THIS WEEKEND the Galway Film Fleadh hosts Oscar-winning actress Brenda Fricker as its special guest, when she partakes in an interview with Sean Rocks from RTÉ Radio’s Arena at 3pm on Sunday in the Town Hall Theatre.
Ahead of her Galway visit Brenda kindly took some time to talk about her career, speaking from a hospital bed as she has been unwell recently. I began by asking whether she has had any personal links to the west of Ireland.
“I don’t want to give away everything I have to say in my little speech but I have this theory,” she replies. “My mother and father rented a cottage in Arranmore on their honeymoon and I always claim I was conceived in Galway! I also bought a coastguard station down there and my father had a fishing trawler in Cleggan and my sister lived in Cloone for the last 15 years of her life so I have huge connections to Galway.”
Brenda’s first foray into acting was as a child with RTÉ. Were there any particular individuals who helped and inspired her as a young actor?
“Lelia Doolin,” she declares emphatically, citing the esteemed Galway Film Fleadh founder. “There were so many good people then. RTÉ took my sister first, then she was bumped off to boarding school, and my mother said ‘There is another one running around here if you want her’ so I went in and they treated me so well and with respect for an eight-year-old child, I loved it.”
When she was older Brenda started following her father’s footsteps by becoming a cub journalist with The Irish Times. Then theatre re-asserted itself in her life
“Words like career didn’t exist when I was a teenager” she recalls. “Some people who had a passion went off and did medicine or an English degree but they were people who had a leaning toward those subjects and had parents who could pay for it. In my situation that wasn’t the case, I just wandered into acting.
“I was working away in The Irish Times which I got through pure nepotism because my father was working there. Regarding the acting, there was this fantastic director Jim Fitzgerald who just phoned me up one day and Telefis Éireann had just started and he told me they were starting a series, Tolka Row, and would I come down and play Jim Bartley’s girlfriend in it.
“I said ‘I can’t, I am working here in the paper,’ but Kevin Rea who was my boss, was sitting in the room and could hear the conversation and he said ‘Sure go on for a week or two and try it we’ll keep a job open for you here,,’ so I said OK and off I went and here I am now 50 years later.”
Having made her breakthrough in the RTÉ soap Tolka Row, Brenda would go on to appear in such iconic series as Coronation Street, Z Cars, and Casualty in which she played the character of Nurse Megan Roach for 65 episodes.
“I enjoyed working in TV,” she states. “When I started in TV there would be six or more heavy cameras on set, moving around the studio like Daleks and a lot of it was done live which was terrifying. Gradually the technology improved.
“My late husband, Barry Davies, was a director and I used to sit in while he was doing editing and I was fascinated by that. I learned so much about that. I would have loved be an editor. In film you learn what cog you are in the wheel, and you learn how you must do that part and fit into the machine, unlike television where it is very much an in-house style.”
While she is now best known for her work on screen, Brenda also featured in prestige plays with the Abbey and Gate theatres, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre, and the Royal Court.
“I would have liked to do more theatre,” she admits. “My career was going very nicely when I was 44 or thereabouts, my husband Barry used to advise me on roles. I had done quite a lot of new writers in theatre and he said to me ‘You need to go back to the RSC or the National Theatre and do the classics which is the next step for you.’
“I was really looking forward to doing that and then this script came in which was My Left Foot and Barry read it and said ‘You have to do this. It is a career-changing script! You can do the theatre afterwards.’ But then after that no-one asked me to do theatre, all the offers were for roles in film.”
Oscar winning actress
My Left Foot is the film with which Fricker will always be associated, having won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Christy Brown’s mother. In her acceptance speech she dedicated her award to Bridget Brown. Remarkably, she reveals she had no time ahead of the film to study or prepare for the part.
“I didn’t have time to research that role because the dates clashed with the last week of Casualty,” she tells me. “For that particular run of episodes we had a very difficult producer who liked his bit of power. There were sometimes ways of getting around it and I went into him but he wasn’t having any of it so I couldn’t get around him. Eventually after much begging they let me go but I had no time to do any preparation for the role.”
One of Brenda’s favourite movies is her 2011 film Cloudburst in which she plays one half of a lesbian couple with Olympia Dukakis.
“I loved Cloudburst,” she declares. “I remember the script came in and they were doing auditions in New York. Everyone was reading with Olympia and after every one she would say to the director Thom Fitzgerald, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing the only one who can do this part is Fricker,’ and he’d be saying ‘Next!’ and that went on for weeks but he also said to Olympia ‘I have Brenda on my list, don’t worry!’ Eventually Olympia said ‘Seriously, send her the script’ and they did and I said yes. I hadn’t worked with her before that but we have worked a couple of times since and we have become the most passionate friends.”
To co-incide with Brenda’s visit the fleadh will be screening A Long Way From Home, Victoria Gilbert’s romantic drama in which she stars with James Fox.
“I do not have fond memories of working on that,” she reveals with typical candour. “It was 104 degrees in bloody France with mosquitoes biting the face off me. It was extremely unpleasant to work on. There was no budget, we had no trailers or any place to go privately. Actors need trailers, not to show off as people might think, but just to keep your head focused on what you are doing.
“So we had no trailers or dressing rooms and it was very, very, difficult but I think we managed it, there were no rows, we were all well behaved, and despite the conditions I think we did quite well, it’s a good film.”
And her final words from her hospital bed?
“I’ll hobble down to Galway somehow, I wouldn’t let Lelia down for love or money!”
Galway and the fleadh look forward to welcoming the wonderful Brenda Fricker.