Sexy Beast star Sarah Greene: ‘To play someone so sexually empowered, I had to fall in love with my body’

The Bad Sisters and Normal People actor often plays women defined by the sharpness of their tongues. Her new series features her showiest display yet

“When I first got the call to audition, my accent was full-on Danny Dyer,” Sarah Greene says about landing the part of Dee Dee Harrison, a wry, beautiful adult-film star hell-bent on reclaiming her image as her own, in the new series Sexy Beast.

Set in the East End of London in the mid-1990s, the drama – a prequel to the big-screen crime thriller that starred Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley – traces the seductive nature of the city’s criminal world with a gritty charm that borders on sensual. We’re introduced to Dee when a thief called Gal Dove, played by James McArdle, spots her slinking around a dance floor, her silver flapper dress shimmering as she moves.

“There were several conversations about the dress,” Greene says, laughing. “Cathy Prior, who did the costumes for Derry Girls, wanted me to look like magic. She had this exact dress on her mood board. We hit some roadblocks along the way, but we managed to get it in the end. And, no, I didn’t get to keep it.”

Dee quickly becomes Dove’s love interest. “It was clear from the screen test that James and I were a great match,” Greene says. “And to play someone so sexually empowered ... I’d never done that before. I had to fall in love with my body – which feels like a massive departure from playing the mum of a teenager, which I’ve done a lot of recently.”


Greene likes her characters to have convincing backstories, to the extent that she often creates them herself. For Sexy Beast, the actor watched a lot of 1990s pornography and read autobiographies of people in the adult-film industry. Her characters often combine ferocity with control – a mix that directors like to convey via lingering close-ups as she replaces her initially evident emotions with a blankness.

At the same time, Greene has built up a distinctive portfolio, never choosing the same type of part twice. “I want to challenge myself constantly,” she says. “We’re so lucky in the job that we do: we get to step into other people’s shoes. It’s taught me to have more empathy and compassion – although you do have to be careful. I’m not a method actor, but these things definitely can get under your skin and into your psyche.”

Greene, who studied at the Gaiety School of Acting, has been working steadily since she graduated, in 2006. After minor roles in the Dublincentric dramedies Bachelors Walk and Raw, she made her first film appearance in the screen version of Eugene O’Brien’s play Eden, in 2008. That was followed a few years later by a role in the raucous Brendan Gleeson comedy The Guard, and then by a part in the Martin McDonagh play The Cripple of Inishmaan that earned her Olivier and Tony nominations (as well as an invitation from Anna Wintour to attend the Met Gala).

A series of acclaimed performances followed: Woyzeck, at the Old Vic, and Jez Butterworth’s play The Ferryman, along with a memorably unsettling turn as Helen McCrory’s sorceress daughter in the TV series Penny Dreadful. Younger fans might recognise her from Dave Tynan and Emmet Kirwan’s kaleidoscopic Dublin Oldschool or from the TV version of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, in which she played the mother of Connell, Paul Mescal’s character. (Greene won her fourth Ifta award for the role.)

The Cripple of Inishmaan is one of the trio of parts that have meant the most to the actor. “I still get calls from casting directors today based on that show,” she says. Her role in Rosie, Paddy Breathnach’s film about a family whose landlord sells the home they’re renting, “opened my eyes so much. We were filming in hotels where families were going through the exact story we were telling.” And then there’s Bad Sisters, Sharon Horgan’s punchy, stylish dark comedy about a family of Irish sisters who set out to murder their abusive brother-in-law John Paul (played by Claes Bang).

Greene plays Bibi Garvey, an acerbic one-eyed lesbian who punches her way through life. It is she who plans the murder, an eye-for-an-eye type revenge given that it’s John Paul who was responsible for the loss of hers. The eye patch Greene wears for the part resulted in some accidents on the set. “I was constantly banging into cameras,” she says, laughing. “And my left knee even started hurting because, as it turns out, I was overcompensating on it ... But it was a lot of fun. And I looked like a badass.”

Few Irish ensemble pieces have been so well received globally – and fewer still have had such a strongly female cast. “It’s a very special job,” Greene says. “We’re shooting season two at the minute. It’s funny: so many people are wondering how there can be a season two if John Paul is dead. But – dare I say – it’s actually better. Like, we got to see episode one the other day, as they’d just finished editing, and we laughed and cried. Sharon Horgan is a genius. As is Dearbhla Walsh, our director. Literal geniuses.”

Bad Sisters is refreshingly uninterested in a conventional heroine’s journey toward romantic or professional fulfilment. Filmed on location in plush, coastal areas of Dublin such as Howth and Sandycove, the show connects the dots between reality and misogyny, mental health issues and intergenerational trauma. “It’s a real, real privilege to come to work with people I genuinely admire as well as like personally,” Greene says.

“It’s also just so thrilling to have so many women playing characters that are complex and not perfect. They’re messy and loud and can be quite mean to each other. People really relate to that imperfection. I can’t tell you how many messages we’ve gotten from families of sisters who see themselves in us.”

As both Bibi and Dee, Greene moves between self-destruction and a smattering of control. In Sexy Beast, Dee is searching for a production company that will allow her to own her imagery and likeness. It is a drive that a young Greene can relate to. “She knows that there’s a shelf life to her career, and she also knows that she would be a brilliant director. She’s been met with obstacles along the way, but her ambition and drive make her want more. She’s had to fight forever, but she still does because she knows it’s worth it.”

What would Greene say to a young person who yearns for an acting career but is worried about failing? “Firstly, I’d say go see as much theatre as you can. And, secondly, don’t be too hard on yourself. Because no one is really even looking at you: they’re too busy thinking about themselves,” she says, laughing. “It’s the most freeing thing in the world ... to realise that no one gives a sh*t about anybody but themselves. Nobody really gives a flying f**k.”

The first three episodes of Sexy Beast are on Paramount+ from Thursday January 25th, with new episodes weekly