Saturday 10 December 2016

Gray matters: Actress Orla Brady on playing Irish designer Eileen Gray

Wicklow's Orla Brady may have trod the avant-garde boards of French theatre, but a tale with decidedly Irish origins has seen her gain an IFTA nomination for her movie role as designer Eileen Gray. Here, she talks Hollywood ageism, Catholic guilt and kissing Alanis Morissette

Maggie Armstrong

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

Wicklow native, actress Orla Brady. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Wicklow native, actress Orla Brady. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Orla Brady received an IFTA nomination for her role as Eileen Gray. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Orla Brady with 32A co-star Aiden Quinn in 2006.
Orla Brady with fellow Mistresses from the BBC show in 2008.
Orla Brady at the screening of "The Price of Desire" last month. Photo: Brian McEvoy.

We shouldn't really compare characters to their actors, but who could fail to draw parallels between Eileen Gray, the Enniscorthy-raised, French-made Modernist furniture designer, and Orla Brady, the actress who portrays her in The Price of Desire?

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The languorous art film, directed, written and produced by Mary McGuckian, has more to say about desire than design in its retelling of Eileen Gray's life. Sultry scenes feature French kissing (with Alanis Morissette), French villas and French language (subtitled) and Orla Brady cutting considerable dash as a stern, implacable but beguiling Eileen Gray.

Brady has received a nomination at next weekend's IFTA Film & Drama awards for best actress, positioning her next to usual suspect Saoirse Ronan, the formidable Eva Birthistle (Swansong), Harry Potter gamine Evanna Lynch (My Name is Emily) and Rebellion star Ruth Bradley (Pursuit).

Okay, there are contrasts in the two lives: Gray, who died in 1976 aged 98, was a world master, a workaholic and deeply shy, though of fluid sexuality and most unconventional. Brady (55) lives in Los Angeles and is married to photographer Nick Brandt. But crucially, both escaped Ireland, both living in Paris and London where they gradually discovered their craft. Gray's involved hiding, Brady's performing, yet neither are household names in their native country.

Gray, says Brady, "didn't invite any kind of profiling of her, and you know how people love the person behind the work, the mythologising, if you like, of a person?" Indeed. Brady does not invite any mythologising of her cosmopolitan life. Over tea in Dublin 8 she has a head cold, apologising "I'm very inarticulate today", which is the opposite of what she is.

Disquietingly gorgeous at 55, she has a forceful intelligence which she expresses in long, clear paragraphs. She is as interesting in what she withholds as in what she reveals. Again and again in our conversation she turns to principles of fairness and equality.

You get a sense this is a mind formed far away from the noise of home. There is no mincing of words as to why she left Dublin.

"Listen," says the émigré, a striking picture of dark wavy hair and woollen shawl over stretchy jeans. "There was something about early 1980s Ireland that was still very oppressive. It wasn't a good place to be a woman. You came from a republic where there was almost a sense of shame about being a young, female, sexual being."

The Catholic church had a "death grip on everything", Brady remembers. "The nuns were teaching the girls, the Christian Brothers were teaching the boys, and there was a sense that if you were to step outside from it, you had to physically go away. So I remember thinking very clearly: 'I can't stay here, I mustn't stay.' I felt it was spirit crushing."

One of four children, Brady grew up in Bray, Co Wicklow and in Dublin, educated at the "good Catholic convent, the Ursuline in Cabinteely" - a portent, perhaps, that she would play a frightening galactic nun in a recent Christmas episode of cult BBC show Dr Who.

She has spoken about being overweight and awkward as a teenager. Her father, from a Cavan farming background, owned The Oak pub on Dame Street, and nobody in her family acted, though Brady used to slip into the nearby Project Arts Centre to watch actors rehearsing. Inspiration did not come from school.

"There was an encouragement to be good academically and yet an expectation that you would get married and you would have children. It wasn't said explicitly but there was a general expectation that the real job was marrying and bringing up children. And I knew that that was not for me in that form. That's all."

Unusually, Brady eschewed college and did "nothing much" after her Leaving Cert: "I worked here and there. Worked in an office, worked in Greece, just did some jobs," she recalls with hesitance. "Most of my friends did third-level education. I knew what I didn't want. I didn't seem to have a path that was through and through in terms of my goal. But it did involve performing and being away from Ireland."

At 21 she made a move she would be grateful for 30 years on when it came to speaking whispery, elegant French as Eileen Gray in The Price of Desire. She went to Paris.

She had discovered, through a process she retains as a mystery, that she wanted to perform in theatre. "I didn't know if I could. I didn't know if I had the confidence and the courage."

But one moment, this changed. She had chosen to train in the most competitive physical theatre schools in Paris; "slogged away", first under Marcel Marceau which she hated, then at the L'École Philippe Gaulier, a time she cherishes.

"There was a moment in a class in Paris where someone said 'Is anybody going to do this?' You had to get up in front of a school full of people and be a clown, get on a red nose and be funny.

"I remember sitting at the back of the class thinking: 'I find this completely terrifying. But if I don't get up now and try and do something, I just never will. I will sit here at the back of the class being terrified.' So, I remember that morning, just getting up saying: 'I'll give it a go.' And it was completely terrifying.

"I had no money," she continues of her time in Paris. Was there financial assistance for her training? "No, I just starved." In the city where Samuel Beckett still lived, Brady would rent a cheap "chambre de bonne; one of these teeny weeny rooms you have to fold yourself into". A big break must have been a material necessity? "I don't think there is a big break, not for me. I just started working."

She landed a part in a National Theatre production of Burnt by the Sun, then played in a Lorca play at Dublin's Gate theatre. Film roles beloved to many include Cathy in Wuthering Heights, Aidan Quinn's wife in the Irish indie coming-of-age 32A and Sheila Cloney, the boycotting Protestant mother, in A Love Divided. On TV, she zenithed as cheating wife Siobhan in Mistresses for the BBC.

But lately Brady is big in America, a prolific presence on television dramas, the latest of which is fantasy show Into the Badlands. Fifteen years ago, she moved to Los Angeles to shoot Family Law. Her first six months were "kind of ridiculous and fun, driving around palm trees and somebody paying you much more money than you'd ever earn at the BBC." Ready to return home at Christmas, at a Thanksgiving party she met Nick Brandt. "And that's why I'm still there, because we decided to get married and he wanted to live there."

You are not well known in Ireland, I suggest to Brady. Is it important to be recognised in the place you came from? "I do very little here," she agrees. "Series, they're all accessible, but they don't travel. I don't tend to do many of the things I'm asked to do, because I'm a firm believer that you publicise work, you don't publicise yourself."

Decisions are made, says Brady, "for myself, not for anyone else. I don't understand what the allure of the spotlight is for its own sake."

Brady is brimming with not so much pride as revivalist spirit when she discusses Eileen Gray, the design and architecture genius whose chairs were collected by Yves Saint Laurent. As the film will tell you, Gray was pushed to the margins by her male contemporary Le Corbusier, and dwindled into obscurity in later life and after life. Her name is undergoing a renaissance, thanks to rich collectors, major retrospectives at the Pompidou Centre and IMMA, and programmes such as the documentary Gray Matters, also by Mary McGuckian.

Until a few years ago, Brady had never heard of Gray, or only "in a very vague way. You might have heard a reference from a friend doing a design course." There is just one recording of the retreating designer from when she was elderly.

"To an extent one is emulating, extrapolating from that little bit of footage you have, a woman with this extraordinarily gloriously plummy voice, that nobody uses - this received English that's it's really of an era. I was relying on talking to people who knew her and reading about her. You're not going to get inside someone's head. You have to approach the script like a piece of fiction: you have to tell the story."

When she considers the cause for Gray's neglect, you couldn't help but think of Brady's own attitude to fame: "One [reason] is that she was in herself a very modest person.

"Crucially, she didn't self-promote. She avoided any kind of fanfare around what she did. She did her work, she gave her work away or sold her work, and that was it."

As for what shocked her most while making the film: "What I didn't understand, and of course was the most fascinating thing to explore, was this rivalry that Le Corbusier felt towards her, this neck-and-neck building up of the first modernist villas. For her house E1027 [Gray's coldly named villa at Roquebrune near Monte Carlo] in 1926, she did something like 120 drawings - the architecture and the furniture. She spent years and years doing those designs, embarking on building it, spending a lot of time on rather tricky sites down a rocky glen with a couple of workmen.

"Le Corbusier began his house in 1927 and completed it in 1928. His is hailed as the first modernist villa. You could argue hers was, or you could argue they both were. But the point was, she was never going to enter that fight. And, well, the rest is history.

"This is a man who became an icon in France, and everywhere, but of course, was hugely talented. But it's just the difference between a talent that doesn't shout about it and one that's hugely confident. It was curious to see that."

Better yet, if only for our curiosity, she had to have screen sex with her "idol" Alanis Morissette. Alanis plays Damia, the chanteuse whom Ms Gray has (in the film) a none too racy affair with.

"She's an extraordinary woman. One of the nicest people I've ever worked with. There's an earth mother thing about her. She's a wise woman, she's a thoughtful, reflective woman. She's lovely. You'd like her," grins Brady of the Canadian singer.

"There's always an issue - especially when you have to be lovers with somebody - about this business where you turn up and have to try and form some sort of bond with somebody.

"For that chemistry to be there on screen. We both just behaved the same way. We just dived into each other for a week. We really hung out, really chatted, really loved doing the work, and really kind of dropped everything and did the scenes. It was really a treat. I deliberately made myself forget that she was Alanis, because I loved all her songs.

"If you're working with someone you don't want to be star and supplicant, you don't want to be on any different level with someone, you just want to be two actors. You want an equality, because you're both going to have to make this scene work. You want to push everything else away and say 'okay, how are we going to do this?' I was able to push everything away and it was lovely."

But make no mistake: kissing a woman in front of a block of cameras "is as preposterous as kissing a man who's not someone you're actually kissing. There's no difference in the preposterousness of it.

"You know, that's when you really notice what a strange job it is. When you have to do something that involves intimacy you think, 'this job is really odd'. But it's just a day at the office. You just do it. That's what you're paid to do."

Brady has found a seasoned and rich personage to play in Eileen Gray. But she agrees that interesting, storied roles diminish for women in their 40s and 50s.

"You can't argue with the fact that there is an ageist, sexist…" she trails off, throwing her eyes to heaven. "We used to value age. Now we value youth, as a society. It's not about trying to make one more important than the other but there should be equal value placed on all those things. And of course it's reflected in something as money-making as the film business. Hollywood is a reflection of how we are."

Boring roles concern much more than just age, but the difference between being a man and a woman, Brady continues. "Sure, there is going to be a lack of parts for women after 40. But there weren't many interesting parts when you were young, there were just more of them. They were just very reliant on your youth. I do think that's changing. I hope it's changing. I hope that young actresses are going to demand more interesting parts."

Tantalisingly, she offers not a modicum of advice. "I don't think I should be giving advice to anybody. Don't do what I did, would be my advice!"

Apart from her beloved mum Kitty, family and friends, what could Brady miss about Ireland? It is hard to picture this demure artist in Dublin, sinking pints in the Oak pub.

"Tayto crisps," she says in an instant. "I really want to go to the Tayto theme park! Look, if you're from a place, it's in your soul in a sense, isn't it? The smell of the earth and the sound of the sea and the bird cries, they are all things that are in you. So of course you miss it, on a visceral level."

Does she still feel the weight of that "spirit-crushing monoculture", as Brady describes the place she left in her 20s?

"I'm very happy to see that in short order that isn't the case any more. As was so beautifully illustrated last summer in the referendum on marriage.

"I actually get tearful still thinking about it. I was in New Orleans with [Into the Badlands co-protagonist] Sarah Bolger. We were up the road from each other phoning each other going: 'We've done it, we've done it!' We were saying, we're actually proud to be Irish, for the first time."

Suddenly, Brady's saucer-like brown eyes fill with tears. "This is who we're supposed to be, inclusive."

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