Interviewing a whole host of interesting people is one of the many things I love about of my job. Meeting new people, hearing their various stories, perspectives and journeys navigating life – it doesn’t get old. Although, it’s not always as glamorous as other glossy magazines may have you believe. I’m yet to meet any of my interviewees in a fancy London hotel where I’d wax lyrical about their glamorous, (probably designer) outfit while analysing their behaviour and body language down to which coffee they ordered and how much sugar they did or didn’t add to it.
For the most part, particularly when schedules are jam-packed at this time of year, phone interviews seem to suit everyone best. Sometimes, without seeing facial expressions or having access to someone’s immediate reaction, can make interviews more difficult and depending on the interviewee, significantly more intimidating. This, however, couldn’t have been further from the truth when interviewing Northern Irish actress and broadcaster, Brenda McNeill. As she answered the call, her warmth and wisdom instantly radiated down the line.
What’s most striking about Brenda is her energy. As you get to know her story, you see clearly her tenacity and determination to make it in an industry that’s not always smooth sailing. Her creativity and commitment to her goals serves as the biggest driving force behind her success while her passion and work ethic are contagious and inspiring.
Read on to discover how her time in New York City catapulted her career, the lessons she’s learned from her mentors and everything she wishes she could tell her younger self.
Tell us about how you got your start in your industry
I studied a Media Theory and Production course while at university in Scotland, specialising in broadcasting and video production. I always had a real fascination with TV. I had no idea what capacity I wanted to work in but I just wanted to know everything about it and find my niche. That was where I really kickstarted my acting as well, working as an extra in the old Scottish soaps.
Acting has always been constant thread throughout my career. Even when I wasn’t established in the industry in a broadcasting capacity, the acting work always kept me busy and I always grabbed those opportunities with both hands when they came along.
What fuelled the decision to move to New York?
When I graduated, I was back in Belfast for about a year. I was trying my hardest to get my foot in the door here. I was applying for jobs, knocking on doors. It wasn’t like production is now, it wasn’t as well established and there wasn’t a whole lot happening in Belfast at the time. It was tough for me to come to that decision but after a year I was so ready to work and prove what I could do. I had a real fire in my belly about trying to get my career up and running. I knew it wasn’t going to happen in Belfast at the time. I made a tough decision and I didn’t have a lot of money but I knew a friend of a friend who had a sofa I could sleep on for a few weeks and I just went for it.
New York was always a place for me that, if I got an opportunity there I knew I could make it work. I had a really big fascination with America. I felt it was the land of opportunity and that was the place to go so off I went. I was very lucky. Within six weeks I landed a small job as a runner at a radio station. It was the perfect time of year. It was coming up to St Patrick’s Day and they have a big party every year in the Irish Radio Network. They were just looking for people to help out so I just got in and tried to really prove myself, worked really hard, made the right contacts. An opportunity then presented itself when the producer of the show decided to move on to another job. He was fantastic, he saw how enthusiastic I was and he taught how to do everything in the studio so that when he left I pitched myself for the job. I went from a runner to a producer in six months. I knew that would never have happened had I not gone to New York. It was a baptism of fire but an amazing lesson in how to prove yourself and that hard work does pay off.
Tell us about the most memorable interview you’ve carried out over the course of your career
One radio interview that stands out for me was with Bob Geldof. It was an interview I produced quite early in my career in New York City. I had been privileged enough to have already recorded interviews with a number of actors, singers and dignitaries but Bob was someone I’ll never forget. His intelligence, passion and empathy for people was overwhelming. He really cares about the world and what people are going through. He isn’t afraid to rock the boat and he makes no apologies for that. The man really knows how to send a wake-up call to the world on humanitarian issues. He really made an impact on me that day.
With a variety of acting, producing and presenting credits to your name, which do you prefer doing?
I think it’s really important to not pigeonhole yourself. Why restrict your own development? If you chose just one thing, it means that you put yourself in a position that you are making no attempts to break free of. I don’t intend on doing that. I choose to do the things I love doing.
I turned 40 this year and I’m still discovering new things and wanting to embark on new ventures. I feel very lucky to have a number of passions as part of my career and I find that working on each gives me a better and broader understanding of them all. Evolving and adapting is so important both professionally and personally. It makes life more interesting. No one knows what the future holds, so enjoy the opportunities that come your way and embrace them. Variety is the spice of life.
“Evolving and adapting is so important both professionally and personally.”
Have you had many mentors throughout the course of your career?
I have been very fortunate to have met so many influential people to look up to throughout the course of my career in both acting and broadcasting. I’ve never been shy in reaching out to established people in the industry for career advice. They’ve been there, they understand your position and appreciate your willingness to succeed. Anyone worth their salt will offer advice or support to upcoming talent. As they say, if you’re lucky enough to make it to the top it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down!
“If you’re lucky enough to make it to the top it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down!”
What lessons have you learned from these mentors that you pass on to juniors in your field today?
Never give up! Keep trying, keep going. Trust the timing of everything. You will fail at certain things, you will be rejected for certain jobs and that’s ok, it’s part of life. My first year after university I received about 50 rejection letters for jobs. If something isn’t working, try another way. The right opportunities will come at the right time and when you’re ready. Do your research, connect with like minded people and be team player. Your time will come. It’s a marathon, not a race.
And ladies, in such a male dominated industry, don’t be afraid to put your head above the parapet! Now is the time to write, produce, direct, act or edit. If you’ve got a talent, find a way to showcase it. It’s time for more female led stories and characters to hit our screens.
“It’s time for more female led stories and characters to hit our screens.”
What attributes have driven your success?
Self -belief – I would say. I just want to be the best me I can be. No one has a perfect career. There will be times when you don’t get booked for the job, there will be times when you aren’t working and you’re looking at everyone else’s success on social media! I just trust that what’s for me won’t go by me. You will reach the top successfully if you’ve laid the right foundation. Believe & achieve.
Tell us about your favourite project so far and the lessons you took away from it
A big career highlight for me was being cast on ‘The Fall’. It was an exciting time in Belfast. Game of thrones was filming, production was being set up here and then to have a BBC drama based in Belfast starring Gillian Anderson and a lesser known (at the time) Jamie Dornan, that was just unbelievable. I went for the audition without expectation, as I do most auditions! Just do your best then forget about it. When the call came through that I got the part it was like winning the lottery for me.
As for the lesson learned? You can do it!
Is there anything you wish you could tell your younger self now, looking back?
Everything will be ok in the end, if it’s not ok, it’s not the end.
Everyone is winging it, so chill out.
Don’t pluck your eyebrows!
What are you currently working on?
I’ve just stepped back into the radio studio again which I’m absolutely loving. After a long year working in TV, it’s nice to get back into the radio studio again and start working on different projects. I’m delighted to be working with the Stephen Nolan show. I’m also doing a bit of work on Sunday Sequence as well in BBC Radio Ulster.
This year was a pretty big year. I worked on two really amazing projects. One was Stellify’s first game show called ‘Flinch’ which will be out in the New Year. That was an amazing experience. I worked in casting in that which was a huge undertaking in looking after the wellbeing of 80 contestants who are being put through their paces.
I also worked on a documentary for RTE with Waddell Media called ‘Ireland’s Rich List’ where it was my job to dig into how Irish millionaires and billionaires made their money which was really interesting.
As a side-project, I’ve started YouTube channel with my friend called Irish Girl Reviews and it’s just banter between two best friends who review various beauty products and put them to the test to see if it’s worth buying. Essentially it’s just us having a bit of craic on YouTube and winding each other up. It’s nice to be able to have a bit of a laugh with a friend.
Follow on Instagram: @BelfastBrenda