Actress Paula Malcomson on coming home for Belfast-based TV blockbuster
Ahead of a dark new BBC One drama shot in Belfast its stars tell Una Brankin why they are excited to be working in the city in a series about a woman who leaves her family to reset her life
She was last seen jumping to her death from a tower block in the dark television drama Broken. And, as Abby Donovan, she had another tragic death scene in an unforgettable episode of the award-winning Ray Donovan series on Sky Atlantic last year, delivering a performance which prompted her co-star Liev Schreiber to herald her as "my Lady Macbeth, the greatest living screen partner on God's green earth".
Now, Belfast-born actress Paula Malcomson (aka Paula Williams) is playing another troubled soul, Marie, who walks out on her husband and children in Come Home, a promising new BBC drama series filmed in Northern Ireland, co-starring the acclaimed English actor Christopher Eccleston.
"It's funny, I'd pitched the idea of a woman leaving her kids to a friend of mine while I was finishing Ray Donovan," she says. "After being on such a male dominated show for six years, I wanted to do something about women. That idea was already resonating for me.
"I struggled with creating such a complicated character, but that's good for an actor. How does a woman do that? What's she running from and to? I can't even leave my dogs."
She's taking a break from filming a scene at the courthouse in Larne, on a bitter winter's day she'd never see in her adopted home of Los Angeles. For the last six years, she has filmed Ray Donovan there; before then, she starred in the popular Sons of Anarchy series, and was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award for her role as a prostitute in the hit western drama Deadwood, starring Ian McShane.
The petite 47-year-old was also seen on the big screen as Jennifer Lawrence's mother in The Hunger Games.
Waiting around for endless filming technicalities on a cold Larne side street would make the hardiest of us yearn for a bit of Californian sunshine. But Paula's scenes were being shot at the height of the post-Harvey Weinstein Me Too campaign - and she was relieved to be thousands of miles away.
"Well, it is necessary but it can go too far," she remarks. "I'm so delighted to be here, away from it. In the States, I do feel the tension more between men and women. I think that's evident in the dramas we do there.
"We have to have this conversation: what is a woman? Just a mum and wife? The great stories now are female centred. The anti-hero has been done and done brilliantly. But, I mean, men can murder, have sex with whoever they want. Ray Donovan, Tony Soprano.
"Why not try something new? Come Home came along at the right time for me. This is going to be very controversial; I think it will spark a debate.
"All I can do is apply my set of skills to the writing - oh, I sound like Liam Neeson now!"
She has a raucous laugh and it automatically brings the ghost of the feisty Abby Donovan into the room. As the streetwise, south Boston-born wife of a Hollywood tough guy/fixer in the Showtime produced series, she was subtle yet utterly compelling, her expressive face and magnetic eyes able to switch effortlessly through the full spectrum of emotion.
Eagled-eyed viewers of the death-bed scenes would have noticed a strange landscape featuring running horses in Abby's bedroom, inscribed Cavehill, Belfast. The painting was supposed to denote the character's Irish roots, but it looked more like an Oregon plain.
"That was an art department cock-up," Paula cringes. "I nearly cried when I saw that."
The odd bad prop or not, it's a crime she didn't get an Emmy award for her performance, with its note-perfect Boston twang.
"Didn't even get a Golden Globe nomination - Showtime are all about the boys," she says. "One critic said the Boston accent is terrible but the Belfast one is even worse. I'm pretty sure it's f'ing brilliant!"
How did Malcomson, who left Northern Ireland 28 years ago to live in the US, find returning to film in her home town?
"Every street corner in Belfast holds some kind of memory for me. The place is just soaked in nostalgia.
"When I left, things were still terrible. It was the dark days. Now we are making movies and the fear is gone and there's life and hope and optimism.
"It was great to come home... no pun intended!"
She adds: "I'm loving to hear my own tongue and language. It's very different filming here but the crew is top notch. I really enjoy all facets of working in Belfast. And Laverys - I'll have to go back there and re-enact the old days."
The Shaftesbury Square bar was a regular haunt in her teenage days as "wee Paula", as she was referred to by her friends. They included the DJ/music producer David Holmes, who lived near her in east Belfast. She left the city at 15 to travel around Europe and ended up, in the mid-Nineties, waitressing in New York - where she was spotted by a film producer.
She recalls "a creative explosion of the Irish" at the time. The acting bug bit her before she realised it was what she wanted to do and, after some small roles, she landed a part in the Oscar-nominated film The Green Mile (1999) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), before her big break in HBO's Deadwood (2004). Her roles in Deadwood, Sons of Anarchy and Ray Donovan have required a potty mouth, which didn't bother her in the slightest, as she told Collider online: "I'm from Belfast - we're not polite people. We're direct. There's a real love of the word 'f***' in Ireland".
Along the way, she has popped up in ER and Lost, and even got back home to make a short film, Cleansed. The reported four million dollars she has earned has enabled her to have homes in LA and Northern Ireland, where her parents are alive and well.
"I like to have my own corner to go back to after filming, to see my own space," she says. "I've wanted to work here for ages but I hadn't seen anything until this script for Come Home came along.
"I loved it, and I knew the director makes great TV. My character has to leave home to claim a part of herself - it's not clear in the beginning. You begin to see through flashbacks to 2006, 2003, 1999 - had to have nice filter for those scenes."
She has required the opposite for her role as Superman's grandmother in Krypton, which is being filmed in Belfast's new Harbour Studios. Although the Hollywood Reporter has already given the series a drubbing, claiming it's "for diehards only", Paula has high hopes for the sci-fi adventure focusing on Superman's grandfather.
"I saw it as a great opportunity for Belfast, like Game of Thrones," she concludes. "It's going to mean a lot of work for a lot of people for a long time. I'm so delighted for Belfast."
Christopher Eccleston claimed recently he was blacklisted by the BBC after he left the role of Dr Who after one series. But the Manchester-born actor was so dedicated to his new BBC role, as the bereft husband in Come Home, that he conducted an entire press conference on set in his character's 'Norn Iron' accent. And while he has a little difficultly with our tricky twang on vowels - particularly 'u' - he makes a convincing Ulsterman.
The A Word actor, who shot to fame in Cracker, was tutored by dialect coach Brendan Gunn, who has helped stars including Brad Pitt negotiate our distinctive mother tongue.
"Brendan's a magician, brilliant," says the genial actor. "I also spent a lot of time in pubs listening to locals. Belfast is my favourite city in the world - I love New Orleans and Glasgow but Belfast beats them all.
"It's such a great city to make television. I tried my accent out with the locals, they were supportive and critical when they needed to be, but it helped and I stayed in character when I was in between scenes."
Openly passionate about his work, Christopher describes his Come Home character, Greg, as a normal working man, who runs a small business in a garage and loves his family, his children and his wife "but doesn't know her".
"He has failed to recognise the distress in Marie until it's too late," he explains. "Fundamentally, he's a decent man but very flawed and controlling. He's broken-hearted about the loss of his family unit. He learns an enormous lesson about generosity and forgiveness throughout the story."
During his time off from filming, the tall 54-year-old did a lot of running.
"I ran to the great Van Morrison's house, took a photo and ran back," he laughs. "I then ran to great George Best's house, took a photo, and then to the great Alex Higgins' house and took another photo. They were massive figures in my youth.
"I went to Molly's Yard, ate and drank a lot, and listened to a lot of live music. I love the place. We were very lucky to have made Come Home here."
The divorced father-of-two has had a long and successful working relationship with Come Home's executive producer Nicola Shindler, having worked with her on Cracker, Our Friends in the North and Hillsborough.
"They're all projects I'm very proud of, particularly, Hillsborough," he says.
"They were works of great importance to me and Nicola.
"Come Home is the first time I've worked with (writer) Danny Brocklehurst - I'd seen his stuff and admired it - and wondered why I didn't get an audition!
"It's been a pleasure working with him. He has written a great script and I think he's a very strong writer; it's very unusual for a drama to be led by a woman who challenges the audience about the perceptions of femininity and why she leaves her children. Greg, Marie and Brenna (Greg's other love interest) are all three-dimensional characters."
An unassuming actor, Christopher credits Brocklehurst and the "brilliant" director Andrea Harkin, from Londonderry, as the most important creative forces behind the highly anticipated drama.
"I'm an actor; my job is easy. I turn up at work, learn my lines, don't bump into the furniture and get on with the people I'm working with," he says. "I'm a very lucky man to be able to collaborate artistically with people and get paid for it.
"There were no big challenges other than staying out of the pub and keeping up with the gym, but I managed to do both!"
Greg's lover Brenna in Come Home is played by Kerri Quinn (34), an accomplished stage actress well know for her work at the Lyric Theatre and Mac. Her character is a brassy working mother who's in a very abusive and loveless marriage and is left to run her sandwich-on-wheels business while her bullying husband works away from home.
"I saw in Brenna a lot of flaws and qualities I see in myself," says Kerri. "Her honesty and her quick tongue could potentially get her into trouble.
"She is a very positive loveable character despite her current situation. Her son is her world; she works hard to provide for him.
"Also, she is a woman who just wants to be loved and love in return. Her journey is very beautiful.
"I fell in love with her instantly so hopefully the audience will too."
Kerri has lived in her parents' home in Belfast, with her daughter Libby (five), since a sectarian attack on the house she was sharing with her partner, civil servant Paddy McBride. She admits she was nervous, coming from a theatre environment, about acting in front of a camera and adapting to television drama.
"But everyone was very supportive and it felt it was a safe working environment - it was like one big happy family," she smiles. "My favourite location was the Errigle bar (on Belfast's Ormeau Road). There was a lovely buzz about the set; there were a lot of new faces and a fantastic scene to perform.
"It is quite a dark drama but there are moments of light relief, particularly with the Greg and Brenna scenes. Myself and Chris had a lot fun shooting some of the more intimate scenes. The crew laughed a lot on our behalf - it really was a hoot."
Critically acclaimed for her role in the George Best play Dancing Shoes, Kerri met Christopher at her final audition for Come Home and the pair clicked straight away. She only has a few scenes with Paula Malcomson but bonded to such an extent with her fellow Belfast-born actress in make-up, that Paula came to her opening night of The Threepenny Opera at The Lyric theatre Belfast recently.
"Paula and I had plenty of laughs and the chemistry with Christopher was instant," she says. "It just grew as the shoot progressed. Christopher is a diamond to work with and such a generous actor, we will definitely keep in touch."
The first episode of Come Home will be shown on BBC One on Tuesday, March 27, at 9pm
Drama probes the uncharted territory of what drives a woman to leave her children
From Bafta and International Emmy award-winning screenwriter Danny Brocklehurst, Come Home is a powerful family drama exploring the messy realities of parenthood, marriage and what happens when a mother flicks the reset button on her life.
Set and filmed in Northern Ireland, the drama focuses on a family reeling after Marie, played by Paula Malcomson (Ray Donovan, Broken) makes the hardest decision of her life, to walk out on her husband Greg, played by Christopher Eccleston (The A Word, Fortitude), and their three children.
The three-part series, distributed by Studio Canal TV, asks the questions: what does it take for a mother to walk out on her family, leaving her children behind? What impact does it have and how do others judge her? At the heart of the series is an emotional mystery: why did Marie flee?
Writer Danny Brocklehurst, a former journalist, has written several highly acclaimed TV series, including The Driver, Ordinary Lies, Clocking Off, Shameless, The Street, The Accused and the comedy drama Linda Green.
Of Come Home, he says: "Chris and Paula are two of the UK's finest actors and I couldn't be more thrilled to have them in Come Home.
"The drama takes Greg and Marie on a hugely emotional journey as it explores the fallout from a mother leaving her children and it requires actors of their calibre to pull it off.
"I've been a fan of Chris ever since I first saw him in Cracker and have wanted to work with him my entire career. Paula is a stunning character actress who brings credibility and depth to every role she plays. Their combination promises to be amazing."
Come Home is the first network BBC drama commission to be announced since the renewal of the BBC and Northern Ireland Screen partnership agreement.
This joint agreement sees the BBC and NI Screen work together to invest financially and creatively in developing an internationally competitive screen industry in Northern Ireland.