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By Hugh Boag
An actress has told how her blossoming career was honed during her childhood on Arran.
Katharine O’Donnelly spent her formative years at primary school on the island and then at Arran High School.
It was performing at a primary school Nativity play when she was just eight when she caught the acting bug, which she followed up at high school where she was ‘in everything’ from We Will Rock You, Oklahoma, The Wizard of Oz and finally, The Importance of Being Ernest, before heading to drama school in 2013.
Katharine has no doubt that the strong artistic roots of Arran played an important part in her career development and she singles out former English teacher Heather Gough for special mention, who she says was ‘very much my mentor’.
Living on an island may have had its challenges with gruelling weekend trips to the mainland for drama classes but Katharine does not believe that being ‘cut off’ was any disadvantage.
‘Being in a small community that really valued theatre means that actually I was really lucky.
‘I had so many benefits, a good grounding, coached help get into and with fewer people you get all the parts! I was only ever met with support and was regularly asked when I was home how I was getting on at drama school.’
Part of her ‘grounding’ was in performances at McLellan Festival plays and even when at drama school she brought students over to perform on Arran from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where she studied for three years.
Straight out of drama school she got her first job in the 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots with major stars including Saorise Ronan and Margot Robbie.
Katharine says the month she spent filming at Pinewood Studios was ‘marvellous’ and she learned lots from the set that just can’t be learned at drama school.
Katharine, who lives in Glasgow, says she was lucky enough to spend the first lockdown on Arran where her parents still live.
And now as things are slowly opening up again Katharine has a new agency handling her affairs in the US and is about to become more well known with a starring role in a new TV series The Head, which has been streaming in 60 countries across the world and is now available to viewers in the UK.
Described as ‘a claustrophobic thriller with a central mystery’, The Head is set in an isolated and inaccessible Antarctic research station.
It is a survival thriller where, during six 50-minute episodes, a plot of suspense unfolds, marked by long, dark Antarctic months of cold, wind and vast expanses of ice.
Produced by The Mediapro Studio, in collaboration with Hulu Japan and HBO Asia,
The Head has received widespread acclaim from audiences in all the territories where
it has premiered. It is now available on Starzplay in the UK.
It was filmed in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, where a set of the Polaris VI research station was reproduced to real scale, with exteriors shot in Iceland.
Katharine told the Banner: ‘There were nine nationalities involved with The Head and filming in Tenerife and Iceland was like being in the play as all the cast were so close and got on really well.’
And on the emergence of streaming series over conventional films Katharine says: ‘When you spend six hours you can get the emphasis on the human narrative rather than just a shock factor. A limited series means you get more time to spend with the characters.’
For Katharine it may be the role that fast-tracks her career but it may not have happened but for chance.
She was only spotted by the wife of the director Jorge Dorado on the IMDB website in a BBC3 series Clique, set in Edinburgh, in which the young Katharine had a small part. Her casting as ‘Maggie’ propelled her into her first leading role – the youngest and least experienced of the international cast.
But Katharine is keeping her feet firmly on the ground. She has no plans to head to the bright lights of London.
She says: ‘I think things will stay online for a while and I know lots of actors are leaving London which I think has lost some of its pull. Scotland has up-and-coming film studios and both Glasgow and Edinburgh are really vibrant just now.’
Katharine says: ‘I enjoy acting but I also enjoy being in nature so it is trying to strike a balance. I’d like to consider looking to be somewhere like Arran to live when I am not working.’
She also has one eye on the theatre and has already performed in Rapunzel at Christmas in Glasgow but would like to do more.
‘I think it is easier to go from the screen to the theatre than the other way round but there is real uncertainty about when theatre will be working again,’ she said.
‘I think one of the hardest parts about lockdown and the pandemic has been watching theatres and cinemas struggling with some having to shutdown and the uncertainty of when the industry will be able to reopen, not just for the actors, but for all involved behind the scenes.’
Katharine is not alone on Arran in making a career in show business. Chris Jenks, currently starring in Sex Education, is one of her closest friends and she also knows actor Paul Tinto, although he is a bit older.
And when will she back on Arran? ‘The second I am allowed.’
Arran actress Katharine O’Donnelly. Photo Faye Thomas NO_B12kath01
A worried looking Maggie in a scene from The Head ©Jacques Mezger – The Mediapro Studio NO_B12kath02
A bruised and battered Katharine in The Head ©Jacques Mezger – The Mediapro Studio NO_B12kath03
An advertising poster for The Head. NO_B12kath04
A tense scene from The Head with Katharine in the background ©Jacques Mezger – The Mediapro Studio NO_B12kath05
A strong and determined looking Maggie in The Head ©Jacques Mezger – The Mediapro Studio NO_B12kath06
Katharine performing in her final school play in 2013, The Importance or Being Ernest, on stage with Iona Flewitt. NO_B12kath07
A young Katharine meets Santa in Pirnmill in an early starring role in the Banner, which featured in our 20 years ago feature last Christmas. NO_B12kath08