An Act of Kindness - actress Cathy Belton says it can go very far
In 'Red Rock', Cathy Belton is a monster of a mother. The actress tells our reporter that she loves all of her roles but don't invite her to dinner or she might ask for help learning her lines
In 1998, the actress Cathy Belton had a crisis of confidence. She made up her mind that she was getting out of acting; the work wasn't the problem but rather the insecurity of it all. It didn't matter that she had a degree in drama from Trinity and had already started acting.
"I thought, am I tough enough for this? Am I going to survive? I thought, no," she tells me." To be an actor you have to be so thin-skinned yet you have to be made of steel. It's such a contradiction."
Every actor knows that powerless feeling of waiting for work and wondering if they have succeeded at an audition. And then, once there is a job, there is the fresh worry of when the next one will come along; if at all. As the legendary actress Elaine Stritch once explained - "It's like the old prostitute said 'It's not the work, it's the stairs.'"
Cathy got a clerical job in the CAO office in Galway. And that was that. From time to time, her agent would ring asking her to go for auditions but she refused. She worked away until one day, Mike Diskin, the manager of The Town Hall Theatre, marched into her office.
"What the hell are you doing?" he said. "You've been offered a part in this play Eclipsed. You should take the part and get over yourself."
Cathy listened to Mike's wise words and walked out of her job.
"I'm so glad that I did," she tells me, "and so grateful that he came for me. The play was a huge success. Out of that, I got a part in Glenroe - as Lucy Reilly, the vet. It was work for a year. I thought it was a sign from whatever you believe in. The security of Glenroe gave me the confidence to tell myself - you can do this and you're doing the right thing."
The rest, as they say, is history and her great acting career. I saw that production of Eclipsed. Patricia Burke Brogan's fine play was one of the first to deal with the Magdalene laundries. It was inspired by her time as a novitiate when she was so appalled by what she saw that she left. She began to write about it instead. Cathy played a sympathetic nun, who was probably based on the playwright. Many years later, she went on to play another nun - Sister Claire in the Oscar-winning film Philomena based on the true story, with Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. In the film, the nun told Philomena that all the adoption records, including those of her son, had been destroyed in a fire. She delivered the bad news with such compassion. Later they learnt that it was all lies.
"I thought, how do you make this person human?" says Cathy. "Then I looked up these religious orders on YouTube and they had these wonderful PR nuns," says Cathy. "It was extraordinary to see these very pleasant people promoting the order. That was a great latch into the role. She stonewalled them in the nicest way, with tea and home-made cakes."
This is typical of the actress's interesting approach to her work. For two decades, I have been watching Cathy on stage and on screen. From Paul Mercier's Kitchensink to Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge at the Gate some years ago, she is always compelling. Many people will know Cathy as Patricia Hennessy, the flinty-eyed ferocious mother in TV3's soap Red Rock.
"It's great to play a strong woman like this," she says. "I don't tend to play baddies. She is fierce, a lioness. Her family is torn apart but she will do anything to keep them together. It's a real release to play a part like that. The roles seem to get more interesting as I get older."
Last summer at the Galway Arts Festival, she left audiences spellbound with her performance in Frank McGuinness's one-woman-show - The Match Box. She has been nominated for best actress in the upcoming Irish Theatre Awards. When Cathy Belton was in her teens, growing up in Renmore, Co Galway, she played the part of Goldilocks in a Christmas pantomime. It was directed by Sabina Higgins (now the President's wife), who was very passionate about Stanislavksi Method Acting, as she had been involved in the Focus Theatre in Dublin. Cathy's eyes light up as she remembers Sabina's passion.
"She was wonderful," she says.
I am intrigued as to how the Method could be applied to it. But no matter. It sounds like everyone enjoyed themselves.
The Belton house was a very happy home. Cathy's father, Liam worked in a chemist and her mother, Anna, was a housewife. She and her younger sister Orina were cherished. Her mother would happily bring them to classes - music or drama. In their home, the arts were always revered.
"On Sunday mornings, the record player would be out and Dad would take out all his vinyls. He'd be playing Elvis and Sinatra while sweeping the floor. Then he'd sing into the brush handle. Dad had a big film projector, and for birthdays, he'd rent reels and play them for us - films like Lady and the Tramp. Later on, he'd tell us we should see a Hitchcock film, or something by David Lean."
As a family, they would go to the theatre regularly. She credits Galway with always having an artistic tradition.
" I can remember the exact moment when I decided to be an actress. I'd seen Druid's production of Tom Murphy's Conversations on a Homecoming with Mom and Dad. I was 12. We sat in the front row and I was transported. Afterwards, I thought I want to try to do what they do, to have that power to bring people to another world."
Her family was very proud when her acting career took off. Then Cathy's father fell ill with cancer.
"He had a long battle but he battled so hard and so brilliantly. He died 10 years ago. When you lose a parent, it's a game-changer," she says. "You don't look at things the same again."
But she does not dwell on the sad times. Rather, she remembers how her father made the journey up to Dublin to see her in A View from the Bridge at the Gate, even though he was quite ill. It meant a lot.
Cathy says that she never had a life-plan and really she has gone from job to job.
"You're only as good as your last gig but I think it gets easier as you get older. You develop relationships with directors and writers. Maybe it's naive but I trust that the right things happen if you remain open."
She was probably open to the possibilities of love when she met Brian, whom she refers to as her "other half." They were introduced to each other by friends on a night out. He is not in the acting business and she enjoys how he looks at theatre and television with fresh eyes.
"It's lovely having somebody outside of what I do," she says "I think it was meant to be. It just felt right. We're very compatible. We're two different energies but we like the same things and we make each other laugh. He's very patient and he roots me. He's a rock."
Brian had never seen Cathy on stage until he saw her in The Match Box last year but by opening night, he knew almost every word in the script. "God bless, Brian. Every night, he'd come home from work and off we'd go. He'd do the lines and talk me down. He'd be there with a pencil and rubber - because with a text like that, you can't get a comma wrong. I'd stand there and say it and then I'd say, 'I can't do it'. He'd say, 'come on, let's go again.' I was obsessed with the play for months. My sister did lines with me, my mum did lines with me. It got to the point that when I was out on social occasions, I'd think, I wonder would that person like to ask me my lines.
"Every time I do something new, I'm scared. I think it gets worse because the stakes get higher. You have more to prove. But if something challenges me, that's a great radar. Then I decide - go do it."
There is something very decent about Cathy Belton - she shows great sensitivity when talking about others and she explains one of the things she appreciates most in life is kindness.
"I think kindness is huge - one of the most underestimated things in this world. And not just in relationships, but in business and politics and the workplace. Kindness can go so far."
And we have to be thankful for Mike Diskin's kind gesture. Without that, she may have missed her calling.
'Red Rock' airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8.30pm on TV3
Main Photo: Hair by Vanessa Arnold, make-up by Dearbhla Keenan, both at Brown Sugar, South William Street, Dublin 2
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