Belfast Telegraph

Does The Fall degrade women? No, says Laura, who played Spector's first victim - it's given them a sexy, powerful role model in Stella

As the controversial series continues tonight, Laura Donnelly, who is now starring on Broadway, says its critics have got it all wrong

By Maureen Coleman

Belfast actress Laura Donnelly has only ever attempted fly-fishing twice in her life. On the first occasion, she was accompanied by Dominic West, the handsome star of television dramas The Wire and The Hour.

Second time round, her companion was none other than Hollywood superstar Hugh Jackman.

Given the delightful company on those fly-fishing expeditions, it's little wonder she's now rather hooked on the sport.

And it's a subject she has come to know much about, having appeared alongside West and Miranda Raison in the Jez Butterworth three-hander The River at the Royal Court in London two years ago. Now Laura is treading the boards in the same play on New York's Broadway, opposite Golden Globe winner Jackman and Torchwood star Cush Jumbo. The petite 32-year-old reprises her role of The Other Woman in the latest staging of The River, the only original cast member to transfer to Broadway.

Written by the same man behind the critically-acclaimed Jerusalem, The River is a mysterious tale of love, loss and fish. Jackman, best known for playing Wolverine in the hit X Men franchise and Jean Valjean in last year's movie adaptation of Les Miserables, is The Man, a keen fisherman who has brought his new girlfriend to a remote cabin in the woods, where he can indulge in some moonlight angling. But when he returns from a spot of fly-fishing, the woman has vanished. He rings the police and is en route to the station, when she reappears, in a different guise.

It was during rehearsals for The River in the West End that Laura first cast a line.

"I'd never been fly-fishing before but we went before the play started in London and then my-self, Hugh and Cush went upstate in New York one day and had so much fun," she enthuses.

"I have to say, I'm completely addicted. It's something I wish I'd done more of in the time between both productions of The River.

"I was absolutely delighted too because I was the first one to catch something. I got such a thrill from that. There's a speech in the play in which Hugh's character describes the first time he caught a fish when he was seven years old and it sums up exactly how I felt too."

While The River has already been previewed on Broadway, Laura is gearing up for opening night - which took place last Sunday - when we catch up in a telephone call.

"At the moment I'm just really excited," she says. "I expected to be a lot more nervous than this. I don't know if it's because I've done the production before or because we've had previews so we've had time to settle into it. Or maybe it's just a case of pure denial on my part, but I'm sure the nerves will kick in soon.

"It's a longer run than we had at the Royal Court, though it's still limited to 14 weeks because of people's schedules. But I can't wait to get my teeth stuck into it."

One of the reasons she's feeling so relaxed about her Broadway debut is because of Jackman's reassuring nature. He is every bit as warm and down-to-earth as he comes across in interviews, she says - and every bit as sexy in the flesh.

"Oh, he's an impossible man, very hard on the eye," she quips. "What I can say about Hugh is that I never get tired of how amazing he is. He's just the nicest person, so professional, intelligent and incredibly sensitive. He is so kind and generous, not just as a human being, but as an actor as well.

"To be on stage with him is such a thrill. He is completely in the moment every night and manages to produce something different, yet true. It makes my job ten times easier because I just have to watch him and listen to him and act accordingly.

"There is no other side to him. I keep waiting to see the cracks but they are not there. He is so down-to-earth and lovely and he can be extremely silly and funny as well. He makes everyone around him feel relaxed and comfortable. That's an incredible state for someone as famous and revered as he is."

Her experience with Dominic West was equally as pleasant.

"Dominic is a wonderful guy," she says. "He doesn't take himself seriously, he has absolutely no ego and he is so much fun to be around.

"He's the kind of person who lightens the atmosphere in the rehearsal room and it was a real pleasure to be on stage with him."

Laura had just finished shooting series one of Belfast-based crime drama The Fall, when she landed the role in The River. A fan of Butterworth's writing, she was keen to work with him and was thrilled when her agent rang her to say she had an audition for the part.

"Butterworth was the playwright everyone was talking about and so it was a given that I wanted the job, even before I'd read the play," she says. "Then I read it and adored it. It was a project I really wanted to be part of because of the people who were involved in it, plus, of course, it's a spectacular play."

When Laura heard that Jackman had been lined up for the Broadway production, her first thought was 'What perfect casting', quickly followed by 'I want that job'.

She auditioned opposite the Australian actor and spent what she describes as a "lovely hour" reading the script with him and discussing ideas for the play.

Any concerns that she might have been intimidated by his superstar status were allayed within 30 seconds of meeting him.

"Certainly, the idea of working with Hugh Jackman is intimidating but his joy and friendliness is so infectious that as soon as we sat down together to read I was relaxed. That was his doing.

"I was just so excited to have landed the job. To be on Broadway for a start is a dream come true, then to be working with someone like Jackman is just perfect."

The former Rathmore Grammar school pupil knows she is in an enviable position, playing the love interest of the actor voted People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive in 2008. But it's not the first time she's been the target of female jealousy. Much to her surprise and amusement, she was considered fortunate by some women to be bumped off by Jamie Dornan's serial killer Paul Spector in BBC2's gripping thriller The Fall. Laura played solicitor Sarah Kay in series one, who was stalked and then murdered by Spector in the fear-inducing opening episode.

"You know, it's funny, I've had so many women come up to me and say 'You're so lucky to have been killed by Jamie Dornan'," she says.

Did she feel spooked playing the victim of a serial killer?

"It's strange, actually," she says, "I became more affected watching it than being in it. I guess because my experience of The Fall was not being in a house on my own, being stalked by this man, but being in a room with 50 other people meant it didn't get to me as much. Usually I would be sensitive to something like that; it can be extremely vulnerable being a woman all alone in a house and I think I would have been terrified if I'd watched it back on my own.

"But on set, Jamie was so lovely and always very careful to make sure I was comfortable about how things were going because he knew I was in a vulnerable situation."

Nevertheless, Laura admits it was a pretty tough shoot, given the nature of the plot. But she says she is incredibly proud to have been part of it and that she jumped at the chance to be involved once she read Allan Cubitt's script.

"It was one of the most exciting, smartest scripts I'd read in a long time," she says. "Allan writes incredible drama and suspense. The fact it was filmed in Belfast but was not focusing on our history, the Troubles or politics but was using Belfast as backdrop, was really exciting too."

Series two of The Fall returned to our screens last week and is already proving a ratings hit again for BBC2. The drama has managed to win over viewers and critics alike, with the Guardian newspaper stating "Dornan and Anderson remain magnetically watchable, and the tension is still on a level that necessitates the double-locking of doors and windows".

But the series hasn't been without its dissenters, facing accusations of glamorising violence against women. Laura says that people are entitled to their opinions but is quick to point out that there is another side to the show's portrayal of women.

"We should not overlook the fact that this is one of the few shows on television that has a female lead and a powerful, sexual woman," she says. "In the same way it portrays females as vulnerable, it also portrays them as being intelligent and being in control of their lives. The violence is only one aspect of the drama."

Gillian Anderson was a joy to work with, she says, although in the scenes they shot together, Laura had to play dead. And Dornan, who has since gone on to land several film roles, including that of kinky billionaire Christian Grey, was already a star in the making.

"I certainly had an idea, while we were filming, that things were going to happen for Jamie," she says. "It was a really intelligent choice for him to take the role of Spector and a very brave and faithful decision on the part of the producers.

"When people take risks like that, their bravery usually pays off. Combined with the fact he is incredibly good-looking, I'd say it was inevitable he was going to catch other people's eyes."

Will she go and watch him in the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey film?

"Well, I'd have to say that I've never read the books and can't count myself among the billions of fans of the trilogy," she laughs. "But maybe I'll give the film a look."

The London-based actress, who will be back in the UK after Christmas to shoot the Starz series Outlander, is hoping The River will open some new doors for her following its Broadway run.

After graduating from drama school, Laura made her on-screen debut in 2005 in the Channel 4 series Sugar Rush, before going on to appear in a number of shows including Casualty, Hex and Merlin. She starred in the indie Irish film Insatiable and trod the boards in many stage productions such as Philadelphia, Here I Come and Dancing at Lughnasa.

Her family, both close and extended, has a background in amateur dramatics but Laura herself is the only member of the clan to pursue a career in acting. And she knew from a very young age what she wanted to do.

"If you'd ask me at eight, 18 or 28 what I wanted to do with my life my answer would have been the same," she says. "I'd like to do a play on Broadway.

"As soon as knew what a career was, I knew that I wanted to act."

Growing up with three siblings around the same age (Laura also has two younger half-siblings), she was the child who enjoyed the spotlight.

"As a kid I loved being in front of an audience, hearing the applause and getting a buzz out of that," she says. "But as I got older that developed into a real passion for the craft."

Her family are planning to fly out to New York and see her Broadway debut and are naturally proud that she has landed such a great role opposite such a huge star.

"Oh they're all thrilled for me," she says. "I don't think I have a greater group of supporters than my family, particularly my siblings.

"I have friends coming out too so I'm really excited about that. I usually spend Christmas at home, but if you're going to be anywhere else in the world at this time of year, there's nowhere better than New York."

The pretty brunette, who used to go out with Snow Patrol's lead guitarist Nathan Connolly, says she now considers Hugh Jackman a friend. And she may consider inviting him to visit Northern Ireland at some stage.

"I haven't had that conversation with him yet," she says, "but his mum is English and he's in London a lot, so I might just have to extend that invitation.

"There's such an incredible film business going on at home right now, so he may even end up working there in the future, who knows?

"But I will definitely be keeping in touch with him. He's become a great friend and he's by far one of the nicest, most charming people I've ever had the privilege to know."

The Fall is on BBC One tonight at 9pm. For details on The River, visit www.theriveronbroadway.com

Why New York is next stage

Laura Donnelly isn’t the first talent from these shores to enjoy success in the Big Apple...

  • Belfast playwright Marie Jones hit the big time in the Nineties when her comedic play Stones in his Pockets proved a smash-hit with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. The show’s original cast of Conleth Hill and Sean Campion took the show to Broadway, where it was nominated for three prestigious Tony Awards in 2001
  • Although best known for his blockbuster movie roles, Ballymena man Liam Neeson cut his teeth on the stage at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre in the Seventies. And he brought those talents to bear on Broadway in 2002, as John Proctor in a production of modern classic The Crucible, with one critic praising the “transfixing heat” given to the production by Neeson and co-star Laura Linney
  • Last year, the Lyric Theatre’s acclaimed comedy drama Brendan At The Chelsea, starring Adrian Dunbar, toured to New York. The play is set in the legendary New York bohemian hub, The Chelsea Hotel, and tells the story of a hungover, destitute Brendan Behan. The show ran at Theatre Row, off Broadway, for a month, and gained positive reviews from critics, particularly for Dunbar’s performance
  •  Belfast actor and writer Dan Gordon’s play The Boat Factory also enjoyed a trip to the US recently at New York’s 59E59 theatres. The play tells the story of a teenage apprentice at Harland & Wolff shipyards in the 1940s

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