Sunday 4 December 2016

'You have to watch yourself in LA, my first years there were pretty dark' - Caroline Morahan

Caroline Morahan tells our reporter about her life in LA, her anxiety about being accepted by other actors, her late brother James and how she feels more deeply than most people

Published 05/09/2016 | 02:30

Caroline Morahan is back in Ireland from LA to talk about a new TV comedy she is starring in. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Caroline Morahan is back in Ireland from LA to talk about a new TV comedy she is starring in. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Caroline Morahan as Miss Harcastle in ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ in 2014

Jack Kerouac wrote in On The Road: "LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities. LA is a jungle." It is the same jungle that Caroline Morahan made home in September 2009. She left behind a TV career in Ireland to chase her dream of being an actress in La La Land.

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So how does she stop herself from being chewed up and spat out in Los Angeles?

"Friends. I have some really wonderful friends that I met over there from all over," says Caroline. "Some really good Irish friends. Some international. And I have some really good actor friends and we're going through it together. So if I'm trying to deal with getting very close to a part or something went wrong, or whatever, I have a community of people." Number One, she says, is, of course, her husband, Daithi O Caoimh. "God love him."

I ask her to explain the dynamic of their relationship. Are they opposites? Is Caroline anxious and over-analytical and Daithi imperturbable, unruffled?

"I certainly am anxious and over-analytical and I have to go slap myself around the face. He is more even keeled, for sure."

So, is he calming her down all the time? And she riling him up all the time? Do they meet in the middle?

"I don't think I rile him up all the time!" she says of the man she married in Tuscany in 2012 in a guna by Kathy de Stafford. "He is good at just cooling the jets on me. My sister [Olivia] was always that for me."

"He has a hugely grounding influence on me," she explains. "And also one of the reasons that I fell in love with him in the beginning, he is not bothered by any of the constellation of nonsense that goes on. LA is a very intoxicating and toxic city and he isn't bothered by it all."

"Before I met him" - Caroline met Daithi at a mutual friend's wedding nine years ago in Ireland - "I knew I wanted a complete change. I knew I wanted to do something creative. I didn't know what I wanted to do.

"I was thinking abut going to Paris and writing and learning French. I literally just wanted a creative outlet.

"At this point I had done nearly six years of presenting Off The Rails and I wanted a change, a creative outlet."

The corollary of that would be that she didn't find the experience of working on Off The Rails creative...

Caroline Morahan as Miss Harcastle in ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ in 2014
Caroline Morahan as Miss Harcastle in ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ in 2014

"I loved working on Off The Rails and I loved all the people on the show but that final year," she says, meaning 2007. "I felt it was a bit repetitive. I felt it was time to call time on it. The direction the show was going - I didn't like it."

Was it a crisis?

"I was coming to a crossroads more than a crisis. It wasn't, 'Oh God - I'm miserable."

In the midst of all this, Caroline had been "quietly" working with an acting coach Conal Kearney. Ironically after she got a part in I, Keano as Surfia (loosely based on Gillian Quinn) in 2007, Caroline felt suddenly that she "needed to be acting".

"The seed was planted. And I remembered all I had enjoyed about it when I was little." Caroline had acted in RTE's Fair City when she was 15.

"I met Daithi right as I was going through my 'I need to do something different' phase," Caroline says, adding that he had just moved back from America when they started dating. He said he was going over to LA for a long weekend for the premiere of a friend's film and invited Caroline to join him. And while they were in Hollywood, Caroline thought, this is where she could act "and not be judged as 'yer wan off the telly'. Because I wanted to go back into training."

She suggested moving there permanently to Daithi, "not meaning it, but meaning it." Six months later, they moved to Tinsel Town. Caroline and Daithi had nothing lined up when they made the big move. "It was ludicrous, completely bananas. We had nothing organised. I didn't have a visa. I didn't have a job. I didn't have a place to stay. But it has all worked out.

"It has taken a long time to get established in LA. I would hear people saying, 'I'm going over for three months.' I would be like, 'Three months? For what? To get a tan?' But on the flip side, I've had friends who have booked their first audition and got something that would make a difference. So everybody's path is different."

Caroline's path was, she says, certainly one of "labour and toil. Going over there, there was so much I had to learn in terms of how the whole system works, how you get to be a working actor."

Didn't Caroline put more pressure on herself by popping up in various media articles proclaiming how great she was doing in LA?

"Oh my God! I didn't want anyone to know I was in LA," she says, adding that she thinks she "punished myself a bit, like 'I need to be just in LA, I need not to go home at all.' I had that mindset. Then I started seeing other people who work in different areas of the arts and I realised that the world is a village and people are dipping in and out and doing all kinds of things."

Her role in She Stoops to Conquer in late 2014 at The Abbey was, she says, was one of her proudest moments in her career. It was part of the Abbey's 110th anniversary celebrations and "to be on that stage at that time in that place was a huge moment for me."

But did the demons inside her head ever tell her - 'You're yer wan off the telly'?

Caroline Morahan
Caroline Morahan

"I've to spend a lot of time unplugging my mind from all of those kind of thoughts," she replies. "And being an actor makes it all the worse because you've to get to such a vulnerable state for your work and for your auditions. You have to do the dance with all those different thoughts - and then try to develop this rhinoceros skin. But I am not at all uncomfortable about the TV persona and all that side of things."

What was she uncomfortable about then?

"I was uncomfortable about feeling that the people I really admire - actors, producers, directors, playwrights - wouldn't accept me as an actress. That was a big issue for me: they are going to think I don't have what it takes, that I am someone who thinks I can just walk into this. That was my own hang-up. The first few years in LA were pretty dark when I look back on them now."

Since moving to LA, Irish actress Caroline Morahan has adopted a super natural look and rarely wears makeup anymore.
Since moving to LA, Irish actress Caroline Morahan has adopted a super natural look and rarely wears makeup anymore.

I ask her to explain the darkness. "I didn't know what was going on. There were so many uncertainties - and there still are, career-wise. I didn't know what's coming and what's going on but I had the added thing of not knowing if I was doing the right thing. I think so now, because when I get to work it is so gratifying and hugely rewarding. This past 18 months have been a big breakthrough for me," she says referring to her role as Queen Elinor in ABC's Once Upon A Time.

"That has changed a few things for me. It finally feels like, 'Oh, things are happening at last.'"

Did Caroline ever feel she was banging her head off the creative brick wall so often that she was tempted to move back to Ireland?

"No, I haven't gone: 'Oh, I need to come back, but I certainly would have a big emotional breakdown every so often where I am just going, 'What am I doing?' But I think that's the artist's way. I like things to be easy and comfortable so I don't know why I have chosen to drive myself demented all the time."

Asked about the difference between the inhabitants of Dublin, her home town, and LA, Caroline says: "The Irish are such an apologetic people. That's not the way things are done in LA. People are so upfront. They expect their voices to be heard."

Caroline explains that she was in a restaurant in Dublin with her sister when a waitress "kept forgetting to bring milk for my niece. So I was like: 'Excuse me?' To my sister's ears I was shouting across the restaurant. To me, I was just going, 'Excuse me?' I suppose in Dublin you go without milk rather than wave at someone."

Caroline has just flown into Dublin from the set of a film in Florida. In the psychological thriller Mr Thursday, she plays Dr Siobhan Maglior, an Irish psychiatrist on the hunt for a serial killer in a town in Iowa. "I'm enlisted by the lead detectives to help the profiling. Some of the stuff is pretty dark."

"There were a lot of culty things going on in the plot. And I had a miraculous medal in my handbag. I was looking at it all the time, just in case. I didn't want to invite stuff in. I have a hyperactive imagination. I am the person who wakes up and sees things. I can't watch The Walking Dead because the walking dead will be in my bedroom."

She wasn't always like that. When they were younger, Caroline and her big sister Olivia used to go to the local video shop in Glasnevin and rent "these mad horror movies to watch at home". Caroline's home life in LA with husband Daithi, who is in "technology software", seems intriguing to say the least. "He's incredibly understanding. I don't know where I got him. Because he understands. He gets me. He understands the process." By this she means Daithi O Caoimh understands the complex process of acting and the business that goes with it - not the process of getting Caroline Morahan (which is a complex process in itself.)

"He is actually an amazing director. I would tape a lot of different things and sometimes if it is on the fly and they need it in the evening in New York and I can't get my team in place, he has on occasion directed stuff for me," she says.

"And I have been amazed at what he observes and how he brings things out. He'll see a little nuance in the scene where I may have missed out an opportunity to bring in a different colour."

Caroline is back in Dublin to talk up a new six-part bilingual comedy Fir Bolg that launches in November on TG4. The storyline is about a trad Celtic rock band, "and I am the wife of the lead singer played by Sean McGinley." At the height of their fame the band had a very acrimonious split. They come back together when one of the founding members, played by Patrick Bergin, dies.

"He has asked in memoriam that they play one final show for him. They come back together to respect his wishes. So craic agus ceol ensues, says Caroline... "and a few scraps". She says of her character: "on first looks, you would imagine she is not a very likeable person."

Her opening scene in Fir Bolg is in a leopardskin coat, insane heels, designer handbag and giant shades - "at a funeral."

"It is a bit much to turn up at someone's funeral like that. All the eyes are on her. But she loves her husband dearly and you can see it is real. There is a lovely tenderness between them, but he has broken her heart a couple of times."

Has Caroline had her heart broken? "My first heartbreak was when I was 12 and I realised Morten Harket [lead singer of 1980s synth-pop trio A-ha] was Norwegian and I didn't speak Norwegian and we would never be together," laughs Caroline.

In terms of actual heartbreak by non-pop stars, Caroline says, "Oh yeah, but thankfully, not for a long time. I feel things more than most. My extremes of happiness and sadness are. . . it is just the person I am. I am just a deeply emotional person, which is good for what I do in terms of acting - I can connect with things quickly and I can feel other people's viewpoints quicker."

For a self-confessed deeply emotional person, LA can be a soulless place even at the best of times.

"Oh, extremely. You have to really watch yourself in LA. You have to really bolster up and make sure your head is on the right way round, because it is a very unreal place. There are a lot of people chasing coat-tails."

My theory about Caroline Morahan's sensitivity is that it comes largely from the effect the death of her little brother James had on her when he was just six years of age.

Born on July 24, 1982, with polycystic kidneys, he died of organ failure on October 8, 1988, at home with his family. In 1986, James's parents Tina and Jim were in a panic because he had been brought in for dialysis in Temple Street -"and it didn't work for him. He was basically looking at his days running out if he didn't get a transplant." His mother Tina drove to RTE in Montrose with James and Caroline's granny May Dunne and told the woman at reception that she simply had to speak to the researchers on Gay Byrne's show. When one appeared, Ms Morahan, with James in her arms, said: "This is my son; and going on television or radio to make a plea for an organ donor is his only chance".

The next day James's mammy was on Uncle Gaybo's radio show, appealing for a donor for James. Two weeks later she was on The Late Late Show, appealing again for a donor. When a suitable donor finally came through, the Morahan family abruptly moved to England. Caroline, then nine, was taken out of St Bridget's in Glasnevin and put in St Hugh's, a mixed school in Surrey. She and her big sister Olivia stayed with their cousins, the Dunnes, in Chobham in Surrey. Caroline told me in 2008: "He was always smiling. He was a lovely little fella."

"I think about him all the time," she says now. "I have a photo of him beside my bed. I thank him all the time, when I get the part. Yeah," she says, suddenly lost in her thoughts, "I think about James all the time."

I ask her how his death affected her life in a positive way. "I appreciate things. I live in the moment more. That's definitely something that would be his influence. I don't take my health for granted because of having a sick brother."

So, does her sensitivity come from her experience of James's death? She shakes her head. "No. I was born like that. I think you come into the world like that. In terms of being sensitive, that's just who I am."

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