The actress and singer-songwriter had already appeared in the hit crime drama Kin and fronted the primetime series The Heart of Saturday Night, with Una Healy.
But hearing she had landed the role of Evelyn in the latest small-screen adaptation of a Sally Rooney novel, which was set to be directed by Oscar-nominated director Lenny Abrahamson, in the middle of lockdown, was a surreal experience.
“I was so amazed. I had sent off the audition tapes in lockdown and I guess they liked them, and my agent rang me and it was so special.
“Normal People was so beautiful and Lenny is such an amazing director that you kind of dream about these things.”
After shooting a few scenes in Belfast last summer, she found herself jetting to the island of Hvar in Croatia to spend weeks on a sun-soaked set with the cast, which included Favourite actor Joe Alwyn and Girls star Jemima Kirke.
The unspoilt island on the Adriatic Sea was the backdrop for dreamy holiday sequences on the series but it was just as idyllic in real life.
“It was so heavenly for all of us cast and crew. There’d be days where we’re like, ‘I can’t believe this is our job, we get to be here, and we are working.’
“And we’d go for swims after a day of shooting altogether in the sea. On Sundays, on our day off, we’d go on little beach trips and it was just really magical. It was a very special moment in time.”
Conversations with Friends — Rooney’s first novel — is the saga of Frances and Bobbi, best friends and ex-girlfriends, who become entangled with an older married couple. In the series, the Kildare star — who records music under the stage name Loah — gets to show off her musical skills when her character, who is Nick and Melissa’s friend, treats the group to an acoustic cover of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren.
“I think that’s a really Irish thing about that scene because we’ve all been to parties where someone just cracks into a song.”
A starring West End role in Jesus Christ Superstar in 2019 had cemented her decision to pursue performing as a career after briefly working full-time as a pharmacist.
“I worked really hard for my degree, and after I worked for maybe a year and a half. And then I was like, ‘I think I want to do music properly’.
“Then I went to London to play Mary in Jesus Christ Superstar,” tells Sallay. “After that, I was really excited about both music and acting, and then lockdown happened.”
Around this time, she ended up chatting with her old boss in the pharmacy.
“He was like, ‘Listen, do you want to come in? Because it’s getting pretty mad in here.’ So, I actually went back during the pandemic. I was working in the pharmacy part-time and continuing all my music stuff.”
In the meantime, Sallay landed a role in Kin and was signed up to present RTÉ entertainment show, The Heart of Saturday Night, alongside Una Healy. “I’d heard of her, of course, but we hadn’t met but we have such a laugh. She’s even lovelier in real life, if that’s possible.”
Growing up in Maynooth, the super- stylish rising star also took sartorial inspiration from her time living in West Africa.
“My dad is from Sierra Leone, and we lived in West Africa for a few years and that was really cool,” she says.
“It influenced me a lot in terms of like, big, bold colours, and not being afraid to wear big, bright patterns and being like, ‘Life is short — so celebrate’.”
And she has no regrets about leaving her pharmacy career behind either: “I’m so driven as a person that I make everything work for me.”
As a result, a book of 1920s poetry set to music is due to be released, she is working on her debut album and the multi-talented star is excited about the future after the global exposure of her latest role in Conversations with Friends.
“I’m a supporting character, but I’ve had some really lovely comments about the singing and everything,” smiles Sallay. “It’s number one on BBC iPlayer and it’s so deserved because it was made with such love.
“It feels fun to be part of something that means a lot to people.”