Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

'I was 23 when I first met my Canadian dad ...it was very emotional but it was amazing and I try to see him now at least once a year'

As her latest film is screened in Belfast, Coleraine-born actress Bronagh Waugh talks about her colourful life, seeing her mum 'come out', tracking down her dad and why she wants to see same-sex marriage reform here in Northern Ireland

Shining star: Bronagh Waugh's new film Steel Country is being premiered in Belfast this weekend
Shining star: Bronagh Waugh's new film Steel Country is being premiered in Belfast this weekend
A young Bronagh with her mum Bonnie on Portstewart Strand
In Derry Girls with Dylan Llewellyn
With husband Richard Peacock
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

Coleraine actress Bronagh Waugh has certainly lived a life less ordinary, stepping into the fictional shoes of some of our most colourful onscreen characters. From the unlucky in life and love Cheryl Brady in Hollyoaks to serial killer's wife Sally-Ann Spector in The Fall, Bronagh - who now lives in London with her husband Richard - has been lighting up our screens for over 11 years.

Most recently, the 36-year-old very nearly broke all our hearts as wayward mother Kathy Maguire with "eyebrows to rival Joan Crawford" who attempted to take "the wee English fella" away from the Derry Girls gang.

And this weekend her new film Steel Country will roll out at the Odyssey Cinema.

It's a long way from the Riverside Theatre in her home town, where she first trod the boards playing King Theseus as an eager 10-year-old schoolgirl.

"I grew up in Coleraine," Bronagh says. "It is a great town. There must be something in the water up there in the north west, because there are so many actors from that neck of the woods.

"There's Michelle Fairley, Jayne Wisener, myself, Liam Neeson is from down the road and Jimmy Nesbitt went to school with my uncle. It's a quiet town but it's great for the arts. And, with the Riverside Theatre, there were so many fantastic opportunities for me when I was very young, which I was thrilled about."

Bronagh has happy memories of childhood and drew inspiration from her hard-working mother.

"It was just my mum and me when I was growing up," she says. "We lived with my granny and my uncle, who was 19 years old when I was born. My mum, Bonnie, was a single mum.

"I had a great childhood. My mum was incredibly inspiring and hard working. She taught me that I could be whoever I wanted to be, and do what I wanted to do as long as I put my heart and soul into it and be prepared for knockbacks.

"Mum ended up becoming very successful in business, so I drew a lot of inspiration from her."

Bronagh says she was a conscientious pupil, and a chatty one, constantly providing the entertainment to her classmates.

"I was a chatterbox at school," she admits. "And nothing has changed there. I was always being told to stop talking and stop distracting people. I talked to everyone. I was quite conscientious at school, I was quite good but I was always the class clown.

"Being an only child when I was growing up, I didn't have anyone to play with, so then you are dead set on entertaining everyone else. You just want to befriend everyone. I loved making people laugh, I was really addicted to that feeling and I think that carried on."

Bronagh's life completely changed course when she was 12 years old, when her mum got a job halfway across the world and she found herself entering her teenage years in Bangkok.

"I was all set for Dominican College in Portstewart when I was making the transition from primary school," she explains. "I was really thrilled to be going there because lots of my friends were going. I had the uniform bought. Then my mum got a job in Thailand, in Bangkok, so at the age of 12 I was ripped from the North West and went to straight into south-east Asia.

"I didn't even know where Thailand was before that point. It was quite a culture shock coming from Northern Ireland.

"It was fantastic and an incredible opportunity. I was there for five years. I learned the language and I went to an international school there.

"Every single kid there had a different heritage or different background and there were so many different religions.

"Having come from Northern Ireland where it was so 'one or the other' and very tribal, this was amazing. I had a Jewish friend, a Muslim friend and so on. Before that I hadn't met people who weren't either Protestant or Catholic, so it was really good.

"I began my schooling as the only white girl in my class. I think it was good, because I learned what it was like to be different and I think this gives you perspective.

"It was a fantastic thing for a young teenager to experience. I was so lucky to have got that opportunity to do that with my mum's job. It was such an unusual experience but it set me up for life and gave me confidence and understanding.

"It certainly sparked my passion for human rights and issues around injustice. My eyes were opened to a lot of other things.

"I came home and went to a sixth form college in the south of England, in Portsmouth. It was a real culture shock, being Northern Irish with my accent. It was a very naval town and a lot of people's parents were in the Navy," Bronagh says.

"I didn't understand why they didn't like me or why they thought I was weird. Having come from a school where everyone was accepted, it was strange to experience that, not being liked because of my accent. I really didn't fit in and had a really tough time.

"There was quite a bit of bullying going on - but not physical bullying. I am such a tall, big girl and was quite lippy and would fight back. I never got beaten up. But people made it clear that I was different.

"I had just come from another country, I was used to speaking a different language. It was really overwhelming.

"But it made me work really hard and I knew at that stage that I wanted to be an actor. So I just stuck my head down and got on with it. And people started to come round to me. I would be in college productions and people would come and see them. And I learned that that was a way to make myself popular. Because if you can make them laugh or they thought you were a good actor, then they suddenly like you."

As she entered her adult years, Bronagh decided to track down and make contact with her Canadian father, whom she had never met.

"Mum and dad met in Canada and mum came home when she got pregnant with me," she says. "I met my dad for the first time when I was 23 years old. Mum always told me very lovely stories about him. I tracked him down through my aunt in Canada. She had passed me his number when I was over there visiting my Canadian grandmother and told me that he had constantly asked for me. She told me that she had been sending him photos and stuff and she said that he would love to meet me.

"The first time we met was very emotional. But it was amazing, it was really nice. We try and see each other now at least once a year, but it's tricky because he's so far away."

Bronagh may be a familiar face on our TV screens now but she began her acting career aged 10, starring in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Riverside Theatre. Acting, she says, was a lifelong dream.

"I've always wanted to be an actor," she says. "It was all I ever wanted to do. The first time I was on the stage I played King Theseus. I was raging because I wanted to play Helena. But that went to another girl who was a BA student, studying acting, and I was this whippersnapper at 10 who wanted to play the lead role."

However, since then things have gone from good to better for the Coleraine star.

"My career is going well," she says. "It's been a long old slog, but brilliant. I feel very lucky and very grateful and lucky to be in the position I'm in and to be doing what I'm doing. I have had great opportunities to be working on some different things.

"I played Jamie Dornan's wife in The Fall. People are mad about Jamie, but I can only speak on behalf of being his colleague and his friend, and what a pleasure it was to work with him, and to work on such a great show which was so popular and did so much for Northern Ireland. I am very proud of that."

And to go from dark psychological thriller that was The Fall to Derry Girls just demonstrated the range of Bronagh's acting talents.

"I was in Derry Girls recently and it was so nice to do something lighter," she says.

"I had just done Unforgotten on ITV and it was quite heavy. In fact it was the hardest thing I had done so far - it was very distressing. So Derry Girls was really nice to be light and joyous."

Bronagh adds: "The guys in the show are so lovely. Most of them are friends and it was really lovely to work alongside them. I worked with Tara Lynne O'Neill before and knew Dylan from my Hollyoaks days. So I was kind of like a surrogate mum to the Derry Girls.

"If I was a Derry Girl, I think I would definitely be Michelle. I have Michelle's mouthiness and ballsiness with a tiny bit of Erin's sensitivity."

Bronagh's new film, Steel Country, will premiere at the Odyssey Cinema this weekend. Bronagh says that mastering the American accent was the toughest part of the process of making the movie.

"Steel Country is a very dark thriller about a man called Donny who uncovers a murder," she says. "He notices different things more than others and he sees that a little boy who used to be on his route is no longer there. He asks the boy's mum and she tells him he died in an accident. Donny becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to the little boy. I play Donna, his best friend. We end up trying to sleuth it together. My character would have a lot more street smarts than Donny and is very protective of him.

"It's a film about injustice and corruption and what it's like to be in smalltown America now. You are getting a snapshot into this very, very poor community that used to be a steel town that no longer has its factories. It's about how power can influence things and how people can cover things up. And it's about how one very ordinary man makes it his mission to go up against that.

"I had to put on an American accent for the film. It's a Pittsburgh accent which is really hard, like a cross between Boston and New York with a little bit of Alabama in there.

"When we were filming I kept the accent the whole way through the shoot, because it was so tricky to master. Hopefully people will like it."

Outside acting, Bronagh's passion lies with fighting injustice, particularly fighting for marriage rights for same-sex couples.

"I hope and I think that same-sex marriage will happen in Northern Ireland," she says. "It is just a matter of time. But I think that for as long as the DUP are in power with the Conservative Party in government, it is going to be very difficult to get anything legislated. But 78% of Northern Ireland people want it, so that is a very clear message.

"I think it's a matter of when, not if, because at the end of the day it is a human rights issue. This is nothing to do with religion or politics. I think that politicians will not be able to stand in the way of human rights any longer."

It's an issue that is close to the actress's heart. Her mum, Bonnie, came out as gay when Bronagh was aged 19.

"It wasn't a shock," she says. "I didn't expect or assume it. But I think sexuality is such a tiny part of someone's persona and personality that really it makes no difference to me whether my friends and family are gay, straight, blue or purple. It doesn't define them. For me it wasn't a shock. I was happy for her. Because, ultimately, the only thing that matters is my mum's happiness. She is very happily married now to my stepmum, Sue. And I am just so happy for her.

"It irritates me so much that all of us have to campaign and harp on about this so much when really it is someone's private business. They should be allowed to get on with their lives and not have to talk about their private matters to people in order to justify them. You and I don't have to do that about our marriages. Why should other people? It makes me so angry. I have a tiny opportunity, being in the public eye and I think it's really important to highlight it - it's amazing how many people across the water who are not aware that it is illegal in Northern Ireland, or about our unique laws. If anything I think the coalition with the DUP has been somewhat of an education for the rest of the UK.

"I am incredibly proud of being from Northern Ireland and I want people to see it for the amazing things that we have here, not the couple of issues that let it down. We need to bring it into the 21st Century."

She says that if she could speak directly to our politicians, she would urge them to work together and move forward, for the sake of Northern Ireland.

"As a citizen and a normal person who is not in politics, I would say to them that we got a very timely reminder of the Good Friday Agreement recently," she says.

"What we can take from that anniversary is that politicians from all sides and Secretary of State Mo Mowlam worked tirelessly to bring about peace and work around the differences with the sole goal of securing peace.

"And I think our politicians could take a leaf out of that book, of that passion and dedication. It is my worry with Brexit and other things that we cannot take for granted the peace that we have.

"No one wants to go back. Everyone wants to look forward. We have so many other issues in this country. There have been so many cuts and it is absolutely devastating," she adds.

"Speaking from my own industry, the arts cuts in Northern Ireland have been huge. Our country is starting to be more known now for Game of Thrones than for our Troubles. How brilliant is that?

"We want to be known for our fantastic culture, television shows, poets, singers, writers, musicians and all that brilliant stuff. But if we keep cutting funding to the arts, we are not going to be able to keep producing that. The next generation of artists is going to be left behind."

Bronagh was in Belfast this week for the Belfast Film Festival, which ends today. See belfastfilmfestival.org for information. Her latest film, Steel Country, opens at the Odyssey cinema in Belfast this weekend or it can be watched on iTunes, Sky Store, Amazon Video or Curzon Home Cinema. For more information search for Steel Country Movie on Facebook and Twitter

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