Morgana O'Reilly interview: "I let people lick my toes for money"by Michele Hewitson
Morgana O’Reilly used to let people lick her toes for a living. Then she got a proper job.
At Auckland’s Depot Eatery, a woman who claims to be a gypsy takes my right hand in hers and peers at my palm intently. She is dressed in black and wears enormous silver hoop earrings and lashings of eyeliner. Her fingernails are painted deep purple. She says, in a purring, knowing, gypsyish sort of voice: “You are careful with your heart. That is a good thing.”
She looks at me with her beautiful, clever eyes and – although perhaps I imagined this – flutters her painted eyelashes at me and says: “Are you a little bit of a flirt, Michele?”
Certainly not, I say. I may have fluttered my eyelashes at her as I said it. So, okay, maybe a bit of a flirt when it comes to beautiful gypsy ladies, but other than that, and it pains me to say it, she is fairly rubbish at reading palms.
She says she is better at it after a few beers. You’d hope so. Careful with my heart? I fell head over heels in love with her after five minutes, and so would anyone.
The waitress comes by and does a double take. “Oh. My. God. Girl, I see you. I know you. As an actor. You work your thang.”
Does she get that a lot? “No. Not really. Good timing.”
She is, of course, not really a gypsy, but the actor Morgana O’Reilly, and she is a bit famous, although mostly, she says, in Edinburgh (of all places) for having been in the Australian soap Neighbours (of all things). She played Naomi Canning in the soap, which she says is more popular in Europe than it is in Australia. When she took her one-woman show, The Height of the Eiffel Tower, to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2014, she was suddenly famous. “I got a really bizarre taste of being a celebrity.”
Did she like it? “Yeah, sure. Totally. Especially because it was sort of temporary. Actually, do you know what? It’s lovely. Because you tell people you’re an actor and they go: ‘Oh. What have you been in?’ If you don’t know, you don’t know and I’d rather not go into it. So it’s lovely when people go, ‘I know not only that you’re an actor but what you’ve been in.’ That’s awesome.”
Some things she has been in: the horror comedy Housebound; the Billy T biopic; the TV series Sunny Skies; Jesse Peach’s Othello, as Desdemona. She is currently playing Vanda, the female lead in the Auckland Theatre Company’s production of David Ives’ Venus in Fur, which is billed as being “laced with suspenders and strapping with suspense”.
She is always asked in interviews: “So, what attracted you to the role?” This is her least favourite question because the answer, dummies, is: “Work. I wanted to work. I would have said yes to anything.”
So, what attracted her to the role as Vanda? “I just wanted to get my kit off,” she says. Does she get it all off? “No, I don’t. I get down to lingerie, which actually gives a very strong illusion of not wearing a lot but actually I am wearing quite a lot.”
There is also a serious answer, which is that she is attracted to the role of Vanda, an actress cast in an adaptation of a play about, ostensibly, sadomasochism. “She is really bold and really vivacious and really fiercely intelligent … She portrays this image of a kind of flustered, almost bimboesque femininity, but she uses that very particularly to illustrate, or cover up, the fact that she’s actually got a very good brain. She just chooses her moments to start revealing the fact that she’s got a very good brain and is very much onto what is going on.”
Vanda wears a pair of those spiky, laced-all-the-way-up S&M boots that are either, depending on what your thang is, weirdly sexy or completely creepy.
Does she think they’re sexy? “What is sexy, Michele? It’s so funny. It all connects to people, when you look into fetish or kink or any of that stuff. I may or may not have worked at fetish parties in New York …”
Did she, er, whip people? “No. I let people lick my toes for money. Should I be telling you this? Yes, I should.”
How much money? “Twenty dollars every 10 minutes, while they were licking my toes. When they weren’t licking my toes, I wasn’t making any money.”
Was she, er, wearing clothes? “Aah, not a lot of clothes. But enough to look decent. I was broke. I needed the money. Ha ha. But I also have a ridiculously dark sense of humour, so this was hilarious.”
I wonder whether she understood the impulse to be spanked and she says: “When was the last time you were spanked?” I splutter and say that I had never been spanked.
“Me neither. Maybe if [you had been], you might have a special little place in your heart for it. I can understand the sensation of it. It must be quite a nice wake-up from your usual life. Ha ha.”
I say: “People are very strange, aren’t they?” “They are,” she says, “they’re so strange and they’re so interesting, which is exactly why I got into this job. As I’m sure you did.”
Well, yes, I say. But I am thinking that I didn’t get into this job with the expectation that I’d meet a palm-reading gypsy who had let people lick her toes for money.
She became an actor because she is, she says – and this is rare in actors – a true extrovert. “In the sense that I do get energy and happiness from being social. And I know I can make people laugh and I know I can connect like that.”
She is a leftie and says most artists are and that they are because, “you know, being a leftie is about people being a collective, about understanding your community and that there is a community. And that there are people less fortunate than you, that you can help. I’d like to think that’s the epitome of being left wing.”
She is a gypsy, really. An actor’s life has things in common with the life of a palm-reading gypsy: occasionally itinerant; often financially precarious; playing a part. It is a life that makes her very happy. She has wanted to be a gypsy since she was a girl, which is when she learnt how to read palms. It is one of her party tricks.
She had a happy, creative childhood, spent in rehearsal rooms with her mother, the dancer MaryJane O’Reilly, and in father Phil O’Reilly’s graphic design studio. She is an only child and says her parents are like her siblings – they are quite hippyish and she is, too, in spirit. “Yes, definitely. I’m pretty loose.”
She has the perfect name for a hippy gal, or a gypsy, or an actor. In full, it is Morgana Le Fay Naomi Jane O’Reilly. This, she says, is “epic” and she loves it and always has. It is a bit of a mouthful. “I know. But it’s really nice. I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s like you’re instantly interesting. Ha ha. I don’t need to be interesting because my name’s interesting – so surely I am interesting. Right?”
Her parents named her after Morgan Le Fay, an enchantress in Arthurian legend who is often said to be King Arthur’s half-sister. “Maybe in case I wanted to be a stripper.” I read that her mother wanted her daughter to become a lawyer. “Facetiously,” she says.
She would be interesting, although perhaps not quite as interesting, if her name was Jane Brown. I imagine she was born interesting – and that she arrived in the world making a hell of a racket while looking beguiling. She shows me a picture on her phone of her beguiling-looking daughter, who is turning a year old the next day. She kept her parents up until 2.30am the night before, partying. “She’s soooo loud. She does these squeals of elation that would smash windows or, as my father says, ‘invert my contact lenses’. And you go, ‘Where does she get that from?’” Me: “Mmm.” Her: “I’m really proud. Ha ha.”
You may not be entirely surprised to learn that her daughter’s name is Luna Le Fay Nellie Reilly Salmon. She dropped the O from O’Reilly because she just thought it sounded better. “And then, if she wants, she can be Luna Reilly Salmon when she goes to school.”
Or Moon Fish. “Moon Fish. I know. Isn’t that great?” It is pretty great, but why Luna? “Both Peter and I have a thing for the moon. Who doesn’t?” I didn’t have an answer for that.
Peter is her husband, Peter Salmon, the film and telly director of Nowhere Boys, Rake, Outrageous Fortune and Go Girls. She says he would appear quite normal should you happen to meet him, but actually he’s not. “He’s a total weirdo. He’s just a kooky weirdo.” I haven’t met him, so I couldn’t possibly comment, except to say that he has an alter ego, the cartoonist Pedro Fins. And he is married to her.
I learnt all these things by stalking her, via her social media profile. I had an inkling that she might be a bit lively from reading her Twitter posts. She says she has a Twitter account only because her American manager asked all of the actors on her books to set one up. “Because there have been instances where people have been getting roles, especially in the States and especially for big blockbuster things. They would look at your social media following, because then it means you’ve got an instant audience.”
Has this manager actually seen her Twitter account? “Oh, my God. I know. 5000 followers. Gee whiz. That’s really going to tip the pendulum, isn’t it?” she says, and blows a raspberry.
That isn’t quite what I am getting at. I am getting at what she posts on her Twitter account. A few examples. Here she is, having cut her own hair: “#Likeaf---ing8yearold.”; a picture of a roll of loo paper, with a print of shells and starfish: “Finally a toilet tissue design that speaks the truth. Turds and bum holes.”; a description of a big night out in the life of a famous actress: “Hot chips at da takeaway boooooooiiiiii.” I am still trying to imagine some hotshot Hollywood producer looking at this stuff and thinking: “Hey, this girl would be great in …” Yes, quite.
Also, she is 31. She doesn’t really talk like that – “boooooooiiiiiii” – does she? “In my brain, yes, I do. Sometimes.”
I say I don’t even know what that sort of talk is. Is it cool? “It’s cool, Michele. She [the waitress] would have got it.”
Okay, I get it. She’s cool and I’m not. This is quite possibly why I will never have a Twitter account in which I talk about opening bottles of beer with my teeth. That is beyond lively; that’s madness.
In fairness, she hasn’t done that particular party trick for some time. Not since her tooth fell out, some years later. She has since spent more money at dentists than even an in-demand supplier of foot-fetish services could reasonably afford. But in her twenties, after she and some mates set up the Basement Theatre, she managed the bar for a year or so, and there she had a revelation. “I figured I could do this great trick, ha ha. Which is kind of ridiculous when you think about it. You probably don’t want a bottle of beer that somebody else has opened with their teeth.”
She was just showing off. “Yeah, yeah. I mean, it came in handy. Sometimes you don’t have an opener, right? Look at you. You’re so shocked. I love it.”
And then she gives me a big hug and off she sweeps, looking like a beautiful, clever, naughty gypsy. I may have fluttered my eyelashes at her, just the tiniest bit, as she went.
Venus in Fur is at the Herald Theatre, Auckland, until September 18.
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