessarily something that comes naturally to her. “I find it a battle. It is such a battle,” she admits. “I have to force myself into it. I have to say to myself, do five minutes, now 10 minutes… to just make a start. But once you do, you can end up writing for hours. But it is always an uphill struggle. I have got better, because I have been writing for 10, 12 years now and I have got a lot more disciplined. I saw something today that said writing is one of those things that you always feel more tired at the beginning than you do at the end. And I was like, that’s true! Oh man, that makes so much sense. I feel so much better at the end.”

But of course, even at the ‘end’, when the script is written, a scriptwriter’s job is not actually finished. “With a script you will rewrite it 12 or 15 times,” Emer tells me. “I would say scriptwriting is 90 per cent rewriting. Actually, probably more, 99 per cent rewriting, because it is so collaborative compared to other types of writing. And it is repetitive. But then, as an actor, you will do a scene like 20 or 30 times. When my husband [BBC Radio 5 Live’s Rick Edwards] comes on set and watches us – he is a presenter, so he’s not used to doing things over and over again – he’s like, ‘What the hell, how do you do things over and over again without getting bored?’ Maybe I am just really well trained in the art of repeating the same action, I don’t know?” She laughs.

And all the rewriting is worth it in the end – there’s no doubt that Emer sees Karen Pirie as a career highlight. “I have never been as proud of any project that I have done,” she tells me. “I had a lot of pinch-me moments on set, where scenes I had written were coming to life and they were better than I had imagined. And I just kept thinking, I can’t believe that I get to do this, I can’t believe that I am here. And that is what it is all about really, those moments where you feel really fulfilled.”

Emer wears: dress (stellamccartney.com); earrings and ring (anayahjewellery.com); necklace (haloandco.com)

A risk worth taking, you could say. “I wish I’d been told early on in my career that taking big risks pays off,” Emer agrees. “Because I think that making great work is all about being vulnerable, trying things out, being fearless… and every time I have done that, it has paid off. Whether that is in an audition, or on set, or writing, or with an idea. The more fearless and vulnerable you can be, the better your work will be.”

What risks will she be taking next, I ask. “I’ve got a couple of things in the pipeline,” she says. “I am writing on an original thing of mine at the moment, and I am filming something later in the year, but I don’t think I can tell you anything about them yet, because they haven’t been announced. Hopefully I will be able to talk about them soon…”

For the moment, time to enjoy the fruits of her latest work, and to make the most of life in her favourite city. “I really, really love London. I was born here, and I have always lived here,” she explains. “I am from north London, so my ultimate day would begin with a walk on Hampstead Heath, because it is just the best place. And then I would go and get breakfast somewhere like Mario’s, which is in Kentish Town and is an absolute classic. And then I would probably walk into town because I just love walking through this city. So, I would probably walk through Camden and Regent’s Park, and then I would go shopping (this is a long day by the way!). I would go to Liberty, which is probably my favourite place in the world. And then I would eat something in Soho, or maybe China Town, before going to the Soho Theatre, which is another of my favourite places in the world. I’d see some comedy, maybe somebody I know and somebody I didn’t know, because they always have a bunch of acts on. And then I would get a cab home, because I would have walked a lot by this point!” Sounds pretty perfect. 

Karen Pirie is on ITV this month