Orla Brady: ‘I felt Ireland was a very repressive place to be a woman’

The actor on new thriller Rose plays Julie, and how her native country has changed for the better since leaving in the 1980s

Orla Brady: ‘I wasn’t that confident in the beginning, but anyone in this business has to have a little bit of belief tucked away somewhere’

Orla Brady: ‘I wasn’t that confident in the beginning, but anyone in this business has to have a little bit of belief tucked away somewhere’

 

It is a pleasure to welcome Orla Brady home. Raised in Bray, the actor has been pottering about the theatres and soundstages of the world since her mid-20s. She has worked at the National Theatre in London. She has been in TV series such as Nip/Tuck, Wallander and Fringe. She was among the title characters in Mistresses. She has been in American Horror Story. She is (trivia nuts take heed) one among that select band to have significant roles in both Dr Who and an incarnation of Star Trek.

Few contemporaries have worked so consistently and so fruitfully. Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, the experimental film-makers sometimes known as Desperate Optimists, were lucky to get her for their oblique, spiky new thriller Rose Plays Julie. Brady is excellent as an actress surprised to encounter the daughter she gave up years earlier. She has never been better.

I had a lot of shame – as a lot of Irish women did. It’s what you swam in. It’s what the nuns programmed you for. Irish society was not a great place

“I read it and when I put it down I thought: I’ve really got to do this,” she tells me. “I really, really want to do it in a way that I rarely feel. It’s funny. You get a quiet certainty that you know what to do – that you know what to do with this woman. I got on Skype from California and we had a lovely meeting.”

I naively think that, when you get to her level, you no longer need to prove yourself to casting agents and producers. They just know who you are.

“You’d be amazed,” she says. “At a certain stage I said to my agent: ‘I am not going to meetings.’ They said: ‘You have to.’ I said I will send a tape. I remember one time I said: ‘Tell them I am out of town.’ Because I could easily have been in Ireland. I sent them a tape.”

Brady is one hell of a talker. She goes on to walk me through the procedure by which she secured her charming role as a Romulan in Star Trek: Picard. She explains how the audition process pressurises actors into using most of their energy to suppress nervousness. Technology helps with that.

“When you’re offered things it is lovely,” she says. “When I’m offered things I tend to do better – because the first feeling is they want me to do it. They think I can do it. That’s great. That’s reassuring.”

If Brady had emerged a decade or two later she may not have felt the need to leave the country. Ann Skelly, her fast-rising young co-star in Rose Plays Julie, began her career in Irish productions such as Rebellion, Red Rock and Kissing Candice. When Brady left the nation – first for Paris, where she trained at École Philippe Gaulier – work was thinner on the ground. There were other pressures.

“There wasn’t much work,” she says. “It was partly that and partly I personally felt it was a very repressive place to be a woman. I believe I’m right about that. It was not a great place to be a woman. I had a lot of shame – as a lot of Irish women did. It’s what you swam in. It’s what the nuns programmed you for. Irish society was not a great place. I’m from a long time ago. This was me growing up as a teenager in the 70s and coming into the 80s as an adult. It was still a harsh place as a woman.”

She remembers how you had to be in certain “circles” to get work on stage or on screen. Not that the move to Paris and then London would have been easy. She was a young woman adrift in a sometimes threatening industry. One shivers just thinking about it.

“Oh, I remember going to London and being very terrified of it,” she says. “And everyone manages to come up to you and go: ‘Ah, Jesus, you know, such and such went there. Never heard from her again.’ I call it the actor’s ghost story. ‘She was great. Got an agent. Went to London. Never heard of her.’ And this was just London. Forget America! Ha, ha. But I remember thinking I had no choice.”

Did she ever feel those doomsayers may have been correct? In the early years, as she toiled in other jobs to keep herself aloft, did she ever suspect that the actor’s ghost story may have been describing her?

“No, actually. I made a decision,” she says. “I wasn’t that confident in the beginning, but anyone in this business has to have a little bit of belief tucked away somewhere. You don’t know if you’re going to be good, because you are untested. I really was determined to have a go when I went to London.”

It’s obviously been lovely working with certain male directors, but back in the day, there was a kind of a flirtiness that went with it all. That could sometimes feel somewhat threatening

We know now – in truth we always suspected – that actresses were routinely mistreated in the business. I hardly need to ask if she ever had uncomfortable experiences with male directors.

“It’s obviously been lovely working with certain male directors, but back in the day, there was a kind of a… um… yes, a flirtiness that went with it all. That could sometimes feel somewhat threatening.”

Sadly, almost every actress seems to have experienced this.

“Well, we thought it was inevitable and we didn’t believe we could do anything about it,” she says. “And we thought it was our fault. If you got into a sticky situation you’d run off thinking: F**k, what [did] I do? Did I say something? And, of course, you hadn’t done anything.”

If the younger Brady was as focussed as she seems now she must have been a formidable presence. From the 1990s and through to the turn of the century she continued to do good work. She was strong in the fine TV series Noah’s Ark for ITV. Seek her out as hunger striker in Maeve Murphy’s fine Silent Grace from 2001. In that same year she moved to Los Angeles where she met and married photographer Nick Brandt, but she continued to take roles in the UK and Ireland. It feels like an exhausting life.

“The past few years have been busy in a lovely way,” she says.

Yet, returning to the start of this pleasantly rambling conversation, it is worth wondering if an emerging Brady would be so keen to leave Ireland now. She has had plenty of opportunities to consider the changes. Into the Badlands, the zany martial arts series she appeared in from 2015 to 2019, shot in both New Orleans and Ireland. Do younger actors feel about Ireland as she did in the 1980s? I am betting not.

“No, not at all. No, no, no, no!” she says forcefully.

But over those two years I thought: Oh, this is a different Ireland and it accepts me now. It didn’t before

She remembers watching the referendum on marriage equality from abroad and marvelling that the country had determined to “become an inclusive society”. This was not the same nation she had left.

“We were making a very different statement about ourselves,” she says. “And this just rocked me – that Ireland had changed to that degree. Then I came over and I was here during the second referendum. I remember thinking: If anybody had ever asked me over the years, ‘Would you ever go back to Ireland?’ I would have said, ‘Absolutely not’. No question. I love it, but I would never live there again, again. Absolutely not. But over those two years I thought: Oh, this is a different Ireland and it accepts me now. It didn’t before.”

Anyway, back to the work. Brady has continued to clock up the credits over the past two or three years. When she was cast opposite Patrick Stewart in Star Trek: Picard she really did join the likes of David Warner, Steven Berkoff and a few others as people of interest to Trekkers and Whovians. She seems to have loved going among the fans. She has become part of online conversations.

“I went there and I thought it was really lovely,” she says of the Comic-Con convention in San Diego. “Take no offence, but I thought there was something lovely about cutting out the middleman. You do an interview with a journalist and the writer gives an impression of you and fans read it. You were there on a panel and fans were asking you questions.” 

She’s on a roll again.

“And I remember thinking: this is all good. People are here as families. Misfits are here. There needs to be a place for misfits. No one’s drinking. No one’s fighting. They are all here dressing up. I loved it. I know that’s uncool.”

Rose Plays Julie opens on September 17th

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