Katy Hayes | The Sunday Times | Jan 17 2016
THOUGH Saoirse Ronan lost out on a Golden Globe for Brooklyn last weekend, no Irish actress’s performance has been as acclaimed since Brenda Fricker won an Oscar for My Left Foot way back in 1989. Ronan was beaten to the gong for Best Actress in a Drama by Brie Larson in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, with both outstanding performances being critically acclaimed. Would an Irish actress have done equally well had Abrahamson stayed local when casting the lead for Room? How about one of the emerging trio of Sarah Greene, Charlie Murphy or Ruth Bradley, who are currently demonstrating their talents so persuasively in RTE’s drama series Rebellion? Perhaps, perhaps not. With the film business, nobody knows anything, as the late screenwriter William Goldman once said.
Mammal, Irish director Rebecca Daly’s second feature, will show at Sundance next weekend. It stars Australian actress Rachel Griffiths. Jim Sheridan’s film of Sebastian Barry’s novel The Secret Scripture is currently in post production, with Rooney Mara and Vanessa Redgrave in the lead roles. Last year Gerard Barrett’s Glassland starred Australian Toni Collette, while Terry McMahon’s Patrick’s Day led with New Zealander Kerry Fox. Rob and Ronan Burke’s debut romcom featured Canadian actress Jessica Paré opposite Irishman Brian Gleeson. Brian O’Malley’s horror flick Let Us Prey had Scottish actress Pollyanna McIntosh opposite Liam Cunningham.
You can see where this is going: of the Irish productions or co-productions released in the past two years with female leads, less than half those roles were played by Irish actresses.
Several Irish men are making an impact at international level: Colin Farrell, Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Jack Reynor - and that’s just the younger generation. Up the age ladder there are still Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Gabriel Byrne and Stephen Rea. So why are so few Irish actresses breaking through at an international level? Are they simply not good enough, or is something else going on?
“You know the statistic: one lead role for every woman as against seven for every man,” says Irish director Stephen Bradley, writer/director and co-producer of Noble, the recent biopic of Christina Noble starring Irish actress Deirdre O’Kane, his wife. ( O’Kane was supported by Sarah Greene and child actress Gloria Cramer Curtis. The film also features a strong supporting role for Irish actress Ruth Negga. Had there been pressure on Bradley to go for a more international cast?
“Because it was funded in a really unusual way with a private-equity company over here, using UK tax credit, that never happened,” he says. “The lead role was Deirdre’s and that was part of the development from the beginning [in meetings between O’Kane and Noble]. If I had been going to Channel 4, the BBC, Fox Searchlight, Pathé or someone like that, absolutely, that would have been an imperative.
“Probably a few things would have happened. They would have wanted a star in the lead role and the budget would have gone up massively, and I wouldn’t be directing it. I’m not being facetious, that’s how the business works.”
Cast is crucial to the six most powerful film festivals in the world, which he lists as Sundance, Berlin, Telluride, Cannes, Toronto, and Venice. They all want stars, whose appearance on their red carpets is what gives those festivals kudos.
“Cast has become much more important even in the five years since we started making Noble,” says Bradley. “We ended up doing a whole rake of American festivals, building up momentum and getting international sales. That was in the absence of having a slot at Cannes or Venice or one of the really prestigious festivals. So there are lots of ways to work the system, if you like.”
What about the damning statistic that half the leads in Irish films went to non-Irish actresses over the last two years? Bradley says it merely reflects the realities of the film industry. “All the top sales agents have the pick of the projects that are out there, and often they will insist on names, or certainly strongly suggest them. When they mention the name to their buyers at the Cannes or the Berlin market, [they want it to] register. That’s a tough part of the business.
“If you’re dealing with a backer like Channel 4 or even the Irish Film Board, you need to get approval from your sales agent. They don’t want to finance a [commerical independent] film that isn’t going to be marketed.”
Bradley’s first job on a feature film was as assistant to the line producer on My Left Foot in the late 1980s, another fruitful and optimistic period for Irish film. Its director/producer team of Sheridan and Noel Pearson are currently reunited on The Secret Scripture, now in post-production.
“It’s pretty obvious to me why we use foreign actors and names,” says Pearson. “I don’t know why there’s a fuss about it. They’re more experienced, they’re better for the roles. There’s no nationality [with actors]. Daniel Day Lewis was English and he played a Dublin fella, so what’s the big deal? We’ve Aisling O’Sullivan in this, we’ve Rachael Dowling; all the nurses are Irish girls. There’s plenty of Irish in it.”
But what about the dearth of lead parts for Irish actresses? Pearson notes that the great grandparents of Mara, the lead in The Secret Scripture, are Irish, suggesting we might have some vague claim to her. “There are no other Irish actresses in [the big league] except Saoirse Ronan. Who else is there?” he says. “People forget there’s only four and a half million people here. It’s not a huge place. The producers and directors and casting directors pick people who are known because it makes it easier to get the money. The film business is more of a business than it is an art.
“Rooney Mara was the hottest young thing around; we were lucky to get her. She’s absolutely fantastic to work with. None of the prima donna, none of that stuff. She’s great; first on the set and last to leave.”
The world premiere of Daly’s Mammal takes place at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah next Sunday. Daly was the first Irish female director to have a film in Cannes, where her debut feature, The Other Side of Sleep, played in the Director’s Fortnight, a sidebar to the main competition and which has traditionally featured emerging talents.
Griffiths, who stars as Margaret in Mammal, came to prominence in the Australian film Muriel’s Wedding. She has won a Golden Globe, for Six Feet Under, and been nominated in the best supporting actress category at the Oscars.
“We wanted somebody who had a little bit of a name that the audience would recognise,” says Daly. “That’s what the sales agents were quite keen on, and I can understand that is a factor. Rachel has a really natural warmth about her, which worked interestingly in relation to Margaret, a more introverted character.”
Had she considered any Irish actresses for the part? The director said she hadn’t, because it was important that Margaret be seen as “a fish out of water living in Dublin”, someone who makes unexpected choices and seems a bit of an outsider. “For me, creatively, there was a reason to look for an actress of a different nationality.”
Casting may be a complex subject, but commercial films are currently a cold house for Irish actresses, with the business seemingly biased against them. “Maybe there is a turning point arriving,” suggests Bradley optimistically, pointing to last month’s promise by the Irish Film Board to address the lack of female participation in writing and directing. “That should make a real difference to getting more parts out there for women. You can’t build your career if you’re only doing one piece of drama a year, or every two years, while the men are doing six or seven shoots a year.”
Of course, as he notes, “all these things can change in a moment if an actor is in a hit film”. And as Goldman also said, “not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work”.