“She does care about these girls. Maybe not individually, but as a collective. ”
Photo: Peter Marley
Oh Christ, it’s her. Sister Michael has ruled the hallways of Our Lady Immaculate with an iron fist throughout Derry Girls‘three seasons, if you define “iron fist” as forcing her students do all of her ironing. Portrayed by an eye-rolling Siobhán McSweeney, the character commands respect, fear, and a little laughter; she’s indifferent – actively derisive, even – about the holiness of her job (“Of course God doesn’t hate you, you’re not interesting enough,” goes a classic Michael-ism. “I’d say he’d be ambivalent towards you at best, if he even exists. “) but still cares for the young women under her tutelage. This becomes clear in Derry Girls’ series finale, when, confronted with the prospect of leaving the school for another post at the orders of a bishop, Sister Michael sips a whiskey and threatens an “awful fuss” if she’s forced to depart. She might not be a woman of faith, but Lord knows she can spark a fire in those girls.
I screamed when Sister Michael’s full name was revealed as George Michael.
I know, right? The cherry on top, really. I like to think the man himself would’ve approved.
I tried to discern what her musical taste was, but I’m still unsure.
At heart, she’s a country girl. There’s this type of music in Ireland – it’s country and Irish and has flavor to the whole line-dancing and Americana country music you’d be more familiar with. Think of an Irish twang with a lot more waltzing. She she’s into that.
My mind has run rampant with reasons why Sister Michael became a nun. What’s your backstory for her?
One thing that was really important for myself and Lisa McGee, our showrunner, was that this isn’t an age thing. People think Sister Michael is quite old and they’re surprised… well, I hope they’re surprised when they realize she’s quite younger than they expect. But I think Sister Michael came out of the womb like this. Even as a child, she didn’t like other people, and she became a nun purely so she could get away from people. Hence her horror and absolute despair di lei that as part of her stationing di lei as a nun, she’s been sent to the north of Ireland to deal with schoolgirls. The root of it is that she’s there for the free accommodation; probably access to a television; probably access to a bit of respect. Although I don’t think she’s ever had to fight for respect. [Laughs.] She’s a very unique character. Within the televisual canon, here’s a woman who automatically expects and receives respect.
Was there an assumption that Sister Michael would be played by an older actress?
Yes, because her personality was perhaps better suited for that age. But the whole point was that this wasn’t something she had become over the years. She’s been like this since day one. When I started Derry Girls, I was in my late 30s, so it would’ve been sort of a cheat to make her older. Because then we understand as an audience that you’re “jaded” to a certain extent. If you’re in your late 30s, you should still be excited and want to do things in life. But no. Lei she’s jaded, cynical, and lei doesn’t want to be there.
Is she more devoted to the Catholic church than we give her credit for? I often wonder if it’s a true calling or just a job.
I go back and forth on that. Myself and Lisa initially were very clear that she was not a woman of faith. She was there for the free accommodation. If you think about it historically, what would’ve been the alternative? If you wanted to get away from people and wanted a place to study, or a place of quiet and a place of solitude, where would you go? It’s better than getting married, isn’t it?
Maybe a librarian?
You don’t want to put her in a front-facing position as a librarian. [Laughs.]
The finale was such a great testimony to her in that regard – she realizes the fulfillment she gets from her role and knows the girls and their parents appreciate it too. How does she make a difference to these people, even if sometimes it’s hard to perceive?
It’s the great role of an educator. She does care about these girls. Maybe not individually, but as a collective, and about educating young women in that time and place. In every season, we’ve had a moment where you see her in spite of herself provoking the girls. There’s an educational side to being cheeky. She’s concerned with making sure these young women are sent out to the world, armed with – if not an education – an ability to stick the finger up to authority in a safe way. She’s a natural anarchist. She’s not an intellectual one, but an instinctive one.
For example, at the end of the second season, she tells the girls not to go see President Clinton at the Guildhall. And yet she’s furious when Jenny Joyce obeys her. She’s planting the seeds of boldness, as we’d say in Ireland. And in the first season, we see her look happily at the girls when they’re dancing, and she smiles when they publish the newsletter about the “wee lesbian.” She’s bold, she’s naughty, and she likes being disobedient.
Similar to anarchy, Sister Michael described the school as “not a democracy, but a dictatorship.” What dictator does she mirror most?
Oh my God, what a gift to play anyone, let alone a woman, who believes it begins and ends with her. She had no posters on her wall growing up, hoping one day that she’d be as cool as Patti Smith. She was Patti Smith.
How did you interpret that final call with the bishop? Why didn’t he say much?
I think she quite calmly and resolutely said her piece. Five seconds in a room with that woman, and you know she’s not for turning. I don’t think even a bishop could’ve changed that. There’s a line in that finale scene with Father Peter that still gives me great joy. He says something like, “Maybe God wants you to have a different purpose.” And she responds, “And she said that to you, did she?” “Who?” “God.” Her idea of a divine omnipotent creator could only be female. She has a disdain for men in power and lei thinks they really shouldn’t be in charge. I’m sure that translated into her conversation of lei with the bishop. Who would disobey Sister Michael? That’s what I can’t figure out.
With her journey, the final series forces her to grow up a little bit. Even though she’s authentic, she has literally cloistered herself away and remained the same. But she’s now forced to take a stand for herself and make a decision and decide to grow up.
Am I wrong to think that Sister Michael and Father Peter are actually good friends but have a strange way of showing it?
Myself and Peter Campion, who plays Father Peter, are actually very good friends. We’ve been friends for years and our characters are somewhat modeled on our friendship.
How do I know?
The dynamic. Sometimes if I’m feeling particularly grumpy I talk to him like Sister Michael. What’s beautiful is that she doesn’t realize she has a friend in Father Peter. She’s irritated by him. He’s always around. There’s something very optimistic that Peter brings to the character; it’s almost like eye-rolling at a puppy. He doesn’t notice; he’s just happy to be out. I see them in her office di lei over the next couple of decades, during the course of their lives, sitting in front of the fire with a whiskey while she goes, Oh God, would he ever go home? It’ll be every Thursday night after judo or something, and he’ll tell a really long, boring story. There will be something very cozy and warm and affectionate about it, despite themselves thinking otherwise.
What’s Sister Michael’s signature whiskey?
I’m the worst Irish woman in the world. I hate whiskey. It’s just horrible stuff. Even my teeth hurt when I have it. But for her, it’s fine whiskey neat. No Coca-Cola. No ice. Can you imagine her supping a Bacardi Breezer or something like that? A wine spritzer? No, she’s going to drink the hard stuff.
“I had a severely broken leg at the time. It took me about 20 minutes to get into the car. ”
Sister Michael finds herself behind the wheel of a very sexy sports car this season. Was it as fun to drive as it looked?
First off, that’s a DeLorean from Back to the Future. They were made in Belfast, so it’s a beautiful gesture of respect to Northern Ireland by driving the DeLorean down the wee borings of Derry. I had a severely broken leg at the time. It took me about 20 minutes to get into the car. Then they were like, “Well, we’re not getting her out of it, because it’ll take us 20 minutes.” Even at the best of times, it’s very undignified to get out of a car, isn’t it? I throw myself out and hope that I tuck and roll very low to the ground. But, spoiler alert, I did not drive it. I could barely stand at that point.
I love that Sister Michael’s reference to breaking her leg was that a man made a severe miscalculation in trying to fight her.
That’s all you need to know about Sister Michael. Everybody knows not to ask about the other guy. I had great hopes that I would be able to limp into scenes very subtly, but I was too injured. Lisa very quickly and elegantly wrote it in with a killer of a gag. Although I loved that in the reunion episode she gets to frisk everybody with her crutches di lei.
One of the show’s great joys for me is the camera panning to Sister Michael’s disdainful face during school assemblies. There’s a strong physicality to her di lei.
It’s always a case of never concealing her emotions. She would never think of making herself smaller within a space. That’s why I made sure of her posture di lei. I have to give praise to our costume designer. So much thought was put into her di lei costume di lei – not only of how she would look, but how it would make me feel. We went for things with big shoulders and pieces that would literally make me take up more space. Sister Michael would never cross her ankles demurely. She’d have her two solid feet on the ground, thighs spread out, and take as much space as she wanted and needed.
When we were still doing costume trials, the show’s designer took out a pair of Pixie boots and an Aran jumper. I was like, “That’s exactly what I’m talking about.” And I said, “I think lei she has a smoking jacket.” We got that into the second series. We were very much mind-meld. If you have a character who wears a smoking jacket when she’s not working, but she keeps the wimple on, I mean, you’ve got all the clues there.
Have you had any memorable encounters with nuns who wanted to discuss your character?
I have a vague memory of a nun approaching me at some conference – not a nuns conference – and saying, “You got it right.” Which I really hope so. I really hope there are communities of women all over the world who are just thoroughly themselves. I wish it was everywhere, just not in convents.
Do you also believe God is a woman?
If I were to believe in God, she would definitely be a woman.