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Genevieve O'Reilly: 'Whether I'm in Canada, Liverpool or at home in London, I'm still a mammy. That's my first job'

Star Wars actress Genevieve O'Reilly tells Darragh McManus how she copes with spending months on a film set away from her family and what it was like emigrating to Australia when she was 10

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Actress Genevieve O’Reilly

Actress Genevieve O’Reilly

Actress Genevieve O’Reilly

Actress Genevieve O'Reilly learned the importance of attaining equilibrium in life early on. She left cold, grey Dublin at the age of 10 for the hot sun and bright colours of Australia, where it could be said her first acting role was to be Irish at home and Aussie at school. Further, she has learned to balance the demands of a family with long stretches away from home, having spent seven months of this year away from her young family shooting Sky drama Tin Star with the legendary Tim Roth.

Here, she talks about the final season of that hit show; how she's a mammy first and how her early development of dual identities has shaped her life and work.

"It's funny," Genevieve O'Reilly says. "When I'm in Australia they'll say, 'Oh my god, you sound so Irish!' Then when I'm here it's, 'Oh my god, you don't sound Irish at all...' Emigrating as a child, I remember having to assimilate, and having an Irish accent at home and an Australian accent for school. So I didn't get beaten up in either place! My palate got stretched well at a formative age..."

The 43-year-old is laughing, telling the story in a beautifully modulated speaking voice which, to our ears at least, is perfectly neutral, accent-wise. Little if any trace of Australia to be divined, even though the actress moved to Australia as a young child and lived there until adulthood.

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Genevieve in Tin Star with Abigail Lawrie and Tim Roth

Genevieve in Tin Star with Abigail Lawrie and Tim Roth

Genevieve in Tin Star with Abigail Lawrie and Tim Roth

 

Besides, as Genevieve points out, actors have to change their accent all the time. She's done just that, more than once, in a career spanning film, TV and theatre that is remarkable both for the breadth and quality of the work, as much as the fact that it's not considered, well, remarkable.

Is there a more undervalued and unheralded Irish actor working today? Her name isn't nearly as recognisable as many of her peers, but O'Reilly's resume stands comparison with the best. The Dubliner has been in Star Wars and The Matrix sequels, last year's Tolkien biopic and also 2016's big-budget Tarzan. She's done a raft of telly staples: All Saints, Waking the Dead, Midsomer Murders, Endeavour, The Fall, and as Hazel Stewart opposite James Nesbitt in The Secret.

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Genevieve with James Nesbitt in The Secret

Genevieve with James Nesbitt in The Secret

Genevieve with James Nesbitt in The Secret

 

She's played Princess Diana, and stars opposite Eric Bana in a forthcoming Aussie thriller. She's even voiced a character in the video game Overwatch.

Right now, Genevieve is about to return in the third and final season of Tin Star, Sky's rollicking crime drama. Her character, Angela Worth, along with troubled hubbie Jim (Tim Roth) and daughter Anna, return from the wide-open spaces of Canada to bustling Liverpool, to confront the past and face down their demons.

Does it fundamentally change the process, knowing this is the last season of a show?

"It was a different experience," Genevieve agrees, "and certainly focused me. We had worked for so long on Tin Star, and the creators only wanted to make another season if it'd be better and richer. I thought this idea of moving to Liverpool was brilliant. It was a great train ride to be on."

The show has been a blend of character-driven drama and sometimes larger-than-life action, spiralling out into some surprising places. And it often looks gorgeous.

Genevieve says: "It's always been really ambitious in regard to cinematic visuals. Canada led to that: those wide skies, the mountains. What happened the characters there was outlandish and chaotic - and amazing to play - and I was excited to then move to Liverpool and shake up the narrative. Putting these people in an urban landscape adds grit. It's artistically brave and risky, and shows what faith everyone had in these characters. For me, that's where creativity lies: that abrasive quality, that fire. You don't often get that."

Angela is a complex character, ambiguous and steely - maybe shades of Lady Macbeth? "I'll take that as a compliment," Genevieve laughs.

"When it came to this season, I was still so curious about her, I had a lot of questions. There was so much more to chisel away at. She's complicated, yes. The family is very much on the front foot now and Angela is fighting for her sanity, for the memory of her son, who was killed all those episodes ago, for her daughter, and for herself."

O'Reilly is speaking to us from Belfast, where she's working on a project which "unfortunately I can't talk about yet". She lives in London, with chiropractor husband Luke Mulvihill and their two young children. Tin Star shoots lasted up to seven months, across the Atlantic and two-thirds of Canada's vast interior. Is it hard under those circumstances to maintain normal life?

"I try my best," Genevieve says. "FaceTime every night before bed, trying to be present. Whether I'm in Canada or Liverpool or at home in London, I'm still a mammy. That's my first job! It does require some active choices in balancing work with family and personal life.

"But it's the same for any profession - whether you're a man or woman, parenthood requires balance. We hope for it anyway, and strive for it.

"I suppose it is mad to go away for six months, but I do my best to make sure my little family are supported and loved when I'm not there. And other people are doing jobs far more important than mine, plus managing family life too. As actors, we're looked after, we're grand. It's a balancing act, but that's all it is."

Under present surreal circumstances, that balancing act is a bit more difficult for everyone. Genevieve's parents still live in Australia but came home often until recently, while she went over there frequently.

"Obviously not so much these days," she says. "My daughter is desperate to get back! You have conversations on the phone and WhatsApp. We just have to hold on to the memories and trust that we can make some more."

The family moved to Adelaide in the late 1980s, when Genevieve was 10. Her parents - "young and optimistic, looking for adventure", headed south in search of opportunity. Genevieve considers herself lucky to have emigrated at that age: old enough to remember her old life in Dublin, young enough to dive headfirst into a new one.

"It was January when we left, really cold, those days when there's a blanket over the city, everybody wrapped up," she recalls, "and of course this was the first time we'd been on a plane.

"It was so exciting! It felt otherworldly. When we landed in Australia it was 42 degrees. I remember coming down the steps and hitting the tarmac, and the heat. How bright the light was, how blue the sky was, the contrast in colours. I even remember the feeling of it so well. It was such a brand-new sensory experience for me. I'm grateful for that memory."

She loved living in Oz, crediting her folks with much of that: "They're extraordinary people to be around, still today, they have a real heartbeat at their centre and always glass half-full, and they created an environment of joy and discovery. So we just dived in, as kids do."

After school she attended drama school in Sydney - "to find my own path in life, as you do" - and loved it there. O'Reilly worked with several different theatre companies and did some television and film, cutting her teeth as an actor, inspired by memorable performances by some soon-to-be-famous screen stars: Judy Davis, Cate Blanchett.

She sees similarities between Ireland and Australia, beyond the punching-above-our-weight success of the two countries' acting talent.

"They're oppositional in location and lifestyle, and yet at the core, there's something quite similar. I know Australia is huge, but they're both islands and their people are driven by storytelling, by a desire to communicate, laugh, sit around the pub and make life a bit more colourful.

"And there's a lack of pretention in Irish and Australian people, born of what their lives were like for many years. Both were colonised, had a massive population hungry for food," she says. "They found a deep connection with story and song."

Her unusual upbringing, and subsequent out-of-the-ordinary career path, have the makings of a memoir or play or movie script, I suggest. "Well I'm always trying to write," Genevieve says. "I'll let you know if I ever get to the point where I want to share it."

Among her recent work was The Dry - adapted from Jane Harper's excellent crime novel - filmed on location in Australia's wheatbelt. Genevieve describes it as "a wonderful experience".

"It's a little film," she says, "with a great Australian director, Eric Bana, and an ensemble cast. We shot in tiny, tiny towns in the wheatbelt; places that have it really tough because of the drought. In fact, not long after we filmed, those terrible bushfires hit."

The movie was set for release this August, but that's now been pushed back by Covid-19. A new release date hasn't been decided yet, but in any case Genevieve is "really looking forward to people seeing this film. It's honest and beautiful. And where we filmed is so important. We react to the physical space as actors, but viewers also react to it. Space informs performances and the reading of the piece. That arid landscape informed The Dry, just like Liverpool's river and people informed Tin Star."

On a whole other scale is Star Wars, wherein O'Reilly has played the character Mon Mothma in 2016's Rogue One and 2005's Revenge of the Sith (those scenes were initially cut) and the recent animated series Star Wars Rebels. And she's about "to step back into that world - we're starting a new live-action series (as yet untitled). They're bold with their storytelling: obviously it has parameters, its own rules and architecture, but within it they try to be playful and stretch things."

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As Mon Mothma in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

As Mon Mothma in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

As Mon Mothma in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

 

Using an appropriately cosmic analogy, she adds: "If a film feels like a planet, Star Wars feels like a whole universe. It's huge and populated and driven. People are so passionate about it. It's very exciting to be part of that."

All episodes of Tin Star: Liverpool will be available on Sky Atlantic and Now TV from December 10

'Whether I'm in Canada, Liverpool or at home in London, I'm still a mammy. That's my first job'

Belfast Telegraph


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