Friday 18 August 2017

Natascha McElhone on the loss of her husband: 'Eight years on, it's still just me and the boys'

Following the sudden death of her husband, Natascha McElhone tells Richard Barber how she's dealt with family life and her career

Mother of three Natascha McElhone attends a red-carpet event
Mother of three Natascha McElhone attends a red-carpet event
Natascha McElhone with 'Designated Survivor' co-star Kiefer Sutherland
Happy: Natascha McElhone with her late husband, renowned plastic surgeon Martin Kelly

In 1995 Natascha McElhone, 24 and not long out of drama school, was spotted in a production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' by film director James Ivory, who cast her opposite Anthony Hopkins in 'Surviving Picasso'. A successful career on screens, both large and small, soon followed. The actress, born in England to Irish parents, married her childhood sweetheart, the eminent plastic surgeon Martin Kelly, and gave birth to their elder two sons. Theo is now 16; Otis 13. Hers appeared to be a charmed life.

And then tragedy struck. In May 2008, her "superfit" 42-year-old husband had just returned to their £2.5m London home when he was felled by a heart attack. Martin, feted for his work as a plastic surgeon rebuilding the faces of disfigured Third World children, could not be saved. Natascha, filming in LA, was five months' pregnant with their third child, a son called Rex, now eight.

She was, she says, "utterly devastated". She muddled through as best she could, partially dealing with her loss by writing letters to Martin in the two years following his death. Eventually, they were published in a book she called 'After You'. "It was important to me," she says, "to have my own narrative of what happened to counter some of the inaccurate things written by people who didn't know him. But I've never looked at it again. I think I'd wince if I did - which isn't to say there's any remorse or regret about writing (it). It also seems to have helped a few other people, and that is obviously an added bonus."

Natascha's latest film role is in 'London Town', set against the backdrop of punk band The Clash's popularity in the late 70s. She plays irresponsible Sandrine, a mother who abandons her two children and husband and moves into a squat with her grungy boyfriend. Our own Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Joe Strummer.

Natascha McElhone with 'Designated Survivor' co-star Kiefer Sutherland
Natascha McElhone with 'Designated Survivor' co-star Kiefer Sutherland

"It's the polar opposite of my life," she says, "but that was one of the reasons I liked it. I love playing against type." She finds Sandrine's behaviour almost incomprehensible. "Motherhood means you become the frame, not the picture," she says, simply.

Modern parenting has changed out of all recognition, Natascha believes. Her Irish mother, Noreen Taylor, was a rock journalist. "The idea that she'd be interested in what I or my brother, Damon, were doing didn't really occur to her. I don't blame her. She was a perfectly good mother. But there wasn't the social pressure back then to overly involve yourself with your children.

"These days, it's all about helicopter parenting, hovering above your children from dawn to dusk. Back then, children lived parallel lives to their parents."

Natascha's parents separated when she was two. Noreen moved with the children to Brighton and later married journalist and media commentator Roy Greenslade. "I love my stepfather," she says. "He and my blood father, Michael, were of equal status in my life. Roy was incredibly engaging and enthusiastic and playful, like a kid in many ways." Michael, deputy editor of the 'Manchester Daily Mirror', died a couple of years ago. He was an alcoholic. It was booze, says Natascha, that, she believes, induced the Alzheimer's in his 50s which subsequently killed him.

"It was a very gradual process but, for at least the last 10 years of his life, he had no idea who I was. I'd look at him and think: 'You've got wet brain.'

"He'd been very loving, though, and he provided for us financially. He adored me and Damon and the two sons he had with his Swedish second wife. But he lost control of his life. He was blameless in that alcoholism is an illness, although you'd have to say that Roy saved the day, completely."

Happy: Natascha McElhone with her late husband, renowned plastic surgeon Martin Kelly
Happy: Natascha McElhone with her late husband, renowned plastic surgeon Martin Kelly

Natascha is a good actress, with a distinctive, angular beauty, but she cannot have foreseen her impressive career. She says of her role in 1996's 'Surviving Picasso': "I was all of 26; an absurd opportunity and gift starring opposite Anthony Hopkins, one of my drama school icons." She was later in a huge hit, 'The Truman Show', with Jim Carrey ("and who knew how prophetic that film was going to be?"); 'Ronin' with the "drily witty" Robert De Niro; and 'Solaris' with George Clooney. "It's no accident these guys are where they are. They're magnetic, charismatic people."

She only accepted a leading role in the 2007 TV series 'Californication', with David Duchovny, because it was shot over three months in the summer in LA so she could take her children with her. In the end, she and her sons returned to California for seven summers to film each successive series. For the other nine months of the year, she was back in the UK, "doing school drop-offs, pick-ups, lunch boxes, homework, all the usual domestic things".

It looks like it's a pattern that's going to repeat - this time in Toronto - with her new hit TV series 'Designated Survivor', in which she plays the First Lady opposite Kiefer Sutherland, after a bomb takes out the president and most of the cabinet. It's already pulling in 20 million viewers in the US, a further 22 episodes have been ordered and it's available here on the streaming service Netflix.

There has been no significant man in her life since she lost Martin. "But the truth is that I probably wouldn't talk about it even if there were. At the moment, though, it's just me and the boys. But yes, that could change, absolutely. I'm lucky. I'm good at finding happiness. I look forward with hope."

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