Amy Huberman: Covid? ‘It’s a sh*tshow, and there’s no other way to describe it’

Amy Huberman on the pandemic: ‘Sometimes you’ll be grand, and other days you’re just not’
The actor and writer on dealing with criticism of her work, coping with lockdown stresses, and her ‘geriatric’ pregnancy. but try not to ask her about being a national treasure

If there is one thing I am not going to do in this interview with Amy Huberman, it is refer to her as a national treasure. Every time the actor, writer, Instagram punster, jewellery spokesmodel and shoe designer is mentioned in an article, those two words are attached to her name. It seems to be some unwritten law of Irish journalism. “Don’t do it,” she says laughing when I bring it up. “Resist!”

I have form myself in this regard. I interviewed Huberman in 2013 and used the even more eye-rollingly irritating phrase “national sweetheart”. Now talking to her on a Zoom call, autumn sunshine streaming into her bedroom in Dublin, her Newbridge Silver necklace – she’s just launched a new range of accessories – glinting in the light, I wonder what does national treasure/sweetheart even mean? And does a label like that come with a certain amount of pressure?

Nobody can do the right thing or say the right thing all the time – you just can’t please everyone. The older I get the more I realise you have to occupy your own space

“Nobody can do the right thing or say the right thing all the time – you just can’t please everyone,” she says of the notion that she is treasured by an entire nation. “The older I get the more I realise you have to occupy your own space and whatever people attribute to you I think is (a) none of your business and (b) so out of your control that I think that in a way you have to disassociate yourself with it, you know, because you’re only going to be set up for a failure. The weight of that would be too far too terrifying … that’s far too much pressure.”

And anyway, while she is clearly beloved by fans, a much more accurate description of Huberman is national messer. Her Instagram, where she has more than 400,000 followers, is an oasis of endless japes and joyful distraction in these dark times. She announced her pregnancy – she and husband of 10 years Brian O’Driscoll are expecting their third baby in January – by posting a picture of an actual bun in the oven. When we speak she is busy entertaining followers with a spooky pumpkin placed in her daughter’s toy pushchair and referring to this homemade Halloween installation as Pram Stoker. She loves a good pun, does Huberman.

We are talking as the final episodes of the second series of her quirky comedy drama Finding Joy are airing. The show goes out during a prime slot on Saturday night – the finale is tonight, possibly the best episode so far. Without giving too much away, our heroine Joy – Huberman stars as the hapless Irish influencer – finds herself forced to give a eulogy at a funeral. She delivers a speech that attempts to sum up the essence of modern Irish womanhood. It’s funny but also poignant. And laced with typical Huberman whimsy.

Finding Joy has found a place in the hearts of people during the pandemic as a fun distraction from the grim reality we’re all grappling with

Irish women, Joy says, are “neatness hiding a mess, we are good make-up over bad skin, we are desperate to be liked but we’re afraid to be loved … We’re Anne Doyle, we’re Mary Black, we’re Niall Horan, we’re Phil Babb and Zig and Zag and we’re Bosco … We’re Michael Flatley’s beautiful smile and we’re Jean Butler’s hair and every one of her freckles. We’re Johnny Logan, we’re Terry Wogan, we’re Bernard Brogan and Larry Gogan.We’re Nadine Coyle getting caught in a lie.”

It’s a charmingly funny moment that captures the essence of the TV series created and written by Huberman and directed by John Butler with cameos for familiar faces such as Pat Shortt, David O’Doherty, Paul Howard and Neil Morrissey.

In the same funeral scene, comedian Tara Flynn has a memorable musical role singing a deliciously tone-deaf song written especially for the deceased. Huberman has fond memories of filming that episode. “We were in a church so you had the not-laughing-at-Mass thing, and added to that there’s also a film crew and the pressure of that and there were just too many funny people around. I had Pat Shortt breathing in my ear and then Tara Flynn singing from the pulpit… It was brilliant. But very hard to keep a straight face.”

Amy Huberman: a bad review can ‘kind of spoil the fun’ when a show is on air
Amy Huberman: a bad review can ‘kind of spoil the fun’ when a show is on air

Finding Joy has found a place in the hearts of people during the pandemic as a fun distraction from the grim reality we’re all grappling with. For Huberman, the second series meant she could relax more. There was a writer’s room this time around, which she found useful for bouncing around ideas and sometimes killing them stone dead before they got to script stage.

“I definitely enjoyed series two more,” she says. “And that’s not to say that I didn’t have those same feelings of going, ‘Oh my God, I hope it’s working.’ ‘Oh, God, can we carry the momentum for the next however many weeks?’

“It was only on the other side of the whole thing, when it was finished and on the TV and RTÉ were really happy with it that I was like, ‘Oh my God, I wish I hadn’t been holding my breath for so long.’ I do just feel really lucky to get to do what I love. But it comes with huge mixed emotions. There is the fun and the love of it and then there’s the self-doubt.”

How does she handle self-doubt? “I think it’s definitely gotten better as I’ve got older,” says the 41-year-old. “I don’t indulge it as I used to or try to build myself around the foundations of what other people expect. Because I just think that you’re always going to fall short then, depending on whose opinion you ask. I find that quite creatively stifling for me to be looking outward all the time.”

Huberman, having discovered her acting chops at dramsoc in UCD, where she went planning to become a social worker, has starred in Irish TV series and films such as The Clinic, Striking Out and A Film with Me in It. She shone in British programmes such as Threesome and the reboot of Cold Feet. She’s well used to “putting myself out there with the work” and everything that comes with earning a living as a creative.

I used to be kind of floored by criticism. But my bounce-back time is shorter now. I do think it gets better as you age. I just don’t have the energy to give at the end of the day

I don’t exactly mention a pretty excoriating recent newspaper review of Finding Joy, but it hovers over this part of our conversation like a bad smell.

How does she deal with criticism? Her response is that she is better at dealing with it now. “I used to be kind of floored by it. I think that’s just because probably, I’ve always been wanting to please people. But my bounce-back time is shorter now. I do think it gets better as you age. I just don’t have the energy to give at the end of the day.”

“Did somebody call it the Bank of F**ks? It’s like, how much do I have left in there? And sometimes you have zero left to give. So that’s not to say that it doesn’t sting. Yeah, of course, you’d want everybody to be giving you the thumbs up. But I mean, if you’re doing something for blanket approval, I don’t know if you’re ever going to get it.”

Having said that, she says a bad review can “kind of spoil the fun” when a show is actually on air, so she tries to avoid it. “And then someone will say, ‘Oh your man didn’t love it did he?’ and you’re like, ‘Oh no, don’t tell me ... but what did he say?’”, she laughs.

“Look, people have a right not to like your stuff. I just don’t like it when it’s personal. The silly side of me just wants to make people laugh; that’s what this particular show is there for. It’s been really lovely to see people really engaged in Finding Joy in the middle of another lockdown as a bit of escapist fun, and people have been really, really kind. And that’s the thing you have to focus on.”

We talk about lockdown life with her adorable little dog, Phoebe, and O’Driscoll, rugby player turned sports commentator and a regular feature of Huberman’s hilarious Instagram posts during lockdown. She says she tries to keep upbeat for their two children, daughter Sadie and son Billy, but like everyone has her bad days.

Amy Huberman and her husband, Brian O’Driscoll. Photograph: Phillip Massey/Getty
Amy Huberman and her husband, Brian O’Driscoll. Photograph: Phillip Massey/Getty

“I think that for the most part people are resilient… I mean it’s a shitshow, and there’s no other way to describe it. It’s incredibly difficult for people whether it’s having relatives that are sick” – her own father, Harold, who has Parkinson’s disease, is in a nursing home and hasn’t been well lately – “or the pressure on people’s mental wellbeing. It’s such a mashed pie of everything. And even to try to separate it and figure it out for yourself when it’s changing all the time is hard. Like sometimes you’ll be grand, and other days you’re just not.”

She has kept busy through the crisis.There’s a new collection of her range for Bourbon footwear coming out, there’s the jewellery and the not inconsequential matter of that pandemic pregnancy. She says she has now reached “the turtle” stage. We joke about her having a baby at 41, and how medically it’s classed as being a “geriatric” pregnancy. “I said that to them in the hospital and they were like, ‘Yeah, you were probably geriatric the last time too,’” she laughs.

Finding Joy is excellent on the messy reality of parenting small babies. In one episode, Joy borrows a friend’s infant for a day and decides it is not very much fun at all. Huberman has found her pregnancy a useful distraction of late, and is trying to get as much writing work done as she can before the baby arrives in January.

There’s a potential book project and a TV thing she can’t talk about. She’d like to get as much as she can done in advance of the happy chaos that will ensue when she and O’Driscoll become parents of three children.

“But yeah, look, I’ve ordered one of those babies that sleeps really well. No reflux. One of those unicorn babies that doesn’t cry. I put it in the notes. So I’ll just keep the receipt and see what happens.”

See? Amy Huberman, national messer.

The Finding Joy series finale airs tonight, at 10.05pm, on RTÉ One and RTÉ Player