An Interview of Olwen Kelly

Introduction by Ellis Pendens

Interview and Photographs by Flo Kohl

Back in 2012, photographer Flo Kohl shot Olwen Kelly as part of a black and white portrait series, and something clicked. Not simply the natural contrast of her dark hair and pale skin, nor the angles of her elbows and sharp cheekbones—rather she had that inimitable sparkle of good Dubliner humor, and a personality which leapt from the image. When he began his Kintsugi:16 series of medium format portraits of the body, disjointed and reassembled in contact sheets, it was with Olwen in mind. Likened to a modern interpretation of a Victorian autopsy image, her Kintsugi had a particularly macabre note, tempered by the delicacy of her features. She was the epitome of the fabled good-looking corpse.

Flo visited Olwen in her London home for a new photo session upon the release of André Øvredal’s new film, The Autopsy of Jane Doe. As the eponymous, unnamed body, she nevertheless managed to capture the viewer’s eye, and to steal scenes even from co-stars Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch. An intense close-up of her lifeless face and clouded eyes advertise the film, belying the magnetism of the lively young actress within. After an impromptu shoot, the two sat for coffee, granola, and a chat. 

FLO KOHL: For you, is there a big difference between modeling and acting or is it all in a sort of performative realm?

OLWEN CATHERINE KELLY: They’re definitely both performance based for me, but there’s a huge difference. The way that I have to prepare is completely different. 

Were you into horror movies or did Jane Doe just sort of happen?

I mean I do like horror movies. I didn’t set out to do a horror movie, but when it came up... I mean when I have a choice of watching something, I guess it’s usually something that’s a bit scary. I’ll sit and watch episodes of Criminal Minds or Silent Witness or anything that’s a bit eery. And horror movies, I scare myself and am not able to sleep [laughs]. 

And had you seen Stephen King tweeting about you?

Yeah, it was pretty amazing. It’s pretty cool that he’s seen it.

He saw it before me and I was like, “Oh my god, I really need to see this now!” When did it come out in the US?

It came out on the 23rd of December, just before Christmas. 

How challenging was it to just play a body?

Sometimes you’re not able to engage with people off-set the same way, so you may be getting your makeup done and getting into character, and thinking about getting yourself into that zone. I was able to have quite a good time and chill out with them and build up quite a good relationship, so that was definitely a positive experience.

Any new projects you can talk about?

Mmm, I have one coming up actually. Like a strong tribal leader and it’s got sci-fi elements in it as well, so that’s going to be fun and interesting. It’s really beautifully shot, so I’m excited for that to come out. The Darkness On the Edge of Town is already out here and it’s been out in the States for a year or so, and then other than that I have to keep them under wraps. 

Do you have any dream directors you’d like to work with?

Ooh, there are so many. I mean, Tarantino, for sure. I’m a big Ron Howard fan, but that’s because I love Arrested Development. 

Were you a movie fan growing up?

Yeah, big Tim Burton fan as a child. So, I think the first film that I actively remember taking an interest in was Edward Scissorhands, which is quite interesting for me, because I suddenly noticed that Winona Ryder’s been in quite a few influential films or TV shows for me at different periods of my life, and I’ve never really made that connection that she must have some sort of influence over me. 

So you’re from Ireland originally. Do you miss Dublin? Have you worked, film-wise, in Ireland?

Yeah, Darkness on the Edge of Town is Irish. I would like to do more there, because they make amazing films and the Irish Film Board actually funds a lot of movies. A lot of movies that are not even Irish. People from all over the world apply for funding there, because their funding does exist and it has quite a good history of trying to support Irish actors. So I would like to work there more, but I also don’t want to base myself there. 

Makes sense.

So, by not basing myself there, I guess I’ve taken myself out of that mix. For now. Yeah, so one of my potential upcoming projects may or may not be linked to Ireland [laughs]. 

Oh cool. It’s just fun to sort of go back to things that you knew from growing up. I was shooting in Germany and it’s so funny—things that I’ve always sort of taken for granted, just what was around when I was growing up, people are like, “Oh my god. It’s so amazing that this exists in Germany!” And I’m like, “Oh, okay. I guess it’s special if you didn’t really see it, you know?”

Yeah, for sure. I mean, Ireland has been really interested as soon as Jane Doe came out. Everyone has been so nice. People have spoken to my mum in the local pub and been really lovely and people are interviewing me and they put on a screening of The Autopsy of Jane Doe even though there’s not a definitive date of when, where, or if it will even come out in Ireland. They still had a screening. I mean, it was essentially all my friends that went. I wasn’t there, but my mum said everyone started cheering when my name came on screen [laughs].