Simply Sarah

We’ve caught Sarah Greene on a good day; the sun is shining, she’s fresh from Pilates and she’s enjoying some time off at home in London.

“I’m extremely happy right now,” she assures me. But downtime is generally short-lived for the Olivier and Tony award-nominated actress; rehearsals begin next week for Jack Thorne’s adaptation of Woyzeck at The Old Vic, in which Sarah plays the female lead opposite John Boyega.

Choosing 1980s Cold War Berlin for its setting, Thorne’s version of the play breathes new life into Georg Büchner’s seminal drama, unfinished on his death in 1837. On the border between East and West, a young soldier and the love of his life are desperately trying to build a better future for their child. It is a damning social critique, exploring the theme of poverty, and highlighting the people society leaves behind. “But there is also quite a lot of humour in it,” Sarah explains, acknowledging that this is an odd thing to say about a tragedy. “It’s a stunning piece of writing, and the cast is really incredible. I think that it is going to be pretty special.”

Perhaps best known for her recurring role as Hecate Poole in the Showtime/Sky Atlantic series, Penny Dreadful – a role that scooped her the Irish Film and Television Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in Drama this year – Sarah’s roots are on the stage. At the tender age of four, a visit to the panto first planted the seeds of ambition: “I just sat there in the audience, thinking: I want to do that. It felt like my whole body was propelling me forward onto the stage.” She secured a place at the CADA Performing Arts school in Cork, eventually graduating from the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin. “I was very lucky to start working as soon as I finished, with the Druid Theatre Company. I did quite a lot of work in Irish theatre for about ten years really.”

Film and television roles followed – notably as Christina Noble alongside Deirdre O’Kane and Brendan Coyle in Stephen Bradley’s Noble; opposite Bradley Cooper in Burnt; and as the female lead in CBS’ new drama Ransom, in the US – but the stage remains her first love. “It depends on the character, and the people you are working with, but I suppose that I do prefer the immediacy of theatre. I grew up on the stage, so I’m very at home there. I’m getting there in terms of having a camera right up in front of my face. But they’re completely different mediums.”

That’s not to say that the stage is always an entirely comfortable place to be, either. “There’s nothing like it. It’s the equivalent of being in a car crash, the adrenaline that you feel. And you know, I’ve had some awful times,” Sarah recalls, describing occasions when she has had to go on stage after receiving bad news, forgotten her lines, or taken a tumble. “Literally anything can happen. And every night it is a different show, not least because every night is a different audience.”

And for an actor, striking a balance between controlling that audience, and letting them in is vital. And never more so than for an Irish actress in America, as Sarah discovered while appearing on Broadway as Slippy Helen, Daniel Radcliffe’s gleeful torturer in Michael Grandage’s production of The Cripple of Inishmaan. She quickly came to realise that the word “feck” – sprinkled liberally through her lines – though totally inoffensive on this side of the Atlantic, was seriously upsetting to the audience State-side. “I could see them tensing every time I said it, so I had to totally rework my inflection. They had to have compassion for the character, and they just didn’t when I was screaming it very forcefully in their faces!”

Sarah’s hoping her audience at The Old Vic should be an easier crowd to please, though. And there’s something special about performing on the London stage: “Dreams coming true,” she muses. Not to mention being able to stay in her own home in the city that she loves. “I’m very happy in London at the moment. I’ve got a wonderful, wonderful home here with two of my best friends and my sister and her fiancé. I think you need to have people around you to appreciate this city. And right now it is the best city in the world.”

That said, Sarah assures me that the travel opportunities that her work presents are a large part of the appeal of a job like this: “I’ve got to see the entire world, from Newfoundland to Tokyo. It’s a huge bonus, to see so many different places, and live in different countries and experience different cultures.”

I wonder whether – in a job where no two days are the same, and where a phone call can change things in an instant – it is ever possible to make plans and feel truly settled. Sarah laughs: “This job definitely doesn’t suit somebody who needs a plan, because there ain’t no plans. It’s completely out of your control and you have to not stress about things that you have no control over. It’s exciting living like that; you have to give yourself over to it.”

Which probably goes some way to explaining why she is so content to take this idle week in the sunshine as it comes. “I might not get another day off now until Christmas. If the second series of Ransom gets picked up I will have to fly the day after I finish Woyzeck, and then it’ll be an intense six months of shooting in Toronto…”

And if the show doesn’t get picked up, what then? “I have one or two projects lined up if that doesn’t work, though I am signed into that contract for the next six years. But, yes, things are a bit uncertain at the moment. I kind of like that.” If anything is certain, it’s that one way or another, she will endeavour to be working. “Acting is a complete release of the emotions that I would usually keep pent up. You can really lose yourself in a role, in a controlled sense. I notice, when I’m not working, how much I need a creative outlet. You know, I can get quite down when I can’t put those emotions anywhere.”

Speaking of creative outlets, while working to put herself through college, Sarah took a job on the Helena Rubenstein make-up counter at Brown Thomas, where she was responsible for bridal makeovers. It’s a skill she has put to use in her acting life, too: “When I was starting off in the theatre scene in Dublin, with the smaller parts I had, I would take over doing the wigs, and doing the make-up, and backstage stuff – just to keep myself busy. I like being busy; I don’t like sitting around.” 

It sounds to me like Sarah’s pretty much got things sorted – is there anything she’d like to change right now? “I’m grateful for everything that I have. I’m working with really great people, and great writing, so, you know, I can’t really ask for anything more! My parents are healthy, my sister is happy. I can’t ask for much more than that… Well, world peace, actually. I’d like world peace. I’d like there to be a lot more love in the world. That would be my wish right now.” It’s hard to argue with that.