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The Hills of California star Laura Donnelly: ‘These days, being Northern Irish is seen for something in and of itself’

The Belfast-born actor – half of ‘British theatre’s coolest power couple’ – puts her success down in part to her determination to avoid being typecast

As all video calls should rightfully be done, Laura Donnelly is speaking from her bed at her London home, duvet tugged up to her waist. “It’s where I try to spend my days when I don’t have a matinee,” she explains. Deservedly so: The Hills of California, the West End play in which the Belfast-born actor stars, runs a demanding eight times a week, and each is three hours of singing, piano-playing and charged emotions.

Between shows “it’s all about keeping everything very calm, because you need to conserve all your mental and physical energy for the evening. I don’t see my kids as much as they’re used to, and I prioritise sleep above everything else, but I’ve learned over the years it’s necessary.”

The play is another instalment from the dream team of contemporary theatre in Britain: the writer Jez Butterworth – with whom she shares the bed and the kids – the director Sam Mendes and, as lead actress, Donnelly. Donnelly and The Hills of California were nominated for this month’s Olivier Awards, and in 2017 the trio each won an Olivier (as well as the Tony for best play) for The Ferryman, which was based on the disappearance of Donnelly’s uncle during the Troubles.

A huge element of this play is about forgiveness

This time around it’s Butterworth’s turn to draw from his family history. The death of his sister from brain cancer, in 2012, sparked the story of four adult sisters who reunite in their childhood home, a Blackpool guest house aspirationally named Sea View, to say goodbye to their dying mother, Veronica.


The likable Ruby (Ophelia Lovibond) and the sharp-tongued Gloria (Leanne Best) have left the nest and have families with well-meaning husbands. Jill (Helena Wilson) stayed to care for their mother. And the elusive Joan, we’re told, chased her dreams all the way to California, leaving the sisters to wonder whether she’ll make it back before her mother dies.

The set and the story oscillate between their gathering in 1976 and their childhood in the 1950s. That’s when Veronica (played by Donnelly) aimed to set them up as the next Andrews Sisters, which stands a real chance when a music mogul rolls into town. The question is, what price are they willing to pay for that shot?

The themes are varied, encompassing the #MeToo movement, sibling dynamics and agency.

“A friend suggested its central theme was how you want to live and how do you want to die – it encompasses that much,” says Donnelly. “Certainly one of the things that struck me was the idea of Joan leaving to pursue her dream. It’s interesting to see how people judge the results – if where she is now determines whether it was worth it.

“Particularly as an artist, I believe the pursuit is its own reward. She was the only one who went out and gave it a shot, and that is what I want to do with my one and only short life.”

The play also has plenty to say about parenting, that highlights parallels between Veronica and Donnelly’s own parents – in Belfast, her mother was a nurse and counsellor and her father a GP.

“A huge element of this play is about forgiveness,” she says. “We can all sit and complain to our friends or therapists about the ways that they got it wrong. But in most cases – certainly not all but definitely in my case – they did their very best with the tools they had. My parents were raising me in Belfast at a time when the Troubles were almost at their peak. What that must have done in terms of their fear … They must have wanted to keep us indoors and keep us safe.

“And Veronica will have just lived through two World Wars, and she has had to make her own way as a woman in the 1950s with four children. That would be incredibly difficult. So she’s not a Mama Rose monster of an ambitious parent,” Donnelly adds, referring to the infamous stage mother immortalised in the musical Gypsy. “She’s driven by wanting them to be safe and have wonderful lives, and she sees show business as the way that’s available to them.”

Having grown up in a risk-averse environment in the North, Donnelly struck her own path as soon as she was able to leave Belfast, studying to be an actor at what is now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Theatre has been her mainstay, not least since 2012, when she met Butterworth while auditioning for The River, the follow-up to his celebrated breakthrough play, Jerusalem.

Speaking to her, there’s an openness that comes with years of proven talent and experience. Donnelly doesn’t shy away from talking about being half of “British theatre’s coolest power couple”, as Vogue called them recently – “a lovely compliment”, she says, “but you can’t take it too seriously” – or reflecting on how much their joint projects take over the house. (Answer: not a huge amount except for preview weeks, when they’re doing promo and extra rehearsals on top of the eight performances.) She’s not sure whether Butterworth purposefully creates a character for her in his plays or whether he drafts her in afterwards – and “if the next play he writes does not have a role for me in it, there will be no part of me that will be getting the hump”.

Donnelly has clearly thought through her role in shaping his ideas. “He’ll talk a lot while he’s in the process of coming up with the play, which is helpful for me for when I sit down on the first day of rehearsals. I try to contribute in ways he clearly wants me to, but I try not to bend it out of shape, because he’s the writer, and it’s not in my skill set. Nobody needs Laura Donnelly’s version of a play,” she says.

Television work has also been a constant in her career, though it has yet to produce a defining role. HBO’s steampunk fantasy The Nevers suffered with ill timing, as the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, was cancelled during its making. (Shortly afterwards the show was, too.) Britannia, Butterworth’s trippy answer to Game of Thrones, lasted a respectable three seasons. Before them, she opted to leave Outlander, the historical drama series starring Caitríona Balfe.

She says the decision wasn’t down to any bad blood. “I really enjoyed my time on it. I had two babies alongside the two seasons. As a new mother they worked with me and around me, and the rest of the cast are brilliant. I’ve come across people saying that the fandom was too intense for me, which is just not true. I had just artistically moved on. I’m not somebody who enjoys going over old ground, and I like new challenges.”

There have always been fewer really great roles available to women, and historically we’ve had a shorter shelf life. But, thankfully, that is also shifting in the right direction

It means theatre, with its time-boxed run, is a natural home for Donnelly, especially, she says, as the glut of screen content has diluted the quality of scripts she receives. “But as soon as I read something that excites me, I’ll go for it.”

Given that the profiles of Irish actors such as Cillian Murphy, Barry Keoghan and Paul Mescal on the international stage aren’t matched by those of equally able actresses – Donnelly, Jessie Buckley, Ruth Negga – I wonder if the lack of meaty roles for women explains the discrepancy. “First of all, we’ve always been fantastic storytellers as a nation, and we have a wonderful history and culture of creating theatre and producing talent that is of a high international standard,” she says. “In the past, the opportunities to cross over to international audience have not necessarily been there. One thing that has helped with that is the film industry in Ireland, especially in the North, ever since the likes of Game of Thrones. So I would hope that that’s only just getting going.

“In terms of actresses, it’s always been that men get to lead the way,” she says. “There have always been fewer really great roles available to women, and historically we’ve had a shorter shelf life. But, thankfully, that is also shifting in the right direction.”

Donnelly does raise the issue of being categorised as an Irish or British actor, explaining that, after working in the UK for 20 years, she’s not consistently viewed as one or the other, “but that’s an identity problem people from the North have had for a long time”.

At the beginning of her career, when it affected the roles she could audition for, “they were difficult restraints to break out of. You’ve just got to be dogged and determined about showing your range. But people’s views of the North are changing as well, and we don’t just play very particular styles of characters any more.

“These days, being Northern Irish is seen for something in and of itself.”

The Hills of California is at the Harold Pinter Theatre, in London, until Saturday, June 15th