The mothering touch
From Scarlett Johansson to Daniel Radcliffe, Gabrielle Reidy has played mum to many a celebrity in her acting roles. But, says Ciara Dwyer, it wasn't until the age of 40 that she became a mother in real life. Here, the Dublin-born actress reflects on how family has influenced her approach to work
'I see the ghosts all over the place," says Gabrielle Reidy. There is a mysterious look in her turquoise eyes, as if she communing with the dead. She may well be.
The Dublin-born actress is pacing up and down in the empty bar of the Abbey Theatre. Her face is flushed with the passion of her memories. Gabrielle waves her hands in the air and doesn't so much talk as perform.
"I remember when the walls were pink. There was a portrait of Lady Gregory and I was terrified of her. It was the way her eyeballs were painted. It was if she was following me around. I was only nine."
Gabrielle was a child actress, and many's the time she took to the Abbey stage. It was a magical time, working with people such as Des Cave, Joe Dowling and Tomas MacAnna. Before she began acting, her late mother Patricia brought her to the Abbey to see the greats -- May Cluskey, Joan O' Hara and Angela Newman.
It was there that she saw Siobhan McKenna play Bessie Burgess in Sean O' Casey's The Plough and the Stars.
"She changed the air in the theatre. We didn't like Bessie and suddenly we were broken hearted. Watching her influenced me seminally. A performance can actually change the way your heart works. When I partake in an acting role I try to shift something in people's hearts. I've always tried to push myself to the limit. My comfort zone is in the extreme, yet in my real life I'm very happy. I'm a mother and more or less normal. I laugh a lot, whereas in my acting I'm furious and I cry and I'm intense. In some ways it's a relief to be able to inhabit these extremes."
Gabrielle plays Bessie in the current production of The Plough and the Stars. Her performance as the Protestant woman who taunts her neighbours and then comes to their aid is powerful. During the course of the play she lifts up two bodies. The night I was there, the audience gasped at this action, as if fearing that the actress would cause herself an injury. But while Gabrielle is slight in stature, there is a great strength to her, both inner and outer. She is a resilient woman who has slogged it out in the notoriously difficult acting world and gone on to do great things. Every so often, you will come across her with a lovely part in a great film. She was Scarlett Johansson's mother in Girl with a Pearl Earring. And a few years ago, she was in Equus in the West End, playing Daniel Radcliffe's mother.
Colin Firth also starred in Girl with a Pearl Earring -- he told Gabrielle that her partner Gary was his hero -- they had been at a drama centre together. "I said, 'Well Colin, Gary is not a millionaire and you are. He may have been your hero at drama school but can you give him some tips, for God's sake'."
She laughs at this. There is nothing bitter or disappointed about Gabrielle. She believes in fate and feels that she has been incredibly lucky. She credits her English agent Pippa Markham with getting her great roles. She told Gabrielle to lose her Irish accent because if she didn't she would only be able to go up for 15 per cent of the roles available. She did so and, as a result, she has had a varied acting life where she has played everything from north of England to Norwegian. She has also acted in French. Many people remember Gabrielle for her seminal role as the Auschwitz survivor in the one-woman play Fragments of Isabella, which was later turned into a film. Shortly after that, she moved to London to widen her acting horizons. Since then she hasn't looked back.
When Gabrielle was in Equus, thousands flocked to see Harry Potter do a nude scene in the play.
"I had to explain to Daniel that our son Finn didn't know who he was because he hadn't seen the film Harry Potter. He said it was the most extraordinary thing to sit with a kid who didn't look at him as if he was the Dalai Lama."
You get the feeling that Gabrielle enjoys the highs and lows of life, and that laughter and passion and belief in her craft have carried her through.
"Be brilliant or die." This was the motto of an acting group Gabrielle worked with, and it is one that she has carried with her through her life. When I ask her if her work is her life, she tells me that her life is her life
Gabrielle Reidy is a funny mixture, and well she knows it. She may seem a floaty soul, telling me about the fun she had doing shamanic rituals as part of her rehearsals in the Globe theatre, but then she tells me that she is very grounded and practical. One minute she might be buying herself a new bikini so that she can make herself strong for her swims in the ponds close to her home in Crouch End, and the next she is pointing out that she is wearing pin stripes, as if that is another part of her soul. She talks about being highly political and a member of Amnesty International, and then when she is not thinking about saving the world she enjoys nothing more than slobbing out with her son and partner on Friday nights with ham and pineapple pizza, when he watches The Simpsons and she watches Grand Designs, the most populist show she knows. She can be vulnerable on stage but she is also tough.
This is the woman who, while acting in the film Iris (the film based on Iris Murdoch's life), insisted on breast-feeding breaks. The entire filming had to stop while her son was brought to her. Judi Dench was playing the lead and she commended Gabrielle on speaking up and insisting that her son be breastfed. As it turned out, her part ended up on the cutting-room floor but she is philosophical about that. She tells me that it happens to all actors, all the time.
Everything with Gabrielle is high drama. But how could it be any other way considering her background. Her Irish father Robert was in the RAF and became a test pilot. She talks of him putting the fear of God into his wife when he would bring his three daughters up in open-cockpit aeroplanes.
"I flew in a Tiger Moth," says Gabrielle. "It was open air, a two-seater with a rubber pipe and I was in the front because the pilot was behind. My mother was always threatening heart attacks when we were taken up in gliders. She'd shout, 'For God's sake, Bob. Don't take my babies up and kill them.' I thought it was thrilling, although, funny enough, I'm scared of flying now."
Gabrielle's father became one of the first pilots in Aer Lingus. She remembers him cycling out to the airport from their Malahide home. Her mother longed to be an actress, and Gabrielle is happy that she was able to choose her mother's desired career.
"My mother got cancer when I was 14 and it broke all our hearts. She had a lump under her arm. She had one breast removed, then the other. My father nursed her right through. She died when I was in first year in Trinity but she knew that I was on the way, that I was becoming an actress.
"I don't think that you can ever cry enough when your mother dies. I have a huge reserve of tears and I have always done. She has given me that as a legacy, an ability to find sorrow. My father married again because my mother told him to marry her cousin, and so at 69 he married again and five years later she died from the same thing, cancer."
As she talks of her late mother, it is clear that Gabrielle believes in family. Her father is in his 90s and still full of spirit. She enjoys the family life that she has with her partner, Gary Lilburn, and their son, Finn.
"One of the best things that I've ever done was to meet my partner, Gary. He's a great actor, so sensitive, with a great emotional range but he's also a fantastic guy."
Gary is from Limerick. "I spent all my life avoiding Irish men. My first partner was from Zimbabwe, my next partner was from Australia, and my next partner from France. I was trying to find exoticism, and then seven years into London I meet this fantastic man in a wonderful play in London. It was called Desire Under the Elms, so hey-ho. He wasn't my love interest in the play but we fell headlong in love. I am a very choleric person, very fiery, that's why I need the sea, but while Gary is fiery in his work, he's a very calm and gentle soul, so we go together."
Gabrielle had Finn when she was 40. "I'd been playing mothers all my life before I became one. It was a shock at first. My God, the sleeplessness for the first two years, all you can do is try and not murder your child or your partner."
But she wouldn't change a thing. Life got easier. "Had I known what joy it was to have a child I'd have had one with Gary earlier. I sometimes wish that Finn had siblings but we're fine, we're jolly. By the time he got to a certain age, I would have been too old to have another child."
They take it in turns to do acting jobs, so that Finn has one parent minding him all the time. Their life is never dull. Finn watches as his father shaves his head as if he has cancer for his role in the stage version of Calendar Girls and he was particularly proud of his mother when she played a male role in a Shakespeare play, complete with Clark Gable moustache and huge sword.
Gabrielle says that motherhood is perspective-making, and it also means looking at her work in a different way. When Finn was six he went to see her in a play. He couldn't understand why his mother was so angry on stage. She tried to explain that it was the character she was playing but it didn't make sense to him. As she says, she couldn't explain that she had found some Grecian anger that was primordial.
"In the end I had to say, 'Finn, I am paid to be very angry every night. That's what I do'."
Then she laughs loudly.
Sean O'Casey's 'The Plough and the Stars' runs at the Abbey until September 25. Tel: 01-878 7222; www.abbeytheatre.ie