Getting on her bike
Roxanna Nic Liam told David Hennessy about Bicycle Thieves: Pumped Up, her comedy movie about bicycle theft and the housing crisis, which is about to screen at Irish Film Festival London.
Bicycle Thieves: Pumped Up has been described by its own writer/ director Conor O’Toole as a silly film about serious issues.
It is an offbeat comedy that contemplates issues like the safety of cyclists on our roads and the housing crisis.
The story centres around Roxanna Nic Liam’s Mags, a pizza delivery girl with anger issues. When her bike is stolen from a lamp post, she can no longer make a living and what makes it worse is her landlady is increasing the rent, again.
But it is not just a bike, it is the only thing her late mother left her. She has to get it back and embarks on a journey to find the evil criminal mastermind who is relieving Dubliners of their bikes.
Conor knew Roxanna was the only actress he wanted for Mags. She has been acting since she was a child and can count big films such The General, Agnes Browne and the crime series Love/ Hate on her resume. Fans of Fair City would know her as Erica Allen, a part she has been playing since 2019.
But another reason Conor thought of Roxanna was because she cycles herself and did not need to work too hard to put herself in Mags’ place who has no problem telling an entitled motorist that they do not ‘own the road’.
In fact, she told us she would like to channel more Mags.
Roxanna told The Irish World: “Conor is a friend for years and he just came up with the idea because he was a cyclist around Dublin and I’m a cyclist in Dublin as well.
“He knew I could act, knew I was funny.
“He asked me over one day, and we had a chat about it and it just sounded like great fun.
“But I didn’t expect it to take off as it did.”
Bicycle Thieves: Pumped Up starts with Mags opening a car’s door to poke her head and tell the driver what she thinks of him.
She may only be on two wheels but Mags is prone to a bit of road rage.
But can Roxanna relate to Mags? “Oh my God yeah.
“I don’t even think it goes far enough some times,” she laughs.
“I’ve been cycling in Dublin about 15 years now and when I started cycling, I didn’t really think anything of it.
“But other people were like, ‘Oh my God, you’re mad. You’re mental cycling around’.
“And I was like, ‘Why? That’s just how I get around’.
“I live quite close to the city centre so it’s the only way to get around.
“But as I get older I just kind of go, ‘Oh my God’. People have such a disdain for cyclists and make it really difficult for them on purpose and it can be quite dangerous.
“There’s so many things in the film that when I was reading the script I was like, ‘Oh my God, yeah’.
“The film was also a really great way for me and Conor to vent our frustrations at the general public’s disdain for cyclists.”
Are you really like Mags then? Surely not.
“When people are saying, ‘She’s a very angry character’, I’m like, ‘Yeah, ‘character’..
“Again cycling around Dublin you can’t not be, it just brings out the demons.
“Mags is what I would be like if I had no filter, what I probably would say.
“I just admire her.
“The very start when the fella is beeping at her, she pulls down his windscreen and opens the door and says, ‘I need to be here to turn right’.
“And it happens all the time.
“You get cars beeping ya and you’re like, ‘But I’m in the right effing lane. This is where I need to be and you’re mildly inconvenienced’.
“Obviously, I’m not screaming at them
“I’d love to channel more Mags.”
Have you, like Mags, ever roared some choice words at a driver for beeping you for no reason? “I mean, I wouldn’t say I’ve never done that,” she laughs.
“There have been some times.
“The worst for me, it’s actually not even in the film, is opening car doors without looking and nearly getting hit.
“It’s so frightening, a few times it was very hairy and you do just go effing and jeffing but it comes from being terrified.”
The film also has much to say about the country’s housing crisis. When their landlady puts their rent up yet again, Mags and her two housemates are looking for somewhere new only to find there are slim pickings out there. It doesn’t help that one potential landlord has already got a mouthful off Mags for his driving.
Although the film was shot in 2018, housing has only become a bigger issue since then.
“In Ireland and in Dublin especially, it’s gone insane but when we were filming it, Conor had just had a kid.
“Him and his partner, they were looking for somewhere to live.
“He was trying to make this film and at the same time, move his whole life.
“It was absolutely impossible for them to find anywhere that was in any way appropriate to bring a kid up, or that was in any way affordable.
“He lives in Glasgow now.
“A lot of Irish people have just moved there because the cost of living in Dublin is just gone insane.
“And it’s not even being able to afford a flat but even finding one, they’re like gold dust.
“So that kind of went into the film as well.
“A lot of people were like, ‘Wow, it’s current’.
“It was just coming from what was happening in Conor’s life at the time.
“We filmed it in 2018.
“It’s gone insanely worse since then.
“We couldn’t have known how bad it was gonna get.
“I think that’s why it kind of resonated with people, it kind of just highlights in a comical way the absurdity of what people who are renting are going through.”
The housing crisis, like everything in the film, is done with something of a surreal touch. When Mags finds herself sharing a tent, she gets to meet the minister for housing, quite randomly. He says he has no idea that there was a housing crisis but once told, he comes up with the solutions in all of ten seconds, namely using the unused buildings that are everywhere.
That’s playing it for comedy, serious drama- like real life- would be different.
“The reality of it would be that Mags would never find somewhere to live and probably would end up living on the canal with the other homeless guy.
“But the heart of the movie is its silliness and its playfulness.”
With things getting increasingly difficult at home, Roxanna has seen many looking for a better life outside of Ireland which is not a new story.
“Like the age old story of Ireland, they’re all emigrating again.
“I’m 34 and I’ve already lived through two recessions, and how many housing crises and mass immigration?
“How many times are we gonna have to go through this?
“With actors and artists especially, we don’t feel very valued, I don’t think.
“Our city is being built for tech people, for Google, hotels, and for tourists.
“It’s not a city that’s being developed for the people that are trying to work here and make a living, it’s built for a certain demographic of people, a certain class of people.
“The anxiety it causes people to have to try and find somewhere to live, even buying a house is impossible because everything’s just built to rent now, everything.
“That’s where all the money is.
“So it’s all about money.
“And child homelessness is on the rise.
“It’s absolutely insane.”
Roxanna spent three years in London herself when doing stage shows such as Liola at the National Theatre.
“I seriously considered it (leaving again).
“I’ve found a place now but there was a stage where I was kind of thinking of leaving and there was just no way I was ever going to afford to live anywhere.
“But I would never say never. I’m happy. I love Dublin.
“The other thing about the film is it’s a showcase of how great Dublin can be.
“I would love to move somewhere for work but I think, ultimately I’ll probably always come back.”
How did you like London? “I liked it.
“When I first moved, I was near Croydon which I really loved and then I moved to Bermondsey which was great as well.
“I lived in a block of flats.
“There was a lot of people who lived in those flats, older people who lived there their whole lives so they had these amazing stories so that was really nice.
“It was great. It is great when you’re working.
“When I had acting work, I absolutely loved it.
“There was so much history. I really like that.
“It is just so big, you can see why there are areas like, ‘This is the area all the Irish people moved to, this is the area where all Indian people moved to, this is the area where the Afro Caribbean..’
“Because it’s so big that you have to kind of just try and find your community and when I was over there, I was kind of just living where I could afford and it’s quite difficult because it’s quite an isolating city at times.
“Here in Dublin you kind of go, ‘Is anyone around?’ And three people will text, ‘Yeah, I’m in town, I’m around’.
“And it’s so small, you can hop on your bike whereas I did not attempt to bike in London because it was insane on the roads.
“I remember I went to see a show in Kilburn and there was so many Irish people there. They were like, ‘We call it County Kilburn’ and all this craic. Brilliant.
“I mean I was going over in 2013 but I can imagine going over 50 years ago and not having the connections or the internet.
“You’d have to kind of stick together and help each other out and really kind of share what you had.
“I’ve done stuff with London Irish Centre and it’s lovely to hear the stories of how people bonded and stuck together and helped each other out back before you could just kind of Google.
“With the London Irish Centre, I feel like I didn’t use it enough when I was there.
“Actually just before I left, I did a couple of things for them and since I’ve moved back to Dublin, I’ve done a bit of work with them.
“I went over last year, they had an event for St Brigid’s Day.
“That was amazing. I was hearing all these stories of all these women who still had their Irish accents and stuff but they’d been there seventy years.
“And I kind of thought, ‘I wish I had availed of that more, connecting to those places as well’.
“Yeah, I did enjoy it (London) while I was there but I don’t know if I’d ever live there again.”
Having never played it before, Roxanna was never likely to join a GAA team in London but that didn’t stop her being asked to.
“I was asked a couple of times. I ran into a girl one time on the tube.
“She was on her way to play a GAA match and when I saw her hurl, I was like, ‘Ah, you’re playing camogie’.
“And then she was like, ‘Wanna play with us?’
“But I’ve never played it in my life.
“I never played it in school or anything like that so I wouldn’t have a clue where to start.
“I’d only bring them down.
“I’ve never been on a sports team. I think I’m too much like Mags in Bicycle Thieves, my temperament for effing and jeffing and cursing other people on the team, I’d probably get kicked off pretty quick.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that Roxanna did not play camogie at school, she was already acting in films with big names like Brendan Gleeson and Anjelica Huston.
Two of Roxanna’s first roles were in the films The General and the 1999 movie adaptation of Brendan O’Carroll’s novel The Mammy which featured Agnes Browne on screen for the first time and Roxanna playing Cathy Browne.
But far from being the child actor who’s already lost touch with reality, this was just something she did on her holidays.
“It was kind of a little fun thing I got to do in summer.
“You look back and go, ‘That was mad’.
“But at the time I didn’t really know what it was. I was 8 when I did The General and I don’t think you really get what’s going on.
“You go and everyone’s so nice to you because you’re a kid, everyone’s giving ya sweets and toys to play with.
“The gravity of it when I look back and I’m like, ‘Jeez, I was in a film with John Voight and Brendan Gleeson, Oh my God’. But you’re kind of glad you didn’t know.
“You know those kids that are so young but they’re in loads of films but they’re like little grown ups? Their childhood has been taken from them a little bit and they’ve lost something in not having a normal life.
“It wasn’t like that so I’m glad I kept that sense of childishness and playfulness as well.”
Did you always know you wanted to be an actress then from that age? “No, I never did.
“I was really, really shy as a kid.
“I was cripplingly shy.
“I would never speak unless spoken to.
“So I went to a youth theatre when I was 16 or 17 and it really brought me out of my shell.
“So from that, I started getting auditions for things.
“And I kind of was always just like, ‘You know what? This is a bit of fun, I’ll go along with it until it doesn’t work and then I’ll start doing a real job’.
“I’m still here.”
Bicycle Thieves: Pumped Up screens at VUE Piccadilly at 7pm on Thursday 17 November as part of Irish Film Festival London.
Irish Film Festival London runs 16- 20 November.
For more information, click here.