Sunday 22 October 2017

The new yummy mummy with a point to prove

She has the looks of a rom-com heroine, but Eva Birthistle has been cast in series of gritty roles, none more so than new RTE drama Amber

A shot from Amber, which will be shown on RTE One. Main photo: Hannah McKay/National pictures.
A shot from Amber, which will be shown on RTE One. Main photo: Hannah McKay/National pictures.
Eva Birthistle as Sarah
Eva Birthistle with Levi O’Sullivan, who plays Eamon Bailey, in Amber
Eva Birthistle in Amber

Julia Molony

My interview with Eva Birthistle is planned for mid-November, well in advance of the television show we are to talk about. But Eva is eight months pregnant, and it seems wise to meet before the baby arrives.

Several attempts to contact her go unanswered and it appears she's out of contact. Perhaps she's avoiding me. A week or so passes and finally, an explanation comes through -- Eva went into labour early and, understandably, has been indisposed. As excuses go, it's a pretty hard one to argue with.

Just four weeks later I'm stunned when I walk into a West London bar to meet her, and find her, having snapped back into her former doll-like form, gamely posing for our photographer like a true pro.

But it's not, she admits, always as easy as she makes it look. Last week, a film of hers premiered in London and she and her boyfriend ventured out together for the first time since their baby boy Jesse was born.

"It felt like somebody had ripped my heart out," she says later over herbal tea, eyes widening with surprise at the strength of her own response. "I had total separation anxiety. I understood that expression for the first time. He was in totally capable hands but it just felt like one of us should be there. So I went and did the press for the premiere and then jumped in a taxi -- I didn't even stay for the film."

Today, she admits to being sleep-deprived and frazzled, but looks like an archetypal West London yummy mummy, her blonde hair charmingly mussed, impeccably daytime-downtime dressed in blouse and jeans. "I'm slightly shattered but I think the euphoria is still kicking around," she says. "I'm running on that sort of adrenaline still where I'm really tired but the wonder of having this beautiful little thing gives me a slightly manic energy where I'm just so excited that that get's me through ... but yeah, slightly overtired, slightly over emotional. Don't prod too hard," she pleads with a laugh. "I'll just crumble."

The baby was a few weeks early, but she says it was a happy, rather than a stressful time. "I had a sense that everything would be OK, and it was," she says. "It was 35 weeks so it was kind of just on the cusp of it being fine. And anyway," she says, resigned to the trials of new parenthood, "there's always anxiety that goes along with it."

Eva is giddy and quick to laugh, most especially at herself. She's great fun -- with a brand of charm that's high-spirited, brittle and skittish.

I first interviewed her three years ago, at which time she was married to drummer Raife Burchell from the band Jetplane Landing. I assume that the baby is with the same man, and there is a moment of farce while she clears up the facts of her baby's paternity. "I was married, I'm divorced now," she explains. She doesn't want to dwell on it but says, laughing, "If you are going to mention it, mention that the father is my boyfriend and not my ex. Otherwise people will be so confused, wondering how this baby has two fathers."

Her current partner is an acupuncturist, which was handy while she was pregnant, and even more so, she says, post-pregnancy. "It's even more beneficial after. I'm very lucky," she says.

Blonde, blue-eyed and petite, Dublin-born Eva could easily have fallen into a well-defined typecasting mould after leaving her first acting job on Glenroe and making her name in the UK. Her first big break, sure enough, was as a romantic lead. But not exactly typical -- it was in the Ken Loach film Ae Fond Kiss. Her experience working with the acclaimed social-realist director turned out to be the closest Birthistle was going to get to being a rom-com star for a very long time. Instead, she steadily notched up a long succession of dark, gritty and emotionally demanding roles in psychological dramas and horror films. The fragile, slightly brittle quality she brings to her craft was channeled repeatedly into representations of trauma and victimhood. She's played a murdered prostitute in Five Daughters, a counter-terrorism officer suffering from post-traumatic stress in Waking The Dead, and now, in the new RTE drama Amber, a mother who sufferers every parents worst nightmare when her 14-year-old daughter disappears.

The last, which is due to air next weekend, sounds like Irish drama at its best -- part of a new wave that is contributing to this country's growing international reputation as a producer of high-quality TV drama. Directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan, the story unfolds over four episodes, each of which recount the story of the teenager's disappearance from a different point of view.

"Each time you have a whole new slant on the story and a whole new set of questions as to what might have happened to her," Eva explains. "It shifts the angle, is someone else guilty ... .? It's very cleverly written and it's very emotive. It's every parent's absolute nightmare. God knows we see enough cases of it in the press on such a regular basis that it's a very familiar story in that sense," she says. "I think it's a very true representation of what people go through."

Speaking about Amber, Eva sounds fiercely proud of the result, but the ordeal of maintaining such emotional strain over a long filming period was not without its costs. In fact, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. As soon as it finished, she put in a call to her agent, and said: "I can't cry now for the next few jobs, I'm done. I'm completely spent."

"Sort of off the back of this, off Amber, I decided, I think it's time to do some comedy," she adds.

The hardest part of it was sustaining the high emotion of such unthinkable stress over a prolonged period of time. "It was a four-parter -- three months of high emotion, lots of crying. I think trying to sustain that was what took its toll."

The next project she did was called Life's A Breeze, which one imagines, she must have jumped at upon hearing the title alone.

Despite appearances today, she's in no rush to get back into work.

"I'm not remotely in work mode," she says cheerfully. "I'm so unfocussed and I don't care. It's lovely to be able to go, I don't have to think about it, I don't have to care about it and I can just focus on my baby. How that shifts over the next few months, I don't know. If I feel up to doing a job I'll do a job and just play it by ear".

Despite being officially on maternity leave, she'll be pretty visible in 2014, with the release of The Day of The Flowers (finally, another rom com!) a high-jinks cross-cultural romp in which she stars opposite Cuban Ballet hunk Carlos Acosta, with whom she gets to dance salsa. "It was good fun being taught a few steps by him, being able to be really bad at it. We had a bit of a laugh. He's lovely," she says. There are plenty of women who would pay good money for that privilege, I suggest. "I know! My mother was furious," she says. "She'd pay the most... she's a massive fan."

Eva turned 40 this year, but still looks about 28, but with that milestone, and now motherhood under her belt, is more sanguine about dealing with the way her industry categorises women. The determination to immediately cast women over 30 as "mothers" was something she resented and, indeed, smartly resisted before. When she got cast as the mother of a 16-year-old a few years ago, she made them write it into the script that it was a teenage pregnancy -- as it would have to have been to be plausible in real life. It was a small but satisfying victory against the limited babe/milf casting dichotomy that dictates how women are represented on film.

"The fragile actress!" she says, poking fun at herself. "The old ego was going, 'I'm not ready for this guys, c'mon'. So they wrote in the teenage pregnancy line just to keep me happy and they kept it in."

"It's different now that I've had a baby. But a few years back I was like, I'm not ready for this. Are the public ready for this?"

The year before last, encouraged by a director she was working with, she started writing a feature film and is now developing the second draft as well as a television series. If that goes well, she hopes it will offer a greater degree of control over her professional life. "That lends itself much more to being at home -- which is great," she says, before catching herself. "I say this now, we'll see how it all pans out -- being able to write with a child. I have this romantic notion -- oh the baby's asleep, I'll be there typing away. Which probably isn't true at all -- the baby's asleep I'll be conked out on the sofa, or eating and staring at Jeremy Kyle."

  • Amber will air over four consecutive nights on RTE One, next Sunday at 9.35pm

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