Exclusive: Victoria Smurfit opens up about the toughest year of her life
After the toughest 12 months of her life, Victoria Smurfit lets loose for an exclusive Weekend photoshoot, and talks about divorce, dating and building a lasting career in Hollywood. Photography by Barry McCall
'I think there's a perception that I live a fairy princess life and that everything is just easy, plain sailing because of my past, my present," Victoria Smurfit says.
Certainly, from a distance it does seem as though the 42-year-old lives something of a charmed life. Born into one of Ireland's most wealthy families, she enjoyed a privileged upbringing before pursuing an acting career. Screen success on this side of the pond saw her up-sticks for Los Angeles, where she landed a role in a major TV series and walked the red carpet at glittering events such as the Golden Globes.
Away from the public gaze, however, the fairytale was crumbling. In a statement released exclusively to the Irish Independent in March of this year, Victoria announced that she and husband Doug Baxter were filing for divorce. "For 15 years we have been the best of friends and we continue to be, not only for ourselves but for our family," a statement issued by the couple read. "We have always been a tight-knit family unit and we are both committed to maintaining that going forward."
Now, a year since Victoria Smurfit's marriage came to an end - a period which she describes as "the Montezuma's revenge" of a year - the mother-of-three says that she has taken solace from her friends and family.
"It's really interesting when there's a crisis in your life, which everyone has at some level, it's amazing how the people surround you and hold you," Victoria says, over a pot of Barry's tea and some Tayto crisps, when we meet in Santa Monica. She's just returned to LA after a visit home where she played model for Weekend's fashion shoot in the wilds of Wicklow. With her hair blowing in her face and clad in rustic tweeds, the stunning photos capture a whole new side of 'princess' Victoria Smurfit.
"I always find it surprising who comes to hold you and says 'I hear you. I've got you. I've got you.' Those people have created a foundation of my new world," she continues. "I've been really grateful for that. I don't know if it's an Irish thing, but sometimes when someone is in a crisis, you don't want to mention it. A bit like the way women wouldn't mention the word 'cancer'," she says with a dramatic whisper.
"What's been fascinating has been the incredible women in my life - and some of the men - who've gone: 'I heard you're in trouble, I heard you're struggling. I've got you.' My friends have been so fantastic, I haven't had to spend any major money on therapy - and in this city, that's pretty extraordinary."
Victoria says that the legal terms of her divorce settlement mean that she cannot discuss the break-up at length, but adds that she is still on good terms with her ex. She and Waterford-born advertising executive Doug first met at an awards ceremony in London. They were married in July 2000 in Surrey, near to the family lodge where Victoria spent her teenage years. She and Doug have three children together; Evie Dorothy (10), Ridley Belle (8), and six-year-old Flynn Alexander.
"It's been Montezuma's revenge of the life cycle," she says of the past year. "But I'm now at a point where it's settling. It settled really quickly. As a family, we've all dealt with it head on and when I look at some other people, I think 'that's really healthy'. Doug and I are really good pals and someone said to me the other day, 'Are you trying to out-Gwynnie Gwynnie and Chris?'"
Of course, just like that other famous 'consciously uncoupled' duo, there's a renewed public interest in Victoria's love life. Being single anywhere in your 40s can be little fun, but in LA - a city that's practically a permanent beauty contest - it can be especially so. However, Victoria says that there are plusses too.
"I think if a husband and wife who have kids are going to split, I think there's a great blessing to being in Los Angeles, where it's much more commonplace than if we were still in Ranelagh, where the kids might feel like they were the only kids in the class. My kids go to school where some of the other kids have two dads, or two mums, some are super-blended families, some of their friends' parents don't speak to each other, some do. There's a base level of normalcy here with what is an incredibly traumatic amount of change. I think if we were back in Dublin they would feel more like a sore thumb in their classroom. So, for that I'm really grateful and I think Doug is too. It's normal. We have a day every week where we all get together as a family. They have that as a bonding thing and that's how we roll as a family."
Dating is something that she has yet to face, but she's positive about the prospect. "I'll be casting off my mourning shawl and I'm looking forward to being taken out on a date and wined and dined. No one chooses to be 42 and single anywhere, particularly in LA. I've had some hilarious encounters! I don't feel like I have to leave some five-year gap before I start dating someone. Life is short and I think if you find someone who makes you laugh and is kind to you and good to you, why not? I hope for Doug, great fun and loveliness. If any of us brings anyone in, it's kids first."
Would she date a fellow actor? "Actors wouldn't be my first choice of person to go out to dinner with. I come from a business family and I kind of like the solidity of that and someone back stage or in a different career. It works beautifully for many people I know, but I don't think I could handle dating an actor. Maybe there's some fabulous actor out there who could handle me, but I don't see that in the future.
"There have been a few very comic approaches and I always work on the basis that if I could be their daughter, I probably should step away. I think that's fair. It's perfectly normal here in LA, but I'm not from LA. I just need to be made laugh, that's about it. That's genuinely just it. Who knows what's coming down the track for any of us?
"Maybe I'll be a Muslim or a Pegan this time next year. It's the latest thing. Being a vegan is not good enough. You have to be a Paleo vegan, which means I think that you live off berries and nuts and are insufferable because you're starving!"
Whatever the established perception of 'posh girl' Victoria, in person she's warm and self-effacing - always the first to make fun of herself. Her lack of self importance is pleasantly at odds with what one might expect of a scion of the Smurfit family. Her grandfather Jefferson began the family fortunes with his eponymous box-making company, which under the direction of his sons became global heavyweight Smurfit Kappa Group. In 2002, the company was sold to a private equity firm. This year's Sunday Independent Rich List put her father Dermot's wealth at €78million, while her uncle Michael commands a fortune of €290million.
Victoria has been reading her uncle's autobiography, A Life Worth Living, recently and feeling great pride and gratitude for the family she comes from. "When I was on the plane back home the other day, I picked up Uncle Michael's book and I started bawling my eyes out at all these expressions we had growing up like: 'Opportunities come to pass, not to pause.'
"I hadn't realised his dad had taught him that and here am I teaching that to my children. It's Genesis. Being able to hear Michael's voice in his writing is really powerful. It's really inspiring and terrifying because how do you live up to these extraordinary people in your family? They are extraordinarily capable and smart providers whom I admire enormously. I was reading that and laughing and crying on the flight. They must have thought they had a mad one in seat 14C!"
Victoria has previously said that, although her upbringing in Dalkey and Surrey boasted many advantages, her father expected her and her brother Dermot Jnr to earn their own keep. Her parents divorced when she was still at school and Victoria found her escape - and eventually her career - in acting.
From an early role in Ballykissangel, she landed small parts in movies such as The Beach and About a Boy. She made her name in the UK playing DCI Roisin Connor in the long-running TV adaptation of Lynda LaPlante's Trial & Retribution. After her move to LA in 2011, Victoria was cast alongside Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in big-budget series Dracula, before landing the role of Cruella De Vil in the hugely popular fantasy series Once Upon A Time.
Most recently, she has produced an independent movie and is starring in the newly-released bloody thriller Bait, which was written by and co-stars one of her closest friends, Joanne Mitchell, who posed with Victoria for our shoot. The gritty thriller - which sees Victoria play a character far from her upper-class stereotype - is directed by Joanne's husband Dominic Brunt. The two women met and lived together while studying at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and as well as working together on this movie have also co-written a TV series, Box, set in a women's boxing gym in New York.
"I was basically Jo's husband until Dominic came along," Victoria laughs. "I nailed the pictures to the wall, I repaired things. When she was in a play that finished at midnight, I'd go to the backstage door to pick her up. There was a dodgy night club across the road and I was the heavy who'd go and pick her up. She's tiny but fierce and I felt very protective of her, because I'm strapping. I was her first husband and watched her fall madly in love with Dominic and they've been together ever since.
"What was great being on set for Bait was the fact that we know each other so well and we have a shorthand. We were straight back to being 21 and a bit greasy and aggressive. We were based at her house and our kids were running around. Every now and again, Jo and I would have a little scrap, which is what we do, but we have each other's backs in the most profound way."
Hollywood is notoriously horrible to actresses over 35, but in true Smurfit spirit Victoria is adapting to writing, producing and hopefully directing, to keep the opportunities flowing.
"Being a hyphenate is crucial these days. If I want to be pretentious I can say, 'I'm an actress-writer-producer, darling'. We're hyphenates and thank God for it. The luxury of just being an actor is gone with the internet, You Tube, Vimeo, with such a vast amount of places to put your work.
"For some projects you do, you're not paid a fortune, it's not going to keep you forever, so you need to keep the wheels turning. If you've got a creative side you need to work that too. I enjoy writing, I enjoy producing and you get to the point where you say: 'Actually I do know a lot about this business. I've been around it long enough.' I always set out to be a working actor, not a star. Stars burn out fast. I want to be a Helen Mirren or a Maggie Smith, that's my goal - keep it going. Keep all the fabulosity to the screen and in real life, it's graft."
The past 12 months have required plenty of graft from Victoria on both the professional and personal levels. Looking back, she says that she would have one simple message to give her shell-shocked self a year ago.
"It'll be alright and this too shall pass. Those words 'this too shall pass' have been incredible and very simple. Whether you're at the top of the mountain with a great view or whether you're down in a puddle with your nose in the mud: this too shall pass.
"I've been working a lot and going to these Comic Cons where the fans are incredibly warm. Your ego if you let it could be monstrous - and this too shall pass. Now I'm back in LA, scrabbling around for my next job and that too shall pass. They are just words that ring through me an awful lot. I know if I'm down I can only go up and if I'm up, honey the only place from here is down. I'm very aware of the ebb and flow of how life rolls. That, and wine, are my tools. I won't lie. This too shall pass and we'll open another!"
'Bait' opens in cinemas in November