INTERVIEW:A celebrated actress without a celebrity attitude, Natascha McElhone hit the headlines last year for tragic reasons – the sudden death of her husband. She tells Gráinne Fallerabout coping with adversity, and the perspective has she gained from working for Unicef in Angola
NATASCHA McELHONE was always one of those actresses whose face was more recognisable than her name. To many, she was that girl Jim Carrey was in love with in The Truman Show, George Clooney's wife in Solarisor even, for television buffs, David Duchovny's on-off girlfriend in Californication. Despite having shared a screen with the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Robert De Niro, Judi Dench and Brad Pitt, she never courted the publicity that goes with such high-profile work.
Then, in May of last year, she hit the headlines for the very worst of reasons. Her husband, Martin Kelly, died suddenly of a heart attack at their London home. A well-known surgeon, he was fit, healthy and only 43 years old. She was in Los Angeles with their two boys, Theo and Otis, filming the second season of Californication. A few minutes before he died, he'd left a phone message telling her how he was looking forward to flying out to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary, which had been the day before. She was pregnant with their third child, Rex, who was born six months later.
Since then, McElhone has been described in tabloid headlines as tragic. The term doesn’t suit her. She’s self-deprecating and friendly, exclaiming about the jacket she’s wearing, “I borrowed it. It’s like the size of my son’s clothes,” laughing in mock horror.
She’s in Dublin to talk about her recent trip to Angola for Unicef. “Of course there, to be a widow with three kids, it’s not unusual at all. It’s almost par for the course. It’s strange, we’d meet these women and there was no common language between us, but just total identification.”
She was there to observe the work being done to eliminate maternal and newborn tetanus – a fatal but entirely preventable disease. It has already been eliminated in many countries but it’s still a problem in Angola. Women and newborns are often infected as a result of unhygienic birth practices and once contracted, there is no real cure.
“While we were there, we were present at two births, which was just so exciting. The babies just popped out; one of them is called Natascha,” McElhone says with a smile. “But the startling thing is that both of these women had lost two babies. For women like them – the young women who were giving birth that day – losing babies is very common. Almost everyone we met had lost babies. Can you imagine?” she asks.
“What’s excellent about this programme is that it establishes a connection. It works beyond the first tier of people getting immunised,” she says. “With the tetanus inoculation, typically what happens is that people will also get Hep A, Hep B, polio, malaria tablets, a mosquito net. Most importantly, it starts a dialogue with the clinic as well as helping to reduce infant mortality.”
McElhone is good company. Intelligent and witty, she has a mischievous sense of humour and her conversation is peppered with anecdotes. It comes as no surprise to learn that she has quite a bit of the auld sod in her heritage. I tell her I think she has an Irish look about her - a willowy, high-cheekboned, very beautiful Irish look. There is definitely something Celtic about her features.
"Well, I am Irish," she says. She was born Natascha Taylor in London to Irish parents. Her parents split up when she was a toddler and her mother, journalist Noreen Taylor, married Roy Greenslade, a former newspaper editor and now a professor in journalism and media columnist for the Guardian. McElhone is her mother's maiden name.
Was she conscious of her Irish heritage as a child? “Oh hugely,” she says. “You know the way that people who have left Ireland become more Irish, more attached to the politics, the history, than the people living here sometimes? We’d always be coming here for holidays and things like that.
“We went to gaeltachts where we couldn’t speak a word of Irish. I did Irish dancing for years. We’d go down to Kilburn for the feiseanna . . . I’m really pleased, actually, that I had that whole other element growing up.”
There was slight familial stand-off when she and Kelly got married in 1998 in France.
“Mum was so cross that we didn’t get married in Ireland,” McElhone says with a laugh. “But in honour of her I had little ancient symbols and jut specific things from our life embroidered on my veil – like I had on my Irish dancing costume. I had little hearts, Claddaghs, on it, and then on the bottom, because it was just after the Easter agreement in the North, this woman embroidered the word saoirse – subtly but really beautifully.”
Her husband crops up briefly but regularly in conversation. It pains her, distracts her slightly, but she doesn’t mention him in a sad way. She laughs, if anything. It’s a defence of sorts, but it’s never a false laugh. The memories of him seem to make her happy. The grief hangs in the air when the memory fades again.
Now the sole breadwinner of the family, she has remained busy. The success of Californicationdoesn't appear to have changed her attitude to movies. She continues to challenge herself, going for parts that attract her rather than blockbusters. She has just finished shooting The Kid, based on a memoir by Kevin Lewis, in which she plays Lewis's abusive mother. It's a very different type of role for her and one that is bound to raise eyebrows.
“I feel nervous about that one,” she says. “We didn’t have the preparation time, and it’s just the kind of role you need that for. It had been in the background for a while and then I got a call saying: ‘We’re going to start shooting next week.’ There was no rehearsal time, we didn’t have a round-table read of the script, nothing. It will be wonderful to see whether the alchemy works on it.”
There's another Irish part in the pipeline in a film called Heaven and Earthabout James Miranda Barry – a Corkonian who, disguised as a man, was a hugely talented doctor in the 19th century. It's currently in pre-production and McElhone will play the lead.
She comes across as a profoundly positive individual. The grief and devastation are there, of course, but self-pity does not seem to be an option. How does she manage to keep pressing on?
She pauses for a second. “With having three boys, the wonderful thing is the option is taken away from you to behave in any other way. It’s a life-force thing. It’s not even a choice. It’s not a case of sitting back and saying: ‘Do you know what? I’m just going to make the best of it.’ They just sort of drag you along.
“Particularly because I was pregnant. There were just these mad hormones flying around about the instinct to survive, to protect and preserve life. There was this weird juxtaposition of those two experiences going on at the same time and the protection of life force definitely won out.”
Kelly died without knowing the sex of his child. They hadn’t thought about names yet. I wonder how McElhone decided upon Rex as a name for their baby. She smiles.
“With our other sons, Martin had written some of the lists of names, so I’ve got Rex written in his writing. That’s partly why I chose it because I just thought . . .” she trails off for a second and giggles slightly. “We have a joke; Martin had a slight speech impediment. He couldn’t say his ‘r’s very well. He said to me: ‘We could never call our child Rex. I’d be going around an airport going Wex, Wex! Wex! It would be too humiliating.’
“So Theo, my oldest son, and I joke about it, you know: ‘It’s perfect, because he doesn’t have to say it.’ ” Again, McElhone trails off for a second. “His middle name’s Coltrane, after Martin’s jazz hero, John Coltrane. We weren’t sure. For a long time Theo was saying, ‘We should have called him Coltrane because I want to call him Colt. I think it’s a good nickname.’ I said we can still call him Colt but I think Coltrane is a bit of a reach for English people.”
The Gift of Life campaign that McElhone is currently fronting is a partnership between Unicef and Pampers. “Unicef works with the governments and the people. There’s nothing imperialistic about the way they operate,”she says.
Unlike many appeals for the developing world, this is a problem where the end is in clear sight.
“There are so many countries where maternal and infant tetanus have been wiped out. It just shows that it’s not an impossible dream. It’s eminently doable. It’s just a matter of getting the access.
“I definitely hope to get back in there and do more of thi s work when my kids are grown. If you’re in any kind of position where you can possibly shout about something that’s worthwhile, then you’ve got to do it.”
During the months of October, November and December, for every Pampers product purchased with the 1 Pack = 1 Vaccine logo, Pampers will provide Unicef with the funding for one tetanus vaccine to help protect a mother and baby in need.