Bronagh Gallagher: ‘I never felt I was with the right man. But that’s how the dice rolled’

The actor on Brexit and Irishness, her Derry childhood, being independent and Quentin Tarantino

The first Sunday of Toronto International Film Festival. Your correspondent is bustling down a noisy Adelaide Street West. Around the corner ahead, Scarlett Johansson is making her way to the world premiere of Jojo Rabbit.

The snappers are shouting at her. They're shouting at Sam Rockwell. Do I also hear a local name on the wind? "Bronagh Gallagher! " someone is yelling. They shout again. I look to my right and there she is: spirit of the nation in a spangled jumpsuit. Actress, singer, raconteur. A Tarantino alumna. A Star Wars family member. We don't really know one another, but, once I've established credentials, we put an arm around each other's shoulder and stomp for a few triumphant blocks. All hail the True North.

“I had no idea it was such a big event,” she says, aghast. “I thought it was a wee Canadian independent event.”

Still sharp of eye and treacly of hair, Bronagh Gallagher leans into every question and digs deeply for buried truth. She's always at home to a rasping laugh, but, after a few minutes' talk, her seriousness of purpose becomes apparent

Like Scarlett Johansson (whoever she may be), Bronagh Gallagher is at North America's busiest film festival with two very different movies. She plays Mrs Micawber – opposite Peter Capaldi as her eternally hopeful husband – in Armando Iannucci's delightful, racially diverse take on The Personal History of David Copperfield. "Armando is amazing. Peter Capaldi is a gent. A lot of improvisation in it. Which works because Armando is a genius," she raves.

The Derry actor really gets to stretch out in Shelly Love's excellent A Bump Along the Way. That modestly budgeted Irish film, concerning a middle-aged woman who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, has already gathered a near cult since its triumphant premiere at Galway Film Fleadh in July. The reviews at Toronto were equally positive.

I get the sense that even the film-makers are surprised by the response. Featuring a breakthrough performance by Lola Petticrew as Gallagher's stroppy (but ultimately affectionate) daughter, A Bump Along the Way offers a vivid portrait of Derry, her hometown, at its warmest and most energetic. It is also wise on bullying, motherhood and the trials of middle age.

“We were all stunned by the response,” she says a few days after touching back down in Dublin. “We had so little time to shoot it. But we knew all the elements were strong. We worked on it in Belfast when Lola and I were firmly attached. We made a believable language of it. We changed some of the emotional input. We changed the language to make sure you really liked these characters.”

A Bump Along the Way is a family affair in more ways than one. Louise Gallagher, Bronagh's elder sister, who already has credits on such acclaimed projects as The Dig and The Survivalist, acted as the film's busy producer. She got it all the way from Lough Foyle to Lake Ontario.

“We have always got on,” Bronagh says of her sister Louise. “We had barneys as kids. But she has always walked the walk. She was with the BBC years back. But she never believed in herself as I believed in her. We all self-doubt that way. She has earned her chops. She made this film the best we could have hoped for. Should anything else happen that will be a dream. She is immaculate. She is so caring.”

The younger Gallagher – as effusive and funny as you might expect – has changed little since breaking through with The Commitments in 1991. Still sharp of eye and treacly of hair, she leans into every question and digs deeply for buried truth. She’s always at home to a rasping laugh, but, after a few minutes’ talk, her seriousness of purpose becomes apparent. She thinks about Ireland’s unhappy past. She cares about getting the work right.

She also doesn’t take offence. Pondering A Bump Along the Way, I wonder if it caused her to think about never having had children. Then I realise this is one of those questions that men of her age are never asked. Only women are expected to offer us such explanations. I make babbling noises to cover my sexism. She’s not bothered.

“It did make me think a little,” she says. “It was something that a few years ago bothered me. But I work very hard. I travel a lot. I am a very independent person. I don’t have to worry about commitments or a family life. I suppose if I had felt safe with somebody – safe to open all that up – maybe I would have. But I never felt I was with the right man. Which was sad. But that’s how the dice rolled.”

There's no point covering it up. You were a second- or third-class citizen. All the jobs were going to people who had connections to the middle class, the upper class, the Orange Order

Gallagher has barely rested since coming above ground nearly 30 years ago. Time has been spent in Los Angeles, London and Dublin. Throughout those decades, she seems to have been content to occupy her own space. A few years back, speaking to this newspaper, Gallagher suggested that she rather enjoyed not having to cope with other people in the kitchen or the bathroom. I can sympathise with that. Her current pad is in the north Dublin suburb of Fairview.

“I am so used to being in my own houses,” she says. “When you go on a set or go touring you are constantly surrounded by people. On a film set you are prodded from six in the morning. It is just people doing their jobs. I just think when it’s the right person it’s easy. Cohabiting is a difficult thing. But when you are living with the right person it can be great. I suppose I sometimes think about it. But I am lucky, in the current housing crisis, to have my own space. If it was the right person, I would. But I have never met them.”

Let’s dig around a little in more distant history. Bronagh Gallagher was born on the Foyle 47 years ago. Dad was an engineer. Her mother was a hairdresser and dressmaker. She remembers a family obsessed with music who worked hard to get to whatever entertainment braved the Troubles. Few international acts toured, but The Undertones and The Moondogs were there to offer relief.

“I was born in ’72, and Louise was born in ’69. So we were right into the hard core then,” she says. “There was local pantomime. But not very many touring acts. The Drifters used to come. We loved them. And Dickie Rock! Whatever came along our parents would get tickets. Ballet companies. Whatever. They would take us to the Orchard Gallery regularly – Declan McGonagle, a neighbour, who went in to Imma, was running it then.”

Gallagher admits to internal divisions as a young person. She was determined to make it in music or acting, but it was hard to dismiss the barriers standing in her way. The general odour of nonspecific unease was one thing. Then there were the structural outrages that persisted long after the civil-rights campaign of the 1960s.

“It was sectarian place,” she says with a shrug. Gallagher remembers winning a prestigious debating competition (she still has the forensic flair) and running up against some unspoken truths about the city.

"I was a wee girl from a school in the Creggan," she says. "It was the first time a Catholic had won it. Nobody wanted to acknowledge that maybe a Catholic had never been allowed to win it. But we all knew it. The next day John Hume was up at the school. I was having my photograph taken for the paper. That was the start of me thinking: I can do this."

She admits that it was worse still for her parents’ generation. Northern Ireland was a fiefdom run by an interlocking cadre of mutually supportive elites.

“My father’s generation had more of that: ‘You can’t do that!’” she says. “There’s no point covering it up. You were a second- or third-class citizen. All the jobs were going to people who had connections to the middle class, the upper class, the Orange Order. That’s just the way it was.”

More than 20 years after the Belfast Agreement, a generation has grown up that feels less inhibited. Those born in the late 1980s and early 1990s have little memory of the tensions we encounter in Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls. There is a greater sense of possibility among the creative young.

“Kids now don’t have that,” she agrees. “My niece is 18, and they don’t have that. When she and my nephew came to Derry they couldn’t believe there were Troubles. It’s so peaceful now. They understand it now after what happened to Lyra McKee, God have mercy on her.”

She talks about the awful death of McKee. We think of the violence creeping insidiously into the penumbra of that region: an unexploded bomb here, a ranting dissident there. The continuing stalemate at Stormont doesn't help. And then there is the stubborn, poisonous fallout from the Brexit farce. No city in Britain or Ireland is closer to the potential dangers than Derry. It is only a brief stroll to the Border (or what currently remains of it) from the Creggan. I assume that her friends and family are watching the developing catastrophe with unease.

“It is very worrying,” she says. “Before, when I spoke to my family and friends, however hard it had been, there has been a sense that change had to happen. They can see the injustices that have created a horrific reaction by the armies at home: the IRA, the INLA. But this is such a disaster that nobody can see beyond it.”

The confusion is palpable. It's everywhere. The real terror is the Border going up. To reactivate that would be terrible. As soon as you put military there you are looking at a target

And it is an entirely unnecessary disaster. Four years ago this result seemed inconceivable. Even after the referendum, most people thought the Border question would be successfully finessed into an irrelevance. Now Derry is looking at the prospect of no-deal chaos.

“The British have created their own monster,” Gallagher says. “They can’t control it. It’s a dragon that may turn around, breathe fire and teach them something. The confusion is palpable. It’s everywhere. The real terror is the Border going up. To reactivate that would be terrible. As soon as you put military there you are looking at a target. There are armies out there that don’t understand war is not the answer. Communication and love are the only things that can overcome hate.”

She goes on to bemoan the lack of compromise and to contemplate the danger of slipping back to the horrors of 30 years ago. “I feel heartbroken about it,” she says.

Gallagher secured an early breakthrough when Michael Winterbottom hired her, then still a teenager, for a project at Channel 4. In 1989, she played opposite Barry McGovern in Frank Cvitanovich's TV movie Dear Sarah. That led to conversations with Hubbard Casting, a legendary force in Irish film, and the eventual audition before Alan Parker for The Commitments. She laughs about her failure to get into any of the British drama schools. It seems that some prejudices didn't die with the kitchen-sink movement.

“Yeah, I’d go over and it would be: ‘You are going to have to change your accent.’ That’s how it was back then. Now the Irish are flavour of the month. I am not playing the victim here, but that’s how it was.”

She showed them. It's hard to overestimate the impact of The Commitments in the early 1990s. In retrospect, it now looks like part of a cultural renaissance that began with My Left Foot and went on to take in such varied entities as Italia '90 and Riverdance. She talks about the Irish now being "flavour of the month". The Commitments, adapted from the work of Roddy Doyle, helped make that change happen. In the aftermath, she and her costars toured as a semi-fictional version of the band on screen. It couldn't go on forever.

“Nobody prepares you to become famous,’ she says. “It’s not that we were Madonna or anything. Ha ha! But people do recognise you. You meet the odd head wrecker, but people are usually nice. But it was odd not to be able to walk down the street and be yourself. I think we all had a rough time when we came back. We were back here. It was over. But we were still being recognised.”

Some of the young cast – Maria Doyle Kennedy and Glen Hansard, notably – prospered in the aftermath. Some others drifted off to unrelated careers. Gallagher was among those who stayed firmly in the spotlight. She spent some time with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She loved her experiences with the experimental company Théâtre de Complicité. More recently, she's had success as a recording artist. Brian Eno was among the collaborators on her 2004 album Precious Soul.

Then there was that glorious moment when she popped up beside an overdosing Uma Thurman as she gets (literally) pumped with adrenaline in Pulp Fiction. What a place to be in 1994. I assumed she might be a little sick of talking about it, but she visibly perks up when I mention Quentin Tarantino's name.

"It was just lovely," she says. "Quentin is a bit of a genius. He had it all in his head. He didn't have anyone make anything up. It was as magical as you'd imagine. I went into a rehearsal room and there was John Travolta. Holy moly! Travolta is like: 'We're so excited you're here. Do you want to see where Judy Garland put her shoes on?' And he takes me out to this room where they shot The Wizard of Oz."

It seems as if everything you’ve heard about Tarantino’s irrepressible on-set energy is true. She remembers him visiting her as she was reading comics in her caravan.

“He’d say: ‘Oh you’re reading that. I have a 1954 copy of that!’ He’s a fan, fan, fan. He is a deep, gifted historian of cinema and music. He is like an academic when it comes to that.”

In 1999, she had a tiny role as Capt Maoi Madakor in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. She’s been the answer to a trivia question ever since, but surely even the famously fanatical Star Wars fans won’t have paid too much attention to her. Blink and you’d miss her.

She makes a desperate comic face that involves an impressive trick with her eyes. I write a few words in my notebook.

“Writes: ‘Crosses eyes! Deeply!’ she says, chortling. “Oh, you still get it. They want their posters signed. I only did one ComicCon. I was there as Capt, erm, Madakor? Is that it? Ha ha! Even I can’t remember what my name was. Bonkers!”

And on she goes. Like rust, Bronagh Gallagher does not sleep. She’s making music. She’s shooting the second season of the Sky series Brassic. She has a significant role in Julian “Downton” Fellowes’s upcoming period piece Belgravia. Scarlett Johansson should be so busy. Scarlett Johansson should have such energy. “As my doctor said: ‘There’s dog in the old life yet.’ Ha ha!” I don’t doubt it.

Bronagh and Louise Gallagher will do a Q&A with Róisín Ingle of The Irish Times after the opening-night screening of A Bump Along the Way, at the Light House Cinema in Dublin at 7pm on Friday, October 11th

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