Minnie Driver: ‘Ireland is where it all started for me’

Her stunning memoir recalls ‘lovely’ Maeve Binchy and her break-up from Matt Damon

Minnie Driver is reminiscing about playing Irish student Benny in Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends, her breakout film from 1995. “Ireland is where it all started for me,” she says. When filming ended, the young English actor returned to London with several knitted jumpers that had been pressed on her by various people she met while filming. “They’d say, ‘You have a very large bosom’,” she recalls smiling, switching to an excellent Irish accent. “They were always talking about my bosom. They’d say, ‘You’ve got a great chest, now here you go, my mother made this for you. You need to cover it up’.”

Driver is laughing at the bizarre memory on a Zoom call from London, where she’s been on a relentless publicity schedule not, this time, for a new movie but for her first book, a memoir called Managing Expectations. She’s wearing a white T-shirt on which the word “Love” is printed in colourful letters. Now 52 and mother to a teenage boy, Henry, she glows with movie-star charisma, palpable even over Zoom.

Hers is a “tell most” as opposed to “tell all” book comprising 10 essays that explore pivotal episodes from her life, including a peripatetic childhood, a decades-long film, television and music career and various love stories, both romantic and platonic. There is one essay, called You’re It, in which she reclaims the narrative of her relationship and subsequent break-up with her Good Will Hunting co-star Matt Damon, the tabloid version of which has clung to her like a shadow since the 1990s.

I've noticed people would rather not be confronted by direct truth telling or my version of it but I don't sugarcoat things... I was always like that

The memoir is stunningly good. The writing elegant, original, stylish, moving and, in parts, extremely funny – the bosom-concealing jumpers from Circle of Friends make an appearance. In preparation for our meeting, I mention that I’ve been watching clips from the movie and how it seems mad to me that she was supposed to be what Benny self-describes as a “big fat article” when she was a glorious-looking size 14. She put on two stone to play the role. “I know,” Driver agrees, remembering conversations with Circle of Friends author Maeve Binchy about the anomaly. She treasures the memory of Binchy coming to the set, they were “the best days”, when they’d sit together under a tree talking. “Maeve used to say to me, ‘God love you, you are not what I wrote Benny to be, you are the Hollywood version of the girl that I wrote’.”

I tell her the 10-year anniversary of Binchy’s death is coming up in July and that an RTÉ documentary about her life recently aired. “I’d love to see that,” she says. “Maeve was one of the most special, wonderful women I’ve ever met. So generous.” Did she keep in touch with Binchy? “Yeah, we wrote to each other. I’ve got some beautiful letters from Maeve. And she always kept track of the things that I went on to do and she was just lovely.”

The things Driver “went on to do”, including an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress for her role as Skylar in Good Will Hunting, is an impressive and eclectic list. She starred in a slew of movies such as Sleepers with Brad Pitt, the Bond movie GoldenEye and Grosse Pointe Blank with John Cusack. Her television shows have included The Riches with Eddie Izzard and a long-running guest star spot in Will & Grace. Along the way she made two acclaimed albums and became an accomplished surfer and long-distance swimmer, saying: “Swimming and the sea has always been my escape.”

She lives in London and Malibu, where she owns a mobile home overlooking the Pacific. Of the ocean, she says, “I miss it like a lover.” Her partner since 2018 is documentary film-maker Addison O’Dea and one swashbuckling, deeply romantic essay in the book tells of the very beginning of their relationship, a sea-based incursion they made together to reach her Malibu home while the Californian fires raged.

During the pandemic she was annoyingly productive, writing the memoir and starting a podcast, Minnie Questions with Minnie Driver, where she asks the same seven probing questions of celebrity guests. Last year, she returned to Ireland to film John Carney’s Modern Love episode. “It was filmed during the pandemic, neighbours left notes and care packages for me outside my cottage, I ran every day. I loved it. I’ve been back to Ireland many times since Circle of Friends and it always feels like I’m being welcomed home.”

The thread that connects all the essays is the ways in which Driver has managed expectations throughout her life and career. She had a bohemian, emotionally challenging upbringing between London and Barbados and Hampshire, where her father, Ronald, a wealthy financial adviser, had a home. Her mother, Gaynor, was not married to her father, who had another family. When Driver was seven, in order to retain custody of her children under the misogynistic legal constraints of that time, her mother married another man and moved the family to a remote cottage in rural Hampshire. Driver began boarding at the local school Bedales – only 5km from her home.

At boarding school, she was crippled with homesickness but eventually settled in, and the book is dedicated in part to the teachers she had there who prized critical thinking and creativity. Bedales is where she did her first audition, winning a solo in a school musical, and where she appeared on television for the first time, singing in an oak tree for the BBC’s Nationwide, when the schoolchildren campaigned to stop a bypass going through the grounds. In a neat twist, while showing her son around the school grounds during the pandemic, he took a notion to go there and is a student at Bedales now.

Driver told the truth as she saw it as a child, often when adults did not want to hear it. She tells the astonishing story of tackling her father about his young girlfriend and being sent, as a result of her outburst, back to England from Barbados alone on a flight, with an overnight stop in the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami. She was 11. Driver has, over the years, been one of those female actors described as “difficult” because of this tendency to call things out. One example she has spoken about happened while filming the movie Hard Rain, where she spent a lot of time underwater and wanted to wear a wetsuit. The producers did not want her to wear one because it would mean her nipples would not be visible through her clothes.

“I’ve noticed people would rather not be confronted by direct truth telling or my version of it but I don’t sugarcoat things . . . I was always like that. It was very difficult when I was a kid. And when I was a young woman as an actor it was often impossible. It had a massive impact on my career at different times with producers who have completely admitted that over a glass of wine 20 years later.”

There is so much wisdom and beauty and truth-telling in the book, whether about her career struggles, friendship, single motherhood or fame, but inevitably the story that’s garnered the most attention concerns her relationship with Damon. The essays are clearly very thoughtfully curated, she could easily have left that part out. Why did she choose to address it?

“I was acutely aware of not writing anything sensational, because it was the absolute antithesis of what I wanted to do,” she says. “But I wrote about that because that was a huge inflection point in my life, in my story. And even though that whole period has been so aligned with who I am and it’s followed me around my whole life, I’ve never actually spoken about it from my point of view without it being put through the sausage grinder of a journalist. No offence,” she adds quickly.

“None taken,” I say, telling her it’s one of my favourite essays in the book for exactly that reason. The tabloid story goes that Damon revealed his newly single status on Oprah before telling Driver their relationship was over. And then, nominated for her part in Good Will Hunting – she did not win – Driver had to smile through the Oscars ceremony which Damon, who won an Oscar that night, attended with his new girlfriend. But the ill-fated romance, as recounted by Driver in her book, is far more nuanced and relatable than the one we thought we knew. Anyone who has ever been heartbroken will recognise aspects of their story: “I didn’t hear the break-up in his words. I reframed the entire thing, made myself as small as possible, and forced my way into the sliver of hope I created,” she writes.

“There was only ever a kind of drama attached to it as opposed to the love that was in there,” she reflects. “The sweetness that was in there, the genuine young person’s grief and heartbreak at the end of a relationship, not the tragedy that was played out as a soap opera, but rather, the human experience of that. And how my parents had seen it coming and knew that it was a bad idea, even though he was a lovely boy. I wanted to humanise it and take it out of the awful tabloid parsing of that story. That was a beautiful, strange moment in my life. And I’m very proud of what I accomplished. The fact that I’d been nominated for an Oscar was glossed over in favour of the heartbreak and the ending of that relationship, which has never been faithfully reported. So anyway, it felt really good to do that. He’s a lovely bloke, and we were very young. He’s a dear man, Matt.”

He’s certainly very dear to Ireland, I tell Driver. Did she see the photo of him and his plastic SuperValu bag in Dalkey during the pandemic?” She laughs. “Yes, I heard about that.”

There’s a part in the book where she’s getting ready for the Oscar’s red carpet and lamenting to her mother about how this massive moment was being overshadowed by her break-up and “feels punitive”. Her mother, a model, interior designer and something of a guru herself when it came to managing expectations, gives her some important life advice: “Your expectation that anything is ever untinged by something else is an extremely dodgy narrative to cling to. Let it be messy and painful, let it be joyful and rare.”

“And it’s the hardest thing to remember when you’re incredibly sad or when you want to just blame someone for robbing you of the purity of an experience,” says Driver. “It’s about learning to lean into experiences that have more than one emotion attached to them. Childbirth is both beautiful and painful, as we know, heartbreak really can have that in it too. It would have been fun to just have been in a joyful place, being nominated, sitting with my dad, holding his hand and my mum and my sister, and not, you know, looking at my ex-boyfriend receiving an Oscar on stage, which was weird, because I did love him. And I wanted to be happy and I was sad, that’s just what the story was.”

We don't have enough rituals around grief and death or the support systems that I think we used to have

She also writes about another aspect of being cast in Good Will Hunting as the love interest of her soon-to-be boyfriend Damon. After her audition, word came down from on high that the head of the company producing the movie, one Harvey Weinstein, did not want her to be in the film as “nobody would want to f**k her”. “It definitely had a huge effect on my self-esteem,” she says now. “I mean there’s always people out there who don’t find you attractive, but to actually hear it from a powerful person in my business, there was a moment where I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m never going to work again’. Hollywood is based around, I wish it were just talent, but it is based around sex and how you look.

“But I’m glad that I very quickly ascertained that he really was just a revolting pig of a person. And that I didn’t care how powerful he was. That was just his opinion.” In the end, Ben Affleck and Damon, the young writers and stars of the movie, overruled Weinstein and she was cast. “It was really good that these other men could stand up and say, actually no she’s the person that we want very, very much.”

She found the #MeToo movement “a huge relief”. “It was just such a vindication for those women . . . having been punished for either speaking out, having careers ended, being vilified. It was really satisfying. And I hope that there was systemic change that has come as a result of it, I really do.”

The final essay, Daffodils, is a reflection on the death, during the pandemic, of her mother from liver cancer. She and her sister, Kate, spent days and nights on the floor beside their mother nursing her through those final days. The writing is raw and delicate and heartbreaking. How is Driver now? “I am not who I was before,” she says with the eloquence that is the hallmark of her memoir. “We don’t have enough rituals around grief and death or the support systems that I think we used to have . . . everyone says the same lovely, sweet platitude . . . which is that your life grows around the grief and that, you know, you will end up remembering them with a smile. But there are days where I just still feel so angry and completely lost that she’s not here to call.

“And I think particularly with the book coming out, she would have just loved all of this so much. And she would have been glad to be useful, to have made such a beautiful ending for a book, that something could have been recycled out of the agony of her dying.”