Megan Cusack: ‘I can’t help but feel I’ve got something to live up to’

The Call the Midwife actor is the latest generation of the Cusack acting dynasty

"I was talking to my dad the other day and he said that when I was nine, I went up to him and said, 'I think I want to be an actor, but don't worry if that doesn't work out. I know I can go into PR because I'm really good with people'," says Megan Cusack, practically hiding her face behind her hands. "I must have heard someone talking about me, because where on earth did I get that from."

As it turned out, her nine-year-old self knew a thing or two. Chatting to her on Zoom, with Cusack's colourful wardrobe at home in Gypsy Hill, London, as her background, it's clear she has a social grace that undoes the potential awkwardness of the tech. Her ambition to become an actor has come to pass too, although that's not a surprise given that, along with Max Irons and Calam Lynch (her cousins), she's the latest generation of the Cusack acting dynasty. While creative vocations branch out wider – her father is theatre producer Pádraig Cusack – her grandparents Maureen and Cyril were high-profile actors in the 1940s, and her aunts are Niamh, Sorcha, Catherine and Sinéad Cusack, who's married to Oscar winner Jeremy Irons.

“I’m grateful and feel very privileged to be a part of the family I am, because they’re incredibly helpful in many ways,” the 24-year-old says. “Like, they’re there for audition advice. And when we’ve worked on speeches together, one of the best thing my auntie Niamh has ever told me is to treat you every full stop as if it’s the end of the speech. It just really works – it slows you down and makes you think about things more.

Moving to London was definitely more of a shock than you'd think considering it's not halfway across the world

“But there’s always a pressure with that [connection] – not from them, just in general, and probably from myself because I’ve grown up watching them and I think they’re all incredibly talented at what they do. I can’t help but feel I’ve got something to live up to.

“I feel a bit more independent with Call the Midwife. I’ve progressed to feeling that I got it myself, that it’s based off my own talent and the work I’ve put into carving a career.”

After following in the family footsteps by treading the boards in Ireland – Cusack was in the Druid production of The Cherry Orchard when lockdown began, and she later appeared in a pandemic version of DruidGregory – this year sees her striking out on her own in BBC drama Call the Midwife.

A weighty hit for the Beeb, Call the Midwife consistently reaches over eight million viewers in the UK, as a comforting yet thought-provoking Sunday night watch that draws on the personal and societal changes in an east London nursing convent in the 1950s and, now, the 1960s. Cusack joins as Pupil Midwife Nancy Corrigan, who arrives into Nonnatus House as a student, and is immediately made to earn her place in the convent.

The role came to Cusack in November 2020. She self-recorded her audition on a Sunday, sent it off on Monday, and got The Call on the Wednesday. The trickiest part was having to bluff that she could ride a bike, which turned out to be a contractual stipulation for the role. “I hadn’t ridden one in 14 years but I thought there’s a reason there’s the phrase ‘it’s like riding a bike’,” says Cusack.

“The first thing we shot on it was when there was about 12 of us taking off together. We had to cycle past the camera that cost something like £100,000, and I was positioned right by the camera, and I also had to avoid everyone else that was cycling around me. Genuinely, I was like ‘oh my goodness, this is it. This is how I lose my job’. Luckily, no cameras or other actors were damaged in the process.”

In 2015, Cusack moved from Skibbereen to study the family trade at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), whose past students include Richard Harris, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch.

“Moving to London was definitely more of a shock than you’d think considering it’s not halfway across the world,” she says. “But also I come from a tiny town in southern Ireland, where everyone knows each other and says hello on the streets. So when I came to London, despite being surrounded by people, and it being busy and exciting, I was surprised by how easily you can feel quite lonely. That was something I struggled with for the first few years.”

It's been a tumultuous time for everyone, especially young people, and I think it does take its toll

Over time, she made solid friends both in and out of the industry; Cusack’s Instagram page hints at her gregarious personality and large social circle. Her besties are from LAMDA and she’s nestled in the Irish acting community too, but she also tells of meeting other close friends from her time working in a call centre (“that was the best thing about the job,” she says).

While in lockdown, she and her flatmates have been finding places to swim (it helped that she was in Cornwall for the first part of the pandemic). They’ve gone big on annual events like Chinese New Year, and they’ve caught up on TV. Stath Lets Flats was her big find, and to prove it, she knocks out a convincing accent of Stath.

But her attention has extended to the world around her too. As Britain’s politics continues to divide, she’s been to a number of protests around the Sarah Everard case and women’s safety, and later, against a Bill that allows the British government sweeping powers around protests.

“It’s been a tumultuous time for everyone, especially young people, and I think it does take its toll. With so much going on in the last couple years, it’s felt like we’re coming out and raising our voices and they’re going to have to listen to us and change.

“I went to the Clapham Common protest for Sarah Everard, which the police really effed up. Being around all these people was suddenly really empowering, but the peaceful vigil was turned in to something brutal, and so unnecessarily.

“But [protesting] makes a difference. The Bill that they were trying to fast track has now been delayed, and you can’t help but think that the people that came out and stood there from half 11 in the morning to nine o’clock at night had something to do with that.”

Though she gives nothing away as to whether her big break in Call the Midwife will continue into its 11th series, she’s enthused by the prospects that it opens up.

“I grew up watching a lot of theatre, and that’s what made me want to go into acting. But after doing Call the Midwife, I see it’s exciting to be part of a show where you can’t wait to get your scripts for the next episode and find out what happens to you and everybody else,” she says. “I want to work across everything, and have the opportunity to play a different array of characters, and get stuck into things. Bring it on.”

It seems that the back-up plan in PR might just have to hold for the foreseeable.

Call the Midwife continues on BBC One on Sundays

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