No escaping the carnage
As Dr Abby Lockhart in TV hit ER, Maura Tierney faced blood and gore daily. Now starring in a play at the Gate in which chaos reigns, she tells Ciara Dwyer of dealing with shyness, how a nun put her on the road to acting and how she coped with breast cancer
Published 30/01/2011 | 05:00
'BEING uptight is not what I would call myself. I have other problems, but that's not one of them. If anything, I'm overly emotional," says Maura Tierney. The American actress then rolls her brown eyes and laughs.
She is describing her character in Yasmina Reza's play God of Carnage, which previews at the Gate Theatre on Thursday. Tierney plays a well-groomed, uptight wealth management consultant who has a discussion with some other parents about their children's punch-up. She tells me that in the play everyone starts off super polite, and gradually the madness descends.
She is worried about the play being called a comedy. Yes, she acknowledges, it is funny, but questions whether audiences will laugh if it is labelled a comedy. She has no need to worry. They will. Tierney is very funny without even trying.
From the minute she takes off her glasses and squints to pick me out of the crowd in the Gresham Hotel, Dublin, she is warm with a quirky take on life, happy to go with the flow. Most people know her from her role in ER as Dr Abby Lockhart. She starred in the hugely popular hospital drama for eight years. I was sure that I would be able to pick her out immediately, but I almost walked by her. Her hair is darker and shorter too. (The length of her hair is probably something to do with the breast cancer she had. During the chemotherapy she lost her hair. But she is back in great health again.) Tierney looks so much smaller in real life than I had imagined her, but then stars from the screen often look different in real life.
It is a Friday evening, and she has just finished a day's rehearsals. The Boston-born actress orders a second glass of white wine. It's a mark of how at ease she is with herself and the world. A lot of people wouldn't dare to drink alcohol in an interview, for fear that it would loosen the tongue too much.
She sounds content to be here and the idea of taking to the stage in Dublin for the first time is an exciting prospect. Tierney is no stranger to Ireland. "I went on a bike trip and cycled 35 miles around Dingle. And I've been to Donegal. I love it here and I'm happy to be here."
With a name like Maura Tierney, there has to be an Irish connection. She tells me that she feels Irish. "My father's parents were Irish. I didn't know my grandfather because he died when my father was seven, but I was very close to my grandmother. She was from Leitrim and grew up on a farm. She left for Boston when she was 16 and she only came back once. She met my grandfather in Boston. He was Irish too."
She laughs as she takes off her grandmother telling a young Maura that she needed a tan, or if she was tanned, her grandmother would tell her that it was a nice tan. It sounds so ludicrous to her, especially as she says that in LA, where she mostly lives, it is frowned upon to have a tan because it is so bad for your skin. I tell her that the "nice tan" line is a very Irish thing.
Maura grew up in Boston, the eldest of three children.
"I was sort of a nerd. I was very goody two shoes. I was in the girl scouts and I played with dolls for a long time, until I was way too old. I had to hide them from my friends."
She takes it well when I rib her about this, and ask if she had to dump the dolls days before she got married. (She was married to writer Billy Morrissette but they are no longer together.)
The Tierney household in Boston was happy and industrious. Maura's father Joe was a politician. He was on the Boston City Council for 16 years and he ran for mayor and lost. After that, he practised law. After raising the children, her mother, Pat, set up a real estate business with a friend.
Although Maura's parents were not as religious as their grandparents, she tells me that she used to go to mass every Sunday and she made her communion and confirmation. They were taught to bless themselves when they heard an ambulance.
"I used to resent how rigid everything was in school but when I look back now I've softened in my compassion for the nuns. I don't know what these women's lives were like. They didn't get to do half the things that a priest does and yet their lives were devoted in the same way. There was this nun, Sister Mary Matthew. She was very strict. I always remember that she had a tissue stuffed up her sleeve. She'd re-use it and put it back up. One day she called me out into the hall. I wondered what I had done wrong this time. I was about 13."
The nun told Maura that she was going to enter her for a poetry recital competition and had to learn Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott. "For some reason she picked me to do that. It was the first time I had to perform something. I was terrified but I must have enjoyed it on some level."
In New York, when Maura was studying drama, she was full of inhibitions. "I was very shy and insecure. I was intimidated by everybody, but you learn how to compensate for shyness. There are still times when I'm speechless," she says. "But less so now," she concedes.
When Maura finished in college, she headed to LA to try her
'I think cancer has changed me. I'm more bossy and more easy-going at the same time...'
and at acting. The plan was to stay for three months, as she was going to return to Boston to help her father with his campaign. She went to LA without much expectation.
"I thought in New York, everybody knew about acting but in my mind, in LA, they knew nothing. It was a very snobby way to be but it meant that I was less intimidated by the whole environment and more bold."
She got a job waitressing and after two months, she got her first acting job. "I was very, very lucky. In the beginning it was fantastic. I lived in Venice, which is right on the beach and you could walk everywhere. I was 23 and you didn't need a lot of money in LA. New York is much more expensive. There was sun and it was fun."
When her acting job ended, she went back to waiting tables.
"There were so many rejections. If you think, 'sh*t, I'm no good', for every rejection you're not going to get there. I ended up working with a lot of great actors and I became confident in my craft."
Eventually, she got a part in a TV series NewsRadio for four years and after that ER came calling.
"ER was wonderful. There were great writers and great actors. Everybody watched the show. I watched the show before I was on it."
As Abby Lockhart, she had great stories -- a recovering alcoholic who went on to turn her life around. She had romance, went through pregnancy and then there were other problems such as her depressive mother. An actress couldn't have asked for more scope. Being recognised doesn't bother her, and she tells me that in the States, people mostly leave you alone.
Did she become very interested in medicine during ER?
"I'd think I'd know something when really I didn't. A little bit of information is dangerous. I still think I know stuff because we learned a little bit on the job."
In June 2009, Maura had a mammogram and they found a lump on her breast. She had a mastectomy and chemotherapy and then she found a plastic surgeon, and got a new breast. "That's the thing about cancer. It's not like you're sick but there's something bad growing inside you and you've got to get rid of it. I didn't feel ill but the chemotherapy made me feel sick.
"Not all of it was traumatic. I had an amazing boyfriend at the time ... whether he felt fearless or not, he acted fearless which was very helpful."
She bought a very expensive human hair wig, but never wore it. "I just felt like I was wearing a wig, so it was easier to put on a scarf or go bald. Sometimes bald can be a statement. My doctors told me from the beginning that I was going to be OK, so hopefully that's true.
"It's been a slow burn for me in terms of figuring things out. I think having the cancer has changed me. I'm more bossy and more easy-going at the same time. I say what I want and less stuff bugs me now. I was never uptight, but I used to worry a lot. It turns out, no matter how much you worry you can't control things. Also, I don't want to waste time."
Speaking of time, if she stays much longer with me she will be late for dinner with Michael Colgan. As we pack up to leave, I am charmed by her. I had been expecting a guarded Hollywood star, instead she was open and warm. As we part, I tell her that she has beautiful skin. Not a blemish or line. What does she do? I am all set to hear of drinking gallons of water or some great moisturiser.
"I've a great dermatologist. I need a separate retirement account for him. I'm not kidding. I walk out of there so much poorer. He gives me all these potions and lotions and I rub them in. It takes me forever to go to bed."
What a Hollywood answer. But refreshingly honest too.
'God of Carnage' by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton, previews at the Gate from February 3. Phone (01) 874 4045 or visit gate-theatre.ie
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