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Love/Hate stars dish the dirt on the ever present fear of being killed off

Four of our favourite Love/Hate stars don their Sunday best before chatting to Eoin Butler about the rise and rise of the TV drama.

Mary Murray is not a household name. Nor, in person, does she much resemble the hard-nosed brothel madam she plays in Love/Hate. It is her husky, inner-city drawl, the actress admits, that usually gives the game away.

"Taxi drivers always clock me. They notice me accent first. One or two sideways glances. Then, 'Did I pick you up before?' 'I don't know.' 'You seem very familiar?' 'Do I?' Eventually, the penny drops. 'Wait a second, aren't you...?'"

Janet? "'Nidge's bit on the side' more like," she laughs. "Or 'that slapper'. Then they're mortified in case I might be offended. But that's fine. Janet works in a brothel. You're allowed to call her those things if you want. It's my character. It's not me."

Series four of RTE's phenomenally popular gangland drama concluded last year, uncharacteristically, on somewhat of a bum note. A much-anticipated showdown between the cops and robbers fizzled out in anti-climax. Series five debuted this month to stratospheric ratings (976,000 viewers, a 56pc audience share) but, initially at least, also tepid notices.

It wasn't until this season's barnstorming second instalment, in which Fran (played by Peter Coonan) finally learned Nidge (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) had been responsible for the pipe-bomb attack in which Fran's late wife was disfigured, that the series came roaring back to life.

As cast members gather for our photo shoot the morning after the episode airs, #lovehate, #nidge, #trish and #fran are still the top Twitter trends in Ireland. The looming Nidge v Fran showdown is seemingly being dissected by every major radio show in the country, while newspaper polls speculate about which major character is next for the chop.

For Aoibhinn McGinnity, who has played Nidge's gorgeous partner Trish since the show's inception, this level of public enthusiasm is not something she ever takes for granted.

"Sometimes as an actor," she admits, "you can be part of a production where it feels like your friends and family kinda..."

She pauses.

Turn up out of a sense of duty? "Exactly. It happens. But with Love/Hate, the enthusiasm is real. My flatmate was genuinely excited watching the show with me last night. My mom rang me afterwards to say she thinks it was the best episode ever. And that's amazing. To have an arc in such a huge, popular drama is something I'm very appreciative of."

In a break from tradition, the cast did not get to see this season's episodes before they aired. "We'd read the scripts in black and white," McGinnity explains. "But this is the first time seeing the finished product on-screen at the same time as the rest of the country. The editing is amazing. Although, you're still always very anxious about your own performance."

As for the fate of their respective characters in this series, that is not information the stars of this morning's photo shoot are at liberty to divulge. "To be honest," grins Lynn Rafferty, who plays Nadine, the girlfriend and drug-smuggling partner of Aido, one of Nidge's trusted lieutenants, "I'd love to tell you.

"What I really like about Nadine," she continues, "is that she has this amazing, dry Dublin wit. But she's also her own woman. She does have a big storyline coming up this year that'll show us the extent to which she is prepared to stand up for herself. I can't wait for everybody to see it. But unfortunately, I can't say any more about it for now."

She can confirm, however, that Nadine's big episode is the fourth in the current series, which airs tomorrow night.

As a child in Dublin's inner city, Rafferty would have accompanied her father, Mick, a prominent community activist, and his friend, the late Tony Gregory TD, on numerous anti-drug marches. Is she concerned the show, whose online fan-base is currently split into rival #teamnidge and #teamfran camps, risks glamourising gangland feuding?

She isn't unduly concerned.

"I guess because it's on TV, some people are always going to say that. But every week someone is being shot. Someone's looking over their shoulder and watching their friends die. I wouldn't call that glamour. Personally, I've never met anyone like the gangsters on the show, and I'd probably run a mile if I ever did."

Mary makes a similar point. She recalls a scene in which two prostitutes working for Janet died of heroin overdoses. Janet wanted the girls' families informed, but Nidge refused. "That's the moment," she says, "when Janet realised this life wasn't all sunshine and lollipops."

(We're interrupted by photographer Mark Nixon, who is hanging lights nearby. "Spoilers, please!" he protests, but Murray is having none of it. "This was last year," she retorts. Nixon explains he's currently working his way through the box set. "Well, put your earplugs in," she chuckles.)

So why is Janet drawn to Nidge, I ask? "I think there's an attraction to Nidge's energy and ambition and power. But at the same time, she also thinks she's tapped into his vulnerability. Like a lot of women, she thinks she can change him or mould him to her satisfaction. Whereas in reality, Nidge is his own man. He does his own thing and everyone else will suffer the consequences."

Aoibhinn was cast as Trish before Love/Hate ever aired. Murray's Janet and Rafferty's Nadine were both minor characters who grew in prominence as the show progressed. Of those present today, only newcomer Johnny Ward (who plays suave enforcer Paulie) signed up fully aware of the whirlwind he would be stepping into.

A part-time drama teacher, he had been invited to audition for a part on season one, but turned it down to appear in Kirsten Sheridan's film Dollhouse, alongside Jack Reynor and Deirdre O'Kane.

"That was kind of a pilot season," he recalls. "It wasn't until the second and third series that Love/Hate really exploded.

"I mean, it wasn't just on the TV and in the newspapers. It was all over the internet. I play astro [soccer] twice a week and it's all anyone was talking about there. I'd be sitting in traffic and I'd see it on billboards. People would say, 'You should think about getting on that show.' And I'd say 'Jesus, I wish it was that easy.'"

Eventually, he got a call from a casting agent. He auditioned six times for the part of Paulie and was euphoric when he secured the role. For the season premier, Ward even organised a viewing party at home.

"I invited friends, relatives and neighbours over. But half-an-hour before time, I said, 'Lads, actually, do you mind if we leave it another night?' They all wanted to party, but I was just too nervous."

According to one online news source, Ward called off the viewing party because he feared his character Paulie would be rejected by Love/Hate fans, much as Homer Simpson's Poochie the Dog character had been rejected by fans of The Itchy & Scratchy Show in the classic Simpsons episode.

Though the sentiment expressed in that quote is endearingly self-deprecating, and relatable, the 27-year-old cringes when he hears it repeated back to him.

"That was just one line that came out of my mouth," he pleads. "I wasn't even thinking about what I was saying. Three hours later it's plastered up in a headline: 'PAULIE FEARS HE IS NEW POOCHIE.'"

Fortunately, the fan revolt Ward envisaged never materialised. Viewer response to Paulie has been overwhelmingly positive.

"Honestly, and I'm not just saying this, I must have 400 new Facebook friend requests. Messages from people saying you're a great addition to the show and 'please add me'."

The theme of today's shoot is old Hollywood. For Aoibhinn, this represents rather a change of pace from how we usually see her dressed. Along with costume designer Aisling Wallace Byrne, McGinnity has helped to craft Trish's distinctive look, which the actress defines as "more is more".

"She's trying to look rich, so it's slightly WAG-y. Too much gold, too much print, big bulky handbags, leather on leather. Aisling and I both really get into it. It's not a shallow thing. There wouldn't be a wardrobe department if the clothes weren't the final part of a character's mask."

A sixth series of Love/Hate is already in development, but McGinnity refuses to be drawn on whether Nidge's glamorous wife is set to return, or indeed whether (with half the current series still to air) the actress may in fact - who knows? - already have shot her final scenes.

"When you're reading the scripts for the first time, you're in exactly the same position as the audience. You're wondering what's going to happen next. I don't think anyone's ever correctly predicted anything, out of all us cast. But beyond that, I'm afraid I can't give anything away."

Either way, the Monaghan actress is already spreading her wings. This autumn, she appeared in an Irish film Poison Pen, based on a script by writer Eoin Colfer. At Christmas, she will star as Josie in Elf: The Musical at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre.

"That's the next mountain to climb," she smiles. "It's a lot of singing, a lot of dancing. It will certainly be the fittest Christmas I've ever had."

Rafferty is another cast member expanding her artistic horizons. The actress currently splits her time between Dublin and her partner's home city of Toronto, where she is currently filming a TV pilot. She's not supposed to talk about the project, she says, but it's a cross between Weeds and Breaking Bad.

Does she play the part with an Irish or Canadian accent? "North American," she replies. "I've been working on it for a while. I shot a feature, playing a journalist funnily enough, and that was my first experience performing in a North American accent. I also use it when I'm out for the night in Toronto, for practice, although people often tell me I sound Australian."

The Summerhill native even has one major life hack, for actors auditioning in accents other than their own, that she is willing to share.

"I start using the accent from the moment I arrive at the audition," she confides. "Because if they know it's not my own, they immediately start looking for flaws."

Murray can go one better. She once acted in a film titled El Juego Del Ahorcado (The Hangman), despite not possessing one very key attribute her role required. "My agent rang me up and asked if I wanted to do a film in Spain. The script was in English. I said 'A trip to Spain? Yeah, that'd be lovely.'

"Two days later, they said, 'Here's the finished script'. And it was in Spanish. I said, 'Hang on a second, I don't speak Spanish.' And they said, 'Well, you'd better learn.'" So learn it she did.

For Murray, currently performing in No Smoke Without Fire at the Viking Theatre in Clontarf, the biggest positive the show's success has brought is in raising the profile of Irish theatre.

"Suddenly, lots of people are rushing out to see Peter Coonan in Borstal Boy, Charlie Murphy and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor at the Abbey. That's the real craft and it's great to get people interested."

As for Janet's future? Well, Murray is realistic. Her real-life brothers Patrick and Jim Murray (who played Real IRA members Paddy and Ray) were gunned down in a previous series of Love/Hate, and the actress has spoken of her discomfort at seeing those characters' funerals depicted on the show.

Of course, this isn't just because she loves her brothers. It's also because she loves her job. "You never want your character to be killed off. Everybody in Love/Hate has a reason to be wacked, you're just hoping it's not you. You're hoping there'll be more storylines so there's a reason for you to hang on in there for a bit longer."

Well, the signs aren't all bad, I suggest. If Nidge does decide to retire to Marbella, which of his lady friends is he more likely to bring along? The one who speaks Spanish or the one who doesn't? Murray laughs uproariously. "I'll do well there, I knew it!" she agrees.

Clearly, all of these actors have range. But none is due to switch gears as dramatically as Johnny Ward this coming holiday season. No longer hunting and killing random gangland miscreants for sport, he'll be pitching in with "Faith and trust and pixie dust" when he takes the role of Peter Pan in the Gaiety Christmas panto.

"I played Buttons last year in Cinderella. Shortly before I got the part in Love/Hate in February, I was asked if I'd like to play Peter Pan. I said sure. I know panto is frowned upon by a lot of people in the business. But it means a lot to a lot of kids. And it's not really Christmas in Dublin until panto season kicks off."

As to Paulie's fate, however, Ward refuses to be drawn. Yet it's tempting to speculate. With another series on the way, writer Stuart Carolan may now feel that, in Wall Street terms, his chief protagonists Nidge and Fran are somehow too big to fail. Which would leave Paulie a likely scapegoat to find himself at the bottom of a canal by season's end.

On the other hand, Carolan may just decide a major gangland shake-up is overdue. Who knows? One thing is for certain, though. Paulie's prospects of making it to series six would improve immensely if there were an audience on hand to shout "He's behind you!" when appropriate.

The fourth episode of Love/Hate airs tomorrow night on RTE One at 9.30pm.

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