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Fiona Shaw on Ireland: ‘It is one of the most successful countries in the world. It wasn’t when I left it’

Four decades after leaving Rada, the Cork actor retains an apparently insatiable appetite for work

We meet in an ersatz livingroom. The people behind If, a charming family film from John Krasinski, have brought Fiona Shaw, reasonable contender for the accolade of Ireland’s best living actor, to a luxury hotel in central London. The space has been done up to rhyme with the film’s aesthetic. Faux-period sofas. Plush toys. At the centre of it all, Shaw generates a reassuringly normal vibe. As if she’s sitting you down in any old parlour in any old town.

It occurs to me that the last time I set eyes on her in this city she was playing Sophocles’s Electra for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Centre. That was 34 years ago. “Where have you been all my life?” she says, laughing. I have seen her since. Honest. Just not in London.

That year, 1990, Shaw, born and raised in Cork, won best actress at the Olivier Awards for Electra, As You Like It and Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan. She had been busy on stage following her graduation from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1982. She was robust as Christy Brown’s carer in My Left Foot in 1989. But it felt as if the career really took off in the 1990s. Possessed of an eccentric presence that profits from a woody voice capable of breakneck turns, she fast became a defining actor of the age. Famous performances for the director Deborah Warner included leads in Hedda Gabler and Richard II. That partnership was still fecund in 2013, when Shaw played the mother of Jesus in Warner’s production of Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary.

Shaw has argued that the relationship with Hollywood, where doors opened after My Left Foot, was not so straightforward. “I got to Hollywood at 28 and they said, You’re very old,” she said a few years ago. She felt that her turn in the sequel to Three Men and a Baby “finished my film career”. That did not turn out to be the case.


“I had no ambition to be in Hollywood,” she says now. “I just went on a jaunt. I did Mountains of the Moon for Bob Rafelson. And I was doing Taming of the Shrew and two other plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company. And that was my ambition. My ambition was always where I was at that particular time.”

That makes sense. Yet you do now meet young actors who have extremely precise plans. This director. That studio. That franchise.

“The only plan you can have is to say ‘no’ to things that might seem tempting but that you shouldn’t do,” she says. “If you like it you do it. I’ve been very lucky. I like to work with nice people who are interesting. The only power you have is to not do what you don’t want to do.”

That sounds like sound advice for anyone coming into the business. I trust she passes it on.

“I was a slow burn. I went to university first. Then I went to drama school,” she says. “Then at 23, I went to the National Theatre. So I didn’t come out of there till about 28 or 29, when I did Electra. I’d spent about 10 years really practising, trying to get better. But what it does mean is that you do know what you like doing and what you don’t like doing. A 20-year-old actor now? I think they are just grasping for a floating ball in the sea. It is much more difficult for them. We were on a ladder. The ladder doesn’t exist for them.”

It is easy to get sidetracked by Shaw’s amiable conversation. Even in this controlled environment, among these odd decorations, one feels oneself swept along by the busy informality. Where were we? Despite her fears, she did manage to come to an accommodation with the cinema gods. She was in the first Super Mario Bros movie. She worked for Brian De Palma in The Black Dahlia and Terrence Malick in The Tree of Life. Like so much theatrical aristocracy, she became part of the Harry Potter family. No doubt, much of the world knows her first as the eponymous wizard’s Aunt Petunia.

In If, a classy Paramount production, she plays grandmother to a young girl who, while nervously waiting for her father to emerge from hospital, gets carried away by a party of supernatural beings who were or hope to become imaginary friends (IFs: get it?) to lonely children. Shaw is the warm centre of the picture. She gets to comfort. She gets to dance. Does this feel like the same job as doing Shakespeare or Brecht on stage? The energies must be quite distinct.

“It is a different job,” she says. “I’ve always done films in between plays. But the commitment to plays takes a long time. You’re in one place for a long time, particularly if you’re leading it – because you’re responsible for a whole lot of people. But when I stopped doing the theatre, which I did, after doing Testament of Mary, Colm Tóibín’s play, I just thought I’d take a break. And in that break I entered another world – and I’ve become more and more comfortable in it. I love it.”

Let us go back to the beginning. I drag out some quote from an old interview about her declaiming poetry as a child.

“Declaiming poetry? Ha ha! Look, things come out in interviews.”

Be careful what you say?

“Yes, be careful what you say.”

Shaw was born to a middle-class family in Cobh and raised in Montenotte. Before advancing on Rada, in London, she attended University College Cork. I drag out another quote about her mother being encouraging and she comes close to spluttering noises.

“It was just a family!” she says. “One played the violin. One played something else. It doesn’t mean we were doing this all the time. People ask you those things. I went to the School of Music in my time off and I did poems and did drama things – because there was very little drama in Cork at the time. I really liked it. I felt it was right for me. And that was a very abstract notion. But my family play music a lot. A lot of families play music a lot. My mother plays piano and she sings – she still does.”

Fiona Shaw was of the same generation at Rada as future talents such as Lorcan Cranitch, Kenneth Branagh, Paul McGann and Mark Rylance. She does not, for a moment, entertain the notion that rivalry was a driving force at that stage. They were not looking over their shoulders to see who was coming up the inside rail.

“It was quite Zen-ish,” she says. “You’re trying to get better than you were last week. You’re trying to understand how to make it work better for yourself. I’ve never felt competitive because we were all so different.”

Irish actors still get on the plane for London. Some get on the plane for Los Angeles. But, as with other professions, the drive to leave the old sod is not now so compelling as it once was. There are good drama schools. There is a thriving film business. Attitudes are more relaxed. The Ireland that Shaw grew up in was a very different place.

“There was no obvious career path in Ireland. There was nothing,” she says. “It was quite stagnant. Things have taken off phenomenally in the last 20 years there. I did My Left Foot at the end of the 1980s in Ireland. There were no other films going at that time. Then I did Mountains of the Moon for Bob Rafelson in America.

“For my imagination, I wanted a very wide canvas. I didn’t want just the experience of an island for an island. We were very, very tied to an Irish repertoire in Ireland at the time – which was telling the same story pretty well to ourselves. Once you discover Shakespeare you’re on another world. It explodes you.”

She mentions My Left Foot. Looking back, that 1989 film now feels like the opening shot in a cultural upheaval. After that there was Italia ’90. Then Riverdance. Now we have become blase about Irish actors swooping across the Oscar nominations like so many benign invaders. I wonder if the My Left Foot team knew what they had on their hands. Did they suspect it was going to register outside Ireland and a few British art houses?

“I don’t know. I can’t remember,” she says. “You make the thing you make. I don’t think anyone was planning its progress through the public world. Yes, I think they were very surprised.”

When Brenda Fricker took the opening Oscar of the 1990 ceremony she became the first Irish acting winner since Barry Fitzgerald in 1944. That sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen to us.

“It was like when Dana won the Eurovision. The whole country stopped,” Shaw says.

I find it impossible not to ask if, as a fellow Cork person, she felt a particular pride when Cillian Murphy grabbed the best-actor Oscar in March. The good people of that county do like to celebrate their own.

“Somebody sent me a lovely photograph of the Fr Mathew statue, but with an Oscar on top of it. It will be a statue of Cillian next. Won’t it?”

She buys the notion that the country has transformed itself?

“It is one of the most successful countries in the world. It wasn’t that when I left it. I didn’t know I was leaving it. I don’t leave it. I read The Irish Times every morning. I am a subscriber.”

One of the miracles of Fiona Shaw’s extraordinary career is that she has retained much the same energy she had when she first emerged. It takes no great leap to imagine her playing Electra or Hedda Gabler with similar angry juice to that which powered her in the 20th century. Married to Sonali Deraniyagala, a distinguished Sri Lankan economist, since 2018, she retains an apparently insatiable appetite for work. She urges me to mention her upcoming performance opposite Emma Mackey and Vicky Krieps in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s version of Deborah Levy’s novel Hot Milk. “I’m impressed with the film,” she says. In June she participates in a series of short films celebrating Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Ulysses for the Yes Festival in Derry and Donegal.

“Seán Doran is a wonderful producer,” she says of the veteran organiser. “So whenever Seán asks me to do anything I do it. I just did a part in a film of the Molly sentences, which are very long. Mine is 22 minutes. Nonpunctuated. Quite hard to do. We did it in a day.”

She still seems to be pushing at the boundaries of the possible.

“I think what we’ve been saying in this conversation is that you’re always trying to throw yourself off the path,” she says. “Go off the path. Find more interesting things.”

If is in cinemas from Friday, May 17th