Eve Hewson: ‘I’m really lucky I grew up in Ireland, not LA’

Eve Hewson: off-duty, she has a presence that intrigues and draws you in. Photograph: Rich Polk/Getty
Eve Hewson, star of the new Netflix thriller Behind Her Eyes, on growing up shy, nightmarish inspiration, and getting reacquainted with Ireland during the pandemic

Eve Hewson, the star of the new and utterly binge-worthy Netflix show Behind Her Eyes, is a few minutes late for our zoom call. For a moment I worry it’s my fault, that I’ve accidentally left the 29-year-old Dubliner languishing in my virtual waiting room but she is quick to inform me that her (very minor) tardiness has another culprit.

“I was picking up my cat’s shit, to be honest,” she says, as potent an ice-breaker as you could hope for. Her cat’s name is Luna. “He does some good shits, so before I sat down to relax I had to clean it up.”

Hewson, laughing at herself and her cat, does appear relaxed. She has no makeup on, her dark hair is tied up and she’s wearing a comfy looking fleece top. Off-duty, she has a presence that intrigues and draws you in

Hewson, laughing at herself and her cat, does appear relaxed. She has no makeup on, her dark hair is tied up and she’s wearing a comfy looking fleece top. Off-duty, she has a presence that intrigues and draws you in. The camera, even the one on her laptop, is very fond of Hewson. We saw it in her last big role in the BBC period drama The Luminaries and in projects directed by the two Stevens – Bridge of Spies with Tom Hanks (Spielberg) and The Knick with Clive Owen (Soderbergh) not to mention in her breakthrough role as Sean Penn’s teenage friend Mary in This Must Be the Place. She is both beautiful and terrifying in Behind Her Eyes, a deeply unsettling, highly entertaining, psychological drama which Hewson describes as her favourite job in the 15 years she’s been acting.

After only a few minutes chatting it’s clear Hewson, who has aqua-marine eyes filmed to striking effect in the new show, is funny, down-to-earth and subtly self-deprecating. She had a slightly messy path to nabbing the role of Adele in Behind Her Eyes which is based on the bestselling book of the same name by Sarah Pinborough. She plays the mysterious and wealthy heiress who befriends single mother Louise (Simona Brown) who is having an affair with Adele’s psychiatrist husband David, played by Tom Bateman.

Eve Hewson. Photograph: Rich Polk/Getty
Eve Hewson. Photograph: Rich Polk/Getty

Hewson had been filming Tesla, the biography of Nikola Tesla starring Ethan Hawke, and so missed the first chance to audition. The producers, Left Bank Pictures, the team behind The Crown, initially cast another actor but “something happened with her dates and they came back to me … I think I did my audition tape in the middle of the night on a Wednesday, and I was cast on Friday and then I was on a plane to London on Monday, the day Tesla wrapped. It was really quick. I didn’t know the story. I hadn’t read the book. The audition tape I made, looking back on it, was so the wrong take on the character because I didn’t know the twist.”

Ah, the twist. It’s as delicious as it is unexpected. Let’s just say Behind Her Eyes, set in London and Scotland, is the kind of series you finish and immediately need to watch again so you can view it through a different, more knowing lens.

Hewson only learnt about “the twist” when she first went on Skype with director Erik Richter Strand to talk about the role “so I got no suspense, or the build up that everyone else got, or the shock value. I was just really confused and a bit scared”.

The show is highly stylised, unashamedly theatrical and not a little bit camp. The initial short trailer Netflix released features Hewson as Adele, sporting a black bob as sharp as the large knife she’s holding to dementedly chop a bunch of parsley.

I usually get really great, dramatic, grounded roles that are very true to life. Erik would say we are able to go camp with it, and to be a bit bold. I’ve never worked with a director who pushed me to embrace the strange

“We worked really hard on the costumes and getting her style right. We threw in a few diva moments,” she says of some of Adele’s flamboyant, designer gowns. “The colours were kept very sophisticated, the kind of clothes only very rich people could get away with wearing, beautiful cream dresses every day. She’s not getting her hands dirty.”

I read an interview once where Hewson has described herself as a “control freak”. I wonder was it Adele’s manipulative side that appealed to her? She laughs, as though she’s been busted but says what she loved about the role was the freedom it afforded.

“I’ve never played a character I was allowed to go so big with. I usually get really great, dramatic, grounded roles that are very true to life. And this, you know Erik would say we are able to go camp with it, and to be a bit bold. I’ve never worked with a director who pushed me to embrace the strange. I have a more offbeat, twisted taste in the stories I like to tell and the characters I like to play. Erik has that taste as well.” (When I ask later what books she’s enjoyed recently she mentions Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson about the prison system in America and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s darkly comic novel My Sister The Serial Killer).

I suggest Adele must have been a demanding role, there are so many layers to a character who manipulates everyone around her including the audience. This is a woman who is never quite what she seems. In fact, Hewson says it was the easiest part she’s ever played “because it happened so quickly, I didn’t have time to second guess myself. It came out of this very basic instinct.”

“What I love about Adele is that she’s sort of a fantasy. She’s what I think a lot of people would love to be for a moment when they are caught in a dark moment of their life, in rage or pain or betrayal or all of those things. So it was like living out a fantasy. It was sort of really cathartic fun.”

She heaps praise on Richter Strand and Felix Wiedemann who shot the series. “They both definitely helped me feel like I was doing the right thing. I remember the same thing on The Knick with Soderbergh …. he’s so close to you with the camera that you feel like he understands what you’re doing. Every breath you take he’s right there next to you … some actors are very theatre based but I feel very connected to the camera. I feel weird when a camera is far away from me and I’ve had to get used to that. But with Felix and Erik there was a sort of relationship and suspense we were building together. I remember there were some scenes when the crew would just look at me like, ‘you are so scary’ …”

Behind Her Eyes: Eve Hewson in the Netflix thriller
Behind Her Eyes: Eve Hewson in the Netflix thriller

This brings us nicely to the more esoteric element of the storyline. At the risk of being strung up by the Spoiler Police, I can reveal that Episode 2 is called Lucid Dreaming. One of the characters experiences night terrors, an aspect of the plot that resonated with Hewson. “Since I was a kid I’ve had awful, violent nightmares,” she says. “My mom said she would hear me scream from my bunk bed. And I would jump out and run down the hall with my hair sticking out like a mad woman and jump on her bed … I was shaking, I had all these nightmares about witches and gremlins and I never really grew out of that. I remember my mom said she would give me extra pocket money if I stopped watching Home & Away because she thought my nightmares were coming from the storylines in that soap …. But yeah I’ve had them my whole life and they’ve got a bit better as I’ve gotten older but I’m the kind of person, I’ll be talking in my sleep. Shouting and crying. I’ll wake up in a cold sweat.”

The cast did a dream workshop in preparation for filming with a woman who works with astral projection, a term used to describe an intentional out-of-body experience. “I did it,” says Hewson. “I actually got out of my body. We were meditating and it felt like I was stepping up but I wasn’t, I was lying down. And then I woke up.”

“We all got really into it. We were like weird astral projection heads for about a week during rehearsals. We would all go home and listen to this meditation and we’d be bullshitting each other. You’ll never guess where I went last night.”

How does she feel about astral projection now? “I’d like to believe it. Just because life would be more interesting. But I do think your mind is so powerful that you can sort of make yourself believe whatever you want to believe. We don’t fully understand how strong our brains are. I haven’t done it since but it was a fun phase.”

When they call ‘action’ you really go into it. It feels almost like I’ve sometimes blacked out where I don’t fully remember what I’ve done. And that’s really fun

Does acting also provide that sense of being outside herself? “It’s interesting,” she says. “I think if you’re really in the moment [when acting] it’s sort of like when you’re drunk. When they call ‘action’ you really go into it. It feels almost like I’ve sometimes blacked out where I don’t fully remember what I’ve done. And that’s really fun … I think it’s because of the nightmares honestly, when I was a kid. I felt as though they were so real that anything could be real. So maybe everything has come full circle with this job.”

I’ve seen commentary about the, perhaps inevitable, American accent Hewson acquired over 10 years living in Brooklyn, New York, away from the family home in Dublin’s Killiney. It was certainly in evidence when she told Jimmy Fallon a charming talk show anecdote about “stealing” her dad’s contacts list aged 11 and prank-calling Justin Timberlake. (Clearly, this is not like stealing your average Dad’s contacts. Her dad is the U2 singer, musician and campaigner Paul Hewson or as the world knows him Bono. “Mom”, who soothed those childhood nightmares, is activist Ali Hewson. ) But on this call, while there is a slight New York twang, her southside Dublin roots can still clearly be heard.

I ask about growing up in Killiney with her older sister and two younger brothers. Was she the other family entertainer? “My mom would say I was quiet, shy and interesting. But she said I always had really good comedic timing. I would be dead quiet and then crack a joke and make everyone laugh …. I think I’ve always been a bit more comfortable performing than being myself. I sucked my thumb for years. I cut off all my hair because I was obsessed with ET and wanted to be Elliott. I made everybody call me Elliott for three years. I wore a hoodie. I was in a corner, you know, hiding under tables from people … actually I know a lot of actors who are painfully shy. I’m not painfully shy anymore but yeah, when I was younger I was a bit reclusive.”

She met her best friend Sorcha on the first day at school in the Dalkey School Project when she was four. “She’s now a very successful singer, you should look her up, Sorcha Richardson, ” she says proudly of her friend. “So she was my mate and I would become friends with all of her friends and it kind of continued like that.”

My mom played it down so much. She told me that it was going to be like a home video thing on a camcorder. I got there and it was a million dollar production

Hewson says she became interested in acting at the age of 13, while at secondary school in St Andrew’s College, through her tutor at the time Erica Dunton. The Hewsons were going away on tour with U2 for three months, so they needed someone to teach the kids. “Erica is an independent film-maker on the side and we made this one short film in Central Park when we were in New York.” She and her sister Jordan were supposed to be runners on the film “it was a little internship”. At one point, Eve was asked to go in front of the camera and the director of photography on the film was so moved by what he saw down the lens that he started crying. “It’s such an embarrassing story for me to tell … he said to Erica ‘I think you should put her in something’ and so she wrote a part for me when I was 15 in a film she was doing.”

The filmmaker treated Hewson’s performance in The Way Down, filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina, when she was just 15 almost like a homework assignment. “She sent me a questionnaire for my character … she said, answer these 50 questions and learn your lines, you’ll be fine. And my mom played it down so much. She told me that it was going to be like a home video thing on a camcorder. I got there and it was a million dollar production … I was away for two weeks and that was the moment I got hooked, a needle in the arm.”

Even after 15 years in the industry the actor, whose full name is Eve Sunny Day Hewson, is more commonly referred to as Bono’s daughter. She’s well used to fielding inevitable questions about the doors that famous family tie has opened. Last June, she told the Radio Times that while some of her friends at drama school struggled to get auditions her father’s fame made it “easier for me to get in the door”. She has also spoken about how the family name has a downside when “they can’t separate you from your father or see you as an individual” or “they have low expectations and they really don’t think you’re going to be good”.

She says her parents weren’t actually keen on her doing a drama degree, they wanted her to go to regular college but “I wanted to be a real actor, you know like Meryl Streep and go to grad school … my parents said you can only apply to Tisch [New York University’s famous school of the arts] and you probably won’t get it, so good luck.”

She remembers being so nervous about the Tisch audition that when she came home she was vomiting all night long, as though she had “swallowed my nerves” in order to perform her monologues and the nerves had come back up afterwards. At that point, she says, her parents realised “oh, she must really care about this”. She did get in and spent four “challenging” but clearly fulfilling years there. Along the way she also studied psychology because “after a while I thought, there’s only so much writhing around on the floor pretending to be a tree I can do.”

We talk about the #MeToo movement and the stories told by women who’ve experienced the worst side of her industry. “I didn’t fully understand it until I experienced it. It’s only when I gained a little more success I understood what those women were talking about.” Was that disillusioning? “Absolutely, I thought why on earth would I put myself through this? I don’t love acting that much. And I love acting, but I don’t love it enough to put myself in situations or environments with people who are, you know, disrespectful.”

Family: Eve Hewson with her parents, Ali Hewson and Bono, and sister, Jordan, in 2016. Photograph: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty
Family: Eve Hewson with her parents, Ali Hewson and Bono, and sister, Jordan, in 2016. Photograph: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty

Did she have to deal with anything like that? “Yeah, but you know it’s funny, like once you go through it and come out the other side, I learned that I would never let myself be treated like that again. That was important to me, that I have the power to speak up and there are people around me who will back me up.”

Her ambitions are evolving and it sounds as though she may spend more time behind the camera in future. “I don’t think acting will sustain me forever … I’m going back to my control problems,” she smiles. “I would love to have more creative input and more say in the things I am making and putting out into the world. It’s difficult being in a position where you don’t have a voice and you know in your gut people are making bad decisions for you.”

Growing up, something she sees as a good decision that was made for her and her siblings was being raised in Ireland. “My mom is a very private person,” she says. “A lot of that would have come from her. She really wanted us to have a quote unquote ‘normal’ life even though we didn’t have a ‘normal’ life. She made the sacrifice to stay at home and raise us and that was probably the best decision. I’m really lucky I didn’t grow up in London. I’m really lucky I didn’t grow up in LA. Being in Ireland and just how Irish people don’t care about fame, it’s not our currency at all … I think that really helped. The one thing I think prepared me for the career I have now was being able to go to the school down the road, to just live a Dublin life.”

It’s not normal to be flying around to different cities and seeing your dad play to 60,000 people every day. Then we’d come home and get back into our everyday routine

“And then we would go away to be with dad on tour and we’d have this extraordinary experience. We were able to appreciate both and know that the special, magical time we had with dad wasn’t normal life. It’s not normal to be flying around to different cities and seeing your dad play to 60,000 people every day. Then we’d come home and get back into our everyday routine. I think that’s helped with acting because you go away, have this magnificent time on a movie set, with people doing things for you like getting you water when you could walk five feet away and get your own water. And I’m like ‘no, no, no that’s not normal’. It’s not real life.”

Listening to her reminds me of something Bono has talked about in interviews, where he needed to transition back to the real world when he came home from a long tour. “Yeah, we always knew there was a few weeks where he’d have to sort of settle down and at around 8pm he’d start to get the nerves, as if he was about to go on stage, which was quite funny.” Did watching your dad help you understand the transition when you experienced it yourself? “Totally. I remember coming home from shooting The Knick, it was my first time working on something for six months. I couldn’t remember how to drive. I couldn’t figure out what to wear. I remember thinking I needed a week or two to feel back in the world again.”

It’s interesting that despite having parents who worked hard at keeping them out of the spotlight, three of their four children apart, so far, from the youngest John (18) have gravitated there anyway. In 2019 her eldest sibling Jordan (31) was named as one of Forbes magazine’s 30 under 30 social entrepreneurs as founder of Speakable and Action Button, which encourages civic engagement. Her brother Elijah (21) is the lead singer with up and coming rock band Inhaler.

“With any family, there’s usually a family of doctors or a family of accountants,” Hewson muses. “That’s sort of the way it goes. It’s about the environment you grew up in. My dad would have loved for us all to become architects. None of us are going to be architects. I think it would have been an easier choice to do something that wasn’t creative because there is constant comparison but I don’t think any of us would be happy if we were doing something else.”

When in 2016 her dad became the first man to receive a Glamour ‘Man of the Year’ award, she wrote an instagram post praising his work for women. Does she think she influenced her father’s feminism? “Oh sure, he’ll love that. He has two daughters who were raised to have strong opinions. Now he’s paying for it,” she laughs.

While she misses New York and says it’s where she’ll always want to live, she spent most of the pandemic at home with her family in Dublin enjoying, “a sort of love affair with Ireland … it’s been special”. She had missed it. “The people. The craic. The sesh.” The sesh is pretty minimal at the moment, I say. “It is. But I can get on the sesh with my brothers, we’re in the same household.”

Hewson can’t reveal the details of her next project only that she’s excited about it because it’s an Irish role and it will be filmed here which means she gets to be at home for an extended period. 

Actor Eve Sunny Day Hewson turns 30 this summer. She has grown up all her life being known as Bono’s daughter. With the buzz already surrounding Behind Her Eyes and the heft of her own show-stealing performance, you’d have to wonder how long it will be before people start referring to Bono as Eve Hewson’s dad. Any day now, I reckon.