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Stella McCusker: ‘My partner James is my biggest fan and my strongest critic ...’

Veteran Northern Ireland actress Stella McCusker on age, Seamus Heaney, Liam Neeson and a diverse career, including a role in Game of Thrones

By Karen Ireland

Published 19/11/2016

Global success: Stella McCusker
Global success: Stella McCusker
A portrait of Stella by artist Colin Davidson which is on display at the Lyric
Seamus Heaney
Star focus: Stella in a scene from Philadelphia, Here I Come at the Lyric Theatre, along with actor Peter Coonan

A few minutes into my interview with one of Northern Ireland's most accomplished leading actresses Stella McCusker I quickly learn there are two words which were banned from the conversation - age and retirement. "I don't give out my age," she told me matter-of-factly, "and we definitely don't speak about retirement. It's a standing joke in my family but they are the two words we simply don't mention.

"I believe Dame Judi Dench has the same rules, so I am in good company," she adds.

She decides to refer to herself as a 'senior citizen' and with the ground rules firmly established, there is plenty more to talk about with such a stellar actor.

In this digital age, though, keeping your age - or anything else for that matter - to yourself is all but impossible. A quick search online reveals that the beloved actress is 74 years old.

But when it comes to discussing the life and work of this lady - it would be churlish to make this interview about her vintage.

Born in the Republic of Ireland and having grown up in Lurgan, Stella has appeared in plays, television and films all over the world and performed Shakespeare, Yeats, Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney to name but a few.

Perhaps best know for the 2009 film Five Minutes of Heaven and Nineties movie You, Me and Marley which revolved around a gang of Protestant and Catholic youths in which she played Mrs Hagan, Stella has also appeared in the TV series Lovejoy and more recently on Game of Thrones.

She also played Sarah Conlon, wife of Guiseppe Conlon in Dear Sarah - a powerful portrayal in a drama documentary depicting the relationship between one of the Guildford Four Gerry Conlon's parents. Dear4 Sarah was based on the letters Guiseppe wrote from prison to his wife after he was convicted, along with six members of the Maguire family of running an IRA bomb factor in North London. While Guiseppe died in custody in 1980, Gerry was released when his conviction (along with that of the other three jailed for the 1974 Guildford pub bombings) was quashed on appeal in 1991.

She first sampled performing, though, when she joining her school in Lurgan's operatic society, following by a stint at Mary O'Malley's little theatre in Derryvolgie Avenue in Belfast. Since then she has, and still is, enjoying a successful acting career and tonight will join forces with friend, colleague and fellow actor Ian McElhinney and his son Matthew in performing works by Seamus Heaney at the HomePlace in Bellaghy.

An event which is of huge importance to the actress who grew up in Co Armagh.

She says: "This is such a privilege for me to be asked to do this. I am a huge fan of Seamus Heaney and am looking forward to this event.

"We will be reciting and performing the poems to a backdrop of local scenes in the cosy backdrop of the Homeplace. It has been great to reacquaint myself with his fabulous work.

"We are hoping to encourage audiences to come along and enjoy and engage in the evening. We want to invite and excite them about these works.

"I am performing The Wife's Tale which is one of my favourite Heaney poems all about the beauty of harvest time."

And despite this veteran performers acting heritage, she is actually a tad anxious, adding: "I will be nervous, of course, and I hope we do Heaney justice and make him proud.

"I am in good company and I have nothing but respect for Ian and Matthew; and Mick Gordon who is producing the piece."

Stella admits that she was fortunate enough to meet and work with the man himself when they worked on some radio plays together for the BBC many years ago.

"Seamus Heaney was a true gentleman and such a talent. One of the things I remember most about him was that he was impeccably dressed and wearing a fabulous tweed suit. An amazing and exceptionally talented man to come from these shores."

Stella has worked with some of the great and the good of talent from Northern Ireland, including Liam Neeson who she starred alongside in the Lyric at the beginning of her acting career.

"He was an absolute gentleman as well," she recalls. "We have become good friends over the years and I know his family well. They are a lovely, warm and very private family. He sent me a bouquet of flowers to wish me luck when I performed in Philadelphia Here I Come at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, which was such a beautiful, kind act."

Perhaps one of Stella's best known roles lately has been the one she knows the least about.

She played a servant to lead Sansa Stark in two episodes of Game of Thrones.

And while Thrones, which is made here, has become the biggest TV show in the world regularly watched by 8.9m viewers worldwide, Stella admits she wasn't overly familiar with the HBO series.

"I've actually never watched an episode of it," she reveals with a laugh. "I do know that it is huge worldwide and there is a tremendous buzz about it and I am delighted to have been part of it, even in a small way - but I don't know much about it."

At present she is juggling her time between two productions - a Spanish produced film called the Muse which is being filmed in Belgium, Barcelona and Ireland and a film being made in Amsterdam and Munich called Arthur and Claire."

And when she is not jetting off for work, her base is now in Belfast with her partner of 26 years, artist James Cahill.

"We met through a mutual friend and James said he wanted to create a portrait of me and the rest as they say is history. We have been together ever since. He has done many portraits over the years but I tell him now I am too old for all that, so he never got to paint me.

"He is my biggest fan and strongest critic," she says. "He will always tell me the truth. Like most actors I've done the great, the good and the not so good but thankfully for the main part most of the work I have been in has been well received.

"James goes to everything and gives me his honest opinion which I really value."

When asked if she has any plans to become Mrs Cahill after nearly three decades she laughs.

"We have honestly never discussed marriage. I was married before and I never felt the need to do it again. We are perfectly happy the way we are."

So with affairs of the heart discussed I turn my attention to her family and ask what her parents thought of her opting for a career in acting?

"I come from a family of five and my parents, who are sadly no longer with us, were exceptionally proud of all of us. There are two sisters and three brothers in the family. Sadly one of my brothers passed away in tragic circumstances."

That's all she has to say on that matter and we quickly move on.

"The rest aren't really that aware of what I am doing at different times they are just happy that the work is still coming in and if I am happy they are happy for me. They will come and see me in the odd thing though."

Stella says she sort of "crept" into acting and it wasn't a career she ever had designs on.

"I do remember as a young girl growing up in Lurgan walking to the town one night and seeing a girl coming from a concert she had been taking part in. She had an orange face, permed hair and white heels and tights and I was mesmerised and thought 'I want to be like that'.

"I tried various jobs and then I flirted a bit with acting and I loved it from the word go. There is nothing like the thrill of live theatre - you live on your nerves and anything can happen.

"I love films too but I wish I knew as many tricks of the trade in the filming world as I have learnt from stage acting over the years - but I am learning all the time from the younger ones who have it down to a fine art and make it look so easy."

Stella says acting has been a great career choice for her, but she has found over the years there are not as many top roles for women in theatre, particularly as she has gotten older.

“I think writers need to write more for women as there is a lot of fantastic talent out there and there needs to be more roles open particularly for more mature women.

“I was blessed recently when I got to play a role on the Holy, Holy Bus alongside three other fantastic actresses.

“There are not many plays written for four women of different ages, and I loved doing this. The women (Roisin Gallagher, Claire Conor and Caroline Curran) have not only become colleagues but also friends along the way. They are a wonderful group of women and I loved working with them on the production. We stay in touch all the time.”

The irreverent comedy about four women who take off on a pilgrimage around Ireland’s most sacred sites was a huge hit with audiences across the province.

Stella, who never had children of her own, admits she has never been short of “motherly love”, with lots of nieces and nephews to keep her occupied.

“They are scattered all over the world now. One is working in Qatar and one is a model in New York. They have always kept me busy and grounded and I have loved spoiling them and spending time with them.”

Family definitely takes a priority for Stella, who says she loves nothing better than when all the siblings get together.

“We are a close bunch and keep an eye out for each other.”

So apart from spending time with her beloved family, what else does Stella do when she is not working?

While she’s a fan of opera — her favourite is Madame Butterfly — and adores soprano Maria Callas, work is rarely far from Stella’s mind.

“I worry about not working,” she jokes, “and then the work comes in and I start to panic.

“Lots of people say to me, ‘My little son or daughter has a real talent and wants to go into acting.. what would you recommend?’

“I say well as long as they can learn to take rejection, go long periods without work and survive on very little money and live on their nerves, this is a career for them. Otherwise forget it.

“Some people are very lucky and get their big break right away and stardom beckons, but for most people it is a job of real highs and lows, ups and downs.”

She stresses that she has been extremely fortunate in that it has been mainly highs but she has had her bad moments.

So does she have any regrets?

“No not really. I did always have a slight niggle when I was younger that perhaps I should have gone away and lived and worked in London — maybe there would have been more opportunities there. Who knows?

“But that has passed now and I am happy with my lot. As long as the offers keep coming in I will be happy.”

She cites working on A Streetcar Named Desire and Brian Friel’s marvellous Philadelphia Here I Come as career highlights, alongside working with home-grown talent such as Liam Neeson and Adrian Dunbar.

“One of my personal highlights was meeting the Queen. She was over visiting the province and she came to meet some actors up in the Lyric Theatre and I was fortunate to be there.

“She was an amazing woman and a true delight to meet,” says the award-winning actress. “That was definitely one of the highlights of my life.

“We actually have something in common,” she adds, “Colin Davidson, who recently did a portrait of the Queen, also did a portrait of me, which is up in the Lyric Theatre. So mine was done before hers!”

So with plenty of ongoing work in sight it looks like the R word is a long way of for this remarkable actress, who has nothing short of an enviable CV and impressive showreel over the years.

“Onwards and upwards is my motto and carry on regardless,” she concludes.

Tribute to a poetic great

Seamus Heaney’s HomePlace in Bellaghy will be hosting a series of events from November to January.

Each month HomePlace invites a leading theatre company to respond in whatever way they choose to one of the collections of poetry from Heaney.

This weekend will feature a Door into the Dark, a dramatic reading directed by Mick Gordon featuring Stella McCusker and Ian and Mathew McElhinney.

The events are designed to make the most of the intimate surroundings of The Helicon. Staging will include music, visuals, lighting and performers to offer a fresh perspective on Heaney’s words.

In this celebration, director and audio-visual producer respond to the 1969 collection.

Tickets are £10 and can be booked online at www.seamusheaneyhome.ticketsolve.com.

Belfast Telegraph

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