'People think I'm too busy or too expensive but I'm actually desperate to work'
Actress Dervla Kirwan on her battle with low self-esteem and her struggle to find jobs – especially in Ireland. By Stephen Milton
Dervla Kirwan has found herself in a quandary. Her high-profile successes, notably her roles as Assumpta in Ballykissangel, and Phoebe in Goodnight Sweetheart, have resulted in a skewed perception of the actress's price and accessibility.
She's considered expensive and busy, yet she's actually struggling for employment.
"People don't seem to realise that I want to work," the Dubliner says in those unmistakable purring vowels. "They think I'm unavailable and too expensive, which is simply not the case because I'm up there with my gloves, punching all the time, trying to find the work.
"It's funny, we build up a profile of someone as untouchable and for me that couldn't be further from the truth."
What's proven most infuriating for the decidedly genial star, who's currently appearing on London's West End in a sell-out run of Conor McPherson's The Weir, is the inability to land jobs on her own home shores.
"When I did the Neil Jordan film, Ondine, I flew myself over and auditioned for Neil and thankfully he gave me the lovely part.
"That is how desperate I am to work in Irish film. But I don't know, it's not happening because there's this perception of me that I'm too busy.
"I'll go wherever the really great scripts are. I've been doing this since I was 15. It's a long time and I can't give up now. I won't give up."
Pragmatic and admirably honest, the mother of two, married to Spooks actor Rupert Penry-Jones, abandoned the cushy environs of the ecumenical soap nearly 20 years ago and, to the untrained eye, found her feet as one of UK TV's more in-demand faces.
However, this success has been too 'stop and start' for Dervla, who somewhat regrets the opportunity to follow in the wake of her Ballyk co-star Colin Farrell and head for the US.
"I considered it [when I left Ballykissangel], but I really didn't fit in. I think I had such low self-esteem, and that's something I've suffered from, that I never felt that I could fit in there.
"If I had a bit more courage when I was 16, I should have gone to America [instead of London] but that seemed impossible. We weren't a wealthy family, we didn't have the funds. And there are loads of reasons why your life takes certain turns and twists.
"But if you look at the writing that has come out of American television recently, it's very exciting, brave and courageous. British TV is so safe and mundane at the moment. There's such a paucity over here for women."
Having previously taken the lead in a string of frustratingly forgettable fare, including Material Girl for the BBC and Injustice alongside James Purefoy for ITV, Dervla is currently shining in a critically acclaimed production of The Weir.
She dominates proceedings as Valerie, the mysterious Dubliner blow-in whose recount of unspeakable tragedy haunts the patrons of a local pub in rural Ireland, played with style and ease by Peter MacDonald, Risteard Cooper and Brian Cox.
Josie Rourke's intensely nuanced production – which is being performed in London's Wyndham Theatre in the West End's – has been a critical and commercial home run with tickets like gold dust.
"It's an Irish play but has such an international appeal because it resonates with all of us," she explains. "It's dealing with grief, loss, loneliness, isolation, choices that people make early on in life that they can't fix or mend . . . everyone can relate to that.
"I've never experienced being in such a commercially successful show. Normally it's failure and wishy, washy reviews and you don't know where you stand, but it's been unanimously acclaimed. It's a golden moment for the Irish in the West End. You've got Roddy Doyle's Commitments down the road. The Cripple of Inishmaan just finished up an amazing run. It's incredibly heartening."
While Dervla (42) endures a demanding eight shows a week schedule while juggling daughter Florence (nine) and son Peter (seven), husband Penry-Jones is currently away shooting Silk for the BBC.
One wonders if professional jealousies prove troublesome in a seven-year marriage between two actors.
"I think that's inevitable," she confesses. "I think most marriages are competitive. Each one has its competitive side but you have to keep your ego firmly in control and your insecurities well away from that because this is not what life is about.
"Life is the bigger picture. This is one small part. Yes, it's important, career's important, but it's not what makes up an entire existence. For me, I want a real life experience."
THE WEIR IS AT LONDON'S WYNDHAM THEATRE UNTIL APRIL 19