Niamh Algar: From sparring with Ridley Scott to lockdown in Mullingar

The Westmeath actor on working with the Alien director, her new C4 series Deceit and starring in horror flick Censor

Niamh Algar: ‘The most important thing I’ve learned from going from job to job is that you don’t stop learning’. Photograph: Michelly Rall/Getty Images

Niamh Algar: ‘The most important thing I’ve learned from going from job to job is that you don’t stop learning’. Photograph: Michelly Rall/Getty Images

 

Life as a movie star isn’t always creamed tea at the Ritz. Just ask Niamh Algar. Having returned to London from South Africa, where she has completed work on the second season of Raised by Wolves, the actor is in a quarantine hotel. It is even less fun than it sounds.

“I’m getting one walk a day,” says Algar. “And that’s around an underground car park. But if I ever need to play someone who’s in prison, I’ve done my preparation.”

The dystopian Raised by Wolves stars Algar as Sue, one of the few survivors of a religious war in 2145 that destroys the Earth. The HBO show was created by Aaron Guzikowski, but headlining executive producer Ridley Scott, who directed the first two episodes, remains actively involved. Algar and Scott, two boxing enthusiasts, sparred together on set. She’s full of admiration.

“I think anyone who’s in the industry as long as Ridley Scott is there because he loves it,” says Algar of the Blade Runner and Alien director. “He’s a fascinating man. He’s got so much energy. I think he’s got, like, three movies coming out this year. And we’ve just finished the second series of Raised by Wolves. He’s an executive producer on that. But he’s looking at all the rushes. He’s watching all the material that we shoot every day. And yet he’s doing four other movies. His enthusiasm for film and telling stories is infectious.”

Algar spent last year’s lockdown in her native Mullingar, a rare opportunity for playtime with her sister’s children and extended clan. It was the first sojourn the actor has spent at home since she moved to London in 2016. 

As she has it, following an appearance at the London Film Festival, she met her first agent, landed her first (and successful) audition with British director Shane Meadows for his PTSD drama The Virtues, and simply kept working.

Niamh Algar in Censor, directed by Prano Bailey-Bond
Niamh Algar in Censor, directed by Prano Bailey-Bond

By 2018 she was named one of Screen International’s Screen Stars of Tomorrow; the following year she was selected by Bafta as one of their Breakthrough Brits. 

“Being home means none of the conversations are about work,” she says. “I was there so long, eventually my parents started asking: ‘Erm, when were you thinking about leaving?’ They still wonder what I’m doing with my life.”

Algar, as it happens, is doing quite a bit. Indeed, it’s jarring to think about Algar locked down in Westmeath at a moment when her career was taking off internationally. Over the past year she was nominated for a Bafta and for three Ifta awards for her work in Pure, The Virtues, and Calm with Horses. Last April, she starred alongside Jason Statham in Guy Ritchie’s Wrath of Man.

Heavy lifting

In acting terms, each of those projects – save the latter – represents some serious heavy lifting. Pure, a darkly humorous exploration of obsessive-compulsive disorder, cast Algar as a comically hard-nosed journalist; Calm with Horses saw her bring humanity to a role that could easily have been just another nagging baby-mother with a criminal ex-boyfriend. To date, she has also worked with Richard Gere (MotherFatherSon), Desiree Akhavan (The Bisexual), and Charlotte Rampling on the incoming The Mooring).

The rave reviews keep on coming. The keenly anticipated Censor adds another feather to Algar’s cap. The debut feature from writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond arrives as part of a new wave of exciting female British directors, including Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman), former pop star Billie Piper (Rare Beasts), and Rose Glass (Saint Maud). 

Censor casts Algar as Enid, a prim film censor working during Britain’s hysterical “video nasty” era. (“Eye-gouging must go!” writes Enid during an opening scene.) It’s just another day at the office, and yet, watching a low-rent feature named Don’t Go into the Church sets Enid on edge. The film’s uncanny depiction of events leading up to her sister’s disappearance during her childhood inspires an investigation into the film-maker behind the eerie film-within-the-film and his super-sleazy producer (Michael Smiley).

Censor coalesces into a fun and discombobulating experience, anchored by Algar’s performance, and boosted by rave reviews from its prestigious midnight premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last January.

You have a very, very heavy subject matter and you go home every evening and there are no social aspects of my life as we’re coming out of lockdown. I couldn’t just go to a friend’s house and watch Anchorman

“An impressive, visually stunning, deeply disturbing debut from Bailey-Bond and a showcase for Algar, who gives a truly spectacular performance,” writes Charles Barfield in The Playlist, one of many keen notices.

“It felt cathartic,” says the actor. “But it was an interesting headspace to explore. Because what I find and what I’ve seen is that when you experience something as an actor, it doesn’t matter that it’s remote or that you’re playing another person. Whether it’s sad or traumatic, you’re revisiting that take after take. And obviously, we detach ourselves from the idea that this is actually happening. But you are kind of just simulating. With Censor my character was in every single scene. So you have a very, very heavy subject matter and you go home every evening and there are no social aspects of my life as we’re coming out of lockdown. I couldn’t just go to a friend’s house and watch Anchorman. It was challenging. But also emotionally fulfilling.

Emotions

“I love playing characters that are nothing like me. The roles that I’ve kind of pursued are difficult ones and far removed from me as a person. You’re exploring parts of your emotions that you wouldn’t usually visit for prolonged hours. And you go home with that and experience [them again], having convinced yourself momentarily that something has happened to this character. Sometimes your body carries those residual feelings, as it has gone through something upsetting. You know those feelings don’t exist, but you can’t help it. Your body’s still crazy from the chemicals.” 

Algar continues her hot streak with Deceit, a new Channel 4 series that grapples with the events around the shocking real-life murder of Rachel Nickell in 1992. Nickell was brutally murdered in front of her two-year-old son on Wimbledon Common. Her killer, Robert Napper, is believed to be responsible for more than a hundred violent sexual attacks on women and three horrific murders. Napper, however, remained free to attack and kill another young woman and her daughter – Samantha and Jazmine Bissett – after the nationwide manhunt. British police erroneously focused on the increasingly debunked practice of profiling and a honey trap operation in which an undercover officer codenamed “Lizzie James” (played by Algar), went after Colin Stagg, an innocent man. The judge at Stagg’s trial accused “Lizzie” and her handlers of “deceptive conduct of the grossest kind”.

Niamh Algar in Censor
Niamh Algar in Censor

It’s a carefully calibrated drama written and produced by Emilia di Girolamo and characterised by thorny legal issues, sensitivity for real-life victims, and a dual performance from Algar as both the aspiring young undercover officer and the dark persona she assumes as part of her duties on Operation Edzell. 

“I was a baby when this happened,” she says. “It was only when I was contacted by the project that I kind of went down the wrong rabbit hole of researching, and educating myself on what had happened. It’s something that you have to deal with with incredible sensitivity. And Emilia, the writer, was the best gateway for me because the story – and figuring out how to tell the story – has been her baby for so many years. I made the decision that I wasn’t going to research the real character because the show is protecting her identity. It was up to us to make strong choices and create the character ourselves. The best research is actually just my job as an actor: figuring out who the character is, what is driving them, what scares them, daydreaming about things that happened to them in their past. I love creating a past life and a family. It helps so much. You know your character better than anyone. You’re kind of like a lawyer – you have to justify certain actions that they take.”

She laughs: “And you get paid for it.” 

Artistic bent

Algar has always had an artistic bent. Her mother, a nurse and visual artist, encouraged Niamh and her four older siblings to draw and paint, rather than to watch television. As a teenager, she began making short films on a camcorder and decided to study art and design at the Dublin Institute of Technology. Within weeks, she realised that she was studying the wrong course. 

At DIT, working as a trainee production designer brought Algar to film and television sets. It was an opportunity to pay off her student loans, while she enjoyed different drama societies. It was also an opportunity to learn her future trade.

We just took over this massive space. And Jim Sheridan would come in with scenes that he would just get us to play out. John Carney was there. Maureen Hughes had her casting office there

“I saw how films were made. And that was the best education for me. I didn’t train formally. So anything I’ve learned, I’ve learned by watching and trying to replicate what I’ve seen. It’s something that naturally developed over the years. And then I developed my own sense of style. The most important thing I’ve learned from going from job to job is that you don’t stop learning. You never assume that you’re an expert in anything, you know?” 

Algar found kindred spirits at The Factory, the actors’ workshop that eventually evolved into the screen acting academy at Bow Street. Early alumni included Algar, Barry Keoghan, Seána Kerslake, Brian Gleeson, Paddy Gibson and Jack Reynor. 

“They used to meet every week in the Riverdance rehearsal space,” recalls Algar. “And then we just took over this massive space. And Jim Sheridan would come in with scenes that he would just get us to play out. John Carney was there. Maureen Hughes had her casting office there. Eventually, they saw all these actors that were there every week and thought, if only there was a programme to develop these people. I was part of the second year to be involved. You had writers, directors and producers. You had creatives sharing their knowledge of the industry. We’d go out with cameras, and sound equipment, and just start filming and creating. Then we’d watch and critique each other’s work.

More sage professional advice was gleaned from her uncle, RTÉ celebrity Derek Davis.

“I told my dad, when I’m 16, or 17, look: I want to be an actor,” recalls Algar. “Derek lived in Dublin and dad drove me up, and we both sat down for a cup of tea. And he just kind of sat back and just laughed and said: ‘Your parents are never going to understand. They’re going to be scared for you. Now, what do you want to know?’ This is a really tough business, and you have to work really hard. Any people that I’ve met, that are consistently working in this industry, do their homework. They turn up on set or whatever and make it look like they haven’t done their homework. But they do. They do so much work that they can turn up and let go and have fun.”

Censor opens August 20th; Deceit will be on Channel 4 later this year

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