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Geraldine Hughes: How these inspirational teachers helped her move from the mean streets of Belfast to Hollywood

As the Belfast actress prepares for a return to the stage in her home city, she tells Lorraine Wylie about growing up during the Troubles and the two great loves of her life

Geraldine Hughes
Geraldine Hughes
Geraldine Hughes in Rocky
Billy Campbell in Killing Lincoln
Geraldine showing her delight when she visited her mother Sheila, sister Betty Brown and niece Fiona in Belfast's Roden Street
Her teacher, Sister Genevieve
Fedelma Harkin
The actress taking a masterclass with kids from Talent Tribe in Belfast
Geraldine Hughes with partner Conor

In his novel, The Power and the Glory, author Graham Greene writes: "There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in." For Belfast-born Geraldine Hughes, that moment occurred when, as a 14-year-old, American producers chose her from among hundreds of other young hopefuls to appear in the movie Children of the Crossfire. That event was to lead her away from the streets of Belfast to a new life in the States.

Now, over three decades later, she's one of Hollywood's most respected stage and screen actresses. Ahead of her visit to Northern Ireland later this summer, when she'll perform her multi-award winning show, Belfast Blues, Geraldine took time out from a hectic schedule to tell me about life on and off stage.

I begin by asking her about the emotional impact of growing up in Belfast during the Troubles and how it inspired her to write Belfast Blues.

"Oh, now that's a hard one," she says, her Belfast accent, although softened by 30 years living in America, instantly recognisable.

"I have a very intense response to that question. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Belfast, but back in the Eighties and Nineties, Northern Ireland was still a very divided society and prone to outbursts of violence. As a child, I always had that sense of trying to protect myself, of always seeking shelter.

"Looking back, I always had the fear that something could happen at any moment. It was often a very anxious time. School became my safe place. I went to St Louise's Comprehensive College and the whole time I was there, I felt protected and looked after. School also gave me a great sense of optimism. Now, of course, it's all history, but Belfast Blues is my story. It's important to remember the past, but it's also good to have hope and there's a lot of hope and laughter in Belfast Blues and I want to share it."

The school environment brought structure to her day but it was the teachers who provided nurture and comfort.

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"Teachers can have an enormous impact on young lives," she acknowledges. "They have so much influence and for me there are two who stand out. Other pupils might have thought Sister Genevieve a little tough or maybe even a little fierce! But to me she was an absolute miracle. I'll always remember her kindness as she took me under her wing and protected me.

"The other lady who proved an incredible inspiration was my drama teacher, Fedelma Harkin. She's an incredible woman and taught me never to apologise for who I am or for choosing acting as a career. She empowered us and is still encouraging kids today through her school drama group, Talent Tribe, and I'm delighted to be their patron."

It's been 30 years since Geraldine won a scholarship to study at the University of California in Los Angeles. Since then she's proven a talented and versatile actress, equally at home onstage in the theatre or on set in television and films.

Some of her favourite roles have cast her alongside Hollywood A-listers such as Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone. More recently, her performance in Broadway's version of Harry Potter's The Cursed Child, in which she played Professor Minerva McGonagall, was received to great critical acclaim.

Has she a preference for theatre work and how does she remember all those lines?

"On stage in the theatre or on the screen, it doesn't matter to me - I love all of it!" she beams. "As for learning my lines well, it gets harder and harder but I try to associate lines with actions but if that doesn't work it's down to drilling!"

Now 48, Geraldine is looking as fabulous as ever. But in an industry obsessed with youth and looks, how does she feel about getting older?

"I'm looking at 50 in a year-and-a-half and to be honest, I'm loving it!" she laughs. "The way I look at it is like this - I feel how I feel. Fifty is just another number. I never feel any differently but, naturally, you do notice how certain things begin to change. Still, I really do enjoy being at this stage in my life. You can let yourself let go and relax."

I tell her that since my dentist started offering Botox, patients can get their wrinkles smoothed and teeth filled all at the same time. Is that something she'd be interested in trying?

"Botox at the dentist?" she giggles. "I love it, that's hilarious. To be honest, in this business, a lot of people use Botox, it's very common now. You only have to drive down Sunset Boulevard to see how many are into it. I mean, there's enough there to kill an elephant!

"Now, don't get me wrong. I have no problem with people who want to do a wee bit of this, that or the other, but when it becomes so over the top noticeable or it reaches the stage when it's clearly an addiction, I think it's very sad.

"It's good if you can grow old gracefully. Look at Helen Mirren - I don't think she's had anything done at all, but she looks fantastic and so beautiful. She's a great example of growing older with grace."

Older people aren't the only ones affected by the pressure to look a certain way. Young people also struggle.

"It frightens me that teenagers are starting to get these things done," she admits.

"They're constantly bombarded by images from social media. It breaks my heart to see these girls who follow American TV shows such as Keeping Up with the Kardashians, trying to look like them. The teenage years are difficult enough and a lot of kids feel insecure about their looks.

"I don't have kids of my own but I've helped raise them as a nanny, plus my friends have kids so I do understand the strife they go through. I'd just love to tell them, if only they knew how gorgeous they are and the potential they have. The pimples, the funny teeth, all those things are transient, they can be fixed. But, of course when you're going through the problems, you feel as though you're the only one. Of course you aren't but it's very hard for them not to feel self-conscious."

As a sufferer of rosacea, a distressing skin condition that is believed to affect up to 22% of the UK population at any given time (and approximately 16 million Americans) and is particularly prevalent among Celtic complexions, Geraldine knows all about teenage angst and feeling self-conscious.

"Rosacea is a very common condition, especially among Irish people," she says. "It affects mostly the skin on the face, causing it to flush and turn very red and swollen. It can be very upsetting as outbreaks are often very severe and, at times, it was very bad for me. I also suffer a type of eczema which only adds to the problem.

"Thank God, I now have both completely under control but it wasn't an easy journey. There is treatment available but it's not a miracle cure. Understandably, people want an ointment or something to make it disappear but there is no quick fix for skin conditions like eczema or rosacea.

"I think it takes a more holistic approach. I found that you have to work from the inside to make a difference on the outside. You know that old saying, you are what you eat? Well it's true. You are what you eat and what you drink. I've actually changed my whole lifestyle. I've moved upstate to the countryside away from stressful environments because I think it's better to take yourself out of these situations. Life is too short for all that. I've also introduced meditation and mindfulness to my routine and I'm feeling great."

There is no known cause of rosacea but it is generally agreed that spicy food and alcohol can trigger a flare-up. So has Geraldine gone teetotal?

"No I wouldn't say that," she laughs. "Seriously though, I don't think alcohol is anyone's friend. I find that, as I get older, my body can't handle it the same and so I'm drinking less and less. I do love a nice drink so when I have one I'll have a lovely glass of red wine. It isn't that I don't want to drink, it's just that I'm not interested in feeling awful anymore. You know, one or two is ok but three drinks is probably too much for me!"

As well as cutting back on stress and alcohol, Geraldine's diet also came in for a makeover but, as she explains, it wasn't a lifestyle choice.

"Well, I got very, very sick a while back and I even ended up in the emergency room a few times," she reveals. "I was suffering from extreme stomach pains and had this weird sense of exhaustion. I couldn't figure out what was wrong but it was awful.

"As it turned out, I have an allergy to gluten. I had an endoscopy but, although it didn't officially diagnose coeliac disease, the doctor told me it was a case of trial and error and suggested I cut gluten from my diet - which I did - and it seemed to work for me.

"So, for the past eight years, I have been gluten free. I once went to a restaurant and they told me there was no gluten in my meal but there obviously was because within an hour I was writhing in pain on the floor. My stomach just can't handle it. Removing gluten from my diet has made a huge difference to my life. It wasn't a lifestyle decision at all, I simply didn't have a choice."

America may be Geraldine's adopted home but she maintains a keen interest in Northern Ireland, returning regularly to visit friends and family. In the three decades since she left, Belfast has become a thriving metropolis with its own rapidly expanding film industry.

"The face of Northern Ireland today is extraordinary," she enthuses. "We now have so many people from all over the world coming to visit or make their home in the country. It's incredible. Belfast is such a beautiful city and the people are the warmest and most generous in the world.

"We've come a long way since the days of the Troubles, but we need to keep pushing forward. I think the key to a peaceful society lies in how we educate our children."

As well as supporting the drama group, Talent Tribe, Geraldine is also patron of the Northern Ireland Integrated Education Fund (NIEF). She believes that uniting children in the classroom promotes better understanding between communities.

"I think it's absolutely vital that we have integrated education in Northern Ireland," she says. "You know, in America right now society is terribly divided and polarised.

"I recently received a culture award and during my speech in New York I said that I felt we should be able to look in someone's eyes and see them first and foremost as a human being. When kids look at each other, it's with an innocence.

“They only see the face and spirit of the person, nothing else. If only we could keep that essence of childhood with us as adults. We shouldn’t be looking at someone and wondering what religion they are. I’m a huge fan of Baroness May Blood and the people who run the Northern Ireland Integrated Education Fund. I mean, Maire Thomson, principal of Malone College, has been a friend of mine for years. When I come back, I like to visit the integrated schools — there’s a huge amount of good work being done there. It’s very encouraging.”

She may live among the stars but Geraldine’s feet remain firmly on the ground. Friendly and approachable, she laughs easily and doesn’t take herself too seriously.

But she likes to keep her personal life private. However, apart from Conor, her partner of 10 years, there is one other guy in her life. His name is Abe, who is also known as ‘Abelicious’.

“Abe, he’s wonderful, he’s my soulmate,” she gushes. “Abe is my gorgeous chocolate brown Labrador and I just love him!

“We got him from a rescue centre in New York, a wonderful place called Animal Heaven. He’s brought so much joy into my life, in fact, I don’t know what I’d do without him.

“Everyone loves Abe, I call him Abelicious because it suits him. Would you believe he even has his own Instagram account? For a year-and-a-half, I’d been working in theatre doing the Harry Potter show. I’m finished now, but people there had been saying how much they wanted to meet Abe so I brought him back one night and, oh my, he was incredible. My friends at the theatre made such a huge fuss over him and he had them all smiling and feeling happy.

“It’s incredible the effect he has on people. I think Abe is a real therapy dog. When I need to unwind, I’ll meditate and take Abe for a walk in the woods.”

A couple of years ago, I interviewed Geraldine for a fashion feature and she mentioned that Nanette Lepore was one of her favourite designers. Moving to the countryside has given her a new outlook on life but has it changed her wardrobe?

“I have to be honest, I do love Nanette’s designs,” she says. “I also like a bunch of others but I’d say hers are among my favourite. But, you know, I really have stopped caring an awful lot about that stuff. I really have. Maybe I’ve become a country bumpkin, who knows?

“When I go shopping I tend to go to outlet stores and I’ll probably go into somewhere like Ralph Lauren and have a look around. These days I tend to choose clothes that are very simple and classic. I prefer things that don’t make a huge noise or statement.

“I like greys and blacks, but that’s kind of a New York thing. You know I’ll buy a very expensive pair of jeans because I know for sure they’re going to last forever. I’m afraid that’s the boring me these days!”

As the interview winds down, conversation returns to her play, Belfast Blues, and I discover that Geraldine has yet another patronage she’s passionate about and equally happy to share.

“Yes, I’m patron of Brassneck Theatre and I’m delighted to be doing this show in partnership with them,” she says.

“I must admit, I have a soft spot for the Lyric Theatre. I first performed there when I was 13 and, now, it’s great to be bringing my own show to the next generation of theatre lovers.”

It’s a busy time for the actress and it’s about to get even busier.

“I’m looking forward to the future,” she says. “As well as Belfast Blues, I have another two plays that I’m in the middle of writing and there’s also a few projects that I am developing with my producing partner in Belfast, Terry Loane, for the screen. Yes, it is a busy time but it’s also very exciting.”

Belfast Blues is at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, from Aug 6-11. For more information visit www.lyrictheatre.co.uk

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