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Hair-raising Irish star reveals how she shaved her head to play cancer patient

In new Irish movie The Bright Side she plays Kate, a world-weary stand-up comedian whose life is turned upside down following a diagnosis of breast cancer.

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Dublin actor Gemma-Leah Devereux in The Bright Side

Dublin actor Gemma-Leah Devereux in The Bright Side

Dublin actor Gemma-Leah Devereux in The Bright Side

In the past couple of years alone, she has played musical icon Liza Minelli in Judy, shone as a woman in a bad romance in crime thriller Broken Law, and played a member of the troubled Ahern in RTÉ series Smother, which has become an international hit.

Gemma-Leah Devereux is an actor who loves a challenge, so when she first read the script for moving and funny drama The Bright Side, she knew it was a role she wanted to take on.

In the new Irish movie she plays Kate, a world-weary stand-up comedian whose life is turned upside down following a diagnosis of breast cancer. She researched the role intensely and prepared to play the young woman going through an emotional rollercoaster.

However, it was the prospect of performing live stand-up in front of an audience that proved one of the biggest challenges.

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Actor Gemma-Leah Devereux.

Actor Gemma-Leah Devereux.

Actor Gemma-Leah Devereux.

“The audience was paid to laugh at me so it should have been less nerve-wracking but it wasn’t,” smiled the Dubliner. “So God help my nerves - and kudos to those who do stand-up, I have to say.”

One of the biggest draws for her is that Kate is not an entirely sympathetic character - she can be insensitive and rub people up the wrong way. And even before her diagnosis, her life is in turmoil.

“It was kind of why I loved her because I think everyone has flaws. And I think in cinema in general, though it’s definitely changing, there are so many more male characters that are flawed, and you love them.”

One of the most moving days on set was when she had her head shaved for a scene in which Kate decides to remove her hair during chemotherapy treatment.

“I think there was no other way you could do this in the film without doing it, to be honest. I think it was completely a part of Kate’s journey. But as well, so many people are doing it for real. So many people are going through this everyday. Hair is such a part of who you are as a person.”

The film is all the more moving and true when you realise it was written and directed by Ruth Meehan, who knew this world because of the death of her younger sister from cancer. One day, she picked up comedian Anne Gildea’s memoir, I’ve Got Cancer, What’s Your Excuse? and was inspired to start developing her own screenplay.

Ruth was “incredibly helpful” in her insights, said Gemma-Leah, who also likes to do extensive research.

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“For any parts I’ve ever done, I always make a book of the characters. The book has all the scripts in it, it has all of my notes, it will have all the things I want to do with the character, and pictures. I always have it with me on set. I get quite attached to it!”

Perhaps such attention to detail - and the fact she loves to mix it up - are among the reasons Gemma-Leah has become one of our busiest stars.

She has just completed filming the second series of the whodunnit Smother in Co Clare with a starry cast including one of her real-life best friends, Seána Kerslake. She plays Anna, a “very stuffy and kind of uptight” daughter of the recently deceased family patriarch.

She and Seána became friends after meeting in Dublin’s The Factory, a creative film space then run by directors Lance Daly, John Carney and Kirsten Sheridan in Dublin’s docklands. Other young stars who developed their early careers there included Barry Keoghan, Brian Gleeson and Jack Reynor.

Gemma-Leah loved that time and returning home to Ireland to work, but is mostly based in London. “When we were younger my mum would bring us to London to see shows and stuff, so I think I’ve always felt quite at home there.”

Another great acting education was working with Renée Zellweger on the set of Judy. The Irish star played Liza Minelli and Zellweger won an Oscar for her portrayal of the iconic Judy Garland.

“She’s so nice and she’s brilliant in that movie. I also think your A-game is completely upped when you’re working with somebody, but also learning - you’re learning from somebody who’s been in the business for years.

“The whole thing was amazing. I’d love to do another biopic, because it’s also a very different way of working, you’re looking at a real person.”

It’s been a remarkable couple of years on screen for the Dubliner, but she also revealed she’d love to write and direct in the future. She’s already co-written a screenplay and is also developing a potential TV project. She’s been inspired partly by other women in the business like Michaela Cole, Billie Piper and Irish actress Clare Dunne, who have been closely involved in developing their own stories.

“Over the last few years, I feel like you can do it all. I definitely would love to get behind the camera and have fun with that.

"I think acting’s always going to be my number one love, but writing and developing, especially when you see shows like I May Destroy You, I Hate Suzie, and Clare Dunne with Herself. I think it’s a great time to be trying out all these different things.”

  • The Bright Side is now in cinemas

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