Writer-director David Freyne’s semi-autobiographical comedy Dating Amber, which recently delighted virtual audiences at both Toronto’s Inside Out and New York’s NewFest LGBTQ film festivals, focuses on the platonic love story between two queer teenagers, Eddie (played by Normal People’s Fionn O’Shea) and Amber (rising star Lola Petticrew). Coming to terms with their own sexuality and tired of being the subject of speculation of their high school peers, the pair decides to pretend to be a couple, becoming one another’s beard. Off screen a lasting real life friendship was forged between Lola and Fionn, who even quarantined together in Ireland. Making the film also had a profound effect on Lola, helping her to reconnect with her queerness as she tells The Queer Review.
Graduating from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama just three years ago, Petticrew has quickly established an impressive career. On stage she appeared in The Country Girls and Margaret Perry’s Porcelain, both at the Abbey Theatre Dublin, the National Theatre of Ireland. While on screen, last year she starred in the Irish indie movie A Bump Along the Way earning her the Bingham Ray New Talent Award at the 2019 Galway Film Fleadh. In 2018 she starred alongside Christopher Eccleston in the BBC One drama Come Home, and earlier this year she played Kate in Michael Patrick’s adaptation of the stage play My Left Nut for BBC Three. Before quarantine, Lola wrapped on Nathalie Biancheri’s feature film Wolf, with George MacKay and Lily-Rose Depp about a man who believes he is a wolf trapped in a human body. As well as Dating Amber‘s US release, this month will see Lola appear on UK television opposite James Nesbitt in the four-part BBC thriller Bloodlands set in Northern Ireland. She’ll also soon be seen in the post-apocalyptic thriller Shadows with Saskia Reeves.
Ahead of today’s US on demand and digital release of Dating Amber, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Lola Petticrew about how making the film transformed her life by leading to a “second coming out” as queer, the importance of bringing hope and comedy to an LGBTQ coming of age film, how her friendship with Fionn fed into their on screen relationship, and why Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is her favourite queer film.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: So dating amber is 25 years ago, which is a bit of a shock to realise it was that long ago because 1995 was the start of my last school year, so I was 17 then and going through a lot of what Eddie is going through so it certainly resonated deeply with me. But although it is the mid-90s, and we see that reflected in the politics that’s discussed, and in the music and the fashion, as far as what the characters are going through I think it could just as easily be present day. What’s your take on that?
Lola Petticrew: “Absolutely, I mean we actually said at every single stage of making this film that although it’s set in the 90s, and it’s very true to then, you could take this screenplay and set it any time in any small town and it would still ring as true. It definitely still resonates for people for a reason. I think sometimes we think we’re a lot more socially progressive than we actually are and we forget. When I’ve been talking about the film a lot of people have spoken about it being in some ways easy to come out now, but I’m always quick to remind people that just because it might seem easier, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy.”
How far does what Amber and Eddie are going through in the film reflect your own high school years growing up in Belfast and your own coming out experience?
“In a way Dating Amber is so specific, but it’s also incredibly universal in that anybody can watch this film and relate to the horror of trying to find yourself and accept yourself while you’re in school with 200 other kids who are trying to do the same thing and lashing out at the world. Playing Amber helped me come to terms with my own sexuality. Something that was absolutely life transforming for me was that I had a lot of Amber’s thoughts after the filmmaking process.”
Had you identified as bisexual for a while before making the film and then your identity opened up more to queer once you made it?
“What’s funny is when I was younger I was so much more comfortable with my sexuality. I was openly using the term bisexual at 14 and although that label never quite fit I was unafraid of the idea that I liked and loved women and I had girlfriends. Then something funny happened in my late teens and my early twenties and I think that I was sort of hammered with the idea of compulsory heterosexuality. I went from being really young and unafraid and being surrounded by my close queer friends to leaving the country and then being around a lot of heterosexual people and sort of assimilating. In a way I had quietened my queerness and decided that it was something that I wasn’t going to deal with and that I was going to ignore. When I started shooting Dating Amber and started having those conversations I felt really sad and I was upset that this idea of compulsory heterosexuality had sort of stripped me of years of happiness, and my sort of second coming out has been the most liberating thing and it’s just so serendipitous that it happened shooting this film and I’m just so thankful to David Freyne for that.”
How did having a lesbian sibling affect your own coming out process and journey of self acceptance?
“Danielle is younger than I am and so she grew up when I was using the term bisexual and I was openly dating a woman. Danielle didn’t come out until she was 18, and by that time I was creeping back in the closet so to speak. I was talking to Danielle all through it, before, during and after her coming out and it’s funny because people would think that that in some ways it might spur you on, but I think that I was just in sister mode and that was about me wanting Danielle to be happy. I think that your own internal struggle is something that is so much more complicated and personal. We talked about it this year and we were both laughing because we rewatched this TV programme recently that we watched when we were kids and we were like, isn’t it so funny that we both fancied the same actress but neither of us said it to each other, because we were both hiding it at the time. Now we’re each other’s biggest support system.”
You told David Freyne when you were making the film, ‘when I grew up, I want to be like Amber,’ and I wondered what it is that you admire about her?
“I think she’s an incredibly headstrong person. She takes up space and she’s unafraid to take up that space. I think that’s something I really admire because especially as a woman we sometimes make ourselves a lot smaller. You see in the film that she has an incredibly selfless love, she’s a very selfless person and I just admire that greatly too. I went into the process thinking that I knew Amber and making the film I realised that maybe she knew a bit more about me than I did about her!”
You mentioned her unconditional love and although Eddie and Amber aren’t sexually or romantically compatible do you see the film as a love story between them?
“Yes! It’s 100% a romantic comedy. Those two characters are soul mates, they are head over heels in love with each other, but it’s platonic love and that’s something that’s not given a lot of weight on film, especially what we see here with two queer people as co-leads of the film. It’s not just exploring their platonic friendship but the support system that they are for each other.”
I loved the sequence where Eddie and Amber are approaching the gay bar in Dublin, seeing the rainbow flag and that sense of butterflies, then entering that new world together. What was that like to shoot?
“Filming that was definitely one of our favourite days on set. It was so beautiful and I think Dave Freyne and Ruairí O’Brien our DP did such a great job. It’s genuinely like a deep bereft heals at that moment in the film. You feel in a way that a weight has been lifted off their shoulders and they enter this sort of otherworldly space and there’s this angelic drag queen on stage mesmerising Eddie and it all feels exactly right. For the first time we see Eddie shed that artifice of masculinity and you see them both there just absolutely where they belong. Sometimes in film we can veer towards a coming out story and tragedy, and those things are really important, but we wanted to veer more towards hope and comedy. We don’t want to scare people out of coming out of the closet, but to let them know that once you accept yourself and you have the confidence within yourself to come out, there’s an entire community of people waiting to love and support them.”
You and your co-star Fionn became friends even before you started shooting, so how did that affect the creation of your on screen relationship and how has that real life friendship continued since you wrapped on the film?
“Well, I think that we brought a lot of our own friendship to it and we just tried to be as honest as possible and just have loads of fun like we do in real life, to bring that sense of joy to it. Shooting the film together and afterwards our friendship only grew. We quarantined together and we promoted the UK and Irish release of the film together from quarantine over the summer. He’s my right arm. I probably video call Fionn about eight times a day, and that’s not including texts and phone calls! So I think it’s safe to say that we’re definitely still best friends.”
What’s your favourite LGBTQ+ either film, TV series, book, play, musical, piece of music, artwork, opera, photograph, or person? Someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“I first watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire during quarantine and I think that I found it so arresting because it was the first time that I had seen a queer female relationship through the female lens. You could tell that it was made by a woman and that it was made by a queer woman because it felt so true and it was completely not fetishised. I remember just gasping so much and crying and it was amazing to see these queer women in their element making the most beautiful film. I’ve watched it four times since.”
By James Kleinmann
Dating Amber is available on demand and digital in the US from today November 10th 2020.