Denise Gough: ‘It’s only recently women get to play parts that usually go to boys’

Irish actor on her character choices, catching Covid-19 and why she avoids social media

Irish actor Denise Gough: ‘I can’t deal with social media. I’m a highly sensitive person.’ Photograph: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for BFI

As an actor who spent lockdown filming under strict conditions, Denise Gough has become an expert in taking Covid-19 tests, aided by a natural advantage. "I was told by a medic that I had a very nice uvula, which is the thing that dangles down at the back of your throat," she says. "She told me I had a fantastic uvula. But then I found out she was telling everybody that, too. Never trust Covid testers, they're just nice to everyone."

As it was, Gough caught coronavirus in between shoots at Christmas, while visiting family in Dublin, which caused her to hunker down for a few weeks extra. Three months after, she’s prone to bouts of tiredness and aching joints, but isn’t quite sure if she has long Covid, “or if it’s the same as everyone else being up and down, because we’re not living in a very natural way at the moment”.

Gough has now returned to her home in Hackney, east London, in a flat which she has to herself. “I’m good on my own,” she says on a Zoom call, looking around her abode. “I’m fine with having my space but I just want some life back. I don’t think anyone at this point is having a great time in lockdown.”

Eye-catching aesthetic

It’s difficult not to nosey around her background. Over lockdown, she moved to a new flat in the area, and its livingroom is of hotel standard with high ceilings, well-placed statement lamps and dark-painted walls that happen to complement her baby pink cosy jumper and wash of blonde hair; altogether it’s an eye-catching aesthetic. But it’s temporary – she’s looking for a place to buy in west London to be nearer to film and TV studios, and the theatre district of London.


Though theatre – her first love, with two Olivier Awards to show for it – still has its collective lights off, life has returned to normal for her in one respect at least. She’s back on the on-screen acting trail, currently filming the Star Wars spin-off, Andor, having just released the film Monday, a rom-com set in Greece in which “I’m so naked”, she says.

“When I read the script initially I instantly thought I couldn’t do it because I don’t get nude, I don’t do sex scenes. Then I watched Suntan by the director Argyris Papadimitropoulos, in which the actress Elli Tringou is naked for pretty much the whole film, and it looks stunning.

“The film was empowering to do and I never for one second felt that I was being used in any way. Whereas a lot of work here, farther west, it becomes a bit shady. It’s always the woman has to do the orgasm, or have her boobs to camera.”

Denise Gough won the best actress award for People, Places and Things at the Olivier Awards at the Royal Opera House in London in 2016. Photograph: Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

“Plus it was important for me as an Irish woman to get over whatever stuff I had about showing my body,” she adds. “When I’m 80 I will look back on that film and think, ‘My God, I was gorgeous’.”

Her next major release is Too Close. A tense psychological drama series in which she stars opposite Emily Watson (Chernobyl, Angela's Ashes), it plays on the entwined relationship between the investigator and the investigated, as seen in Silence of the Lambs and more recently, Killing Eve. Watson plays Dr Emma Robertson, the forensic psychologist, while Denise plays Connie Mortensen, a troubled mother who's accused of a crime she claims she can't remember. But a series of flashbacks brings the viewers ever closer to the truth, while also showcasing Gough's immense talents.

Mentally complex characters seem to be a forte of Gough’s; both of those Oliviers were for her searingly convincing portrayal of addicts, first in the National Theatre’s People, Places and Things, then in the two-part play Angels in America.

“I’ve always played these big, complex, brilliant women because the writing for stage is so fantastic, but until you’re established in TV, a lot of the time you’re playing women on the periphery,” she explains. “It’s only in recent times that we get more of a chance to play the parts that usually go to the boys. So of course I’m going to want to do that. But equally, if I was to be offered a brilliant role, a really well-written smart comic role, I’d throw myself at that too.”

It’s not difficult to imagine. In her past work, from stage, to film (in Colette, she was the transsexual partner of Kiera Knightley’s title character), to the lead in television like Conor McPherson’s Paula, it’s evident that she can shape-shift as the role demands. And in (virtual) person, there’s a relaxed, jokey vibe to her that nicely balances a fierce intelligence, which makes it all the more of a shame that she’s not on social media.

Denise Gough with Keira Knightley in the film Colette

That decision was for self-protection. “I can’t deal with social media. I’m a highly sensitive person,” she says. “I wish I was able to use social media in the way that it can be for good, but I just know what I’m like. I come from a culture that doesn’t value sensitivity as important, but in my industry, it’s a superpower.

“If a critic writes bad things about me, it’s part of my job. Social media is terrifying because it’s personal. It’s people I don’t know, in my energy field, saying horrible things to me, and you can become addicted to finding more horrible things. I watched Caroline Flack’s documentary the other night, and poor Caroline. I think that cruelty is killing people. Then they make it a #bekind thing, which blows my mind too, because even that hashtag is consumable. We’ve already moved on to the next thing.”

Growing up in Ennis, Co Clare, Gough’s father was an electrician and her mother had her hands full with 11 children, another of whom became an actress too; Denise’s younger sister Kelly can be seen in The Fall, Casualty, and most recently Marcella.

Gough describes herself as a “troubled teenager” and just before she was 16, she and her boyfriend ran away to London. I ask about that decision, and she explains that “I didn’t really make a decision. I ran away from home, that is what happened,” she says. “Like so many teenagers, I had a lot of stuff [going on]. I went where I went to get what I needed to get through it. I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of all that stuff, but what I will say is yeah, they were difficult times.”

At the time, did it fracture her relationship with her family?

“Of course. It wasn’t easy for any of us but there we are, that’s my story. I can’t change that now.”

Upon arriving to London, the relationship lasted another six weeks. She tried living with a family member “but that didn’t work so I met someone from Dublin, and we lived together in what became a squat for a few years.

In previous interviews, she’s discussed shaving her hair, then having dreadlocks – “anything to detract from being looked at like a pretty girl”. She’s alluded to delving into drink and drugs, and finding herself in dangerous situations like “hanging out on Coldharbour Lane at three in the morning”.

“Now I see kids of that age and I think, ‘My God, what an amazing little teenager I was that I managed to stay alive through all of that’,” she tells me.

A major turning point, she says, was meeting an improv teacher who recognised her talent. He paved the way for a scholarship to the Academy of Live Recorded Arts, which paid for her fees and rent.

After graduating, her ascendance into the acting world didn’t come easy. Despite noteworthy parts in Jimmy’s Hall, the Ken Loach film, and a Lyric Hammersmith production of Desire Under the Elms, carving out a living from acting proved to be difficult, which was troubling with no financial backing except her own graft.

Momentum continued

Her fortunes changed in 2015 with a breakthrough performance in People, Places and Things, Duncan Macmillan’s acclaimed play that gave Gough her first West End performance the following year, aged 36. The momentum continued with Angels in America, which not only ran at the National Theatre (earning her that Olivier ahead of Nicole Kidman), but also on Broadway in New York (where she was nominated for a Tony Award). From there, the TV and film roles came flooding in, which she accepted because of that goal to become a homeowner, “and nobody’s going to buy a house on theatre wages”.

“I’m grateful to Britain because I’m an immigrant here but I’m a white, English-speaking immigrant, so I was given everything. Now I work really hard to repay it,” she says, alluding to the anti-immigrant sentiment that’s risen in the UK proven by, and spurred on by, Brexit. “If you invest in an immigrant, they’ll do pretty well. It’s what it looks like through history, right? Immigrants leave behind their life to build a better one for themselves.”

Always outspoken on the issue of diversity, I dig further into her motivation. “Unless we’re all succeeding, we’re not succeeding,” she says. “When black women were organising in America to get women the vote, their motto was ‘lifting as we climb’. That has such power, the idea that as you rise, you bring people up with you.

“I came into this industry with no connections, with no money. There’s a much easier way in for a lot of people, and that’s also valid, but if the industry becomes completely saturated by people who are well connected and wealthy, then we lose most of the stories because it’s not like that for most of the population.”

Bridgerton, which cast different ethnicities in a period piece, is proof that diversity can be added to the mix with the right backing. “You can just do it,” says Gough. “We can all sit around and talk about it and come up with all these groups, but just f**king do it. Don’t apologise for it and people will get used to it. I want to move into producing, and that’s part of my manifesto.”

Given what Denise Gough has already achieved reliant on no one but herself, woe betide anyone who stands in her way.

Too Close comes to Virgin Media One in May, and is available now in Northern Ireland on the ITV Hub