Seainin Brennan: Acting is my life now
Northern Ireland star Seainin Brennan tells Helen Carson about giving up her high-flying career to become an actress, why she’s not interested in fame or money and how she has found a new leading man in her life.
Belfast-born actress Seainin Brennan could well be set to rewrite the script on famous female actresses from Northern Ireland. While the likes of Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds and Stephen Rea have set the stage alight both at home and in Hollywood with a string of movie and TV successes, the names of mega-famous female actresses from the province hardly roll off the tongue.
Londonderry-born Bronagh Gallagher (40), who got her big screen break in The Commitments as well as starring in Pulp Fiction, is one of the few. Meanwhile, Paula Malcolmson (42) from Belfast, has just got her first starring role in the Hunger Games, playing Mrs Everdeen, after a long TV and film career in America. Roma Downey, originally from Derry, has been a long-time star in the US appearing in Touched By An Angel which screened on TV for ten years.
Seainin, though, has already achieved some of her own personal acting ambitions. She played Regine in the world premiere of Frank McGuinness’s production of Ibsen’s Ghost at the Bristol Old Vic, where she had a masterclass in stagecraft from veteran British actress Sian Thomas, and sharing the limelight at The Gate Theatre in Dublin with Scarface actor Harris Yulin in Death of a Salesman (she played Miss Forsythe) — which incidentally was directed by playwright Arthur Miller’s ‘director of choice’, American David Esbjornson.
She is, though, probably best recognised for her recent TV role in the BBC drama series Hidden, where she played Philip Glenister’s girlfriend Frances. Despite this, it’s fairly safe to say that she is not the normal showbiz type.
The 35-year-old actress claims to love press preview nights, and that she’s not in the business for the money.
When we met recently, she looked amazing — slim, tanned with glossy brunette locks and dark brown eyes — but don’t confuse her with a wannabe starlet.
“I didn’t come into this profession to make money,” she states categorically. “I do this because it is what I want to do and I love it.
“I read somewhere that Irish actresses aren’t that famous in Hollywood because they’re ugly — that made me really angry. I didn’t come into this business to be judged on my appearance. Some of the best playwrights are from Ireland — we are scholars first. We make fantastic actresses. Has it ever occurred to these people we might not want to work in Hollywood? I’ve been to Hollywood and I thought it was really dirty.”
Don’t get Seainin wrong, though, she wouldn’t slam the phone down on certain directors, including Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino: “I’m not stupid.”
It’s just as well then that Seainin’s ability to always give 100% has reaped considerable rewards.
Of course, she’s not going to say what Seainin Brennan PLC is turning round each year, but adds: “I read somewhere that if you earn $15,000 [£9,400] a year as an actor, you’re in the top 10%. So, yes I’m in the top 10%. Put it like this, Bill Gates has nothing to worry about and I won’t be making the Sunday Times Rich List,” she adds with a wry smile.
Rather annoyingly, and despite heroic journalistic badgering by myself, she refuses to name the new man in her life, except to say he is from Northern Ireland and they have been dating for six months.
A huge smile spreads across her face when she talks about him. “He makes me smile and makes me laugh, you can write that,” she giggles. “He entertains me, which is nice. It is lovely to be entertained when you are used to being the entertainer.”
The Belfast actress, who grew up in leafy Malone and stays at her parents’ house when she’s in town, also has a flat in London to facilitate her busy career.
And she is about to hit the small screen again in another BBC primetime outing called The Fall, starring alongside Gillian Anderson and Northern Ireland model/actor Jamie Dornan. The Allan Cubbit play, set in Belfast, is about a serial killer, and one of Seainin’s most challenging roles to date.
“Let’s just say people will be gripped,” she says.
And while she is enjoying some major success on the box, the theatre is her first love: “The theatre is my passion, as it is art. It is art in its purest form.”
But there is more to Seainin that meets the eye. She is fluent in Spanish, French and Italian, and won a sought-after scholarship to the prestigious College of Europe in Bruges after university, where she completed a masters in European Political Administration and went onto a job in the European Commission.
Seainin was one of a team of advisers at the European Commission who provided legal guidance to experts assembled to examine possible legislation on the ethics of research involving human embryos.
It’s all a far cry from the what she describes as the “tough business” that is acting. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I am very selective about the roles I take. In fact, I have turned down roles, I’ve always done that,” she says. “It’s not just about paying the rent — that doesn’t make you a better actor. I have to do a role that helps me evolve into something better.”
But selective is not code for snobbish, as she has a ferocious work ethic. “Advertisements are what most actors do. Halle Berry
is doing a commercial for a German shoe maker, George Clooney does coffee ads, Kate Winslet and Michael Gambon does it for Sky — if it’s good enough for those guys, then it’s good enough for Seainin Brennan. People think this business is glamorous, but it’s not — it’s hard work and you have to be driven. You have to be able to put a roof over your head and if you’re not making enough money to do this, then maybe the career just isn’t working for you. It’s not for the meek.”
For this reason, Seainin has plenty of voiceover work to her credit, which includes everything from Aer Lingus and Airtricity to Northern Ireland Museums.
“Radio work really prepares you for voiceovers, as it is in the intimacy of studio. You have to learn how to perform when someone is listening while making the dinner or sitting in the car.”
But it is Seainin’s body of work in the theatre that she is most proud of, having worked with Broadway directors and Hollywood actors alike while treading the boards.
So, how does she cope with the big names?
“I find the bigger the star, the more generous the actor. Harris Yulin, who was in Scarface, was the nicest man imaginable, one of the most generous actors I have ever met. When I auditioned for Hidden, I didn’t know Philip Glenister was in, and when I did I was always going to say ‘yes’. He’s an actor at the top of his game, and there is so much to learn from him.”
It was a childish obsession with the theatre, though, that determined Seainin’s career path.
“I was about eight years old when I heard about auditions at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast for a part in a Peter Pan. I eventually persuaded my mum to take me along, and I got a part as one of the mermaids in Never Never Land. I just loved it — I loved that buzz. I loved going up to that building and seeing the words ‘stage door’, it just felt amazing. You walk in that door and it is like walking into Narnia. I love those two words and I still do. To watch something so beautiful being created in front of 300 people in the audience. You get to entertain those people and do so in this very creative way; it is live and they suspend their disbelief and you suspend it too. I really understood that, even though I was very young at the time. It was the most exciting part of my life.”
Seainin grew up in a close family — her parents Tom and Maura, now both 58, run a sales agency supplying big-brand baby products to the trade in both the UK and Ireland. She has an older sister, Donna (39), who is married with four children, and two brothers, Emmet (30) and Barry (29).
“My two brothers work in the family business alongside mum and dad, while my sister runs a male grooming business, Man, on the Lisburn Road.”
So, how did the folks react when Seainin decided it was an actor’s life for her?
“When I came back from my job in Brussels and told my parents I wanted to audition for drama school, my dad couldn’t understand why I would want to give up such a good job. Even though I got a scholarship, it cost quite a lot of money to get there. But I knew I had to get out because the money I earned would have made me a slave. I knew I wanted to be an actor and I didn’t want to get to that stage. My parents had worked hard to help me get my masters, which led to a fulfilling and successful job. They didn’t know why I would want to throw that away for a career that I could potentially get nothing for. I felt sorry for them and I agreed with everything that they said, but I didn’t want to get to 90 and regret not doing it. I love my life and I am so glad I did it.”
Seainin was accepted at three of London’s top drama schools, but chose Guildford School of Acting: “I can sing and thought it was important to have another string to my bow as an actor.”
She talks with pride about acting alongside Harris Yulin in Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer-winning play Death of a Saleman in Dublin: “The director was David Esbjornson — Arthur Miller’s director of choice — so to be in a rehearsal room with people like that is amazing. Money can’t buy that type of experience.”
Again, in Ghost, Seainin had to don floor-length period dress for her performance: “The stage at the Old Vic is raked [sloped upward away from the audience], and my dress kept getting caught around my feet. Sian Thomas told me she was going to teach me how to walk. She did this on her lunchtime, it was her own time, and she is so experienced. Who else would know how to teach you to do that?”
Seainin’s efforts were rewarded when she picked up a Belfast Telegraph Women of the Year Award in the Arts category for best breakthrough performance in Hidden.
But what about all the rejection, how does she cope?
“My dad always told me whatever you have is just a token of effort. I prepare for any role I want, and take risks too. In one instance I was told to prepare for all the female characters, I just prepared for the role I wanted. It was a gamble, but the director liked that, so I got the job.
“I know if I have done all in my power to get the part and I fail, it is not to do with me — they haven’t felt I was right for the role for some other reason.”
Again, on the matter of press preview nights, Seainin sees this as a culmination of everyone on the production’s work: “It is both exciting and frightening. The critics are professionals who are doing their job and are entitled to their opinions. Just like actors, the theatre is their passion too. I’ve been very lucky; I’ve not had a bad review, but if I did, I wouldn’t be upset.”
And if that call did come from one of Hollywood’s most respected directors, would Seainin feel the need to comply with the demands imposed on actresses in terms of their looks?
“I don’t think women have to be size zero. In fact, I don’t even know how you get to be size zero — you’d have to starve yourself. This is not what real people look like. If I want to look at glamorous people I’ll pick up a glossy magazine, but that is not what good films are about.”
Seainin, who is a slender size 10, says her beauty routine is more about maintenance, which involved regular trips to the hairdresser, dental hygienist and a facial once a month if she has time.
“People often say to me ‘Would you not like to do more TV?’. For me, acting is not about recognition, glamour or money — it is about passion, and you can’t help what your passion is.
“I still get a buzz when I hear the words over the tanoy in the theatre ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is your five-minute call’.”
And just like the many varied and strong female characters she portrays, Seainin is determined to do things her own way.
For her, it seems, acting is about real life, or at least a reflection of some or all of us, some of the time.
“I’m often asked ‘What character are you playing?’. I say, ‘I’m playing someone you know’.”
The Fall will be shown on BBC2 this autumn