Meet the Northern Ireland actress on the brink of superstardom with a role in the new Disney blockbuster
Jenn Murray tells Barry Egan what it was like working with Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, how watching her mum on stage triggered her love of acting and why her personal life is more important to her than work
Her eyes are roundly inquisitive, her skin porcelain. The face is of a pre-Raphaelite angel. The voice is lyrical in that Belfast way of every word threatening to take flight. Jenn Murray's lyricism is interrupted only by the waiter in the Intercontinental Hotel in Dublin, who insists on offering the actress endless amounts of pastries during our early morning get-together.
With it all, Jenn exhibits the charm of a bright young woman with a delicate ability to laugh, often nervously, at anything and everything - my questions and over-eager waiters bearing trays of cakes.
When she was eight, Jenn saw her mother Elizabeth perform in Arsenic and Old Lace at the theatre. Her father Francis took Jenn to see the production.
"I had a terrible cough," Jenn recalls. "I remember being in the audience when she came on and she was magic. I was only a child, but she was my mother. I remember thinking, 'Oh my God'. The whole audience was laughing. And she was giving that to them. She was so funny.
"But, also, she wasn't my mother," Jenn says, meaning because of the transformation of acting. "So, it was a very interesting thing. She was being quite magical.
"I think that's what ignited it," Jenn says of the desire to be an actress like her mother, who was part of a local amateur theatre company. "She loved to do it. She wanted to do something for herself. It was a great example to me, even as a little girl, that she had things that belonged to her; that were her identity. You know when you're little you go, 'That's my mother.' But she was also this. I remember seeing that and thinking, 'God, you're so talented'.
"My mother is a woman of action. She doesn't talk a lot. She does things. She's a painter," says Jenn, who has an abstract painting of the sea in Northern Ireland on the wall of her apartment in New York.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
"She has a Masters in English literature. She was a teacher. I think also my mum is very loving, but she also doesn't hold anyone obligated to her happiness, in a way. What is the word? It is like Nora Ephron said: 'Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim'. My mum doesn't complain, and she doesn't gossip. She is very smart, but she is not telling you how smart she is. She is just a very classy lady," Jenn says.
What were you like as a child?
"I was a shy child. I loved to do impersonations of people. I can remember putting on my dad's hat and his shoes and things like that - he had a very dry wit, which is a wonderful quality in a human being," Jenn says. "And when my mother performed at the local theatre, when I was very little, I would be in the box office with my friend, like I was helping to sell tickets. I wasn't actually doing anything."
The one-time junior-box-office-ticket-seller has become box office. Jenn will soon be one of the biggest actresses on the silver screen, when she appears opposite Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer in the Disney blockbuster Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, which is out on October 18.
Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays the villainous Queen Ingrith, told Twenty Three magazine that the Queen has her "wonderfully strange, but brilliant" Gerda, played by Ms Jenn Murray, to assist her:
Jenn - who was in 2015's Brooklyn with Saoirse Ronan and Julie Walters, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in 2016 with Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp - says that she prepared for the role of Gerda thus: "I would think of a calm, cold lake, the surface still and silent, and underneath the fishes pouncing on one another unseen. I read Mary Oliver poetry and I listened to Faithless, Audio Bullys and Ludovico Einaudi."
Gerda, Jenn says, is unlike any character she has played before, adding that she was happy that Joachim Ronning, the director, "could see that potential inside me. Gerda is quick, cunning and elusive.
"It required months of training and developing new skills. Unfortunately I cannot allude to what those skills are yet, but it involved weaponry and perhaps more sinister tools. I am Queen Ingrith's devoted servant and right hand when it comes to her personal vendetta against the moor folk."
Asked what it was like to work opposite Pfeiffer and Jolie (who plays Maleficent), Jenn says that it was "like a front row seat at a masterclass..."
What did she learn from the masterclass?
"Well," she begins, "with Michelle, she is incredibly skilled with the camera - what type of shot it is; where the lens is; and her face is in the light. She is a total pro. And she does it without making a show of it, because I was watching her. And every take that she does would be slightly different. Her work is very detailed. She is not afraid to be small, because the camera can tell what you're thinking. It is wonderful to really study that. She is giving a lot of variation, and that takes confidence. She is very receptive, too."
"With Angelina," continues Jenn, "she is a very graceful woman. She speaks to everybody. She is open and thoughtful and passionate. She is so passionate about her work. She loves acting and she is very dedicated to the story. So, just watching these two women with their confidence... And, for me, when I'm coming up from these movies and I'm around all these people who are so much more successful, famous, and I don't know," Jenn explains, "it takes a certain resolve to think: 'I have to tell my part in this story, and I am going to assert myself to do that'.
"So, just seeing women ahead of me do that, gives me confidence. You're not wasting anybody's time - you have to tell the story. Then, you'll leave the set and the film is done."
Did your insecurities or your shyness stand in the way?
"That hasn't happened to me before, but I have been concerned at that before," laughs Jenn, who received a IFTA Award nomination for her lead role in the film Dorothy Mills in 2009.
Where does the silent resolve come from?
"I just love what I do," she says. "I am really lucky. When I left home the priority with my parents was: 'You have to survive. You have to be dogged. You have to make money. You have to take care of yourself.'"
And do you?
Jenn lives on her own in New York. What did she have for dinner on her last night in Manhattan before arriving to promote a $300m Disney movie?
"Fish and chips!"
Fish and chips? You can take the girl out of Belfast but you can't take Belfast out of the girl.
"They're just so good, aren't they?" she laughs. "I was out for dinner at a friend's birthday party and I was like: winner! It was really tasty."
You could imagine Jenn just as easily in the 1920s as in this era; with a suitcase in her hand and a dream in her heart, en route to the Algonquin Round Table in New York to bend the ears of Tallulah Bankhead, Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker over all things cultural.
In fact, Jenn has written an as yet unpublished novel. "It's a gothic thriller," Jenn explains. "It is about a young woman who lives with her father on a farm. Her mother has died recently. She has to escape the farm and go to Boston and she gets involved with the Irish mafia there. It is set in 1951."
Where did the idea come from?
"An image came to me of a father coming on to a bus and talking to his daughter and her trying to leave. So that is the start of it. It is about people that you think that you know but they have secrets. And so it is a dialogue about that. People are mysteries. One of my aunts gave me some advice when I was younger at a funeral when she said to me: 'Always have something that is just your own'. And I think that is so true," she explains.
Jenn named the main character after her mother, "but she has nothing to do with the character. Although my mum did grow up on a farm. People are mysteries. People that you think you know most in the world, you don't know everything about them. And that's a good thing. "
What kind of person are you?
She laughs nervously.
"I am loyal and tenacious. I am pretty determined. I would have courage. Is that a good answer?" she laughs again.
What adds to Jenn Murray's New York in the 1920s aura is that she has a profound penchant for a certain style of South-American dancing.
"I love to tango," she says. "It is really a thrill, and you get better at it. It is a community. It is so much fun. You listen to music and dance. I love the partner-dancing."
You mention partner-dancing. You are single. So, are you close to finding a partner to dance with, so to speak, romantically in life?
"In my personal life? In my dancing class?" she roars with nervous laughter unbridled, knowing full-well what I mean.
"Well, I meet so many lovely people! And really interesting people. I do a lot of different things, like I write as well. Most of my friends aren't actors. I meet a lot of people who do different things."
So, are you saying you are too busy tango-dancing for romance?
"No. Nobody's ever too busy for romance. Are they?"
You seem to be.
"No, I'm not. I'm not!"
Is it difficult to find space to fall in love in your line of work?
"I wouldn't say it was difficult. Another thing that was a master class with those two women (Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer), and also with someone like Julie Walters, and Eddie Redmayne, is that their personal life is more important than their work. I am under no illusions. In the beginning I was like, I have got to crack it. It felt urgent to make it as an actor. It felt f***ing terrifying," she laughs.
"But now my personal life is more important to me than my work, because that is really what matters. I want to share my life with people that I love. So I don't find that difficult. It is important to me. Your life is what makes you a better actor. That you are present; you are living.
"Because acting is make-believe! It is kind of an elusive answer, isn't it?" she laughs.
What do you in New York? Are you walking around the Lower East Side with a notepad, furiously scribbling down your thoughts?
"Not with a notepad, but I do have a journal," Jenn says. "I write in it every morning. I am not on my phone. I try not to look at a screen as much as possible. I prefer to look out the window, look at the street; there is so much there to inspire you and to remind you.
"Sometimes I think we live in such narcissistic times. So, it is also good to pay attention to the people around you. I remember listening to an interview with Ian McEwan. Someone said to him what is the best piece of advice you can give you a young person and he said, 'Well, I think you should have a piece of paper and a pen and I think you should write down how you feel. Because that is a luxury'," Jenn says.
"There are so many people in the world who don't even have a paper and a pen to write down how they feel and reflect on that. It helps you with confidence and helps you make better choices in your life. I do like to think about that but I also like to engage and have fun and know other people. And look at the architecture in New York. My grandfather (Patrick Quinn) went there in 1922," says Jenn, who has a brother and a sister she doesn't want to name.
What is the longest the phone hasn't rung between jobs?
"Six months. It did ring though, because you are auditioning." she explains. "I do other things. It is really hard sometimes. Unemployment can be really terrible, terrifying."
But equally superstardom, which Jenn Murray is teetering on the cusp of with Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, is terrifying too?
"Yeah. Do you fear success more than you fear failure?
But, you know," says Jenn, "I have people around me who love me and I know why I do it. It is very clear why I am an actor. I worked hard for a long time. And also, it is a choice. It is an active decision."
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil will be in cinemas nationwide from October 18