The Comic that Rocks the Cradle - Deirdre O'Kane
As she prepares to return to live in Dublin from London, her home for the last nine years, Deirdre O'Kane is ready for a new chapter. Having put her annus horribilis of turning 45 behind her, she's back on the stand-up circuit after almost a decade, bursting with mammy-going-mad material from her child-rearing years. She tells us how a comedy career is different for girls, and how she's finally going to get her timing right.
Published 22/02/2016 | 02:30
'Forty-five," says Deirdre O'Kane of the point in her life when she felt her first real taste of getting older. "For-teee-fiiive. Yep, that's the one. You don't notice that life is hard at all until 45."
"I went to the doctor and told her I was having a menopause. She asked me about my symptoms, and I said there was just this cloud over me. She said I wasn't having the menopause; I was just stressed." Transcendental meditation and time - "you get tired of yourself after a while" - got Deirdre through being 45, but part of the reason for her gloom persisted.
"There just wasn't any work," Deirdre says. "I normally don't notice that. I generally have had something on the go. I was ringing my agent and they were saying that there was nothing for me in anything that was coming up. I was too old for all the female roles, and I was too young yet to play the mammy."
"So I was there, waiting on the phone to ring, and I'm not good at that. That drives me mad. And I was going mad. And that was why I started stand-up in the first place, when I was 27, because I was an actress, but there was no work."
And, you could say, that's why she's back at the stand-up now. Last year, Deirdre's husband, director Stephen Bradley, told her that she needed to start writing. She was going mad, he pointed out, and she was driving the rest of them mad, too.
"Because, you know, I'm in a business where you get used to validation," she laughs. "A clap or a bit of a laugh. I was used to being listened to: saying something once, not six times. Oh, God, the mornings and the getting them out to school. Carnage. 'Have you brushed your teeth?' 'Did I not tell you to brush your hair?' You're sick of the sound of your own voice."
"And the supermarket," she says. "Hell. How many times can you say no before you cave in and give them a pinch on the arm?"
So, Deirdre sat down and started to write a stand-up show, nearly nine years after stepping away from it. To Deirdre's surprise, the writing flowed more easily than it had when she was younger.
"I had a lot to get off my chest," she says of her latest show, 1Dee, which is currently touring the country. When we meet, she's starting the tour in Tallaght within a matter of hours. I wonder at how she can even think straight to talk to me, and she admits that she's sick with nerves. The notebook containing the show is on the sofa beside her.
"I've never typed it before," she says of the show, flicking through the book which comprises typed pages, handwritten pages, loose, scribbled-on pages.
"Hooker," she reads out. "That's one heading. That was during my stay-at-home-mother stint. I was going so mental I thought I'd consider being a hooker, just to get me out of the house in the evenings."
"Long-term relationships," she lists off, flicking on a bit further. "Very fucking tricky. But don't feel sorry for him [her husband, Stephen], he gets half of every laugh I get."
Part of the nerves are about the fact that Deirdre's worried she will forget her lines. Experience tells her that after about 10 goes, she'll have it down pat, but she's not sure. "I hadn't had kids then," she says, "I didn't have baby brain."
"Having babies destroys your brain permanently," Deirdre says, "and then if you stay at home for any amount of time, that's just a disaster. Days and days of not interacting with adults - your language skills just disappear.
"Last year was probably the longest stint of stay-at-home I did," she explains, of the year when she nearly went bonkers. "Up to that, I always did something. Because I've always been self-employed, it's always been a month here, or a few months there, and then some time at home. So I've never had a full-time job, but when I had nothing happening, I nearly lost my mind.
"It's very hard being at home with kids," she adds. "They're fabulous, and in the show I say this. It's not that it's not rewarding. The love is off the scale; that's well documented. We all know about that. But what it does to your head, that's hard."
"They're out at school, and people would say, 'What do you do with all the free time?' and that drives me nuts," says Deirdre, with a shift in tempo that suggests someone getting into performing mode. You just know this is the defining mood of her show; the stuff that just flowed on to the page. "There's the cleaning," she says, "the endless laundry, the relentless dinners."
"My first 10 minutes [of 1Dee] is about the dinners. 'What'll we have for the dinner?'" she begins to riff. "'There's chicken in the fridge. How long is it there? Two days, maybe three. Oh Jesus, I'm sure it's fine; those best-before dates are only for insurance. Still, if in doubt, throw it out, no point poisoning the whole family. OK, so waste 12 quid and throw it in the bin. Pasta again. But I have to get some protein into Daniel. There's protein in cheese; that's grand.'"
A lot of Deirdre O'Kane's audience will relate to all of this. A lot of Deirdre O'Kane's audience on this tour will be women in and around her age, who were in their 20s and concerned with the stuff of one's 20s along with her, and who, now, know all about the relentlessness of daily dinner decisions and what to put in the bloody lunch boxes.
They will also relate to what she's trying to do with this show. It isn't just about making people laugh; it's about achieving that second or third wave of life experience. It's about getting out there again after the mummy break. And the hope that it was just a break, and that you haven't been broken by it.
Deirdre O'Kane did the 'young career woman' thing and did well at it. She was a successful stand-up comedian and, she says, in a world dominated by men, there's a killing to be made by any woman, precisely because they're in the minority. Then, as her profile grew, she found that she got more acting work, too. She was terrific in Paths to Freedom in 2000, and also in John Crowley's Intermission in 2003. Drogheda-born Deirdre has a knack for a certain kind of cutting, "ah, lads" Irish woman that touches a nerve with audiences.
She wonders if having a twin-track career of acting and comedy was a mistake, and whether she should have concentrated on making it in one or the other, but just choosing to have a life outside of work was what really caused a gear shift for her. She had kids and found her priorities shifted and her focus changed, and she makes no bones of the fact that motherhood probably took more of her energy and attention.
She was always professionally ambitious and moderately busy, but, as she portrays it, she wasn't forging ahead. She stopped stand-up when her daughter Holly was small, because she didn't want to be out in the evenings, and she worked as an actress probably six months of the year, doing some theatre and, latterly, starring in Chris O'Dowd's Moone Boy, not to mention her "passion project", the film Noble.
To most people, those years of Deirdre's read like a fine career, but for her they were a step back; they were years where the kids were the priority.
She wouldn't have had it any other way, Deirdre emphasises, but now it's time for a gear shift.
Also, it is time for Deirdre O'Kane and her family to move back to Dublin from London, where they have been living for the past nine years.
"Holly was one when we left and Daniel was born there," Deirdre says. "It has been a lovely nine years and it was no harm not to be here for the recession. We were affected by it, everyone was, but I did have people say, 'You're lucky not to be faced with it all the time.' And every time I came home, you could feel it, but not so much for the last few years. In the last few years I really thought, 'I could come back'."
The O'Kane-Bradley family settled in Chiswick, London, which Deirdre had discovered first when she went to London to gig and stayed with her friend from the comedy circuit, Dara O Briain, who lives there with his family. "They're just down the road, and they're family at this stage," Deirdre says. "And Chiswick is a lovely place. I tell people that there's no hardship living in Chiswick, apart from the expense."
"We had lovely primary-school years there," Deirdre says, explaining that the impending 11-Plus exams for Holly are part of the reason they are resettling in Dublin. The pressure and the grinds and the coaching are just not something she wants for her kids. So, in late spring, the whole family is moving back to Dublin, and the children will start school here in September. She's nervous, obviously, but happy with the decision, too. And she's determined to make the move the start of a change for her.
"I don't know how to make life easy for myself," Deirdre says. "I really think that. I do everything arseways, you know? Like, not doing stand-up when I went to London. Stupid. Getting back into it when I'm about to leave London. I don't think like a business person."
She concedes that life sometimes gets in the way of career timing, though. And that she's being hard on herself. After all, she had a one-year-old daughter when she moved to London and had another baby two years later. These aren't prime career-advancement years for most women.
"Maybe it's part of being female and not having the 'I must be the breadwinner' feeling," she adds. "Maybe that is no good for the killer instinct. But now that they're bigger, I just want to be out there and working again, I really do. But when they're small, they need you, and those years are short when they need you," Deirdre goes on. "And, you know, I give out about it, but I do not regret the years I took off to be with them. But my career has certainly suffered. The difference between me and the male comics is that they wouldn't even consider taking time off."
When Deirdre O'Kane thinks back to the start of her career in stand-up, she says it's like the way people reflect on their college years. She was 27 when she started - out of necessity, when she wasn't getting many acting roles - and while the likes of Dara O Briain, Tommy Tiernan and Dylan Moran were a few years ahead of her, they were her peers. And her pals.
"When you start out like that, it's like joining a gang, because you're all cutting your teeth together and it's great," she says. "It's great fun. Because you're all in it together and playing the clubs together and afterwards it's, 'How was it for you?' and this and that. But then, if you cross over doing stand-up in theatres, you're on you're own and it's not the gang any more. You see each other at Edinburgh or at festivals and you love that, but it's different."
It's like growing up, really, and, of course, it all shifts as some people grow bigger and more successful than others. And it's different if you're a woman, Deirdre says, there's no getting away from that.
Her great friend, Dara O Briain, has been the stand-out success of that gang, and, she says, it's more than well deserved. "He's very good at it," she says. "He has a big brain, he's very fast, and he worked his butt off. And I didn't. But men don't have the same need when they have kids to change path, to get off the track.
"But it's not just that the comedy business loses women when they have kids. There are far fewer women from the get-go. It's a very macho business. Why would anyone want to put themselves out there like that? Men may be more likely to put themselves in the way of public humiliation than women. Maybe."
In London, with two small kids and a working director husband, Deirdre did some theatre and some TV and then had long stints where she was at home. And she enjoyed it, so long as she knew that there was work coming down the track.
That was what preserved the sanity, she says, and she goes off on a riff again about how you need an awful lot of patience to be a parent and, in particular, to live in London. "I'm not patient," she says, "And it gets me into trouble over there. English people are awful patient. They made a film about it: The English Patient."
She goes off on a tangent about her ongoing war with the Sainsbury's car park, where they charge a £50 fine if you overstay your visit, and a tenner for a lost ticket. "I'm standing there telling them there's no way they're getting that out of me. There's no English person having that row. And you can't pull in anywhere. Nowhere! It's a very stressful way to live!"
Did she welcome her husband home from work on a film set or whatever with rants about Sainsbury's car park, I wonder. Did she hear herself and have moments where she thought, 'Jesus, I've become a very interesting person'?
"Yes and no," she says. "Because Steve gets it. Because he works in bursts too, and he's done his stints at home. I couldn't live with a man who came in from the office every evening and didn't get what it was like to manage kids and a house."
Her role in Moone Boy marked a career turning point for Deirdre. The making of the film Noble with Stephen was a major life-changing undertaking, however. Stephen wrote and directed it, while Deirdre starred, as the Dublin-born Christina Noble, who has worked with the street children in Vietnam for most of her adult life.
"Noble [which came out in 2014] took up five years of our lives, and it was a passion project and it was very intense," Deirdre said. "I'm so glad we did it, but it was so hard."
Deirdre and Stephen had worked together previously on the Irish comedy-zombie film Boy Eats Girl (2005), but Noble was different and it was her idea originally. "I did gigs for the Christina Noble Children's Foundation, that's how I knew about her," Deirdre explains. "So I used to tell Stephen about her. But on my 40th birthday, he said, 'What do you want to do?' And I said, 'I want to make a film about Christina Noble.' I hadn't even known I had that idea, but that was it.
"Making a film is even harder than stand-up," Deirdre says. "It's like sending a child into the world; it's so personal. You want it to do well so badly. You're incredibly vulnerable."
The film has done very well, she explains. It has been released in most countries and performed well; it's shown on Emirates airlines, and it was taken on by Amazon Prime in the States last month. They recommended it during the East Coast snowstorm last month and there was a huge surge in viewing and in positive reviews, she says.
"I didn't want it to be a small film, or an arthouse film, and we achieved that," Deirdre says. "It's performing really well and I'm really proud of it. And all I care about is that as many people as possible see it."
Shooting Noble in Vietnam was extraordinary, Deirdre says. The children came with her and Stephen and it was a terrific experience for them, if a roller coaster for their parents. "We ate, drank and slept the film, and the conditions were nearly impossible," Deirdre explains. "Stephen reminded me constantly that the wheels could come off at any minute and it could all be over."
But they did it and then they returned home, to normality. Well, Stephen "dropped his summer bags in the hall and went off to shoot 'cold' Noble in Liverpool", where the early Dublin part of Christina Noble's story was filmed, with Sarah Greene playing the "younger, better-looking model".
"I was bereft," says Deirdre. "Bereft."
Domhnall Gleeson, who was in Boy Eats Girl as a very young actor, asked her how she managed to come back down to earth after the Vietnam shoot. "I got up the next morning and dropped the kids to school and then went to the supermarket to do the big shop," Deirdre says she told him. "While I'm thinking, 'Em, is no one doing my make-up today?'
"That's the thing about being a working mother, there's still always a dinner to be made and school still starts at the same time and it doesn't matter a bit that you were just making a film."
Again, it's back to that perennial thing for working mothers. There's the job, where there's the validation of pay and some status in the adult world, and then there's motherhood, which is great and has its rewards, but little by way of validation and kudos.
The work of promoting Noble was far more intense than Deirdre had anticipated, and terrifying.
"I realised, too, that the highs and lows of the film business were going to kill me. What was happening was that we'd get a prize and then a rejection. Best film in Santa Barbara, but the next festival didn't want us at all. There was never a week when you could just celebrate. I had a very nice bottle of Champagne that I was given as a present and I was waiting a very long time for the special occasion I was keeping it for.
"I opened it last New Year's Eve. I couldn't look at it any longer. It was never going to be the right time."
The difficult part of the Noble comedown for Deirdre was also the professional lull that accompanied hitting her mid-40s. She didn't expect parts to roll in as result, she wasn't looking for it to have a knock-on effect on her career, but the silence seemed particularly loud when it came after the mania of making Noble.
"Is the phone hopping since? No. Is the phone ringing for Dee? No. Are you sad for me?" Deirdre asks, laughing heartily.
"It's probably early days for Noble. Amazon Prime will probably be where most people see it and it's coming out on Netflix this year. That will be interesting. The Coen brothers have always been notorious for seeing the oddest things and spotting someone and saying, 'That's a lovely performance. Let's give her a ring.' They were surely stuck in that snowstorm like everyone else," she says, laughing again. "In acting," Deirdre says, "you need that one bit of luck. You need, 'We have a role in Casualty that will have you working for the next five years. And, right now, I'd jump at that. But it doesn't exist, or not in Ireland anyway."
I say to Deirdre that I saw Intermission again recently and laughed as much the second time as the first at her performance in it. She has a way of capturing something in Irish women that no other comedic actress has and, by coming back here, she might find a way to tap into that again.
"Why could there not be a nice television series for me, in which I could play that woman, for the rest of my life?"
I suggest that she'll have to write it herself. And be like Tracey Ullman, I add.
"Yeah," says Deirdre O'Kane, "Tracey's back."
"And having made millions," I add.
"Hmm," says Deirdre O'Kane. "I'm an eejit; I've never learned how to make money.
"But I'm going to change that," she says with the resolve of someone set on switching her attitude and turning herself around.
"I am. I think. Well, I'm definitely going to try."
Deirdre O'Kane's '1Dee' show will tour nationwide until May 2016, taking in Dublin, Wicklow, Dundalk, Cork, Kildare, Wexford and Waterford. For dates and venues, see comedynight.ie
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Assisted by Ruby Stafford
Hair by Kim Delahunty, Sugar Cubed, Unit 1A Westbury Mall, Clarendon St, D2, tel: (01) 672-5750, or see sugarcubed.ie
Make-up by Paula Callan for CallanBerry, assisted by Michelle Field
Photographed at the Radisson Blu St Helen's Hotel, Stillorgan Road, D4, tel: (01) 218-6000, or see radissonblu.com
Because of all she does for you, bring your mother to the Radisson Blu St Helen's Hotel. The Mother's Day package includes overnight deluxe accommodation; Prosecco and chocolates on arrival; a four-course dinner in the award-winning Talavera restaurant; and a super buffet breakfast: price from €110 per person. Available from March 4
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