“Young Irish women were starved of representations of themselves on TV,” says Stefanie Preissner on why her outrageously popular, and hilarious, RTÉ2 comedy drama Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope hit such a success with Irish audiences.
“I think it might have been a case of ‘hunger is the best sauce’” the writer, playwright and actress modestly adds.
The only woman in the country to have a TV show with two strong female characters, while Stefanie might put the show’s success down to that factor alone the fact that it has struck a nerve far beyond our island’s shores proves that there’s a lot more to it than that.
The hit series inspired by her 2017 book/memoir Why Can’t Everything Just Stay The Same? is now available on Netflix UK & Ireland, and in 2018 Stefanie will make even more waves outside of Ireland with a new Channel 4 series and she is currently writing for a company in New York.
German born, Cork raised Stefanie’s first big acting role was in Enda Walsh’s Chatroom. Next she took things into her own hands writing and starring in Solpadeine is my Boyfriend a one-woman show for the Dublin Fringe Festival.
The show was such a breakaway success that it toured internationally, and was recreated for RTÉ Radio Drama on One and it remains one of RTE’s most downloaded podcast to date.
We chatted to Stefanie about some serious things, such as the #MeToo campaign and where she draws the line between private and public, and more lighthearted topics, like chicken wings and Home Alone, and it turns out that she is just as articulate, personable, and hilarious as we could have possibly hoped.
How did you get your job?
When I was in Templemore I got a call to say that a youth theatre in cork needed an actor to fill in for someone who was sick. So I joined the youth theatre and from there Geraldine O’ Neill kept me on my toes doing plays until college where I studied Drama & Theatre and Spanish in UCC.
Men still get to tell the majority of the stories that form our cultural narratives
When I realised people weren’t queuing up to cast me in their films and plays, I started to write for myself.
Did you expect Can’t Cope/Won’t Cope to get the reaction it did?
No I really didn’t. I thought people would enjoy it as RTE2’s Monday night thing… like when I was in school Monday night was comedy night. But CCWC seems have hit a nerve with people. I think it might have been a case of ‘hunger is the best sauce’.
Young Irish women, in particular, were starved of representations of themselves on TV.
Yes we have access to American and British female driven television but American woman and British women are markedly different to Irish girls. Maybe it’s all that Catholic guilt we have wound into our DNA. I hope that series two is just as relevant and provocative as series one.
Why do you think there are so few TV shows and films with female leads?
Because it’s men who still get to tell the majority of the stories that form our cultural narratives and people tend to write about what they know best.
Do you think the tide is turning?
Yes. When women aren’t seen and their voices aren’t heard in public and cultural spaces, that absence becomes normal.
In the last year or so, women have begun to make themselves seen and heard in a revolutionary way and it doesn’t seem to be something that is reversible so hopefully it will become a new kind of normal and that will trickle down and we will see more space taken up by women on-screen and we become more comfortable taking up space off-screen.
Did the revelations about the media industry that the #MeToo campaign brought to light shock you, or were you not surprised?
Of course I was shocked. Not that it was happening, but with the volume and frequency… and the silence.
The historical silence was deafening once the first person spoke. I wasn’t surprised though. Power corrupts. We’ve seen it time and time again across every industry.
But mainly I felt sad, and shook. The psychological weight of that being carried around by the women affected was sort of devastating to me.
Your hit one one-woman show was titled Solpadeine is my Boyfriend, what period in your life did this draw from?
Well it was inspired by a time where I was meeting my closest friends every weekend at going away parties. The only time we would all be together was to say goodbye to one of us.
I found myself not wanting to say goodbye to people because of a childhood reaction and fear of change. I suppose I felt personally abandoned by people who left.
When I realised people weren’t queuing up to cast me in their films and plays, I started to write for myself
Then my boyfriend of a few years, on and off, broke up with me to emigrate to Australia. I felt as though I wasn’t enough to keep someone in a place.
And I really struggled against the fact that the government, or powers that be, I suppose the circumstances were against me and my wish to keep everyone close to me at all times.
It’s hard to grow up in a time that is so far removed from your expectations.
You’ve been incredibly open about your life, are there things you choose not to share?
Semi-autobiography plays an intrinsic role in my work. It’s where I start from and when I get lost, what I return to.
My work is about identity and coping mechanisms, broadly, so it’s important for me that I look at my own engagement with those things.
I am interested in the truth too. We live in an age where it is incredibly easy to be fake. In fact, it’s endorsed.
I see an honesty poverty in the world and I try to combat it with rigorous truth and transparency. It’s not useful to people or the world for me to amplify the best parts of my life only, to make it seem like I have no bad days or false starts.
The world is comparative now and I feel that if people are going to compare themselves to me, I have a responsibility to give them an honest insight into my life.
For every success I have there are many tiny failures; many scripts that never got made, many selfies that never got posted. I don’t want to be fake news.
That said, I only share that part of my life which is mine. I don’t ever want my friends, relatives, partner to feel that being in relation to me means risking their privacy.
That’s not fair. This is my career, which I chose and the opportunity cost of that means that I lose a little privacy, that shouldn’t impact the people in my life.
What other Irish women are inspiring you right now?
I’m inspired by the way Marian Keyes navigates her personal and professional life. She is so generous of her time and attention on Twitter that you could easily assume that she just sits on the social media site all day but then BAM she’s on a press circuit with another book out.
I like her ‘make less announcements’, ‘head down’ approach to her work and how she balances that with her social stuff. I would aspire to be as prolific, kind and playful as she is.
When I feel in a panic, or a rut, I think ‘What Would Marian Keyes Do?’
Sometimes when I feel in a panic, or a rut, I think of how I imagine she would cope, ‘What Would Marian Keyes Do?’ sort of thing. Then I usually have a big cry, brush myself off and get back to work.
Who would you want to play you in the film biopic of your life?
Can I play myself? I’ve been researching the role for nearly 30 years. If not, I love Neve Cambell in Scream. Or Keisha Castle-Hughes.
What film could you watch over and over again?
I live by a basic rule that once its dark at 6pm it’s Home Alone season. This is my all time favourite film. I definitely watch it over 30 times a year.
It’s so steeped in nostalgia for me that I forgive the massive plot hole. That if Kevin can call to order pizza, why doesn’t he just call the cops? He’s a sadistic little guy, but I love him.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Chicken wings from my Nana’s multi-cooker. Chicken wings from Nando’s. And chicken wings pulled off a roast chicken. So… chicken wings.
What was the first tape or CD you ever bought?
I got 10 pounds from my Uncle outside HMV in Cork one day and he told me to go in and buy a CD. I had no idea about music, what I liked or what any of the groups I had heard on radio were called.
So I picked the first CD I recognised the name on. ELVIS 56. Then it was 2 for 10 and Coolio was next to the counter so I bought that too. I continue to have a terrible taste in music.
What would your super power be?
Lukewarm-ify. I would like the ability to make everything moderate. To luke warmify any environment.
Things getting too heated in an argument? LUKEWARMIFY. Feeling too sad? LUKEWARMIFY. Cold aircon blowing on you in a café? LUKEWARMIFY. Feeling too hungry, thirsty, needy, too anything? LUKEWARMIFY.
What was your most embarrassing moment?
I talk about it at length in the book but I once sent a text to a group of parents whose kids I was teaching drama to.
There was the most unfortunate typo in the text because on the old Nokia phones the word ‘scripts’ autocorrected to ‘rapists’. I’ve gone concave just thinking of it.
What do consider your greatest achievement?
I think we all have a strange pride when it comes to our work. It’s not perfect, my horizons my goals are always shifting so it’s hard to stand still on the spot and say I am proud of this thing because I am constantly looking to the next thing and the next.
I am however, proud of the fact that I made it through the first half of 2012 and the first gold medal I ever won. For swimming in 1999. That was a great day.
What is your most unappealing habit?
I felt too biased to answer this question so I asked ‘The Boy Housemate’ and he said: “needing to know the plan. You don’t care what the plan is, as long as you know what’s happening but that’s just not how I, or most people, live their lives”… so now we’re not talking.
What trait do you most dislike in others?
I hate when people send multiple messages in Whatsapp or iMessage. Why can’t you just put it all in one message and stop blowing up me phone? That, or people who are afraid of silence.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Very, so, like. I have synonyms for the word ‘very’ on the wallpaper of my phone because my New Years resolution was to eradicate the word from my vocab.
The ‘like’ is a little harder… you can take the girl out of Cork, like.
We live in an age where it is incredibly easy to be fake
What is the worst job you’ve done?
I’ve not worked many jobs outside of television and theatre. However, if you come to my house and go to my little garden you will agree that I did a TERRIBLE job of trying to grow my own vegetables.
What is the one thing you wish you could tell your 16-year-old self?
I wouldn’t bother trying to tell my 16-year-old self anything. My 16-year-old self wouldn’t have listened. I hated being given advice by ‘grown-ups who knew better’.
Can you share with us any plans in the pipeline for 2018?
My Channel 4 series and the new show I’m writing for a company in New York. CCWC season 2 is filming so there are often last-minute re-writes that need to happen super quick.
Tell us a joke
Knock knock. Who’s there? To. To who? To Whom.