A teenage mates’ holiday is a rite-of-passage, but the one in Then You Run isn’t defined by fishbowl cocktails and poolside fumbles. The engrossing eight-part drama follows Londoner Tara (Leah McNamara) as she visits her estranged father Orin (Cillian O’Sullivan) in Rotterdam and discovers that he is actually kind of loaded. Then it gets much, much darker.
Soon after her besties Stink (Rye Lane‘s Vivian Oparah), Nessi (Isidora Fairhurst) and Ruth (Yasmin Monet Prince) arrive, any chance of a heartwarming reunion evaporates. Tara’s dad is dead in the freezer and her gangster uncle Reagan (Richard Coyle) is fuming because Stink tried to sell some of his heroin. The girls have no option but to hotfoot it across Europe before his lackeys find them and the three kilos of smack they’ve snaffled for good measure.
McNamara, who previously shone in lockdown hit Normal People as Marianne’s mean girl rival Rachel, gives a riveting breakout performance as Tara. She says Then You Run was “an actor’s dream” because her character is so complex yet inscrutable. “She’s definitely the least craic of the entire group,” adds the Irish actress, who honed a totally convincing London accent for the role. “She’s a lot more stoic and reserved, which contrasts really nicely with the other girls’ banter and comedic moments.”
CREDIT: David Reiss
McNamara describes the series as “coming-of-age meets psychological thriller meets Irish gangland meets road trip dark comedy all mashed into one”, which is a valiant attempt to capture its gripping shifting tone. But if Then You Run is impossible to pin down, so is her detached and fundamentally reticent character. “I liked the challenge of having to tell a story with your eyes [without] relying on dialogue to say everything,” she says. “Because [the writing] is so minimal in that sense, I could really work on the psychological side of things.”
When we meet in the leafy garden of a café near her east London flat, McNamara is careful not to give too much away. She does suggest, though, that Then You Run‘s psychological thriller element hinges on something sinister in Tara’s past. “I think she has a darkness in her that she’s always had growing up,” McNamara says. “And you’ll see this theme with her kind of progress throughout the series – she sometimes has these feelings [and] thoughts of violence, but she doesn’t quite understand where they’ve come from.”
And though McNamara is warm and talkative throughout the interview – she even walks NME to the station after we’re done – she is also careful not to give too much away about herself. She was born and raised in Castletroy, a quiet, country-adjacent suburb of Limerick, Ireland’s third-largest city, but will only say that she moved to London to further her acting career when she was “pretty young”.
“As a young woman, you don’t want to say [your age] because people might not take you seriously”
The fact you’ll find no mention online of McNamara’s age is very much by design. “My grandmother – God rest her – would say that a lady never tells her age and I’ve always remembered that,” she says sweetly. When NME points out that superstar DJ and Beyoncé collaborator Honey Dijon never discloses her age either, she replies playfully: “See, amazing! All the queens do it.”
McNamara clearly appreciates that a little mystique never hurt anyone, but she’s also savvy enough to realise that reductive presumptions about age are especially limiting for female performers. “Obviously there’s always been an obsession with youth in Hollywood,” she says, “but then as a very young woman, it’s like you don’t want to say [your age] because people might not take you seriously. I feel like it’s a double-edged sword.”
Not everything is off limits, though. McNamara says she was drawn to performing from a “very young age” and feels “fortunate” to have been born into a supportive and broadly artistic family. Both of her parents were involved in Limerick’s cultural scene and her uncle, Paul McNamara, is a professional opera singer. Older members of her family including her great-grandfather had been journalists, so a creative career never seemed out of reach.
CREDIT: David Reiss
As a child, McNamara would watch the Disney Channel and think “I should have been born in America so I could get an agent and go to auditions!” She laughs affectionately at her own precociousness. “I think my dad almost considered it for a while,” she recalls. “But then he was like, ‘No, if she wants to do [acting] professionally when she’s older, she can do it then.’”
So, McNamara studied Drama and Theatre at University College Cork and began her professional acting career with a “couple of smaller bits around Ireland”. In 2017, she booked her “first bigger gig”: a recurring role in hit historical drama Vikings as Aud, the strong-willed daughter of violent leader Kjetill Flatnose. The show was shot in Ireland, but McNamara used it as a stepping stone to move to London. “It was always my plan to come here for a better scope of opportunities,” she says.
In a 2021 interview, McNamara spoke candidly about being rejected from all of the UK’s leading drama schools. “I thought that going to drama school was the only way I could break into professional acting, so to get to the final round so many times and never secure a place was so disappointing,” she said at the time. Today, she doesn’t dwell on these knock-backs and points out instead that her London move was no shot in the dark. Because she already had several acting credits – including the acclaimed Irish coming-of-age film Metal Heart – she was able to land an agent here straight away.
Vivian Oparah, Leah McNamara and Isidora Fairhurst in ‘Then You Run’. CREDIT: Sky
Despite this, McNamara remembers her first year in London as one of “auditioning, auditioning, auditioning” without ever securing a role. She wasn’t just competing against other upcoming actors “who’d had that big showcase coming out of [top drama schools] RADA and LAMDA”, but also faced a more pernicious obstacle that sounds a lot like prejudice. “I think being Irish sometimes… you know, that was the strange thing,” she says vaguely, before sharing a story that illustrates her point.
“I remember doing a self-tape [audition] with an [upper-class] RP English accent – and I’d worked so hard on my RP accent,” she recalls. “They loved me and called me in for an in-person audition, but then when I was chatting as myself, they were like, ‘Oh my god, you sound so Irish! It’s just so jarring.’” As if to prove her point, McNamara mimics the surprise of the casting director in a flawless upper-class English accent. “And then,” she adds, returning to her own Irish brogue, “they put someone English in the role”.
For a time, McNamara made ends meet by working as a fitting model for fashion brands. It paid better than bar work and left plenty of time for auditions, but wasn’t exactly a confidence booster. On one job, a designer fitting a pair of skinny jeans tactlessly remarked that McNamara had “bigger calves” than a previous model. “You know, having people comment on your body is not a nice situation to ever find yourself in,” she recalls. “And that was one of my main memories from those jobs, so I definitely gave it up as soon as I was able to.”
“I got good feedback from Guy Ritchie!”
McNamara said farewell to fitting jobs when she was cast in 2019’s Dublin Murders, a BBC crime drama in which she played a character she described at the time as a “right little freak”. When Normal People premiered the following year during the first COVID-19 lockdown, its tender and very tactile depiction of the doomed romance between Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) captured the attention of an audience starved of social contact. “Me and the girls – Daisy and Niamh [Lynch] – were on FaceTime going, ‘Everyone is talking about this, it’s mad!’” McNamara recalls.
Opposite Mescal and Edgar-Jones, McNamara gives a nuanced performance as Rachel, Marianne’s romantic rival who could easily have been a “two-dimensional bitchy villain”. McNamara says she really empathised with Rachel – “she is very flawed, but everyone is flawed” – but also understood her functional role in the story. “She serves as an obstacle in their love,” she says. “The point of her is to make us sympathise with Marianne and make a lot of people feel cross with Connell.”
Since Normal People, Edgar-Jones has starred in the films Fresh and Where the Crawdads Sing, while Mescal’s career has exploded with an Oscar nomination for Aftersun. “That’s the industry,” McNamara says matter-of-factly. “Overnight fame, which happened to them, can happen to anyone at any point. You’re only ever a phone call away from being on a plane to South Africa [for a job].”
CREDIT: David Reiss
Because McNamara’s Normal People role was smaller, it didn’t bring overnight fame, but it definitely continued her upward momentum. Since Then You Run, she has shot superhero reboot Hellboy: The Crooked Man and The Gentlemen, a TV series based on Guy Ritchie’s action film. “I can’t really say anything about either [role] – I wish I could!” she says apologetically. Though Ritchie didn’t direct the episode(s) she appears in, he was apparently impressed with her performance. “To get good feedback from Guy Ritchie, I mean, wow he’s a legend!” she adds excitedly.
McNamara’s passion is palpable whenever she talks about a role, but she also takes an eminently sensible approach to the acting game. “It’s a marathon not a sprint – that’s how I’ve always seen my career,” she says. “You know, I want to be doing this in my eighties like Maggie Smith and Judi Dench.” But in the meantime, she will allow herself to manifest a particular kind of dream role.”I’d love to do a Step Up or a Save the Last Dance – anything like that with dancing, let it come my way!”
‘Then You Run’ premieres on Sky Max and NOW on July 7
Photographer: David Reiss
Makeup: Naoko Scintu at The Wall Group using Victoria Beckham Beauty
Hair: Davide Barbieri
Stylist: Rachael Perry
Jewellery: Frida & Florence