This year, Dubliner Niamh McCormack stars in three projects, but her teenage years were a trial by fire. Having been targeted by bullies, and then lost in the ‘toxic’ modelling industry, she has found refuge and success in her first love, acting
‘Peaceful,” is actor Niamh McCormack’s answer when I ask her how things are. “It’s like that downtime between things, when everything goes really quiet and you nearly forget you’ve done them.”
I hope she’s enjoying it, because it can’t last long.
In 2023, she has three big projects all coming to various screens. There’s The Magic Flute, a film that blends a classic boarding-school tale with Mozart’s masterpiece, in which Niamh plays friend and love interest, Sophie. There’s a role in TV series Willow, the Disney+ remake of the beloved 1980s fantasy film. And a supporting lead role in a new Netflix drama series aimed at teenagers, The F**k-It Bucket, which Niamh describes as Skins meets Euphoria meets Sex Education.
She has also appeared in The Witcher and Dungeons & Dragons. For a 21-year-old, it’s been a busy few years, especially given that Covid-19 landed just a few months after she finished drama school.
How does she find the stop-start nature of the industry, whereby you are suddenly back promoting something you have finished, perhaps, a year ago?
“You’re at such a different part of your life a year later, but I look at it like you’re celebrating what you’ve done. It really warmed my heart to come back and promote The Magic Flute. My first film. I’ll never forget how it felt to have my own trailer, the first time someone brought me coffee. I hope never to forget that.”
She never wants to forget, she clarifies, because she also gets that it’s not typical. “I think how people treat an actor on set — they baby them a lot. They’re always going to laugh at your jokes, make sure you’re warm,” she laughs. “Then you go into the real world and realise, this is not normal. It can really get in people’s head. You can see that.”
Having worked alongside a few Hollywood A-listers at this stage, she’s seen what happens when people do ‘forget’.
“They’re in their own bloody world. I think they’re just detached from the reality. I’m very much like, ‘I’m never going to be like that’. Being nice is just one of those things that people gravitate towards.”
We’re chatting at the end of Niamh’s photoshoot, bundled up in coats on a cold day in a chilly studio. Her mother, make-up artist and entrepreneur Annie Gribbin, comes in and out, occasionally adding detail to the story Niamh tells, which starts with bullying at school, through a detour into modelling — on which she is fascinating (in a terrifying way) — and ends triumphant.
Annie’s pride in her daughter — Niamh is an only child, and her parents were not together from the time she was very young — is evident. As Niamh says herself, she gets cast in a lot of bad-ass roles — “very strong-minded”.
Why does she think this is? “It could be a look” — she’s 5ft 10in — “but I think it’s the choices you make. I think I bring an element of my own kookiness.”
This, from someone who for her end-of-year drama showcase chose a scene from a Ted Bundy movie, in which she plays his wife, being told for the first time that he is after all a vicious serial killer, makes sense.
Even so, she says, she has had to learn to be strong in setting her boundaries also, in an industry notorious for pushing — or outright disrespecting — these.
“When you start off in the industry, you’re always wanting to please everyone. You’ve been through auditions, against probably a hundred girls for this part — you don’t want to walk on there and cause a scene. ‘You’ll never work again’ — that’s what people tell you! Along with, ‘A thousand girls would kill for this job’. So you just want to be easy to work with and do a good job, because that’s how you’re going to get another job — people talk. I went through an experience. I did something that I wasn’t too comfortable doing, and I regretted not speaking up afterwards.”
What was the experience? “It wasn’t crazy,” she clarifies. An intimacy scene? “Yes, something like that, and I did it, and I thought about it a few months later and thought, ‘I didn’t have to do that… I was being a people-pleaser’.
“As an actor, as a woman — you’re always liable to that! But, that made me become more confident in saying ‘no.’ It taught me to put my foot down, so I’m glad it happened, because if that ever happened again, I’ll be 100pc sure to say no.”
This theme — of being glad for the things that happened, even when those things were hard — is something she returns to, specifically in the context of the bullying she went through at school, and then modelling.
Niamh came to a love of acting very young. “I don’t know if I ever woke up one day and went, ‘I want to be an actor’. I think it was always ingrained in my psyche from when I was young. I was Mary in a nativity play in junior infants. From then on, I was always doing weekend drama courses; putting on shows for my mum; playing with my Barbies and making up elaborate back-stories. As I got older, I never knew how it would progress into a career — it was just a love and a passion — but I never wavered. I always knew I was going to do it.”
Partly, acting may have been a refuge from school, which was hard. “I had a really awful time in school. I just wasn’t as academic as the other kids, I was always more creative. And In Ireland, there’s just that one school way. And so I struggled. I have dyslexia, I find numbers really challenging. And then they added letters in with the numbers — algebra — and I was like, ‘Oh God, this is tragic’,” she laughs.
I’m sure it wasn’t funny at the time. “I was very lost in school,” she agrees. “Acting was something where I felt I was able to express myself freely.”
In fact, Niamh went to several different schools, including to a boarding school for a year. Each time, she found herself being bullied. “I moved schools a lot because of bullying,” she says.
But it’s not something she brings up right away. In fact, it’s nearly at the end of our conversation that she reveals anything about the extent of it. “I got quite picked on when I was younger,” she says.
Her mother is far more blunt. “She got seriously bullied.”
The bullying was in person and — as tragically is the way now — online. “I found an old iPad recently,” Annie says quietly, “and there was horrible stuff on it.”
How did Niamh cope?
“I took every day as it came. I think I still do. I got into a habit of not looking too far down the line, or getting caught up in a future that hasn’t happened yet. Just taking every day as it came, and knowing it won’t always be like this. Life comes in waves — ups and downs, highs and lows. Especially at the age I was — 14, 15.”
Yet, she says: “I will always think of the stuff that happened to me, and it made me the person I am, and I would never change it. I’m a very empathetic person because of it, and that’s very helpful for acting. Everything that happened made me who I am today, and I will always treasure it. I treasure niceness and respect, maybe because I didn’t see a lot of it when I was in school. That’s taught me how I want to live my life and how I want to treat people.”
It has also provided ballast for her acting. “I had someone in drama school say, ‘I wish I’d been through traumatic experiences like you have’,” she bursts out laughing. “Who says that? ‘I wish I had your trauma’? But it’s funny how everything helps out in the end, with acting.”
This, however, doesn’t mean she has forgiven, exactly. She still, sometimes, bumps into the girls who bullied her. “They will come up to me when they see me out and say, ‘You’ve done so well for yourself’. I’m like, ‘Walk on!’ Because it was horrible. Absolutely horrible. But me doing this says enough, I don’t really have to say anything else.”
The best revenge, we agree, is living well. “You can watch me on Netflix!” she says. “I’d say they feel enough guilt, without me putting more on them. I hope they do.”
What would she say to anyone in that situation now?
“To anyone being bullied, please know it’s not you, it’s them. It took me a long time to realise that. They are the weaker one putting so much hate into the world, so don’t let it change who you are, what makes you unique, what makes you special.
“It’s so hard because it feels like it will never end. But remind yourself it will. Always keep true to who you are, and never dim your sparkle for anyone. I never did — and I think that’s probably why I was bullied. I stuck out like a sore thumb! I was too real. People were like, ‘what a weirdo!’ I wasn’t a sheep, and that, I think, is what makes me stand out from a lot of other people in this industry.
“And, if I was to give one piece of advice, it would be to write it all down. I found a journal I wrote when I was 14 — so young — in the midst of this bullying; all this hardship in my life. To read it now and realise how much better it all became… It’s a piece of history in my life. It gives you so much strength. If you can get through that, you can get through anything.”
Modelling is something else within her life that has provided a deep well of interesting experiences, alongside some troubling ones. She began when she was 14. “It was just there, because she was tall,” Annie explains. “It’s a good way to get a bit of pocket money.”
“I had a lot of fun for a while,” Niamh says. “I think acting and modelling are similar — you’re telling a story. You put on the clothes of the character you’ll be playing. What story am I telling? Who am I? What am I doing here? All without words. So, I think, modelling really set me up for acting, because I was very comfortable in front of the camera, which I think is something you can’t learn — you have to do it through experience.”
However, she soon found that with modelling, you can’t really go past a certain point. “There was not a lot of freedom of expression. I felt, ‘this is not what I want to do really’. Plus it’s a very toxic industry.”
Is it still? “Oh yes. It probably will always be. I didn’t have a very pleasant time in modelling. There was always something ‘wrong’ with me — first, I had to get my teeth fixed, they were too big. Then, when I went to Milan when I was just 16, it was apparently the start of a new age — ‘oh, now it’s illegal for models to be underweight’ — and I thought, great, Milan, pizza! But no, it was not like that behind the scenes. It’s all measurements. They’d say, ‘You need to lose three inches off your hips, in two weeks.’
“The worst thing is, you get rewarded for the weight loss. You go in and they’re like, ‘Keep going, you look great!’ They literally give you an eating disorder in wrapping paper. Tie it up, put a bow on it — ‘here you go!’ I hated it at a point,” she says. “I hated myself because of it. I didn’t look at myself like a person, I looked at myself as a product. A hanger. I didn’t want boobs, I didn’t want to look like a woman, even though I was going through that whole change as a 16-year-old. You’re becoming a woman, your hips are getting bigger, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”
Nothing safe, I say. “Nothing safe,” she agrees. “They wanted this prepubescent look, which was so far from what I was at the time. Just get men,” she continues, half-laughing “if that’s the body type you want — just get men! You’re selling women’s clothes, the people who are going to be buying them are shaped like women, why are you…? The whole industry thrives off self-loathing. ‘Are you hating yourself? We have a product that will make you love yourself!’”
Annie recalls: “I brought her out to Milan. She was scouted and told, ‘This is an amazing opportunity’. I was worried sick — she had literally just turned 16, her birthday was the day before she went. There were promises around safety; she was going to be chaperoned; there were minders. The truth was far from it.”
“It was very lonely,” Niamh says. “The other girls in the model house, they were very young girls from very poor parts of Russia. They sell them this dream, it’s very sad. I was there for three months, then I came home.
“They wanted me back and I said no way. I was asked to go to China at one point, I was like, ‘This is not what I want to do’. I would show up for these shoots, and I just felt awful. People had fed so much shit to me, I was starting to believe it.
“I don’t know what they think we’re made of — steel? They don’t look after us. It’s just like, ‘Next!’ You’re expendable. I got to a stage where I just didn’t want to do it any more. I decided, ‘I just want to be me’. I kept having to change who I was all the time.
“And I always knew it was about acting. It was never about modelling. I’m grateful for the experiences I had. I learned a lot, I matured, but it got to the point where I just didn’t want to do it any more. It sounds like a glamorous job; you’re getting paid to be beautiful. But that’s just not what it is. I think the image of a model isn’t what a model really is. You’re put in these really vulnerable situations where you get taken advantage of.
“There were parts I really enjoyed. It was a form of acting. But it was making me anxious. Anxiety was through the roof and it wasn’t aiding me in any way. I just didn’t have the same passion for it. I didn’t really ever stop — it just fizzled out and I let it go.”
And so, when she finished with school, acting is what Niamh pursued. “I auditioned for Bow Street [Academy, The National Screen Acting School of Ireland] and I didn’t hear back for three months. I thought, well, I definitely didn’t get that. Then I got an email... I was so happy! I found my tribe there. I had never been so happy getting up at 7.30am every morning, and just being in college nurturing my talent. It was the first time I felt I was good at something. I really blossomed when I left school and found these like-minded people.”
In 2019, she did her showcase, and got an agent. “Six months later, just as I get going, along came Covid-19. I had filmed a short film just before Covid-19 hit, then it was,what do we do now? I was auditioning for things from the living room, in my pyjamas.”
That said, it was, she says, a really nice lockdown. “At home, with my mom, watching TV, doing yoga and painting. It was a really wholesome experience. A bonding time, just the two of us at home, and two dogs.”
She had been auditioning for tiny parts here in Ireland; “one-liners – ‘Teacher, can I go to the bathroom?’ — and that wasn’t happening, I was getting nothing, I thought, ‘What will I do? I can’t even do that’. I was really panicking.”
To the point of thinking about a plan B? “No. I’ve never had a plan B. I always thought, if you have a plan B, it’s because you don’t believe enough in your plan A. Something deep down inside meant I would never let myself give up on it. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”
One day, she got a last-minute audition for season two of The Witcher, a Game of Thrones-ish Netflix adaptation. “It was a three-page scene and I was told, ‘We need that tonight!’.”
Annie read the lines with her, she sent off the recording, and thought nothing more of it.
“A few weeks later, I found out on the same day that I’d landed The Witcher and The Magic Flute. That was overwhelming — going from nothing, to that!”
Since then, it’s been almost non-stop. Although, ‘non-stop’ in this industry also means periods of intense quiet. “You’ll go through these real quiet months, and you think, what the hell do I do now? And then it’ll pick up and you won’t have free time for six months. It’s all or nothing, no balance. So I’m taking this time to see my friends and family while I can.”
What does she do when it goes quiet? “I think you really need to take care of yourself, mentally and physically. I live in London now, and I go to the gym, read, write a lot, watch TV.
“I love to write, mainly poetry, but I want to get into writing screenplays and scripts.”
Before we finish, Annie has one more story. “I found a tiny notebook recently, from when Niamh was in creche — so aged about two — and the creche would write down everything she did each day. And every single day, she was on the naughty chair. Not once, but two or three times. She was her own individual person, even from that age.”
“They couldn’t contain me,” Niamh laughs.
What creche has a naughty chair, I wonder?
“Screw the naughty chair,” she agrees.
Photography by: Bobbi Fay; Photography assisted by: Jasmine Grace; Styling by: Orla Dempsey, @thatsorlatoyou; Hair by: Ololade Oluwadele, @loxperience; Make-up by: Annie Gribbin
Follow Niamh’s daily musings on @niamhhmccormack_
‘The Magic Flute’ will be released in the USA on March 10, 2023 and release dates for Ireland and UK are coming soon. ‘The F**k-It Bucket’ will be released on Netflix later this year